Can God change His mind? Part 2 

What about Exodus 32?

Perhaps the most difficult passage relating to the question of God's ability to change His mind comes from Exodus 32. As Moses makes his way to the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, God informs him that the Israelites have already turned away from God, made an idol and are worshipping it. He tells Moses to leave Him alone so that He can destroy the Israelites for their disobedience and create a new race from the seed of Moses. After Moses pleads with God, the Bible tells us that God 'olam nacham', which many English translations interpret as "changed His mind" or "repented" and decided not to destroy the Israelites after all.

What makes this passage so confusing for many people is the English translation. After all, what are you to think if you see in your Bible that "God changed His mind"? Isn't that plain enough? Don't the translators know what they're doing? How could they get it wrong? Why would someone say this is simplistic? To know the answers, we must spend some time taking a closer look at this whole passage for a much better understanding of what actually happened.

"Then the LORD spoke to Moses, "Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted [themselves.] They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, 'This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!'" And the LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation."

Then Moses entreated the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, 'With evil [intent] He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? 'Shuwb' (Turn back or away, draw back, recall, recover, withdraw) from Your burning anger and change [Your eternal purpose] about [doing] harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, 'I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'"

So the LORD 'olam' (eternally, forever) 'nacham' (turned away from, changed direction, changed His mind) about the harm which He said He would do to His people."
--Exodus 32:7-14

Let's start by looking at the beginning of this passage. Moses has spent considerable time travelling up the mountain to receive the law. When he arrives God informs him of the actions of the people. God knows what they have done, but Moses is oblivious to these activities. Though God informs Moses of their disobedience, Moses never fully grasps the extent of their deeds. When Moses later travels down the mountain with the Ten Commandments and sees what they have done while still high above them, he is so upset by what he sees that he throws down the tablets in anger, breaking them.

What does God say to Moses?

Notice that God refers to the Israelites as the people of Moses, not God's people that God brought out of Egypt, but Moses' people that Moses brought out of Egypt. This is our first clue that God is up to something. Our next clue is in the wording God uses. He tells Moses to immediately (Hebrew 'attah') leave Him alone (Hebrew 'yanach') in order that God can let His anger burn against the people and destroy them. Finally, He sweetens the pot by offering Moses the role of Adam or Noah. He says that He will create a new nation from the seed of Moses.

It is very important that we understand the wording God uses.

He does not say that He has made a final decision to destroy the people. He tells Moses to leave Him alone so that He can do this. In other words, the threat to destroy the people is conditional. He will destroy the people only if Moses leaves Him alone to do so.

Asking Moses to leave isn't the result of a physical limitation. Not only was God fully capable of destroying the Israelites for disobedience with or without Moses there, it would be righteous punishment. After all, the people had sacrificed to an idol. God had previously pointed out that sacrificing to an idol is a capital offense (Exodus 22:20).

Although we should not ignore the enormous grief God is feeling over the rebellious actions of the Israelites whom He has lovingly guided out of Egypt, the exchange between God and Moses is essentially a test of Moses' character!

God is testing Moses--already knowing the response--to see if Moses really loves and cares for the people he leads. Remember that the Moses who first approached the burning bush years earlier was a completely different man. Then, he did not want this assignment. He did not see himself as special, as worthy, or as any kind of leader at all. Now God is testing him to show us (and probably to show Moses as well) how much the man has changed.

Moses has just been offered an amazing carrot. If you know your Bible, you know that he has often been frustrated with the people. On several occasions he has said to God, "what am I to do with these people?" They have been obstinate, argumentative, and disobedient. He is now given an opportunity to walk away, see the people be destroyed, and then have himself become the source of an entirely new nation.

How does Moses respond?

Moses responds by pleading with God to spare the lives of those he leads. The Hebrew says that he "prayed earnestly before the face of Jehovah his God." He is their leader. They are his responsibility. He takes that responsibility seriously. He refuses to take the bait, going so far as to point out that they are not his people, but God's people that God (not Moses) led out of Egypt.

Although he uses human arguments, we must not make the mistake of believing that these human statements have somehow surprised God and caused Him to change His mind. Has God forgotten His promise to raise up a nation through Abraham? (Actually if Moses was to be the seed of a new nation, it would still be descended from Abraham and would eventually be just as large.) Has God not considered what other countries would say if the Israelites were destroyed? Do not believe for a moment that this is news to God! Do not think that Moses has caused God to see this threat in a surprising new light. This is a typical human reaction, since we often try and "humanize" God.

