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God "Repents" in the Bible?

by Brant Pitre September 12, 2019 0 Comments


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Ok with that in mind, let’s go back to the Book of Exodus 32. Once you have those themes in mind, the reading for today from the Old Testament becomes pretty clear, because it’s really about people who have sinned gravely and who need somebody to intercede on behalf of them for the mercy of God to be shown toward them. And this is the famous story of Moses and the golden calf.

In Exodus 32: 7-11, you remember the story. The Israelites get out to Mount Sinai, God gives them the Ten Commandments, the first commandment is not to commit idolatry and within like 3 chapters they are making a golden calf and they are worshipping it as if it were the god that lead them out of Egypt. And as you might imagine, the Lord’s not too happy about this. So in Exodus 32: 7 it says:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’”

And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?

And then it skips down to verse 13: 11 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.’” And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people.

Alright, a lot going on here. First, basically, the reason this reading is chosen is because it’s a story of God showing mercy toward a sinful people. That’s the basic reason. So just as Jesus is calling for compassion and mercy toward the penitent sinner in the three parables of lost and found, so Exodus 32 describes Moses asking God (or imploring God) to have mercy upon Israel, who has committed a very grave public sin by worshipping the golden calf. That’s the basic theme.

Now what about that last verse though? “The Lord repented of the evil which he though to do to his people.” Two things, first, this is going to raise questions: “Well, wait a second. How can God repent?” In other words — especially think of repentance as regretting something that you did wrong — how can God repent and how can God do evil? Because God is all good; he is all loving. Why would the scripture say this? Well if you look at The New American Bible, it actually has a softer translation. It’s a little easier. It says “the Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict.” Now normally in this kind of situation I would try to avoid those translations that soften the text.

But in this case that’s actually a really excellent translation of the meaning of the Hebrew words, because in this case both Hebrew expressions, the word “repent”, which is nacham, and the word “evil”, which is the Hebrew word ra, are polyvalent words in Hebrew. They have multiple meanings and the meanings have to be determined by the context. Let’s just start with “repent”. The word repent, nacham, it can mean to repent of having done something wrong. Just like we use it in English, because it literally means “to change one’s mind.” But it can also mean to relent or have compassion.

So one of the effects of changing your mind is if you were angry with someone or if you were going to punish someone but then you decide not to punish them, you can use the word nacham to describe that as a way of having compassion on them, or relenting. And that’s what God’s doing here, he is relenting of the punishment that he has threatened to give to the Israelites as a result of their active idolatry. So it’s not him repenting of something that he was going to do that was wrong, it’s him relenting of something that he was going to do that was just. 12 Now of course, speaking from God’s perspective in terms of eternity, God never changes his mind, his will is one, it’s unified; he has one eternal will. He grasps all moments of time from the beginning of time all the way to the end in their immediacy, that’s what we mean by his omniscience.

And so God knows all things. So God knows he’s not going to punish the Israelites, but in time, in history, he threatens to punish them to Moses precisely to prompt Moses to act on their behalf through an act of intercession and mercy. And this gets into the whole big theological question of God’s divine foreknowledge and our free will and that’s too big for us to get into now. Just for now, realize that Saint Thomas Aquinas and others, like Saint Augustine, have always recognized that scripture uses human language to describe how God interacts with us in ways that we can understand. And in that case, it’s using a human way of describing God as relenting in the punishment that he was going to give the people. Well what about evil though? Can God do evil?

Well no, God cannot perform moral evil because he is perfectly good, but the Hebrew word here for evil can also just mean “bad stuff”. For example, there’s no Hebrew word for “suffering”. They don’t have a word for suffering. If you want to describe suffering in Hebrew, guess what you call it? Ra. You call it evil. And so, for example, in the book of Job, it describes the Ra, the evil that had come upon Job. But the book of Job is very clear that Job has done nothing wrong. What is the evil that has come upon him? Well it’s his suffering that he’s experiencing. It’s the ra. So when it says that God relented of the ra (the evil that he was going to inflict upon the Israelites), it means the punishment or the suffering that he was going to give them; he relents of that.

That’s kind of a long explanation. You might think, “that’s way more than what I wanted to know Dr. Pitre, too much information.” But I think it’s important for us to interpret these things in light of the whole Bible and the living tradition so that we are not scandalized or lead astray by what the text actually means.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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