Exodus 32:11-14 – Did God change his mind?

Problem: Many passages teach that God is immutable and doesn’t change his mind (1 Sam. 15:29; Mal. 3:6; Heb. 6:17; Jas. 1:17). However, this passage teaches that “the Lord changed his mind” (Ex. 32:14). Open theists argue that God doesn’t know the future, using this passage to support this theological conclusion. Does God change his mind or not?[1]

Solution: In response to this interpretation, a number of observations can be made:

First, the God of the Bible knows the future. In fact, the Bible certainly teaches that God is all-knowing (Ps. 139:1-6; Job 21:22; 28:24; 31:4; Prov. 15:3; 1 Chron. 28:9; Ps. 44:21; 147:5; Is. 40:28; 46:10; Heb. 4:13; 1 Jn. 3:20). In addition, Exodus itself teaches that God knows the future. For instance, God knew in advance that Pharaoh would harden his heart and not listen to Moses (Ex. 4:21; 7:3). However, Pharaoh’s stubbornness could not thwart God’s plan.

Second, the Hebrew word “nacham” (pronounced nock-HAWM) might be misinterpreted. The Hebrew word nacham is translated as “changed” in Exodus 32:14. However, it literally means “to be sorry, moved to pity, have compassion.”[2] The only other time this word is translated (in this form) is in Psalm 90:13, where we read: “Be sorry (nacham) for Your servants.”[3]

Third, this passage doesn’t claim that God made an immutable decree. God was only intending to make a momentary threat in Exodus 32.[4] While God is immutable, not all of his actions should be considered immutable. God might sovereignly choose to threaten us with what he can do, rather than what he will do. In Exodus 32:10, God implies that Moses should stay and intercede for the people (“Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them…”).

Fourth, Moses’ interactions with God demonstrate certain theological truths. By threatening the people, God was teaching them that they shouldn’t automatically expect forgiveness. Instead, God will only forgive, when this is accompanied by repentance and faith in his promises. These truths are taught in this interaction.

Fifth, this narrative is not a case of a mere man changing the mind of God. In fact, Moses doesn’t tell God any new information in this passage. Instead, he remembers the promises that God had already made in the past. Exodus 32:11 (“You have brought out from the land of Egypt… with a mighty hand”) is an allusion to Exodus 15:6 (“Your right hand… shatters the enemy”). Moses recalls the reason why God rescued the Jews from Egypt in the first place (Ex. 32:12), and he repeats the promises that God had already made, regarding the Abrahamic covenant (Ex. 32:13; c.f. Gen. 12:1-3). In other words, Moses wasn’t telling God anything new. Therefore, the focus of this passage is not the unknown future; it is the known past.

Sixth, based on this biblical data, God doesn’t change. God’s attitude toward sin is always wrath and anger; his attitude toward repentance is always love and mercy. Because the circumstances changed (i.e. Moses’ prayer of intercession/repentance), God appeared to change from Moses’ point of view. This is a case of anthropomorphic language. Think about it like this. From our perspective, the sun appears to rise and set. However, this is man-centered language. The sun doesn’t move; we move around it. The same is true with God. From Moses’ perspective, God changed. If the story had been written from the perspective of God’s divine counsel, it would have stated that the people changed. However, because it was written from the perspective of Israel’s history, it states that God changed.

[1] God appears to change his mind in multiple place in the Bible (e.g. Ex. 33:1–3, 14; Deut. 9:13–29; 1 Sam. 2:27–31; 1 Kings 21:21–29; 2 Chron. 12:5–8; Jer. 18:7–10; 26:2–3; Ezek. 4:9–15; Amos 7:1–6; Jonah 3:10). See Sanders, John. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998. 48–84.
[2] Master, Jonathan. “Exodus 32 as an Argument for Traditional Theism.” JETS 45/4 (December 2002). 595.
[3] Master writes, “In fact, in Exod 32:12, mhn is used in the Niphal imperative form. The only other time this form of mhn is employed is in Ps 90:13. There it is translated ‘be sorry’ or ‘have compassion.’ No other translation fits the parallelism.” Master, Jonathan. “Exodus 32 as an Argument for Traditional Theism.” JETS 45/4 (December 2002). 595.
[4] Master makes this distinction: decree versus threat. See Master, Jonathan. “Exodus 32 as an Argument for Traditional Theism.” JETS 45/4 (December 2002). 596.

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I am a born again christian who loves the Lord and I am taking bible classes online