Through the years one question that has continued to come up in both theology and bible studies I have taught is regarding God’s ability to change His mind. Most theologians in church history have believed that the bible teaches that God is both immutable and omniscient; meaning that He does not change and that He knows everything. The reasoning is that since God knows everything He can neither learn nor forget anything and since He does not change His perspective on what He knows cannot change. The implication is that God cannot change His mind. The traditional understanding is supported by various passages such as Numbers 23:19, which says “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
Nevertheless, many believe that the historical doctrine was developed more from Greek philosophy than the bible, that passages such as Numbers 23:19 are not to be understood in an absolute sense, and that the bible records multiple situations where God did in fact change His mind. Perhaps the most common example that is usually given is Moses’ appeal to God in Exodus 32. While Moses was up on the holy mountain with God the people fashioned for themselves an idol in the form of a golden calf to worship. Immediately following this the Word of God records the following:
9 The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. 10"Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation." 11 Then Moses entreated the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the
with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 "Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, 'With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth'? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. 13"Remember Abraham, Isaac, and land of Egypt , Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, 'I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" 14 So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people. Israel
(Exodus 32:9-14 NASB)
(Exodus 32:9-14 NASB)
This seems to be a clear example of God changing His mind so how is this to be understood in light of other passages such as Numbers 23:19? If it is true that the consistent biblical teaching is that God cannot change His mind then how should this passage be understood? There are two different aspects that we must consider in answering this question. First, what is the specific meaning of the terms translated as “changed His mind” and secondly, what is the sense of these words within the context of this particular passage?
The Hebrew word that is translated as “changed His mind” in the NASB is from the root word nacham (Naw-Kham). Literally the word means to sigh or breathe strongly and has a range of meanings. Strong’s concordance has the following entry for the word:
H5162 comfort self, ease one's self, repent, A primitive root; properly, to sigh, i.e. Breathe strongly; by implication, to be sorry, i.e. (in a favorable sense) to pity, console or (reflexively) rue; or (unfavorably) to avenge (oneself) -- comfort (self), ease (one's self), repent(-er,-ing, self).
The KJV translates the word in this passage as “repented” and the NIV and ESV each translate the word as “relented”. The NASB translation of “changed His mind” certainly does not appear to be an incorrect translation though it should be understood broadly as a reference to the external action “about the harm which He said He would do” rather than a technical description of a cognitive transformation. Someone may argue that in order for the action to have changed the intention in the actor must have first changed thus implying a cognitive evolution. This, however, cannot be determined without a broader analysis of the passage.
We know from scripture that not only is God omnipotent but he is also Truth and it is impossible for Him to lie (Heb. 6:18). This introduces another complication. When does “changing ones mind” become “lying”? Normally when a person tells us that they are going to do something and then does not do it we conclude that the person lied to us unless they were restrained or compelled by some other force outside of their control to do otherwise. Since God is omnipotent there can be no compelling or restraining outside force so any failure to act upon a commitment would have to be voluntary and intentional. What is more, if He is omniscient then He would have known that He was not going to follow through when He initially spoke to Moses. This seems to go right to the heart of the assurance that is given in the passage from numbers referenced above where lying and changing ones mind are considered in parallel with speaking and not following through. So, did God lie to Moses? Again, answering this question requires a broader analysis of the passage.
Perhaps we can now see the difficulty with this passage. If we maintain that God cannot change His mind we must explain the meaning of this seemingly plain phrase in this passage, however, if we come to the conclusion that this passage does indeed teach that God can change His mind then even if we do not address the theological issues that are created (there are many) we must at least show how a change of mind is not a form of lying given God’s attributes. In PART 2 I will try and explain why God did not have what we commonly think of as a “change of mind” in this circumstance and also why His actions here in no way indicate any untruthfulness on His part (not that He needs me to defend Him J ).