Malachi 3:6 "For I am the Lord; I change not."
Numbers 23:19 "God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent."
Ezekiel 24:14 "I the Lord have spoken it: it shall come to pass, and I will do it; I will not go back, neither will I spare, neither will I repent."
James 1:17 " . . . the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning."
These verses indicate that God isn't the sort to flip sides. But what, it is asked, of these verses?
Exodus 32:14 "And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people."
Genesis 6:6,7 "And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth . . . And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth . . . for it repenteth me that I have made him."
Jonah 3:10 ". . . and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not."
2 Kings 20:1-7, Numbers 16:20-35, Numbers 16:44-50, Genesis 18:23-33.
So what is the answer? It comes by stages:
- The attribute of omniscience, of knowing all things,
must be clarified. Judeo-Christian belief holds that God is
timeless. Past, present and future for God can be seen as a whole.
This much is commonly asserted. What is sometimes not asserted as a corollary is that God also knows how things would turn out if differently had a different path been taken at every potential choice-making nexus. God knew you would turn left at Main Street this morning; but He also knows what would have happened had you turned right.
- A "prophet" in the Bible meant more than simply "a
predictor of the future". A prophet was also a messenger and an
exhorter. His words were never set in stone. A key verse for this
is Jer. 18:7-10 --
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
With this verse, and the fact that the role of a prophet was more than just as a predictor, it is quite clear why it is pointless to object when, for example, God withholds judgment upon Nineveh (Jonah 3:10). We may read it as a definitive prophecy, but it would be understood by the hearers as exhortation allowing for the disaster to be avoided.
Following ancient rules of rhetoric and the constraints of oral communication, as well as the nature of the Semitic mindset which typically expressed itself in extremes, it would be less appropriate for a prophet making a popular declaration to delineate possible exceptions in his general proclamation. Such side-tracking would make his message less memorable and effective in an era when retention and effect was far more important in the short term than detailed analysis.
G. B. Caird in The Language and Imagery of the Bible [112ff] uses several passages cited typically by Skeptics in this context as examples of "prophetic hyperbole" intended to express matters in an unqualified way, yet hardly meaning that there was no chance to escape judgment.
- Finally, let us make it clear what it means to say that God does not "change". This does not mean that God is static, never does anything, or never says anything. Nor can it be asserted to mean that God does not alter stated plans in reaction to human freewill choices. Our quote from Jeremiah shows that well enough. We will find that the references to God not "changing" cannot hold up such a narrow interpretation.
Let's go now to an examination of verses that have been used in this argument.
- Gen. 6:6-7 -- This (along with another, 1 Sam
15:11, regarding God "repenting" over the choice of Saul) is the
primary hinge point of the Skeptical argument alleging
contradiction. But let's look at that word "repent" more closely. It is nacham, and it means to be sorry, grieve, or to pity.
Now here is a question: Is it not possible to grieve and feel sorry over something -- even if we know that it is going to happen, even if we cause it to happen? Of course it is. And there is no reason why this cannot also apply to God, as we shall see.
- Gen. 18:23-33. We won't quote this passage in entirety;
suffice to say: It is the incident in which Abraham intercedes with
God on behalf of Sodom, asking Him to spare the city in a classic
ANE "marketplace bartering" conversation which probably served to
give Abraham some idea what this new God of "his" was like.
Did God here offer to change His mind? Let's put it this way. The story, and Jeremiah above, indicates that with intercession and/or change, God will make a change in an announced plan. But if God is omniscient, then He knew in advance what Abraham would ask for -- and knew also what the end result would be. (Note that God asks, clearly rhetorically [18:17], whether He should tell Abraham what His plans are, and that the number of possible righteous goes only to 10 -- the next logical increment, 5, would have been less than the number of Lot's family of 6: Lot, his wife, his two daughters, and their prospective grooms. In essence Abraham is pleading for Lot's safety here.)
God dealt with Abraham in human terms for his own sake; but even before the conversation started, the matter was decided. God did not change nor compromise, but in fact, in feigning ignorance (v. 21), dropped a very strong hint that intercession on Abraham's part was desired.
This incident was more than a typical ANE barter-exchange, then: It was also a tone-setting meeting laying down the terms upon which God would relate to His covenant people. He knew what they would do; but He also wanted them to come to Him in their need. (And in any event, since all 6 members of Lot's family eventually fouled up, it was proven that there were no righteous people in Sodom on that day.)
