Monday, September 13, 2004

God Changed His Mind?

But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
-NRSV
, Exodus 32:11-14
I've read this story about the golden calf many times, but it wasn't until my latest reading that the impact of that last verse hit me. God changed his mind! Do you see the implications of that? This also brings to mind the story of Jonah, and how the Ninevites repented, and God changed his mind and spared the city((Jonah 3:4-10). And the story of Abraham bargaining with God to try to save Sodom, and God agrees if 10 righteous men can be found in the city, he will spare it (Genesis 18:16-33). It brings to mind the story of Jesus and the Phoenician woman, whose daughter Jesus refused to heal because she wasn’t Jewish, but, when the woman offers a quick comeback, saying that even the dogs deserve the crumbs that fall from the table, what does Jesus do? He changes his mind and heals her daughter (Mark 7:24-37).

Before continuing, I suppose it would be prudent to clarify exactly what I'm talking about here. The Hebrew term, which the New Revised Standard Version translates as "changed his mind," is nacham. Often it is translated as "repent," as in the Revised Standard Version; "And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people."

This appears to be in direct contradiction to the immutability (changelessness) of God, as in Malachi 3:6; "For I, the Lord, do not change." In that passage, the Hebrew term is shaniti, a reference to the unchanging character of God, which would include mercy, love, compassion, and righteous judgment. In Exodus, the change, or repentence (nacham) of God was not a change of character, but a response to the actions of humanity, consistent with the unchanging nature of God. The promises and warnings of God are always conditional, based on the response of humanity (Ezekiel 33:13-16). So, to be clear, I'm not suggesting that God is a flip-flopper! Yet, it does seem apparent that in order to be consistent with God's nature, there is room for revision of the original plan. When the situation changes, God doesn't change, but sometimes the plan does.

Even within that more nuanced definition, the implications are still startling. Doesn’t this mean that the future could not possibly be poured in concrete? Doesn’t this mean that we have an important role in the acts of God; that we are, at times, co-creators with God? The Israelites repent, and God doesn’t destroy them. Absolutely amazing.

Doesn’t this mean that all the predictions of the end times, about Armageddon, are but one way things could work out? What if humanity repented? Doesn’t this mean that it doesn’t have to happen? This is but one implication. There are others, but I'll leave it to you to make those connections.

What new thing did I learn about God in this reading? That God demands justice, but that it is also God's nature to be merciful, so merciful that the plan can be changed.

What did I learn about humanity? That we are not puppets on a string. That we have some degree of responsibility regarding how the future unfolds. That we are partners with God, working together to transform this world.

This is good news!

J.

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