#13. Does Yahweh regret and change his mind OR does he not? (Gen 6:6-7; Ex 32:13-14; 1 Sam 2:30-31, 15:35; Amos 7:3; Jon 3:10 vs Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Mal 3:6)

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“And Yahweh regretted that he had made mankind on the earth and he was grieved to his heart” (Gen 6:6).

We have already discussed the Yahwist’s anthropomorphic portrait of Yahweh [or if you’ve missed it see: Conflicting portraits of Israel’s deity], so there is nothing surprising in this characterization of the deity in this verse. The Hebrew word, nehem, in this passage describes a change of heart or mind, and is typical of J’s anthropomorphic conception of the deity. In the Yahwist text, Yahweh often repents, regrets, grieves, even deceives, and is moved by fierce bouts of anger. In other words, J’s very “human” presentation of Yahweh is not to be assimilated to later theological programs that assert omniscience and omnipotence to the deity. Nowhere in J are these later theological ideas even hinted at.

In Genesis 6:6-7, the Yahwist depicts Yahweh grieving and regretting that he had created a humankind that has since its inception inclined its heart toward bad thoughts. We as readers feel sympathy with Yahweh and share in his disappointment. In Exodus 32:13-14, an Elohist text, Yahweh relents and turns back from his flaring anger to wipe out all the Israelites for having worshiped the golden calf. And in older traditions now preserved in the book of Samuel, Yahweh repents for having made Saul king (1 Sam 15:35).

Yet other traditions now preserved in the Bible speak against such an anthropomorphic image of Yahweh. 1 Samuel 15:29, which seems to be a later editorial insertion into the text, makes this poignant theological claim: “Israel’s everlasting one does not deceive and does not repent, for he is not a man that he should repent.”

Such comments are indeed later reactions and opposition to earlier conceptions of Yahweh doing just that. The author of Numbers 23:19 states similarly: “God is not a man that he would lie, or a human being that he would regret.”

As we see from these brief examples, later biblical writers disagreed with the depiction of Yahweh in the earlier sources. They responded by not only depicted a Yahweh who was less anthropomorphic, but also one who adamantly claimed that he does not do what indeed he is portrayed as doing in the earlier biblical writings!

Thus, we start to see the theological complexities inherent in the composite text we now call “the Bible.” It brings together multiple, and contradictory, images and theologies of Israel’s deity. These are not the only accounts of contradicting theological portraits of Israel’s god in the biblical literature. There are dozens more that we will examine.

5 thoughts on “#13. Does Yahweh regret and change his mind OR does he not? (Gen 6:6-7; Ex 32:13-14; 1 Sam 2:30-31, 15:35; Amos 7:3; Jon 3:10 vs Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Mal 3:6)

  1. Hi. You’re probably familiar with something like this already, but I just discovered this website which lets you compare different versions of scriptures, even some Hebrew and Greek ones!
    You can even highlight specific words. I did that with 1 Sam 15, just to check whether the ‘regret’ used is the same word. It totally is!! Regardless of what it means, it’s a clear contradiction. The only excuse one could give would be that v29 was the words of Samuel, so he might have been incorrect. But then the scripture in Numbers is apparently the words of Yahweh himself. Exact same word.

    :)

  2. Hi Paul,

    Glad to see that you’re making use of the site. Yes, there are actually even more “contradictions” and inconsistences if we started to compare ancient manuscripts: the MT, Dead sea scroll manuscripts, the Greek LXX, the old Samaritan Pentateuch, etc.

    “The only excuse one could give…” I would not necessarily follow this line of thinking. Notice how careful I’ve been in the wording on several of my posts. “The author of this text has Samuel say…” or has Yahweh say… Thus when the texts contradict one another whether with a trivial narrative detail or a larger theological claim, it is rather the differences between 2 scribes, 2 textual traditions, rather than “historical” characters. And this is perfectly understandable when we realize that the Bible is a compilation of texts written over a 1,000 year period by over 60 different authors, and in vastly different political and religious contexts.

  3. I get your point, Steven.
    I didn’t mean to imply that there were necessarily any historical characters, just that some people might try to dispute these contradictions.
    It’s all too easy for me to imagine apologists trying to make things fit. :)

  4. נחם in Biblical Hebrew (nicham) typically means “to have regretted” (in the niphal form). To have taken a position that already occurred IN THE PAST and invalidate it’s existence. “To reconsider” is often used as well in some translations, as taking a positing IN THE FUTURE and breaking it before it occurs (See Ex. 13:17 where God is afraid that the Jews will see dead bodies and “run away…run away…” rather than go to the land of Israel. “To Repent” is not from this verb form, even though repentance can follow regret.

    It should be noted that the Targumist, Onkelos, will almost always replace any anthropomorphic expression with one or more series of Aramaic terms to steer the reader away from them. In some instances, Christians have interpreted his statements in bizarre ways that would have been better if he had stuck to the script! There should be a problem with God not foreseeing the future and changing His mind. After all, God changes His mind throughout the Tanach, even where נחם is never found (as part of the context). Which is where Steven gets to have many of his contradictions!

  5. And of course, the authors of NT writings have God never changing (James 1:17) …which was the first verse that came to my mind as I read of this contradiction.

    Isn’t it funny? Since girlhood, I have wondered how the bible can say God never changes nor repents AND have Him repenting of having made man. I thought it when I learned my first bible stories in sunday school, but I never asked anyone about it, and put the question behind me as unimportant for 30 years. Is it possible that none of these stories describe God? I wonder too if this just depicts a changing understanding of who God is. God doesn’t change, but we change how we understand God.

    my goodness, where will I land after this journey? I am most definitely having my thinking changed about things.

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