“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.