This general principle of intercession -- which of course was always foreknown -- can be seen in other cites commonly used in this argument: Exodus 32:10-14; Numbers 16:20-35 and 44-50; 2 Kings 20:1-7, and Amos 7:3, 6. But let's look at some other key cites.
- Numbers 23:19 -- The oracle of Balaam needs to be
looked at it two ways. First, what of this word repent? I
think it is obvious that it must be read in a different sense here
-- "grieve" just doesn't fit the bill.
Second, the oracle itself notes that there were conditions for the blessing (v. 21). This pretty obviously indicates that if the conditions change, a "Jeremiah 18 reversal" will follow. (cf. also 1 Sam. 15:29, Ezek. 24:14. Moreover, keep in mind that this is said by Balaam, who is trying to keep himself out of trouble with Balak for giving out a prophecy blessing Israel rather than cursing it.)
- Malachi 3:6 -- This is a "no change" verse, and we
should immediately remember what we have said above about such things. "Change" does not refer to simply any possible
change, but has specific contexts.
Here, it is said in the context of maintaining the covenant promise of preservation to the Israelites in spite of their sins. A covenant agreement is a serious thing -- it is a written contract. This was an unconditional promise, unlike those under the Jeremiah 18 clause, and God will not break it, and has not (though the Israelites did).
- James 1:17 -- Finally, there is this reach into the
NT. But again, context makes for clear: James is discussing the
ways of men and their fickle, changing morals and treasures (1:2-16).
This is the regard in which he asserts that there is neither
turning or variation in God, and we are not justified in reading
more than that into it.
It is not a statement of "ontological immutability" but one concerned with "the unwavering character of God's faithfulness." (See Donald J. Versput, "James 1:17 and the Jewish Morning Prayers." Novum Testamentum 35, 1997, 177-191.)
Objection: God specifically states that he spared Nineveh because of their repentance (Jonah 3:10). So what about 4:11?
Jonah 4:11 simply reflects an expression of concern for the people and animals of Nineveh. It has virtually nothing to do with God's ultimate reason for withholding destruction as related in 3:10. If God had no concern for them, then presumably he wouldn't have been concerned with whether or not they repented and Jonah would not have even been sent in the first place. It gives the reason why God warned the Ninevites in the first place, not why they were spared.
There are occasions in which God withholds a promised judgment even when those he had threatened did not change their ways at all. See Ex. 32:9-14.
"Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them." The judgment here is conditional, and not conditional on the Israelites as a whole, but on their human representative Moses. If Moses leaves God alone, then the Israelites will taste judgment. Moses intercedes, as God (no doubt) expected him to.
Contextually we find that the reason for the threat is given in Exodus 32:7,8 where the Israelites not only worship an idol in the shape of a calf, but misplace credit for their deliverance from Egypt.
Jonah himself apparently understood his warnings as absolute statements, because when God fails to destroy the city as promised, he becomes very angry and frustrated (4:1,4) and asks God to take his life (4:3,8). Why would he have done this if he meant his warnings to be conditional statements?
Simply put, even without the Semitic context, the conclusion reached does not follow from the evidence. Jonah from the first had a bad attitude about his role in preaching to the Ninevites. As Jonah himself says (Jonah 4:2,3): "That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity."
It is clear from Jonah's "attitude" that his bitterness was the result of God sparing the city even though the Ninevites had repented. In other words his response (as exemplified by 4:2-3) is, "This has been a big waste of time, and I resent it." He didn't care for the Ninevites as persons (a reaction most likely induced by the Assyrians being the Jews' political enemies).
We also have a pretty clear contextual clue that the Ninevites took the prophecy of doom as conditional. The text affirms that they believed Jonah. So why not move away or get out of town? They don't move away, however; they fast, don sackcloth, repent, and then they wait. Resigned to their fate, or hoping for mercy?
God can, by definition, cause things to turn out any way he wishes; again by definition, he can never be forced to choose a course of action with substandard results.
Can an omnipotent being, by definition, cause things to turn out any way it wishes? Actually, no. An omnipotent being cannot alter a free will choice to obtain a desired result (this results in both A and not-A being true at the same time and in the same sense, which is a contradiction). Can an omnipotent being be forced to choose a course of action with substandard results? No, and what of it? It is incumbent on Skeptics to establish that our omnipotent being (God) chose a course of action which obtained comparatively substandard results.