God Behaving Badly 7

God Behaving Badly 7 June 9, 2011

Is the God of the Old Testament rigid or is that God flexible? David Lamb, in his excellent book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?, probes this question.

Do you think God changes his mind? Does God change? [Like David Lamb, I have no intention here to open up the “open theism” can of worms.]

The answer is No and Yes. No, God is unchangeable; Yes, God is changeable. That’s biblical, and here’s why…

Num. 23:19     God is not a human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?

1Sam. 15:29 He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”

Psa. 110:4       The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

Mal. 3:6        “I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed..

Very good evidence that God does not change. But, there’s even more evidence that God does change:

Ex. 32:14 Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

2Sam. 24:16 When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the LORD relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the LORD was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.

Psa. 106:45     for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented.

Jer. 15:6       You have rejected me,” declares the LORD. “You keep on backsliding. So I will lay hands on you and destroy you; I am tired of holding back [relenting].

Jer. 26:19       “Did Hezekiah king of Judah or anyone else in Judah put him to death? Did not Hezekiah fear the LORD and seek his favor? And did not the LORD relent, so that he did not bring the disaster he pronounced against them? We are about to bring a terrible disaster on ourselves!”

Amos 7:3        So the LORD relented. “This will not happen,” the LORD said.

Amos 7:6        So the LORD relented. “This will not happen either,” the Sovereign LORD said.

Joel 2:13        Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.  14     Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing— grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God.

Jonah 4:2 He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing 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.

Here’s how David Lamb puts this together: Context determines everything. “In contexts where there is doubt as to whether or not God will be faithful, the text declares that God does not waver from his commitments.” “In contexts of imminent judgment from God, when people repent, God changes his mind and shows mercy.”

Thus, “God is predictably flexible, constantly changeable and immutably mutable, at least in regard to showing mercy toward repentant sinners.”

Here’s one for a zinger: This is why I began my Rob Bell series with the prayers of Abraham about the about-to-be-destroyed city. There is a pattern in the Bible that God will relent from punishment if people will turn toward God. On that we can stake some hope.

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  • Tom

    If God lives in a real, dynamic relationship with people that have free will, he would need to change His mind in response to how we change ours. I always thought that God set a course that ultimately will not change but all the stuff of daily living is in constant change. Since God lives with us in this daily relationship, he interacts with that change.

  • I was taught this very thing from a Reformed guy at a Reformed seminary. See his essay on “intervening historical contingencies.” It does appear that part and parcel of God’s sovereign character–that we can bank on–is the changing of his mind when it comes to our repentance.

  • Tim

    I do not have time to post much today, but is it really an accurate picture that the only time that the God of the OT changes his mind is when mercifully rescinding Judgment to a repenting people?

    Let’s take 1 Samuel 2:30-33:

    ” “Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house, so that no one in it will reach old age, and you will see distress in my dwelling. Although good will be done to Israel, no one in your family line will ever reach old age. Every one of you that I do not cut off from serving at my altar I will spare only to destroy your sight and sap your strength, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life.”

    This is a judgment against the house of Eli and, by the most straightforward reading, Yahweh is rescinding an earlier promise to the house of Eli due to his descendant’s dishonorable behavior. If you take these accounts as being accurate history, does anyone think that Eli had the slightest bit of doubt that when Yahweh said forever, he meant it? Well, based on the actions of Yahweh in 1 Samuel 2 and other passages, perhaps he would have good reason to doubt.

  • Tim, #4: My point is that there’s a general pattern. God changes in contexts of showing mercy and he doesn’t change in contexts where he is going to remain faithful to his people. There are exceptions to this pattern, as your example from 1 Sam. 2 illustrates. In brief chapter on the topic I wasn’t able to discuss all the relevant texts, but focused primarily on OT texts that use the Hebrew verb naham, which can have a broad range of meaning, but can mean “repent” or “change one’s mind” so it seemed the most relevant word. Thanks for your comment.

  • Tim

    David Lamb@4,

    I have to head out to work, so I won’t be able to comment until late this afternoon/evening. But I would argue that the “pattern” of the typical “human” characteristics one finds in the other ANE gods (e.g., quick to anger, capricious, jealous, changes one’s mind, etc.) is strongly represented in the OT’s depictions of Yawheh, in tension of course with a more idealized deity that is steadfast, true, never changes his mind, is slow to anger, etc.

    When one views the OT as a non-harmonious product of its culture, where ANE sentiments are in tension with theological ideals, then the OT makes a lot more sense and there a lot fewer “exceptions” and “problem passages” to deal with or “solve”. Alright, I’ve got to head out to work. Cheers.

  • Susan N.

    This was a favorite chapter of mine. 🙂

    “God changes his mind frequently in the Old Testament. When our systematic theology comes into conflict with the Bible, the former needs to be modified, not the latter.” (p.145)


    I loved the ‘change/not change’ list on p. 149-150.

    Regarding the use of “hard sell” (threat of hell) evangelism on 8-year-olds, I’m glad that this was effective in motivating David Lamb to turn toward God and commit to Christ. And I’m glad that it didn’t do any significant damage to his spiritual development. I had a much different experience of that early indoctrination (read: “not good.”)

  • Kaleb

    So it is easy to agree that God does seem to change God’s mind when it comes to judgment. People have the opportunity to repent or turn towards God and seek favor and mercy. I am wondering why we can not have these same beliefs about this God when it comes to our beliefs of Hell? Why is it that people can not bring these same characteristics and patterns of God to people that have died ‘in their sins’? It seems that this would be more than enough ‘Biblical’ hope that God would change God’s mind when it comes to our judgment after death; or does God suddenly change at that point from the mercy and grace pointed out on this post. These thoughts on this topic have significance to this.

