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Does God "Repent" or Change His Mind?
(W. A. Maier III)

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Exodus 32:14

In the section of his book entitled "Reversed Divine Intentions," Boyd presents a number of passages that he believes declare "the truth that God changes his mind when circumstances call for it." Here he lists Exodus 32:14, for the relevant part of which he uses the translation "the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people." (28) At the end of this section Boyd comments:

Clearly, the motif that God changes his mind is not an incidental one in Scripture. It runs throughout the biblical narrative and is even exalted as one of his praiseworthy attributes. It is very difficult to see how passages such as these can be fairly interpreted if we assume that the future is exhaustively settled and known by God as such... God is not only the God of future certainties; he's the God of future possibilities. (29)

For Exodus 32:14 this article suggests the translation "And God relented concerning the disaster which he spoke of doing to his people." (30) God "backed off," withdrew, from his threat to consume the Israelites and leave only Moses, out of whom he would make a great nation. He did not wipe them out; however, God did chasten them, by means of a plague, as reported at the end of chapter 32 (v. 35).

The "relent/'back off"' translation well fits the context in Exodus 32. Further, this rendering of nacham in the niphal is either the preferred, or a possible, translation in numerous other Old Testament passages. (31) "Relent," this article proposes, is a better choice than "God changed his mind," or "God repented over/was sorry about." The latter two translations, as already explained, can mislead the reader into thinking that God really does not know what he is going to do, that he initially decides on one course of action, but in the end takes another course. Worse yet, the reader might in addition believe that God in the heat of his anger can say some things that he is sorry about later on, realizing that his words were a mistake. The fundamental concept throughout all this type of thinking is that God does not have complete foreknowledge, even with regard to his own activity.

That concept and type of thinking are not in accord with a proper interpretation of Scripture. God is not limited in his knowledge, as well as capricious, and subject to uncontrollable fits of anger that lead him into errors. Besides being omniscient, God is fully in control of himself (to speak anthropomorphically) and all situations. He is consistently holy, just, and righteous in his thoughts, words, and actions.

In Exodus 32:14 nacham is an anthropopathic term imparting, anthropopathically, spiritual truths to us mere sinful mortals. God in his Word comes down to our level, communicating with us in the best, most effective manner, to the limit of our understanding.

What are we to see, then, in the use of nacham in Exodus 32:14? This verb conveys, as discussed above, the dual aspects of decision and emotion. God, who is immutable and outside of time, is portrayed as making a decision in time, due to a change in his emotions. Righteously angry with the Israelites, and speaking of consuming them, God turns from his fierce wrath (as Moses requested), and spares them. God knew from eternity what he would do and how the situation would turn out; but from Moses', and the reader's, point of view, God holds out one course of action, and then goes with another.

It should be noted that God did not necessarily say to Moses, "I will" destroy the Israelites. Rather, the Hebrew text can be translated as God saying, "Now therefore, let me alone [imperative], that my wrath may [jussive] burn hot against them and I may [cohortative] consume them" (v. 10; NKJV). (32) With this translation God's words carry a hint of conditionality. They imply that someone can stand in the way of God's fierce anger, preventing him from consuming the people, namely, Moses. As is well known, in Scripture many of God's threats (and his promises, too) are conditional. (33)

God turns aside from his fierce wrath and refrains from carrying out his threat not because of a change in the Israelites. The decisive factor in Exodus 32 is Moses, acting as intercessor. (34) Nacham in verse 14 presents what is taught elsewhere in Scripture, that the prayers of believers truly have an effect upon God. James writes: "The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much (5:16; NKJV). On the one hand, God knows in advance how he will act, long before his people pray to him. God announces in Isaiah: "It shall come to pass that before they call, I will answer..." (65:24; NKJV). On the other hand, Psalm 106:23 reports, concerning the scene in Exodus 32: "He [God.] spoke of destroying them, except that [לךלי] Moses his chosen one stood in the breach before him to turn back his rage from destroying." Moses' intercession had an impact; it was effective with God. According to our limited human reason and way of speaking we might say that God allows himself to be moved by the prayers of believers, and he also knows in advance he will be impacted by these petitions.

As observed, God in verse 10, with the implicit conditionality of his words, is subtly inviting Moses to plead with him. In addition, at the beginning of the verse God speaks one way - "let Me alone" - to bring about an effect that is the opposite of what his words seem to mean on the surface. Far from leaving him alone, Moses proceeds to engage in intimate, straightforward conversation with God.

In fact, God throughout is speaking with great intentionality to Moses. The scene in Exodus 32 is not one of God being overcome by a fit of anger, and spewing forth rash words, for which he is later sorry, or about which he changes his mind. Rather, God is talking in a deliberate manner with a certain purpose, and corresponding goal, in mind. God's purpose is to put Moses to the test. (35)

In Exodus 32 God chooses his words carefully, to lead Moses into exactly the kind of test he intended for his servant. Scripture teaches that God prepares people in advance for the testing process, and that he puts someone to the test for that person's good, and for the glory of God. Moreover, there are a number of Scriptural examples in which God, while testing a person, seems to take one stance, but actually has something else in mind, as the outcome shows.

