Does the Eternal Creator Change His Mind, For He Changes Not?

Posted by on Apr 19, 2024

Does the Eternal Creator change His mind, or does He relent or repent for what He has done, and before whom would He repent? The question is not whether He can, for He is not subjected to any limitation, but rather: Does His essence that transcends time and space change what He has already spoken?

No assurance is immune to annulment because of subsequent sin, unless it is accompanied by an oath. Rabbi Mosheh Nachman (the Ramban)

Mitigation, appeasement, and pardon of sins are often mistaken for forgiveness. The misunderstanding becomes even more evident when terms such as “relented” and “repented” appear in the translations. According to the translations of Exo 32:14, it appears to the reader that the Most High “relented” (JPS) or “repented” (KJV) from what He had done, thus implying that He gave in to the influence by a human who changed His mind. Can we rethink this? For if He has changed His mind once, what makes us sure that He will not change it again, and again. Or what confidence will we have that He will keep His eternal covenantal promises, if He has changed once His mind?

It is the object of this work to seek the answer to the question: Did the Eternal change His mind, when the Torah wrote, “And the Eternal repented from the evil which He said He would do to His people”? This verse calls aloud for an explanation, for it is incomprehensible that the Creator of the universe owes repentance for His deeds. This we intend to address in due course below by explaining the obscure statement in question. The second object of this study is to explain that this is not the way to translate and interpret this verse.

For the purpose of this study, we will focus on the episode in the Scripture concerning the sin of the golden calf, the idol the children of Israel made in the place of the Eternal Elohim, who brought them out from the slavery in Egypt. There is a common mistake made when it is asserted that the Eternal changed His mind when reading such verses as the above. However, a question presents itself: Does the Eternal change at all? This question becomes even stronger when we consider the statement found in the Prophets. Now, it needs to be clearly understood that the Eternal does not change, He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, for it is illogical and counter intuitive to say that the Torah establishes contradiction with the Prophets. Moreover, those interpreters who advance this view are under the necessity and obligation of explaining this verse,

For I the Eternal change not, and you, O sons of Ya’akov, are not consumed. (Mal 3:6)

“For I the Eternal change not”! Change can occur in space and time. But the Eternal is beyond space and time, and therefore neither He nor His Will can change. Man, however, exists in time and space, and so is he subject to change. This is never the case with the Eternal, for He is unchangeable in His purposes and actions. This forces the reader to search for a different translation and interpretation. We will show that the question raised above is far from being trivial and will provide a more complex answer below, because the traditional translations appear to express contradictory views in the Torah and the Prophets. This will be further explained in the interpretation of the verses which we will use in our study, and to which we now turn.

Mitigation and appeasement

A good departure point to building our case against these translations is to explain a few basic terms, which we will be bound to use, namely, “mitigation”, “appeasement”, and “forgiveness”. Mitigation is an act in such a way as to cause an offense to seem less serious. Forgiveness on the other hand is an act of excusing or pardoning a mistake or offense. In English, the terms “pardoning” and “forgiving” are interchangeable and equivalent in meaning, but not so in Hebrew, as we will learn in this study. There is something else, often mistaken for forgiveness: appeasement of anger. Unlike mitigation, which makes an offense seem less serious, appeasement is an act of conceding or yielding to demands of deserved judgement.

Photo of the golden calf depicted at Mount Sinai

Photo of the golden calf depicted at Mount Sinai, Saudi Arabia.

At Mount Sinai, the Eternal made a covenant with His people Israel and called up His servant Mosheh to ascend to the summit of the mountain to give him the tablets of stone with His words written upon them. Forty days later the people however turned aside quickly out of the way which He had commanded them by having made themselves a molded calf to bow to it and slaughter to it, saying, “This is your mighty one, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Scripture, in the account of Eze 20:5-8, tells us that Israel indeed served idols in Egypt, for their Elohim sent prophets to warn them: “Let every man cast away the idols of Egypt”. (This is the rebellion of Israel against Elohim in Egypt that occurred sometime between the death of the last son of Ya’akov and the Exodus.)

But in His anger, the Eternal now said to Mosheh, “Let Me alone, that My wrath might burn against them, and I consume them, and I make of you a great nation”, thus putting their destiny into the hand of Mosheh. Unexpectedly, Mosheh found himself in the position of whether he would be willing to give up his own people, in order to become a father of a new nation that would come out from him. His people, however, were dearer to him than glory and fame, and true to himself he stood the test and turned away the pending wrath of the Most High in order to preserve his people Israel (see also Num 14:12 below).

In Exo 32:11-13, we read that Mosheh began to pacify the anger of Elohim, concerning which he reminded them in more details and some additions in Deuteronomy, wherein he recounted the same event forty years later. Mosheh pleaded with the Eternal his Elohim, and said,

Yehovah, why does Your wrath burn against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand? (Exo 32:11)

There is a peculiar addition to the story that was handed down in the oral tradition. According to it, this is what preceded Mosheh’s words: “Why does Your wrath burn against Your people?”