In fact, God knows all these things. He has seen a million possible directions and decision paths. He has gone down every possible scenario to its ultimate conclusion. Nothing Moses says has revealed something new to God! Instead, his response has shown God what Moses is really made of. He is a true leader, who loves his people. He is wiser and deeper in his understanding than ever before. Instead of leaving God alone, he pleads for their lives. Keep in mind also that we only see part of his prayer in this scene. There is no doubt that his prayer was a lengthy one filled with the adoration, confession and repentance we've seen in other prayers of Moses.

How does God respond?

So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
--Exodus 32:14 (NASB)

It is unfortunate that English translations of the Bible leave out an important Hebrew word in this passage. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures say that Jehovah 'olam nacham' which conveys some interesting aspects completely missed in the English translations.

The word "olam" (pronounced o-lawm) refers to the vanishing point of time (either past or future). It means eternity in the sense that something is continual, perpetual, or without end. It is then followed by the word "nacham" which we have already talked about, the word that means to change direction. The fact that it was an eternal change doesn't have to be translated, but it is an important part of understanding the context of the action, and so it would probably help to include its meaning in a translation. I'm not a scholar, but I would suggest that a more accurate modern English translation for this verse might be something like:

"So the LORD eternally turned away from the harm which He threatened He would do to His people."

Due to Moses passing his test of character, God made a permanent, eternal change in the direction He had proposed for Israel. It was never a final decision, but a proposed direction which was averted. God had said to Moses, "leave Me alone and this will happen" but since Moses did not leave Him alone the threat was not fulfilled. At no time did God "change His mind" about any of the promises or statements He had made about Israel. This change of direction refers only to the test. Moses had passed the test and therefore the threat of destruction was averted. God knew that Moses would pass the test, since He knows all things.

It would be foolish to suggest that somehow God was surprised or saw in Moses' argument something new. He in fact knew about the actions of the Israelites before Moses did, and told Moses what was happening when he arrived on the mountaintop.

How should we respond?

This passage offers a vital lesson to every believer about the nature of our relationship with our perfect and holy God.

This passage is not about God changing His mind. Instead, it's a message about the importance of confession and intercession with a pure heart. God responds to Moses not only by turning away from the destructive eternal purpose He has proposed for Israel, but by lovingly inscribing the Ten Commandments and giving them to Moses while knowing all this time what's going on at the foot of the mountain. What an example of forgiveness!

  • Moses was interceding for his people, something we are called to do as believers. How often do you intercede for others?

  • He obviously loved these people despite their sinfulness, something we are also called to do as believers. Do you love those around you, especially difficult people and enemies?

  • In his heart, Moses had already forgiven them for their sins against Moses (their greater sin was against God, and these sins only God could forgive). Have you forgiven those who have sinned against you?

  • Moses did not covet some new position or opportunity, but wanted to work with the flawed, sinful people God had given him. A true leader is faithful even when people let him or her down. Moses was showing his leadership qualities. Do you find yourself caught up in worldly success and advancement, or do you humble yourself before God before making a move that looks promising?

  • In praying earnestly for the salvation of his people, Moses was showing his own spiritual maturity. When we confess and ask for God's forgiveness, He fulfills His promise by turning us away from punishment towards salvation. How often do you look deep into your heart and seek areas that you can bring before Christ in a spirit of genuine confession and repentance?

God's response was in fact a fulfillment of His earlier promises to show lovingkindness to his people when they come before him with contrite hearts and obedience. He has said that if we disobey, we will suffer the consequence, but if we confess and obey, we will be forgiven. As the true leader of the Israelites, Moses represented their confession as a group when he pleaded with God. When God turned away from the threatened action, He was actually confirming His promise, not changing anything at all. God cannot change His mind about His promises of love and redemption.

Jonah and Nineveh

The same principle applies to the story of Jonah and Nineveh. God told Jonah that He planned to destroy the city for its excessive evil. Jonah fully expected this destruction to take place, for he took up a nice viewing spot to watch the fireworks and became angry when God didn't follow through at the end of the forty days.

Yet God could not follow through with the threat of destruction, for the people had completely turned from their evil ways and repented before God. He promised that if we confess and repent, He will save us, not destroy us. If God had continued with the plan and then destroyed the city anyway, those actions would have made His earlier promise a lie. Note that the story of Jonah leaves out the exact details of God's wording to Jonah. Much of it is implied, so we should be cautious to not assume that God made a firm and final declaration about destroying the city under any circumstances. We know that he put a time limit of forty days on Nineveh, but Jonah's actions alone are all we can use to believe that there were no conditions attached. Still, what happened is a confirmation of the grace God has promised us. God did not so much change His mind about Nineveh as fulfilled His promises by turning away from the punishment He had proposed.

A number of resources and biblical commentaries were examined in detail while preparing this study. It is interesting to note that every one which expanded on this passage came to the same conclusion: that God cannot actually change His mind about the statements or promises He has made.