In Genesis 22 God puts Abraham to the test by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac. God knows in advance what Abraham will do, and that God's purpose will be accomplished. God did not actually want the patriarch to slay his son; other scriptural references proclaim clearly that God abhors child sacrifice. The Angel of the Lord prevents Abraham from killing Isaac, not because God has had a change of mind, but because Abraham has successfully met the test, by God's grace and power. As a result of this crisis Abraham's faith reaches its highpoint; he holds steadfastly to the word of God, as the author of Hebrews indicates.

In Genesis 32, the Angel of the Lord wrestles with Jacob. At first this seems to be a stance of hostility on the part of God; in the end, however, God blesses Jacob. Through this test God causes Jacob to grasp him and his word, so to speak, with bulldog tenacity.

When the Canaanite woman begged Jesus to heal her daughter, Christ apparently ignored her, not answering her a word. When she persisted, Christ gave her a somewhat insulting, and far from encouraging, response. In the end, of course, Christ went on to heal her daughter. Christ knew all along what he would do. He acted and spoke as he did to test the woman, to exercise her faith, so that she could display herself as spiritually bold and persistent.

Partial analogies to these examples are found in Genesis 18 and Luke 24. In the former passage, God appears determined to exterminate totally the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. By the last part of the chapter God agrees to take a different position, in response to the petitioning of Abraham. Because of the way God dealt with him, Abraham shows himself to be a great intercessor. God knew in advance, however, what he would do to the cities, and how he would spare Lot and his family. In Luke 24, the resurrected Christ seems to take a position of ignorance in responding to the question of the two men, whether or not he knew about what had transpired in Jerusalem. Jesus simply replies, "What things?" He knew everything, but replies as he does to have the men articulate their disappointments and concerns, as the background for Christ then ministering to them from Scripture.

In Exodus 32 God speaks one way initially, because he is putting Moses to the test, but later, when the test is over, nacham, "backs off" from his threat, from what he suggested as a course of action. (36) As God intended, Moses benefits mightily from this test, which God uses to shape and prepare him for the coming years, and for God's glory. The following paragraphs are illustrative.

Moses rejects ungodly pride, which would have prompted him to jump at the chance to become a new patriarch. Humility remained a characteristic of his life and work.

Through this test Moses emerges as the great intercessor for his people, and takes on in a decisive manner his role as their true shepherd, under God. All that he relates to God concerning the Israelites has meaning also for Moses. Because of this test he sees in clearer fashion the importance of his people, and learns to identify in a closer manner with them. As Maxie Dunnam explains, we see on the part of Moses "a commitment that had moved almost unbelievably from long argument against God's call to standing toe to toe with God for the sake of what God had called him to do in the first place..." (37) Moses will have to endure these Israelites, in a wilderness setting no less, for some thirty-eight-plus years.

God, through this experience in Exodus 32, leads Moses to stand in an even firmer manner on God's Word, with its promises. Moses recalls what God had said to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: "I will multiply your descendants." He reasons, "How, God, can You wipe out the Israelites and make of me a great nation? These future people would be called the descendants of Moses, and not of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

Because of his being tested, Moses' agape love is drawn out and brightly shines. (38) He has this love, certainly, for his fellow Israelites. He perhaps displays this love for the Egyptians, too, since he says to God: "Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, 'He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?"' (v. 12; NKJV). Moses possibly is thinking that, whatever positive effect God's mighty miracles in Egypt and at the sea might have had on the Egyptians, would be undone with God's annihilating the Israelites. Ronald Clements emphasizes this point. He writes: "...the foremost reason why God should not destroy Israel is that the Egyptians (and so all gentile peoples) would not recognize the LORD as the true God if he did so. In this way God's name would be profaned, as Ezekiel describes in a similar situation (Ezek. 36:20)." (39)

Therefore, in Exodus 32 God is fulIy in control of the situation. He is acting and speaking according to a preconceived purpose and goal, and having his will accomplished, as was foreordained.

IV. Conclusion

Genesis 6:6 and Exodus 32:14 remind us that Scripture reveals God to us via accommodations, including the use of anthropomorphic and anthropopathic terminology. What we see is the truth, yet this must always be viewed within the framework of God's omniscience, immutability, and timelessness, which, however, we do not fully grasp. (40) "For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become his counselor?" (Rom. 11:34; NKJV). Now "we know in part... we see in a mirror, dimly" (1 Cor. 13:9, 12; NKJV). God has chosen the best way of communicating to us, taking our feeble minds to the extent of their capability. While our knowledge of God is only partial, we do know the one, true, Triune God- including his incarnate Son-with corresponding love and affection. We can be absolutely sure that, through this knowledge, or faith, we have salvation.

Walter A. Maier III was brought to faith in Christ when he was baptized as a baby. He received the M.Div. degree from Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN; the A.M. and Ph.D. (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations) from Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. He has taught at Concordia University, River Forest, IL; served as a pastor at Concordia Lutheran Church, Ft. Wayne; and is currently an Associate Professor at Concordia Theological Seminary. Dr. Maier has authored several articles for various publications, preaches on a regular basis, and is currently engaged in writing a commentary on 1 and 2 Kings.