Mosheh asked the Eternal, “Why are you angry with the people?” He said to Mosheh, “You saw what the people did. They made an idol”. Mosheh replied, “What is wrong if the people want to show a little appreciation. Cows give milk”. The Eternal answered him, “Not you, Mosheh, not you! This golden calf is nothing. Cows do not give milk. I make the cows give milk”. Mosheh said, “Then [if this golden calf is nothing] why are you angry with the people?”

The rabbis say that Mosheh trapped unintentionally the Most High in His own words, and that if that had been done by someone else, He would have killed him on spot. But because Mosheh was sincere in his question, without ill intent, He spared his life. Whether this really happened between the Eternal and Mosheh, we do not know; this is a tradition. But what the great leader of Israel did was to seek the way to minimize the sin of the people. He went up to the mountain for forty days and forty nights and pleaded before the Eternal in order to save them from the wrath. This happened after he had already smashed the tablets of the Covenant on the ground (see Deu 9:25-28). Now, Mosheh used an argument which he would use again in Num 14:13-16 after the ten spies sinned. He said,

Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, “For evil He brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? (Exo 32:12)

How was Mosheh concerned with what the Egyptians should speak? And how would the argument, “Why should the Egyptians speak”, change His mind? Was Egypt not destroyed and their idols desecrated? Such an argument would not divert His wrath, but it would serve to introduce perhaps the strongest argument Mosheh made before the Eternal, in order to make Him turn from the heat of His wrath, saying, “Remember Avraham, Yitschak, and Israel…” The reader should notice that Mosheh used the patriarch’s name “Israel”, not “Ya’akov”, thus making a direct connection with the children of Israel he was defending. And it worked for Mosheh.

And the Eternal repented from the evil which He said He would do to His people. (Exo 32:14)

Regrettably, this translation is easy to read nonetheless extremely inaccurate. In order to read it this way, the Hebrew word in question must be translated as if it says “repented” or “relented” which is not what it says. And although these are the common translations of the verse, we can offer a different translation. The Hebrew word translated here as “relented” (JPS) or “repented” (KJV) is the word נָחַם nacham. This word does not imply turning around or changing one’s mind, as this notion can be derived from the translations. The reader should not understand the Torah as saying that the Eternal changes His mind, for He changes not. He did not “repent” either, for there is nothing He can repent for, nor did He “relent”, for He does not give in to any influence or pressure. Nacham does not necessarily imply turning around or changing His mind, as some have misunderstood it. Rather, nacham means “to sigh”, “to comfort” (self). Hence, being reminded by Mosheh of the forefathers, the Eternal’s heart was eased (made easier to bear) for their sake and He pitied His people and did not punish them for what they otherwise deserved. The best place where we can find the application of nacham with the meaning of “to ease” or “to comfort” is in Genesis, wherein this word is first used. Scripture here reads,

And he called his name Noah, saying: “This same shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which cometh from the ground which the LORD hath cursed”. (Gen 5:29 JPS)

It is a clear Biblical text. In order to make this clear to the reader, the Torah, states that Lemech was comforted by the birth of his son Noach. Hardly, here nacham could be translated as “shall repent us” or “shall relent us”, but as JPS has rendered it this time correctly: “shall comfort us”, as an act of giving relief in affliction. Lemech was eased that his son Noach (Hebrew for “rest”) would make a new beginning for mankind which he indeed did. Here, Noach-nacham (rest-comfort) is a beautiful Hebrew wordplay, which illustrates the meaning of nacham. In different words, when the children of Israel sinned with the golden calf, Mosheh mitigated the sin of the children of Israel, and Elohim was eased not to release His attribute of judgement, but to spare them. The same applies to other instances where this Hebrew word appears (see also Gen 24:67, Gen 37:35, Job 29:25). But were they forgiven?

After the idol was destroyed and the perpetrators of the great sin were punished, about 3,000 people, Mosheh returned to the Eternal and said,

And now, if You would forgive their sin, but if not, please blot me out of Your book which You have written.” And the Eternal said to Mosheh, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I blot him out of My book. (Exo 32:32-33)

When Mosheh said, “Please erase my name from Your book”, this was not a reference to the Torah, which had not yet been written, but to the “Book of life” on which every human being is inscribed (see Isa 4:3). Mosheh asked the Eternal to take his life, if He would not forgive the people. These words of Mosheh were the strongest expression of self-sacrificing life. This the Eternal could not have left unnoticed, and he forgave.

Pardon vs forgiveness

But did Elohim forgive Adam and Chavah, when they broke His commandment not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Or did He forgive Kayin when he killed his brother, the first recorded murder in the history of mankind? It is not recorded that Adam had forgiven his son Kayin, either, for the murder of his son. Although Avraham forgave Avimelech, who abducted Sarah, yet that was not the forgiveness we will discuss here. Adam and Chavah did not immediately die but rather were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Kayin was not punished with death but was given a mark on his forehead to protect him from being killed by someone else. This is mitigation, not forgiveness. This is what the term “mitigation” means: to act in such a way as to cause an offense to seem less serious or to lessen the severity of it. In all these cases, Elohim might have forgiven, but all these examples are more of mitigation of punishment rather than real forgiveness.

