Israel certainly conceived of God as a stable force. God, the one who was before all things, created “the heavens and the earth.” God is the very being by whom all things have their being by his word (based on the prayer). However, there isn’t any indication that Israelites were children of the Enlightenment. The concept of immutability/unchangeableness would probably have been much different to an Israelite man or woman than for someone today in modern America. For example, in the West, upon meeting someone, one of the very first questions is: “So, what do you do?” or “Where do you work?” In the East, the first question is: “Who is your father?” or “What family do you come from?” Between our two cultural brains, we have entirely different means of discerning status. Though they’re not checking to see if God has always been a factory worker, Israel has always seen God as the God of the forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God has – and always will – be the God of his people. He’s a covenantal God. It’s part of God’s immutability, to be sure. God will never “change” in this way.
Throughout Genesis 1-11, it’s quite clear that God is a God who responds. God certainly is with the divine council, deliberating over each action he does (“Let us make man…”, “Let us go down…”). Deliberation includes consideration, and consideration includes weighing actions and suggestions. While we in the West are hesitant to acknowledge God’s divine council, I believe that the Israelites would have seen God as one who considers prayers, sacrifices, and other factors before ordering and acting.
Doing a quick search of the (English) Bible, the word “immutable” does not exist in the English version of the Bible (nor does “immutability”). The word “change,” however, does occur in Scripture (in English). The very first instance we have “God” and “change” in the same sentence is in Exodus 32.12 when Moses is giving his plea to not destroy the newly minted people of God. Then two verses later we find the following: “And the LORD changed his mind…” I understand that this can mean more than just “change.” The word is נָחַם (“nacham”) which can mean: “to be sorry, console oneself, repent, regret, comfort, be comforted.” It’s a niphal, and specifically here, God is repenting (“feeling sorrow”) of the action he was about to do. Now, the idea of God “repenting” clashes with our notion of repentance, so most feel more comfortable with the idea of “changing” (which is not outside the range of meaning). But even so, God had said he was going to do something, and if it was part of God’s plan to destroy his people – did he change the plan? Is there a plan at all? It would seem that God does have a plan and method for bringing his people to salvation, but that doesn’t mean that God cannot change. I think it’s telling that the first instance of “change” regarding God is not about God’s unchangeableness but rather the dynamic and “changeable” nature of a God who hears the pleas, a God who hears the cries of Moses (and of his people in Egypt), considers it and “repents” or “changes.” Now, this raises many issues about the nature of God and the true character of God, but it’s something that Israel was comfortable with and it’s something that we have to deal with. It’s in our Bible – we have to figure out what we know (and don’t know) about God’s changeableness. In direct contrast, we have Numbers 23.19 – “God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind. Has he promised, and will he not do it? Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” The word for “change” here is also נָחַם . Here, God is being contrasted with a human (“mortal”), and we have to decide one of two things: Either Num. 23 trumps Ex. 32 and God does not change his mind; or God does not change his mind like people change their mind. Though the latter is no less confusing, it does present a different approach to the contradictory explanation of the former. 1 Samuel 15.29 weighs in with Numbers: “Moreover the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind.” Same verb again and a similar construction relating to a “mortal.” In Jeremiah and Jonah, we have the repeated theme of God “intending” to bring destruction to places, but with the caveat that God may change God’s mind about the disaster should they repent.
It may be helpful to consider what “repentance” and “change” meant to the rabbis.
“Rabbinic Jewish literature contains extensive discussions on the subject of repentance. Many rabbinic sources state that repentance is of paramount importance to the existence of this world, so that it was one of the seven provisions which God made before the Creation (Talmud Bavli, tractates Pesahim 54a; Nedarim 39b; Midrash Genesis Rabbah 1). “The Holy One, blessed be His name, said to Elijah, ‘Behold, the precious gift which I have bestowed on my world: though a man sins again and again, but returns in penitence, I will receive him'” (Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 28b). “Great is repentance: it brings healing into the world”; “it reaches to the throne of God” (Hosea 14:2, 5); “it brings redemption” (Isiah 59:20); “it prolongs man’s life” (Ezekiel 18:21; Talmud Yoma 86a). “Repentance and works of charity are man’s intercessors before God’s throne” (Talmud Shabbath 32a). Sincere repentance is equivalent to the rebuilding of the Temple, the restoration of the altar, and the offering of all the sacrifices.”
Could it be that God’s “sorrow” (contrasted with שוב “shuv” [‘return, repent’]) brings about life/healing/restoration? The law of God has boundaries, but God is a God of grace. The person of Jesus Christ came to fulfill the law so that we can meet the requirements of the law. The law does not change and the law does not move. In the same way, God’s character and God’s holiness do not change. In fact, by changing God’s mind, could it be that God is more true to his character of grace and love than if he had brought all the disaster that he had “intended to bring” on his people? Critics of the OT claim that the God here is only a God of wrath. Exodus, Jeremiah, and Jonah all speak against this, saying that God does not just bring wrath, but is capable of compassion in the face of sin that could be punished (and, under law, should be punished).
By no means is this a complete work.
It’s part of what I’m studying in a class here, and for the most part, I’ve found this work to be wonderful.
To challenge tradition is never easy, but as I begin to study Scripture more and more, I’m becoming more skeptical about how Greek philosophy has influenced how we read Scripture.
The Christian God was quite synonymous with the “Unmovable Mover” (or the “First Mover”) in Aristotelian thought, so it wasn’t a stretch for early Christians (who found great value in the Greek philosophers) to embrace God as “immutable” and the “unmoved mover.” The problem with this designation of God’s character is that it hinders his capacity to love.
If God does not change ever, then his plan is set and he will not turn from it.
The Hebrew word נָחַם is all about “feeling sorrow” and “repenting” and “regretting.” We cannot fully reconcile both Greek and Hebrew conceptualizations of God because, in some ways, they are incompatible.
I am not suggesting that God’s character changes.
I am suggesting that we read Scripture more closely to what Scripture says, and acknowledge that our God can have a plan of salvation and a code of law and holiness. He can demand justice and yet still exercise grace, compassion and love because the God of Israel is a God who hears the cries of the oppressed and is faithful to his people of all generations.