Does God Repent? An Examination of Exodus 32:14 and Genesis 6:6

by Matthew Halsted

Introduction

Christianity’s most important doctrine is, of course, the doctrine of God.  Who God is, what He has done, and what He will do in the future is the foundation for all of Christian hope.  Therefore, for one to diminish the nature and character of God is to diminish all of Christian hope.  To be sure, God is our hope. 

In today’s theologically diversified climate, to lay a truth claim upon a particular doctrine (especially the “doctrine of God”) is tantamount to being “intolerant” toward other theistic positions.  It carries within it the idea of exclusivism, where no other views are allowed to be considered.  Despite these charges, it is the responsibility of the evangelical Christian to be committed to the teaching of Holy Scripture concerning the nature and character of God.  As is obvious, to compromise on this issue would be to weaken our Christian hope and faith.  Therefore, the stakes are high.

The main thesis of this article is to examine, as well as refute, the charge from many non-traditional theists that God, indeed, changes His mind (i.e., “repents”).  Using such passages as Exodus 32:14 and Genesis 6:6 to defend their beliefs, many have fallen into error concerning the nature of God and His ways of working throughout redemptive history.

We will maintain that God does not change His mind, nor is there ever a reason for God to “repent” (which, at its core, is a theological position that assumes God somehow “messed up” along the way).  Moreover, we will also maintain that the traditional view of God, being defended here (i.e., that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent), actually increases and grounds our Christian hope.  Though neither time nor space will allow us to examine all of the relevant biblical passages, we will focus on Exodus 32:14, as well as Genesis 6:6, and will, as a result, develop a concrete way of seeing these passages in the correct light, which will help the student of the Scripture to accurately interpret other known “problem” passages.  Furthermore, we will examine the philosophical and logical implications of what one would have to believe, in all consistency, if the belief that God changes His mind is embraced. 

Examining the Biblical Evidence

The place to begin any investigation as to what the nature and character of God are like would be, of course, the Bible—God’s revelation of Himself.  Those on both sides of the debate would appeal to the Bible for their position’s grounding and basis, so it does indeed make sense to first and foremost heed the Word of God on this issue.  We will begin looking at two passages that seem to contradict this article’s thesis.

Exodus 32:14 and Genesis 6:6

These are, by far, two of the most interesting passages that have to do with the subject of God changing His mind.  In Exodus 32:14, for example, we find that “Israel has been impatient in waiting for Moses to return from the mountain.  At Aaron’s direction, they gather their gold jewelry, craft a molten calf, and proclaim this to be their god.  God (the true God) is deeply angered and tells Moses he plans to destroy the people.  Beginning at 32:11, Moses entreats the Lord with the result that ‘the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people’ (32:14).”1  In fact, the King James Version actually renders Exodus 32:14 in the following way: “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.”2

There are numerous ways in which one could make sense of this passage.  First, one could say that God had set His mind on doing something, namely, bring judgment upon Israel, and yet, Moses persuaded God to do otherwise.  John Sanders, an advocate of Open Theism, says this concerning Exodus 32:14:

Apparently, Moses has a relationship with God such that God values what Moses desires.  If Moses interprets God’s intentions in an unfavorable way and God values his relationship with Moses, then God must either persuade Moses or concede his request.  It is unlikely that Moses presents God with new information.  The real basis for the change in God’s decision comes from a forceful presentation by one who is in a special relationship with God.  With Moses’ prayer, the decision-making situation is now altered for God.  Being in relationship with Moses, God is willing to allow him to influence the path he will take.  God permits human input into the divine future.  One of the most remarkable features in the Old Testament is that people can argue with God and win.3

The main argument from Sanders, then, is that God can be persuaded to change His mind.  We can assume that, for Sanders, it is not the case that God wasn’t fully convinced initially, but that He was totally and completely convinced that His decision to judge the Israelites was both right and good.  However, Moses, through prayer and petition, literally “changed” the mind of God, so that God would, in turn, “repent” of His carrying out judgment.  Since the word “repent” is such a loaded word, carrying with it major theological implications, especially when used in the context of “God repenting,” how can we rightly understand this concept in light of the fact that repentance means “in the theological and ethical sense a fundamental and thorough change in the hearts of men from sin and toward God”?4  How tenable of a position is the one that Sanders promotes?  And does his belief hold any weight, theologically speaking?  Furthermore, how does one reconcile Exodus 32:14 with another verse like, say, Numbers 23:19, where it says, “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19, ESV)?

Toward a Biblical Solution

Concerning Exodus 32:14, Thomas Whitelaw claims that a hermeneutical principle of anthropomorphism is needed here.  Says Whitelaw,

Changes of purpose are, of course, attributed to God by an “economy,” or accommodation of the truth to human modes of speech and conception.  “God is not a man that he should repent.”  He “knows the end from the beginning.”  When he threatened to destroy Israel, he knew that he would spare; but, as he communicated to Moses, first his anger, and then, at a later period, his intention to spare, he is said to have “repented.”  The expression is an anthropomorphic one, like so many others…5

In essence, what Whitelaw is saying here is that, when it comes to “changes of purpose” in God’s dealings with man, a certain “accommodation” is made so as to help “fit” this so-called “change” into a way so that man can grasp it.  This “accommodation” is obviously for man’s sake, not God’s.  It is, as it were, anthropomorphism.  God is communicating to His creatures—who are obviously not on the same intellectual scale as Himself—in such a way so that they might better understand.   

