I’m a stage in my life where God’s omniscience and omnipresence is no longer an axiom of faith – actually, I am at a stage in life where the opposite is the case, where Divine absence is to be wished for in order for there to be faith, for there to be adoration, for there to be yearning. I need space, I need to be heard, and I need to be seen.
The traditional Jewish conception of God being the creator and owner of the universe has found parallels in other traditions too. Horror vacui, or plenism, was commonly stated as a state in which nature abhors vacuum. Aristotle postulated it, was then contradicted and criticized by the atomism of Epicurus and Lucretius; Hero of Alexandria then challenged this theory in the first century CE, but his attempts to create an artificial vacuum failed. The theory was eventually debated in the context of seventeenth-century English philosophy and science, by Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle, among others, and then in the eighteenth century by Newton and Leibniz. Vacuum, or the sheer absence of presence, to use the terms of my title, has often been a source of anxiety. And yet, the poet John Donne wrote in his Holy Sonnet IX that while for some people being remembered by God is usually considered as a “debt” vis-à-vis the Divine, he thought it an act of “mercy, if thou wilt forget.” So Donne’s God performs an act of merciful love towards his creatures when he forgets them, leaves them the space to develop, to grow, to make mistakes and then to correct their actions. Space. Absence. Vacuum.
Joseph is presented in traditional commentaries as the righteous man who lived his in the unbroken faith in God’s justice. Thrown by his brothers into a well, sold to merchants, sold again, and then thrown into a prison – Joseph’s life is a long series of negative events, moments in which his faith is strained and put to a test. But he is forgotten in a cell of an Egyptian prison, forgotten by his brothers, by the chief butler whom he had helped, and forgotten by the Biblical text:
(Gen. 30:20ff – 31:1ff) “And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast unto all his servants; and he lifted up the head of the chief butler and the head of the chief baker among his servants. And he restored the chief butler back unto his butlership; and he gave the cup into Pharaoh’s hand. But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgot him… And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed…”
The text forces the reader to ignore a break in the narrative, a silenced phase in Joseph’s life of two long years, two years in which every day was endless, two years of solitude and darkness. Despite the fact that this is obviously a stage in a life characterized by difficulties, this two-year long phase ends suddenly, with no reason, with no apparent cause – Pharaoh dreams a dream, and Joseph’s life changes radically. The silence of the Biblical narrative on the nature of Joseph’s pain and angst and doubts in those two years is disconcerting – and yet, it is up to the reader to pay close attention to every single word, and to see that these two years end in a telos of meaning, in a sudden upsurge of Divine presence hardly felt before, in a momentary transition in which the unforeseen fullness of God’s redemption becomes real. Joseph’s two years in prison are two years of Divine absence, despite the fact that traditional commentators invest great effort in fashioning him into a man of faith who never loses his grasp on the Divine intervention – and, I would conclude, it is only thanks to this solitude that Joseph can return to play a part in the riveting narrative of his life.
So yes, God is omnipotent, and yes he is also omniscient – but absence, silence, and solitude are sometimes necessary for one to taste the sweetness of presence.
*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.