There are lots of people with the good sense to ask questions about scripture who notice that sometimes the Bible contradicts itself about God…
For example, in this Bible study blog post:
I’ve noted a few Bible passages in the past [that] seem to indicate points where God changes His mind [for example, in Exodus 4:24-26, Exodus 32:7-14, and Numbers 14:11b-12 and 14:20-23]. In the second example, we see that God “relented” from his decision to destroy the Israelites. In the third example, we see God choosing to forgive the people only after Moses entreats Him to do so. This seems very clear–when the faithful speak to God, He listens.
But in 1 Samuel, we see Samuel rebuking Saul for not completely destroying the Amalekites as ordered by God. And we read:
Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the LORD’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them. Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD.”
But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!”
As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you. He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.” (1 Samuel 15:24-29)
In Samuel’s words, God does not change His mind, since He is not the same as a man. But how do I reconcile this with the three stories linked above, where God clearly was going to do one thing, then heard a prayer, and then did something else? This is a puzzle. God doesn’t change His mind – but perhaps He changes His timing or method. This is one for further study.
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…and in another blog:
“God is not man, that he should lie or a son of man that he should change his mind (naham)” (Numbers 23:19). Thus, Divine Immutability.
“So the LORD changed his mind (naham) about the harm which he said he would do to his people” (Exodus 32:14). Thus, Divine Mutability.
So the Bible clearly teaches both that God doesn’t change his mind and that he does change his mind. And both texts use the same Hebrew verb, naham.
If you’re uncomfortable with this [English Standard Version] translation of Exodus 32:14, perhaps you’d prefer the King James Version which says “the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people”. God had to repent of evil? On [second] thought, the KJV sounds worse.
So, how do we resolve this biblical tension?
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…and yet another inquiring blog:
[I]t isn’t that simple. Take Peter’s vision in the eleventh chapter of Acts.
There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”
Maybe God can contradict himself. Or maybe this is a test, like when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
Peter takes his stand on the Bible, certain that God would approve.
But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth’
Peter was expecting God to say something like, “Well spoken, my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”
But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.
Or, what God has called clean, you must not call an abomination.
So, maybe God can change his mind after all…
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…and then there’s this brilliant passage from the book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, To Take Control of Your Life. By Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend. (Zondervan Publishing, 1992).
“[It’s Okay to say,] ‘I Respectfully Disagree.’”
…God does not want us to be passive in our relationship with Him either. Sometimes, through dialogue, He changes His mind. We can influence Him because ours is a real relationship of the kind Abraham had with God (Gen. 18:16-33). God said that he would destroy Sodom, yet Abraham talked him out of it if he could find ten righteous people.
When we make our feelings and wishes known, God responds. We do not often think of God this way, but the Bible is clear. It is as though God says, “If it really means that much to you, it’s okay with me.” One of the most astounding teachings of the Bible is that we can influence God. It wouldn’t be a real relationship if we couldn’t. “ ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18). Like a real friend, or real father, he says, “Let me hear your side of things and I will consider them. They matter to me. Maybe you can convince me to change my mind.”
Consider Jesus’ parables about prayer. In one story a judge who “neither feared God nor cared about men,” for some time refused to grant a widow her request for justice. But because the widow kept bothering him, he changed his mind and granted her wish (Luke 18:1-8). Jesus told them this parable so “that they should always pray and not give up” (v.1). In another story, a neighbor who persistently asks for bread is granted the request because of his continuing boldness (Luke 11:5-9). Other people Jesus decided to heal after they persisted in asking for healing.
God wants us to respect His boundaries He doesn’t want us to withdraw our love when He says “No.” But He has nothing at all against our trying to persuade Him to change His mind. In fact, he asks for us to be tenacious. Often He says, “Wait,” seeing how much we really want something. Other times, it seems He changes His mind as a result of our relationship with Him. Either way, we respect His wishes and stay in relationship.
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What people might not realize is that all these thoughts, these ideas, about the efficacy of God and whether he exhibits the human trait of changing His mind…is that this is philosophy (the study of Wisdom). It was the great philosopher Augustine of Hippo who posited the free will of man as the reason why God could let bad things happen in the world. His omniscience extended to the graciousness of allowing humans to choose virtuousness or choose evil, the light or the dark. It was Boethius in the sixth-century who believed that God knew all that happened and was to happen—despite our free will—because He was outside the realms of time (past-future-or-present) and was able to encompass knowledge of our transgressions and of evil in the world and still allowed humans the graciousness to determine for themselves their individual paths. This seems like a paradox: how can God know what I’m about to do, have the ability to alter events in any way He wishes, and yet allow me to proceed with my own choice? Is it still my choice if He already knows which way I’m going to proceed forth?
Likewise, how can God be immutable (as indicated in 1 Samuel 15:24-29) and yet be able to change His mind (as in Genesis 18:16-33, or as stated in Exodus 32:14 or as in Acts 10:9-16 when God changes His laws regarding the clean and the unclean)?
This is philosophy. Sometimes philosophy also presents us with paradox. It is the “mystery” of faith to know that God can be all these things—immutable and mutable at the same time. One might say that the only true change is change itself. Thus, when people decide that they are going to literalize—idolize--the Word of God, when they decide that God is simply immutable, and that no possibility exists for the miracle of newness and change, then the capacity for the “un-ending-ness” of God is slighted. To deny the possibility of change is a simplification of God. God is not simple, as eons of philosophers have desperately tried to point out to us over and over again. To call God immutable is a slander to Wisdom.