Friday, February 11, 2011

Exodus 32: Did God Change His Mind? Part 2

In PART 1 of this article I said that the words translated by the NASB as “changed His mind” in Exodus 32:14 “should be understood broadly as a reference to the external action … rather than a technical description of a cognitive transformation.” What I meant by this is that although God brought about a different state of affairs than had been previously revealed it should not be assumed that it resulted from any actual change within the mind of God Himself. I hope to show that phrases such as this, when applied to God, are figures of speech and should not be understood to be equivalent to what we as humans experience when we change our minds. God does not do anything that He has not eternally known and intended that He would do.

The doctrine of immutability is that God does not and cannot undergo intrinsic change. This means that none of his attributes or any essential aspect of His being can change; however, the doctrine does not entail the denial that God experiences relational change. This means that although He does not change in Himself, His relationship to His creatures changes as a result of the fact that they are changing in their relationship to Him. You can think of it like a room with a post in the center. As people move about the room the relationship of the post to their bodies is changing even though the post itself does not undergo any changes in itself. In this example the post is experiencing relational but not intrinsic change.

Most of the examples of God changing His mind in scripture turn out upon closer examination to be this kind of change. Consider the story of Jonah. Jonah was sent to Nineveh to declare that in 40 days the wrath of the Lord would be poured out and the city would be destroyed. Upon hearing this, the king and people of Nineveh repented and the Lord did not bring about the destruction.  Notice that the destruction was not abated by a change of God’s mind but because the state of affairs to which the judgment was pronounced had changed. The spiritual relationship of the people of Nineveh to God changed and so the judgment was abated. Had the Ninevites continued unrepentant in their wickedness they no doubt would have been destroyed. It was the Ninevites who changed and not God. This is almost always the case in circumstances where God supposedly changed His mind.

While Exodus 32 does not initially seem to be this kind of example a closer reading reveals that it is another type of example of relational rather than intrinsic change. First, notice that God does not simply say “I will destroy the people” what He actually says is "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." (vs 10). Look at this closely, it is not simply an expression of God’s desire to judge the people but is rather a test of His servant. God is essentially leaving the fate of the people as well as the fulfillment of His original (and inviolable) promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the hands of Moses.  Remember that it was His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that God referenced when He first called Moses (Ex 2:24, 3:6-8) and Moses was raised up in order for God to keep those very promises. Here, however, God tells Moses He will destroy that nation and begin a new nation of promise with Moses’ own descendants and all Moses needs to do is walk away. Knowing Moses’ own repeated frustrations with the people the offer to essentially become a new Abraham must have been a tempting offer.

Moses, however, proves himself worthy of his mediatorial office and intercedes for Israel in their guilt rather than pursuing his own glory. We see here his faith and submission to God in that He reminds God of His promises pleading that God would glorify Himself rather than His servant. Moses therefore becomes the instrument that God raised up to preserve the people by becoming an intercessor for them standing in the breach turning away wrath (Ps 106:21-23). This event is therefore very similar to and should be understood as analogous to other tests of those whom God was preparing for great work on His behalf. Perhaps the most obvious examples we can think of are the tests of Abraham on Mount Moriah and the testing of Jesus Christ in the desert.

This incident marks an important transition for Moses in his function as the prophet of the Hebrews. Once He goes down the mountain and realizes what the people have done he returns to the Lord and proposes the exact opposite of what the Lord had offered (vs 30-32). Moses actually requests that God would forgive the sin of the people in exchange for his own salvation! Rather than the destruction of the people and his own glory Moses is willing to perish for them though they are guilty. It is at this point that there is an understated but dramatic transition in the overall narrative of the Exodus. In verse 34 God says to Moses, "But go now, lead the people where I told you Behold, My angel shall go before you…”. Up to this point it has been God Himself who has led them with Moses essentially being a mouthpiece but at this point it is Moses himself who will lead the people with the assistance of an angel. He had proven himself worthy of the station and God’s removal of direct leadership can be seen as both judgment upon Israel as well as confirmation of Moses’ role as intercessor for the people.

It may not be as easy to see as it is in Jonah but this is also an example of a relational change because representative intercession on behalf of a people is closely connected to repentance (c.f. Amos 7:1-6). The entire Mosaic Law and priestly system are dependent upon representative intercession but is not until the full revelation of the gospel in the New Testament that we understand the full implications of the relationship between repentance and intercession. It was the intercession of Moses, foreshadowing Christ, which was the means used by God to demonstrate His mercy and keep His promises despite the rebellion of the people. It would have actually been a change of mind for God to have followed through with the destruction of the people because it would have meant the revocation of the previous covenants that He had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses’ intercession prevented this change but we cannot lose sight of the fact that it was God Himself who raised up Moses for that purpose. The statement in verse 14 that the Lord changed His mind should be understood not to refer to any change in God’s mental disposition but simply as an abeyance of the justice which His character necessitates as the result of an intercession made upon the basis of His own character and fidelity.

When we see this in God it is not the equivalent of what happens when a human being changes their mind. In the same way that scripture refers to the breath of God’s nostrils, the arm of God, etc. we should understand the phrase to convey some truth about God by way of illustration rather than as a technical description. The phrase, however, does convey an important truth even if it is not a technical philosophical description. What happens here with Moses and elsewhere in scripture where intercession and or repentance cause God to refrain from pouring out judgment is analogous to a change of mind in a real way. God has declared that the standard is holiness and that the man who sins must die. He refrains, however, from following through on that irrevocable judgment in the case of those for whom Christ has interceded. We remain sinners, but the righteousness of Christ is credited to our account and we are given His spirit leading to repentance thus the judgment we were under has been met in His suffering. It is in this sense that we can say that God changes His mind. Though all have been found guilty He remains ready to forgive and has made provision for doing this in His Son. This nevertheless remains a relational rather than intrinsic change. Indeed the promise that our salvation is secure depends upon it being so.


  1. Very insightful post! Thank you! This has helped me greatly prepare for a discussion I will be leading on this very topic with a group of college students.

  2. Josh,

    Praise God. Your comment is a great encouragement to me. I will pray for your discussion group today that both you and the students will be led into a deeper knowledge of God's word and through it a fuller relationship with Christ.