  • I too disagree with you on this David.

    I think it is better stated that God changes his actions and not his mind.
    God know everything,this is a belief that the nation of Israel,Jews,sages(OT) have stood on for all time.
    If God knows everything then there is no need to change his mind.
    One could even question if God even “Thinks”.To change ones mind,one has to think.Thinking is the process of elimination,moving from A to B and understanding everything in the middle.
    Because God “Knows” everything he (it would seem) does not do this.
    If i am standing at a fork in the road and i say ” i will go right if it doesn’t rain or i will go left if it does rain” Then my mind is made up.Then it starts to rain and i go left, i haven’t changed my mind because i have already decided on what i would do before hand.
    I believe this is what is going on.

    If God does change his mind what is the standard he uses to do so?It can’t be sin,because he was still faithful to save us in sin.If it is sin,then how much is to much?
    When can i know that God has changed his mind?

  • Kenton

    Scot- Do you see Numbers 14 as God relenting (He didn’t destroy the people.) or not relenting (He didn’t let them into the promised land.)?

    Clearly the people did not repent.

    I see it as relenting, given how God had already done the “Let’s destroy everybody and start over with this guy” thing both in the story of Noah and in the story of S&G you referenced. Numbers 14 looks like a turning point to me. A sort of “No, I don’t think I’m done with the whole ‘destroy everybody’ thing” new trajectory that continues all the way to Jesus.

  • John W Frye

    In Isaiah 38:1 Isaiah the prophet says to Hezekiah, [PLEASE NOTE] “This is what the LORD says…’you are going to die’.”
    Then in Isaiah 38:5 Isaiah says to Hezekiah, [PLEASE NOTE] “This is what the LORD says, ‘I will add fifteen years to your life’.” Tell me the LORD did not change his mind. Words prefaced by “This is what the LORD says” cannot be reduced to anthropomorphisms. The LORD said one thing and then said another. He changed his mind. If the LORD wasn’t going to have Hezekiah die as the first word said, then the LORD was playing games if not outright lying.

  • It’s a matter of starting points, folks. If we understand each statement or oracle of blessing or doom to be contingent (in God’s overarching sovereign plan) upon historical contingencies, then even the most absolute sounding proclamation is conditional.

    And I think the ancients understood this. That’s why Hezekiah responds to God’s judgment the way he did (see above text). That’s why the people of Ninevah responded the way they did (Jonah didn’t mention an out). That’s why David responded the way he did when his son’s life was on the line. The examples go on and on. Yahweh made this clear about himself in Jeremiah 18:1–10.

  • Much appreciated: this series. Yes, God is constant in being who God is. The key is working on understanding who God is from scripture and as seen in Jesus.

  • fledge

    I think Britt (#8) raises a good point… God’s contingencies…

    I also wonder Hebrew rhetoric in God’s statements… do they imply contingencies, do they expect God to change his “actions” if a proper response is given (like repentance)? Did Israel believe God was actually changing from his “unchanging” ways?

    Seems a good answer would be more *interesting* than the above, though maybe consistent with it.

  • DRT

    In the case of Noah’s story, the sinners did not repent yet god changed his mind, right?

    So is it that he changes, but the directionality given a change is always toward our benefit? I don’t think repentance is required.

  • Kenton

    DRT- You said Noah, did you mean Moses? I don’t see God changing his mind with Noah.

  • Kenton

    I just realized #9 should read “No, I think…”

    The “don’t” shouldn’t be there.

  • John W Frye

    Let’s face it, the prevailing concept of God’s immutability is more Platonic-based than Scripture-based. If you start with the Platonic ideal– God is Perfect, and Perfect cannot change (or it would not be perfect), then we get ourselves into the silliness reflected in the comments in this thread. Suppose that God can be both perfect and change (which fits the Scriptures a lot better than the Platonic god). There is nothing about change that is inherently “imperfect.” God as the unthinking, unblinking Stare is totally foreign to the Bible, but quite at home in classical determinism (Calvinism).

  • DRT

    Kenton, yes, I do mean Noah. God felt he could wipe everyone out before then, and after he said he could not. That is changing his mind to me.

  • DRT

    Let me clarify a bit more. We have said in this thread that the change of mind tends to be as a reaction to our reaction. However the Noah story seems to say that god changed his mind due to introspection…and that is different.

  • @ John W. Frye….
    .When you say “it’s not scripture based”,i wonder what your view is on how the bible was written.The writers of the bible borrowed MUCH from the “thought culture” of their world,the cultures around them.
    Philo(the Jewish Philosopher) said that “Mose and Plato said the same thing”. John in the book of John used the word LOGOS,a word used in many different religions for hundreds of years and added a little to it,without taking much away from it.
    All of this shows that the writing of the bible has a lot of influence to it,to make it what it has become.
    So when you say it’s not scripture,you seem (to me at lest) to be ignoring the influence of the bible itself.

    So simply claiming “something is Platonic” is not enough to discredit it to me.

  • @ John Frye, the notion of an Unmoved Mover has quite a distinct history from that of biblical compatibilism, which compatibilism is not antithetical to the fact that God, who is both transcendent and immanent, responds to his creation.

    I suggest you spar with something a little less stuffed with straw.

  • Kenton


    Yeah, good point. I guess the Moses story works better for me because in that case God changes his mind before it’s too late for everybody.