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(Quick summary if you don't want to read the whole question: In Parshas Noach Ralbag seems to claim that God already knew what happened, while in Parshas Vayeira he seems to claim that God did not already know what happened. What's the resolution?)


There are two similar accounts in the beginning of Genesis in which God "goes down" to see what the people are doing, and what consequences are in order. The first is the story of the Tower of Babel and the second is the story of the destruction of Sodom.

Genesis 11:5

וַיֵּרֶד ה' לִרְאֹת אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת הַמִּגְדָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ בְּנֵי הָאָדָם

And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. (Mechon Mamre translation)

Genesis 18:21

אֵרְדָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה וְאִם לֹא אֵדָעָה

I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto Me; and if not, I will know.' (Mechon Mamre translation)

What precisely is meant by God going down is the subject of much commentary. Ralbag, on both of these verses, comments that the "going down" is not meant literally. However, what he continues to write about the first verse and what he continues to write about the second verse appear to be contradictory.

Ralbag on Genesis 11:5

Explanation of the words (ביאור המלות)

וירד ה'. הוא על דרך משל לדבר כלשון בני אדם כי ה' יתעלה יודע הכל כמו שהתבאר בשלישי מספר מלחמות ה

Ralbag on Genesis 18:21

Explanation of the words (ביאור המלות)

ארדה נא ואראה. הוא על דרך משל לדבר כלשון בני אדם

Explanation of the story (ביאור דברי הספור)

ואמר ה' יתעלה לאברהם מפני שרבה הזעקה הבאה לפני מרעות סדום ועמורה וכבדה חטאתם מאד לפי מה שידעתי מהם הנה אראה אם עשו מהרעות כמו שבא אלי מענינם ואם עשו אותם כבר יהיו כלה ברע הנכון לבוא עליהם ואם לא הנהיגו מעשיהם בזה האופן מן הרוע אבל שלטה בחירתם על מה שסודר להם מהמנהגים הפחותים מפאת מערכת הכוכבים והנהיגו עצמם במנהגים המשובחים הנה תדבק השגחתי בהם להצילם לפי מה שראוי להם מההשגחה והנה זאת היתה המראה אשר רמז עליה באומרו וירא אליו ה' באלֹני ממרא אבל הפסיק הענין בסיפור ענין הנביאים ההם לסיבות כבר זכרנום

The lessons (תועלות)

התועלת הששה עשר הוא בדעות והוא ללמדנו מידיעת ה' יתעלה הדברים דבר נפלא מאד נעלם מכל הקודמים אשר הגיעו אלינו דבריהם והוא שמה שידע ה' יתעלה מהפעולות אשר בזה העולם השפל הוא דבר זולת מה שיעשוהו האנשים וזה שהוא ידע מעשה האנשים הראויים לפי מה שהוכן להם ביום הבראם מפאת הגרמים השמימיים אשר שם ה' יתעלה אותם משגיחים השגחה כללית באישי המין האנושי והנה הבחירה האנושית מושלת על זה הסידור המסודר בפעולותיהם מפאת הגרמים השמימיים ולזה יתכן שיהיה מה שיעשוהו האנשים זולת מה שידע ה' יתעלה מסידור פעולותיהם וזה כי הוא ידע פעולותיהם מהצד אשר אפשר בהם הידיעה והוא הצד אשר הם בו מסודרות ומוגבלות ואולם הצד אשר הם בו אפשריות לא תיתכן בו ידיעה שאם הנחנו שתיתכן בהם ידיעה לא תתקיים שתהיינה אפשריות ולזה אמר דרך משל שכבר יראה ה' יתעלה אם עשו אנשי סדום ועמורה מהרעות כמו שידע הוא מהם לפי שכבר יתכן שיהיה מה שיעשוהו זולת מה שידע מהם ה' יתעלה וכבר ביארנו זה הענין מידיעת ה' יתעלה בדברים בשלישי מספר מלחמות ה' וביארנו שם במה שאין ספק בו שזה הדעת הוא מחוייב מצד התורה ומצד העיון

In the first case he explains that the "going down" is not literal because God knows everything. This presumably means that it is unnecessary for God to acquire knowledge of worldly happenings, as He already knows everything that will happen. Therefore, when the verse says that God went down to see what was going on, it is merely "speaking in the language of men".

However, in the second case Ralbag explains at length precisely the opposite. Namely, that God does not know what people will do. He only knows what their makeup will likely lead them to do, but they always have free-will to override this and choose to act differently. Thus, although God already knew that the people of Sodom were likely to sin to the extent that they should be destroyed, it was still possible for them to exercise their free will and behave contrary to God's "predictions", and thus God had to actually see whether the people were sinful or not.

In this case when Ralbag says that "going down" is not literal it is apparently not because God knows everything; indeed Ralbag explicitly states that God did need to find out what the people actually had done. Instead, he might be trying to avoid any manifestations of corporeality that would be implied by God going down. Hence he says that God did not actually "go down".

How are Ralbag's comments on these two passages to be reconciled?

One might argue that Ralbag by the Tower of Babel merely means that God does not need to "go down" in order to acquire knowledge of what is happening; rather He acquires knowledge in a non-spatial manner. Thus he could agree with his other comments that God did not know what would happen until it actually happened, and he was simply trying to avoid the implications of corporeality. However, this does not read particularly well into the words that Ralbag uses there (almost עיקר חסר מן הספר).

(Answers containing sources that directly address this issue are especially valuable. But an answer can also be one's own sevara to explain how the cases are different, or how one of my premises is incorrect, or how I am misunderstanding the commentary.)

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    Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/86704/… – Alex May 2 '18 at 1:01
  • If I remember correctly, the Ralbag holds that G-d does not have knowledge of everything man does, because this would be a change by G-d, and G-d is unchanging. Instead, he knows how he designs the people, with the nature that he endowed in them, but free choice gives them the ability to do the unexpected. – Menachem May 2 '18 at 4:32
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I would like to suggest that in the case of Migdal Bavel, the verse (in its simplest form) seems to be saying that God descended to see the city and tower, which God was obviously able to see (and be aware of) from "above". The purpose of this verse would be not to say that God became aware of such a structure, but rather that they had not succeeded in building a tall tower. God still had to "come all the way down" in order to see it, meaning it was negligible relative to Him. This in no way relates to the behavior of the people.

(Edit: In fact, reading Ralbag there, the people do not do anything wrong at all, so it is certainly not to judge their actions, but rather to spread them out, as he explains.)

However, in the case of Sedom, Ralbag (based on the Passuk itself) states clearly that God does not know the actions of Man which is what He needed to "come down" (again, not literally, as per the Beur Hamilos) to see.

Therefore, we see no contradiction here. The case of the Tower of Bavel was in no way relating to the actions of man, but rather to a physical structure. in the case of Sedom, God needed to "check" that the people were actually acting in such a fashion.

  • I'm not quite sure I understand what you are suggesting. Are you saying that God's process of cognizing the exitence of things is different from His process of cognizing actions? – Alex May 2 '18 at 2:26
  • @Alex indeed I am, although technically there is more to it. – רבות מחשבות May 2 '18 at 2:29
  • But I'm not sure I understand the difference. How does God "find out" that a tower exists, and how does God "find out" that someone sinned? Or are you saying that God knows all along that a tower will exist but he does not know all along that someone will sin? – Alex May 2 '18 at 2:31
  • I'm not too much of a philosophy guy, but for God to be aware of the existence of physical changes seems different than knowing man's inner choices, but I don't have any backing for that. – רבות מחשבות May 2 '18 at 2:33
  • But do the physical changes not come about through man's choices? – Alex May 2 '18 at 2:34

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