"All men are made in God’s image; but to be in his likeness is granted only to those who through great love have brought their own freedom into subjection to God."

Diodochos of Photiki (400-486), Bishop of northern Greece


28. Boyd, God of the Possible, 81, 83.

29. Boyd, God of the Possible, 85. He further comments: "Classical theology cannot accept this conclusion because of philosophical preconceptions of what God must be like: He must be in every respect unchanging, so his knowledge of the future must be unchanging".

30. John Durham (Exodus, WBC 3 [Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987], 424), translates "Thus was Yahweh moved to pity concerning the injury that he had spoken of doing to his people." Similarly, Jonathan Master ("Exodus 32 as an Argument for Traditional Theism," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45 [December, 2002 1: 595) prefers the translation "Yahweh had compassion."

31. E.g., Exodus 32:12; 2 Samuel 24:16 (1 Chronicles 21:15); Isaiah 57:6; Jeremiah 42:8; 15:6; 18:8, 10; 20:16; 26:3, 13, 19; 42:10; Ezekiel 24:14; Joel 2:13, 14; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:9, 10; Zechariah 8:14; Psalm 106:45.

32. This is also the translation of, e.g., the ESV, KJV, NAS, NN, and the NRSV.

33. Cf., e.g., Jeremiah 18:7-10; Ezekiel 33: 13-16. Robert Chisholm, in his article "Does God 'Change His Mind'?" (Biblia Sacra 152 [1995]), distinguishes two types of divine statements of intention: decrees and announcements (389-391). The former are unconditional promises. The latter, often following a specific grammatical pattern, are conditional, and implicitly open to change. Concerning Exodus 32:10 he writes (396): "The form of the statement (imperative + jussive + cohortative + cohortative [the remainder of the verse]) indicates that it is not a decree but an expression of God's frustration with his people." He concludes: "... God had only threatened judgment, not decreed it" (396). Master, agreeing with Chisholm, notes that "Moses recognized the opening in God's statements and appealed to previous divine decrees which were, by their very nature, unbreakable."

34. Philip Hyatt (Exodus, New Century Bible [London: Oliphants, 1971], 307) notes that there are three grounds seen in the Old Testament for Yahweh's relenting: intercession, repentance of the people, and Yahweh's compassionate nature.

35. This is the position of various commentators. E.g., Calvin, in his Exodus commentary, in Commentaries on The Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, vol. 3, trans. Charles Bingham (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 339; John Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt: Studies in Exodus, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 197l), 296; Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1991), 284; and Walter Kaiser Jr., "Exodus," in vol. 2 of The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 479. A reasonable argument is that, in reality, God could not have wiped out the Israelites, leaving only Moses. As recorded in Genesis 49, God has already, through Jacob, foretold that the coming Savior would be from the tribe of Judah (49:8-10). Moses was of the tribe of Levi. The promises concerning the Messiah in the Old Testament were unconditional. God would not have gone back on his word spoken centuries before by Jacob. One might counter by saying that, theoretically, God was able to raise the Judahites from the dead, but this seems forced. Cf. Genesis 22, and Hebrews 11:17-19. The command to sacrifice is one thing; "I will devour gives a much different impression.

36. Calvin, in his Exodus commentary has this pertinent comment (340-341): "Nor is there any reason why slanderous tongues should here impugn God, as if he pretended before men what he had not decreed in himself; for it is no proof that he is variable or deceitful if, when speaking of men's sins, and pointing out what they deserve, he does not lay open his incomprehensible counsel."

37. Maxie Dunnam, Exodus, The Communicator's Commentary, vol. 2 (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987), 352-353.

38. Concerning Exodus 32:34, R. Alan Cole (Exodus, TOTC, vol. 2 [Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1973], 217) writes: "We are not to think of Moses as altering God's purpose towards Israel by this prayer, but as carrying it out: Moses was never more like God than in such moments, for he shared God's mind and loving purpose."

39. Ronald E. Clements, Exodus, Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 207. Calvin, writing on v. 12 in his Exodus commentary, states, with regard to the Egyptians, that "the memory of God's grace, as well as of His judgment, would have been destroyed; for the Egyptians would have hardened themselves, and would have been untouched by any sense of guilt, deeming that God would shew now mercy to His elect people" (342). Lange is of the opinion "that the ruin of God's people, merited as it is on account of their sins, would also plunge the heathen nations into complete destruction." Johann Peter Lange, Exodus; or, The Second Book of Moses, tr. Charles, M. Mead (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1901), 133.

40. Simply speaking, there are "tensions" (but not contradictions) in the Christian faith: spiritual realities which our limited human reason cannot completely figure out or comprehend. For example, there is only one God; yet the three persons of the Trinity are distinct from each other, and each person is fully God. Also, Jesus Christ is both very God and true man. God, in revealing himself, has pulled back the veil as far as is possible with us human beings. However, we are never to think that we have the full measure of God, imagining that we can pigeon-hole him or fit him into nice, neat compartments imposed by our minds.

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