Does God Control and Manipulate Us?
Since the beginning of time, since people believed that God exists, men and women of every religion asked whether God is involved in their lives and, if so, how? The Hebrew Bible does not answer this question. So individuals developed their own views. Those with a rational bent insisted that since God gave humans intelligence and free choice, God does not meddle in their lives and treat people like puppets maneuvered by God’s strings. However the majority disagreed. They thought that God is a helpful being who would aid them if aid was needed. They were certain that prayer worked. In the early eras, they bribed God with sacrifices. The rationalists responded, “There is no proof that God ever aided people, other than the biblical tales which should be understood as allegories stressing that people should help themselves. Also, if God aids those who need help, where was God when Stalin, Hitler, and many others murdered millions?”
The issue arises in understanding Genesis 22. The Bible states that God tested Abraham. Abraham hears God telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac at a place that God will show him. The next morning, he rushes to comply. It takes him three days to reach the site. He is about to perform the sacrifice when an angel tells him to stop. How should we understand this story?
Many different interpretations have been offered. A good example of the disagreement can be seen in the views of two highly respected Jewish sages. Maimonides (1138-1204) was a rationalist par excellence. Nachmanides (1194-1270) was a mystic. Both were indisputably religious, despite divergent views.
Maimonides thought that there is a God, but humans cannot understand what God is other than to see what God created or formed in the universe. After creating the world from nothing or forming it from pre-existing matter, God placed in the world the laws of nature, which are good, and need not be changed. True, people are frequently hurt but this is the result of one or more of three things: (1) people make bad judgments and harms themselves, such as crossing a highway without looking at oncoming traffic, (2) others hurt them, such as one country invading another for material gain or another reason, or (3) the forces of nature that are good for the world as a whole hurt individuals, such as a hurricane that cleanses the earth. People were given intelligence and are expected to use it to protect themselves and make good life decisions.
People, he advised, should learn the sciences to improve their minds so that they can understand how the world functions and be able to make better decision how to act. They should not rely on faith or traditions. No sensible person, he wrote, would prescribe a medicine for an ill or dying person based on faith or tradition. While learning, be open to the ideas of all people, no matter what their religion or origin. “The truth,” he stressed , “is the truth no matter what its source.”
Since he felt that God is not involved in human affairs, he taught that “miracles” are not God changing or correcting what has been created, but a natural phenomenon that people consider extraordinary. He explained that “prophecy” is not a miraculous dialogue between a human and God, but the use of people of their higher level of intelligence, individuals who tell others what they deduced. Angels do not exist because God needs no helpers. When the Bible uses the term “angel,” it is a metaphor for anything that carries out the divine plan. Rain, winds, snow, the sun, moon, and stars are a few of God’s angels. “Divine Providence” does not mean, as the majority suppose, divine aid; it is the natural gift of intelligence that God instilled in people at birth. A more intelligent person has greater “Divine Providence.” Biblical stories that describe God’s involvement in human affairs should be understood a parables or metaphors. As he explains in his “Guide of the Perplexed” 2:48, after discussing these matters, whenever the Bible states that God did or said something, it should be understood as a natural phenomenon. The Bible ascribes these acts to God because although God is not the direct cause, God created the laws of nature that brought about the matter that is described.
Maimonides understood Abraham’s trial in Genesis 22 as a personal struggle, either a dream or an internal struggle while awake. He was trying to decide whether he should copy the notion of his time that one shows love to God was sacrificing to God what is most important to the person, a child they love. At first Abraham thought the majority was right. This is the meaning of Abraham being called by God. But he soon realized (the appearance of the angel) that this is not what God wants.
Maimonides understood the statement “God tested Abraham” to mean that the Abraham was tested by the laws of nature that God created; it was a natural, indeed understandable struggle by Abraham. Maimonides wrote that these struggles are good because they help people grow in their understanding. As Vernon Law, said, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.”
Nachmanides held the opposite view, a commonly-held conservative view embraced by the majority of humanity in whole or in part. He felt that God is involved daily in everything that occurs on earth. No leaf falls from a tree unless God orders “fall, keep falling, keep falling, and now lay still.” He wrote that the greatest secret is that God creates multitude of miracles daily. In the past, as depicted in the Bible, some were visible miracle, but the majority are invisible miracles. These miracles continue today when virtually all are invisible.
Nachmanides felt that God controls people and sometimes makes them act in a way that accomplishes the divine will. He takes the Bible literally. When the Bible states that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh refused to release the Israelites, God made him act as he did. (Maimonides understood that Pharaoh was adamant because he had developed a habit of acting in such a draconian manner.)
God, according to Nachmanides, actually spoke to Abraham. Of course he had no need to test Abraham, because God is all-knowing and knew that Abraham would obey the divine decree. God arranged this test for future generations so that they could see that although what God was demanding seemed irrational, Abraham had faith that, although he did not understand, God had a good reason for the demand. Others should learn from Abraham’s behavior and also have blind faith in God.
In short, there is no creed demanding people to believe that God controls them and some people agreed with rational ideas such as those expounded by Maimonides, although not many. The majority held views similar to Nachmanides, if they thought about it at all.