Last week, I wrote about “Bearing Witness” and described a range of witnesses that inform our knowing: personal experience, the experience of others, the world around us, and the Triune God. I’d like to explore these further but from a different angle. I want to think about knowing through the lens of Torah. As a reminder, Torah means the instruction of the Lord (see Proverbs 1:1-17). It also refers to the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Additionally, it refers to all of Scripture and to the teaching within the community of God’s people.
If I take Torah on it’s own terms, what might I discover in it about ways of human knowing? Let me briefly think “out loud” about that question. This is a quick list of ideas and is limited to my initial process of discovery. But it might help others think “out loud” with me.
Genesis, which literally means “beginning” opens the canon of instruction with a focus on the beginning of language, the beginning of the cosmos, the beginning of humans, the beginning of corruption in humans, and the beginning of family. Actually, there are many more stories of beginning in Genesis, but this gets us started. In Genesis, Torah places value upon knowing our beginning. Like the head of a spring, this beginning opens ideas that keep developing all throughout Scripture. Here are some of aspects of knowing that stand out to me:
a. Knowledge is formed in the midst of the world. The first words of Genesis point to God creating the heavens and the earth. Humans are created within this world. So we are live in the midst of the world we come to know. We learn within the limitations of time and space.
b. Knowledge points beyond the world. God creates man in his image and likeness. Though humans are created within the world, something about us images someone beyond the world. As images of God, we carry a sense of knowing something more than we know, something beyond. This knowing might be connected with the idea of “call and response.” The Lord calls us into being, and we respond.
c. Knowledge of creation is trustworthy. This story of origins differs with many creation stories in that the world is created intentionally , is good, and is created by the word of God. In other words, there is no “cosmic stuff” that preceded creation. The stars are created as stars. So a human can know them as stars as opposed to some illusion or shadow. Creation is not allegory, but material and real and particular.
d. Knowledge develops in discovery. In Genesis 1 and 2, we see the possibility for humans to grow in knowledge and for creation to develop and be discovered. Adam is called upon to name the animals. He observes, discovers and categorizes them by names. The animals have a specific reality outside his naming and yet, somehow his naming, his discovering points to something real about the animals. Additionally, as man engages the animals, he discovers something about himself: he is alone.
e. Knowledge and language are bound up together. God speaks creation. Language is not introduced as a development of man but as God’s mode of creating and communicating with man. Speaking and hearing become the primary way of knowing that develops all through Torah.
e. Knowledge develops in relationship. God creates a second human as a pair for Adam. Now Adam names the other human, but he also sings to her.* While words are at the heart of his knowing, Genesis points to a knowing beyond words. So learning in relation is rooted in language but also develops physically on multiple levels at once.
f. Knowledge has limits. In Genesis 2, man is free to discover all creation, but he is not to eat the fruit of one tree. This limitation indicates that he cannot know the tree by taste, by consuming it. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are seduced by serpent to eat the fruit. While the source of evil is not explained, we discover the impact of this knowledge corrupts other knowledge causing a breach between Adam and God as well as Adam and Eve.
g. Knowledge is corrupted at some level. The violation of Genesis 3 introduces the problem of knowledge that breaks relation which in turn corrupts knowing between persons. This type of knowledge ends in death: Cain kills Abel. This corrupting knowledge is not limited to an abstract idea level but is material, so it sows corruption at all levels of creation, leading the destruction of the world in the flood.
h. There is a connection between knowledge and love. Just as the corrupt knowledge separates and violates relational knowledge at some level, there is a knowledge that reverse this corruption. Deuteronomy will connect knowing Torah with loving God and man. In some sense, true knowing leads is expressed in love.
i. Knowledge is founded and shaped in family. In Genesis and throughout Torah, genealogies form a key aspect of instruction. Additionally, Deuteronomy instructs the parents to teach the children in a way that seems to echo the Lord instructing his people. Thus, the family is a fundamental place of knowing. This has a range of implications, but should always remind us of our need to learn from those around us. Family knowing seems to contrast with the knowing that splits family and moves toward isolation.
j. Knowledge is revealed. Just as humans learn in relation and by discovering the world around them, Torah also shows knowledge coming from outside the world. God speaks to Israel from Mt. Sinai. God speaks to Abraham, Izaak, Jacob and Joseph in dreams and encounters. This revealed knowledge appears to be like a parent correcting the child, clarifying, reordering, and leading the child forward. This type of knowing at times seems to look like letting go of our understanding. Abraham has to follow without knowing exactly where he is going. This knowing is a knowing rooted in trust. In Torah, this knowing is not against the knowing by discovery but does challenge the corrupting knowledge the separates, enslaves, destroys.
k. Knowledge is rehearsed through active remembering. Israel remembers the Word by enfleshing it in obedience. If Israel forgets the Word, she falls back into the corrupting, oppressing, destroying knowledge.
l. Knowledge flows from and forms the whole person. Knowledge cannot be isolated from the emotions, the body, and the community. Torah uses the language of heart as the center of the person and in some ways representative of the whole person. If the heart or the very essence of the person is corrupted, this shapes his words, actions, memories, and feeling. Ultimately, Torah points toward the hope of the Lord writing His Wisdom, His Knowledge, His vital life into the very heart of person.
* – This is if we except Genesis 2:23 as a song.
Image by Massimo Valiani on Flickr. Used by permission via Creative Commons.