For us, divine activity is usually something we visualize as out of the ordinary, and which breaks in on the normal flux of everyday life (call this “DA1″). But there is another account of it (call it DA2) which is clear in Paul’s claim that we know that all things work together for good to them that love God that sees all things that happen falling under a divine action in some way or another. Just how they fall under it is a riddle that we can either theologize or not (one familiar theology, for example, attributes the evils and strokes of bad luck that befall us to God’s “permissive” will, another attributes such things to secondary causes and not to the first cause.) But we don’t need a theology to accept the Pauline claim, and we might even develop a theology that argues that we lack the categories that would allow for a robust account of the divine action in the world of the sort that Paul describes.
As much as we might like to reject one account of divine activity for the sake of the other, so that we might have a “law-like universe” that is only a DA1 or a “one story universe” that is only DA2, they are simply two irreducible aspects of creation. Creation gives being, which requires on the one hand that something other than God truly is and acts, and in this sense has its own ordinary operation, causality, and normal flux of life that revelation can only break in upon or build upon (DA1); and on the other hand it is precisely being which is given, so that apart from the act of giving there is only the realm of absolute nothingness that mirrors created being (DA2). Viewed in relation to the creator, creation is contingent being, which means we can either consider it as being, in which case it exists by itself and acts of its own, or in its relation to is inherent possible non-being, in which case the divine act is what allows for anything to be at all, even if it is wicked, accidental, or a result of bad luck.
While DA1 and DA2 are both necessary accounts of divine revelation, they do not always explain the Scriptures equally well. Revealed statements like Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap , nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them, (Mt. 6:26) or [God] provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call (Ps. 147: 9) or All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time (Ps. 104: 27 cf. Job 38) are ridiculous on an account of the divine activity in DA1. It’s not as if we can view animal feeding as outside the flux of normal animal life. At other times, it is clearly better to read the revelation as a DA2- as in the case of divine signs and wonders.
But the distinction between DA1 and DA2 is most helpful and illuminating in distinguishing some of the more scandalous parts of Scripture. How, for example, should we read And God said, ‘Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of (Gen 22:2)? Taken as a DR1, we would reconstruct the scene as Abraham going about his ordinary day when suddenly the clouds open, the air shakes, and Abraham is taken by surprise by the divine voice. Taken as a DA2, the idea to sacrifice the son arises within the context of the normal course of life – perhaps for Abraham it is simply what everyone does to prove that they are completely devoted to God. Whether Abraham is mistaken, invincibly ignorant, the victim of a perverse culture, etc. is entirely beside the point – DA2 includes under providence the mistakes, deformities and ignorance of secondary causes, whether they are natural, moral, or cultural. For all we know, Abraham wrestled with this idea of child-sacrifice for years and was terrified of complete devotion to God since he knew that this would require that he sacrifice what was dearest to him (isn’t everyone terrified that total devotion to God means that they will have to give up something they can’t live without?) Perhaps Abraham finally caved to the necessity of sacrificing the child. But at any rate, when we take the revelation as a DA2, it was not some Kierkegaardian “suspension of the ethical” or some irrational plunge into faith but exactly the opposite, namely an application of ordinary, everyday ethical demands. After all, the demands of the true God certainly can’t be less than the demands of Moab or Molech, can they?
Seen from this angle, the revelation of the ram on Mount Moriah is not God “changing his mind” or providing Abraham with some dramatic object lesson, but simply Abraham’s awareness that God does not demand this sort of sacrifice, that Abraham does not have to give up what is most dear to him, and that child-sacrifice is not devotion but something else. This does not mean that the revelation was not dramatic, life-changing, and truly divine. In fact, it might be best to understand it as a DA1, i.e. a divine wonder that breaks into the ordinary, ethical world that demanded Abraham sacrifice his son. The division between the DA1 and DA2 thus gives a theoretical structure to explain Chief Rabbi Cook’s claim how the Abrahamic sacrifice was meant to end child sacrifice forever.
Similar analyses can be done of “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and perhaps even the Amalekite massacre.