John Calvin, a gifted expositor, also saw anthropomorphism in the Bible.6  In commentating on Genesis 6:67, another reference to God repenting, Calvin states the following:

The repentance which is here ascribed to God does not properly belong to him, but has reference to our understanding of him.  For since we cannot comprehend him as he is, it is necessary that, for our sake, he should, in a certain sense, transform himself.  That repentance cannot take place in God, easily appears from this single consideration, that nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen.  The same reasoning, and remark, applies to what follows, that God was affected with grief.  Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity.8

To argue further for the fact that God is being anthropomorphic, C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch offer this commentary on Genesis 6:6:

The force of… “it repented the Lord,” may be gathered from… “it grieved Him at His heart.” This shows that the repentance of God does not presuppose any variableness in His nature or His purposes.  In this sense God never repents of anything….The repentance of God is an anthropomorphic expression for the pain and of the divine love at the sin of man, and signifies that “God is hurt no less by the atrocious sins of men than if they pierced His heart with mortal anguish (Calvin).”9

But is this anthropomorphic principle, as espoused by many scholars, itself sufficient?  That is to say, are there any problems with it?  For example, as in the case of Exodus 32:14, if God, as Thomas Whitelaw seems to say, “knew that he would spare”10 Israel—even though he “threatened” to destroy them—then why the threat to begin with?  God, it seems, gave the appearance as though he would carry out His threat, all the while knowing He wouldn’t.  This should, at first sight, seem problematic to the Christian, for we know that God is never deceptive (Numbers 23:19).  But yet, according to John Sanders, another potential problem emerges for the traditional theist:  What gives traditional theists right reason to be so “arbitrary” in picking where the line is drawn as to what counts as anthropomorphism and what doesn’t?  Sanders asks, “On what basis do these thinkers claim that these biblical texts do not portray God as he truly is but only God as he appears to us?  How do they confidently select one biblical text as an ‘exact’ description of God and consign others to the dustbin of anthropomorphism?”11

The previous questions are legitimate, and they need to be answered in a satisfactory way.  Of course, God is not deceptive, and no, traditional theists are not being “arbitrary,” as Sanders thinks. 

The answers, no doubt, reside within the definition of anthropomorphism itself.  Bruce Ware says anthropomorphism is “a given ascription to God [that] may rightly be understood as anthropomorphic when Scripture clearly presents God as transcending the very human or finite features it elsewhere attributes to him.”12 We know that God does not lie, nor does He repent (Numbers 23:19).  The plain reading of the text shows this much to be evident.  The problem, if we are honest, is not with Numbers 23:19, but with the passages that seem to contradict it—namely, Exodus 32:14 and Genesis 6:6.  It, no doubt, makes greater hermeneutical sense to see anthropomorphism in the “repenting” passages, so that we may accept all of Scripture.  There are no other alternatives.  That is to say, if we do not see anthropomorphism in the “repenting passages,” then we are left with the necessary obligation to deny Numbers 23:19 outright.  But if we do see anthropomorphism in the “repenting passages,” then we can affirm Numbers 23:19 and other passages like it.  Therefore, the line is not arbitrary; it is necessary.  But still, Open Theists can still use the charge that God is being deceptive—that is, He is appearing to be something that He is not.  How might one answer this? 

It should be noted that at the heart of anthropomorphism is metaphor.  Metaphor, analogy, and similes are never intended to be taken to the extreme.  For example, in the Bible we see that the Father “makes his sun rise on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45 ESV).  Does the sun really rise in the sky?  Any fifth grader will answer with a definitive “No.”  The sun neither “rises” nor “falls;” rather, it is the Earth that rotates on its axis, which causes the perception of a rising and falling sun.  But the point is clear here.  The Bible is not being “deceptive” for using such language.  It should not be taken to the extreme, but, rather, at what it was intended to convey.  So it is with anthropomorphism.  God is not being deceptive, nor does He appear to be deceptive, when we remember the proper, and sometimes unfortunate, restraints of language.  The Bible does not communicate God as being “deceptive” in the Exodus and Genesis accounts anymore than it does by saying the sun “rises.”

A Final Appeal to Christian Hope

Does God change His mind?  Hopefully we have successfully answered that in the negative. If God truly can “change His mind” and if He does make cosmic “mistakes” that are either based upon misinformation or previously unknown facts, then our everlasting and blessed hope as Christians stands on shaky ground.  If there is no divine plan, no grand telos, and if there is no planned and sure victory for the saints of God, then our hope in an everlasting, delightful eternity should, in all consistency, be forfeited.  For our hope in Christ is grounded upon no other than the idea that Christ carries out His Father’s plan to the very end, as well as the fact that this plan is unalterable.  To be sure, the historic Christian faith has always been based upon this assurance, not risk (Hebrews 11:1).  And at the end of the day, may this not be said of evangelicals: That we thought too little of God.

 

 


[1] Bruce A. Ware, God's Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 52.

[2] Emphasis mine.

[3] John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 12, as cited in Ware, God's Lesser Glory, 52-53.

[4] Merrill F. Unger, "Repentance," in Unger's Bible Dictionary, 1st ed.

[5] Thomas Whitelaw, Genesis-Exodus in vol. 1 of The Pulpit Commentary, ed. H.D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 328.

[6] John Calvin, Genesis, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 248-49.

[7] “And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart” (Genesis 6:6, KJV). 

[8] Calvin, 248-49.

[9] C.F. Keil, F. Delitzsch, The Pentateuch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 139-140.

[10] Whitelaw, 328.

[11] John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 68, as quoted in John Piper, Justin Taylor, Paul Kjoss Helseth, eds., Beyond The Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2003), 151.

[12] Bruce A. Ware, “An Evangelical Reformulation of the Doctrine of the Immutability of God,” JETS 29 (1986): 442, as quoted in John Piper, et al., 154.

 

 

 

 
 
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