Mitigation is quite different from asking Elohim to forgive the wicked. Elohim did not forgive the generation of the Flood, or the Sodomites. When Avraham prayed for the Sodomites, he did not ask Elohim to forgive them. Rather, his argument was quite different. He said, “Perhaps there are innocent people there”. Avraham knew that the wickedness of the Sodomites had reached the heaven, but he was concerned that there might be ten righteous people, who could be spared. He was not concerned about the wicked. In his mind, the merit of those ten righteous people could have saved the wicked, but even ten were not found there. Only four left Sodom, and three made it to safety.

Genesis has another peculiar moment. Speaking of forgiveness, Gen 45:5-8 is the first recorded forgiveness in history in which one human being forgives another. This first forgiveness was preceded by Gen 44:18-34 where we find the longest recorded speech by a single person in the Torah. This is the story of Yoseph and his brothers in Egypt. It was Yehudah who stepped to the governor of Egypt to plea before the second strongest man in the world for his brother Binyamin. The irony in this whole scene is that it was Yehudah who offered to become a slave in exchange for his brother to the very one whom he conspired to sell into slavery (his brother Yoseph), thus taking full responsibility for the sin against his father and brother: Gen 37:26-27. Elohim deals with man measure for measure: the punishment must meet the crime. Because Yehudah had sold Yoseph into slavery, he was now compelled to offer himself to Yoseph as a slave. What Yehudah was trying to do in his speech was to appease the Egyptian’s anger. And this is what appeasement means: to cause to be more favorably inclined, namely, to gain a good will of someone often higher in rank. Unlike in the story of Mosheh, who sought to mitigate the anger of the Eternal, here Yehudah sought to appease the anger of the Egyptian. Both cases, however, ultimately led to forgiveness.

Pardoning of sin

When the Israelites refused to enter the Promised Land because of the evil report of the scouts, the Eternal threatened to strike them with a pestilence and disown them all by making of Mosheh a new nation (Num 14:11-12), but He did not, because Mosheh intervened on the Israel’s behalf (Num 14:13-19).

Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now. (Num 14:19)

This is what Mosheh pleaded before the Eternal, when the people sinned again, this time for refusing the Land promised to the forefathers. Notice two moments in Mosheh’s plea. Firstly, notice that he asked the Eternal to forgive “according to His great kindness”, and secondly, notice how delicately Mosheh reminded the Eternal that He forgave the people, when they sinned with the golden calf, saying, “from Egypt until now”. The Eternal must have noted this, because He said,

I have pardon, according to your word, but truly, as I live and all the earth is filled with the glory of the Eternal, for none of these men who have seen My glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tried Me now these ten times, and have disobeyed My voice, shall see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor any of those who scorned Me see it. (Num 14:20-23)

The Eternal, however, always has the last word. Since Mosheh asked, “Please pardon, according to your great kindness” and the Eternal said, “I have pardoned, according to your word”, an association between the two statements is established. What association is being referred to here? Rabbi Ibn Ezra comes to explain. He says that since verse 23 says that surely, they shall not see the land after verse 20 which says: “I have pardoned according to your word”, we learn that the Hebrew word סָלַח salach (pardon) refers to being slow to anger. We derive this from Num 15:28: “and he shall be forgiven”, wherein the punishment is held temporarily until he fully repents. In the case of Num 15:28, salach means that punishment is not performed immediately but is delayed. If salach meant full pardon, then the people, who refused to accept the Land, would have been permitted to enter it. But they were not. Thus, we learn a new Hebrew word סָלַח salach, whose closest but not equivalent translation would be “to pardon in delay of forgiveness”. Therefore, the phrase “according to your (Mosheh’s) word” means that He had not forgiven the sin absolutely, but only, as Mosheh had asked that He would not destroy them as a people, as He intended originally to do (see Num 14:12).

We will now return to complete what we commenced to explain in the beginning. When the people sinned with golden calf, Mosheh mitigated their trespass, and the Eternal was eased by his words, “Remember Avraham, Yitschak, and Israel”, and forgave for the sake of the forefathers.

When the people sinned in refusing to take the Land promised to Avraham, Yitschak, and Israel, the Eternal’s anger burned again. This time Mosheh did evoke the forefathers, for the people rejected the Land promised to them, but pleaded that the Eternal would pardon them and not completely destroy them. 600,000 men had to die in the desert in the course of forty years until the sin of the nation was completely forgiven.

Likewise, the sin of Adam and Chavah, and their son Kayin, were mitigated to the extent to lessen the severity of it. In their cases, Elohim might have pardoned them so that they could live and propagate on the earth, or He might have forgiven them completely given the fact that they were naïve in their inexperience for not knowing the magnitude and consequences of their first offenses without having had a system of rewards and punishment. And they did not have intercessor to plead for them to the Eternal, as Mosheh did for Israel.

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