Divine Secrets

We all have secrets. For example, most people don’t know what you really think about your boss. Some people who are close to you know something about what you think because you’ve told them. But there are some things you haven’t told anyone because you want to keep your job!

The same hierarchical access to knowledge held true for ancient Near Eastern deities.

According to ancient Near Eastern texts, including the Bible, the gods revealed their thinking on various topics (for example, how to please the gods or what the future held) to select people. But they didn’t reveal everything; rather, they withheld some information because it was deemed incomprehensible (see Job 37:5) or inappropriate (see Judg 13:18, where a divine being’s name is “too wonderful” to be mentioned). This unrevealed knowledge we may call divine secrets.

In the ancient Near Eastern world, divine sovereignty and the inaccessibility of the heavens provided the conceptual background for the existence of divine secrets. Like superhuman kings, deities had absolute authority over the affairs of humans. Moreover, although the gods lived in temples in human cities, their ultimate dwelling was in the heavens. Thus, as one psalmist wrote, “our god is in the heavens; he does whatever he wants” (Ps 115:3, author’s translation). A Babylonian author made a similar point when he wrote, “the mind of a god, like the innermost heavens, is remote. Knowledge of it is too difficult; people cannot learn it.…Try as one may, people cannot learn what is the divine reason” (Babylonian Theodicy, 256–257, 264).

Since divine secrets were none of humanity’s business, ancient Near Eastern texts generally commend human submission to the prerogatives of the gods. People should live in light of the revelation that had been granted them and not pry into divine secrets. “The secret things,” Deuteronomy states, “belong to Yahweh, our god, but the revealed things belong to us and our children in perpetuity in order to keep all the words of this Torah” (Deut 29:28-29, author’s translation; note also Sir 3:21-22). This is the fundamental message of the book of Job and the Babylonian poem Ludlul Bel Nemeqi, both of which depict protagonists suffering without knowledge of the deity’s reasons for it.

There was more to divine secrets than the gods’ prerogatives and knowledge of the future. Comprehensive understanding of the created order was also considered the exclusive possession of divinity. This is why the series of questions about creation in Job 38-39 so effectively put Job in his place. At that time, humans could not possibly have known the answers to such questions; only a god could.

What was once a divine secret could be revealed, of course (see Isa 48:6-7). A dream could convey what was previously known only to a god (see Gen 41:25, Dan 2:19). Prophets entered Yahweh’s secret council and then proclaimed what they heard to people (see 1Kgs 22:19-23, Amos 3:7, Jer 23:18-22). Sometimes Yahweh appeared in person, though shrouded, to speak directly to people in an audible voice (see Deut 5:22, Job 38:1, Job 40:6). In the late biblical and Second Temple traditions, a few humans were even granted a tour of the heavens, where they learned cosmological secrets (see Ezek 40-48 and 1 Enoch).

Though the biblical deity had secrets, he seems to have prided himself in open-access revelation (see Dan 2:21, Isa 45:18-19, Isa 48:16, Deut 30:11-14), whereas Babylonian scribal elites guarded divine knowledge after its revelation as their exclusive possession, their secrets of the gods.


  • Alan Lenzi

    Associate Professor, University of the Pacific

    Alan Lenzi is associate professor of religious and classical studies at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He specializes in the study of first-millennium ancient Near Eastern religious traditions, including the Mesopotamian imperial context of the Hebrew Bible. A number of his publications are accessible at the following URL: http://pacific.academia.edu/AlanLenzi.