Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”Genesis 9:8-17
In biblical literature, the backstory is as important as the presenting story. The story of God’s covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 assumes that readers know the backstory. In Genesis 6:5-6, God sees human wickedness and feels “sorry that God had made humankind on the earth.” God tells Noah so and informs Noah of the plan to destroy the earth. It does not seem to have been an easy decision for God. Genesis 6:6 offers readers a window into God’s heart. Human wickedness “grieved God to his heart.” But still, God destroys the earth in a flood. If in Genesis 6 God regrets having made human persons, then in Genesis 9:8-17 God is portrayed as regretting that God destroyed them. God thus makes a covenant with Noah never to destroy again. A rainbow appears to solidify the covenant And so, one might ask, is God fickle-minded?
The question takes on significance when one notices a pattern emerges in how God seems to change God’s mind. Take for instance Exodus 32-34. Moses heads up to Mount Sinai to receive God’s commandments and the people get impatient. The people decide to have a placeholder symbol (the infamous “golden calf”) that will serve as a point of reference for their longing for the divine. God’s anger is kindled against the people and God wants to destroy them. Unlike in the Noah story where Noah does not intervene—more on that later—Moses actually intervenes and intercedes on behalf of the people.
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.Exodus 32:11-14
Notice the movements in the Exodus text. God’s anger burns hot. Moses points that out. Moses notes how it is the same God who promised to bless them in the first place. Finally, God changes his mind. And so, I ask again, is God fickle-minded?
Jean-Pierre Sonnet (490) in an essay titled, “God’s Repentance and ‘False Starts’ in Biblical History,” asks a question or two that helps to understand some of the complexities involved with the story of God’s covenant as represented in Genesis 9:8-17: “How can the God who transcends time be caught within time? How is it that the Bible, which is familiar with a God who over-sees time in his omniscience, chooses to dramatize a God entangled in the course of time, caught in human consequentiality, to the point of dissociating himself from a previous course of action?” In a similar vein, Karl Kuhn (30) in his book, Having Words with God, asks, “How is it that an all-knowing, perfect, and unchanging God could actually change his/her mind? Would not this imply that God, in essence, made a mistake, or at least has initially chosen a course of action that was not the best option?”
We now come to the heart of the matter, as it were. If one really believed in the impassibility of God, then the question, “Is God fickle-minded” needs to be on the table. Impassibility, however, is difficulty to maintain when we come to terms with the anthropomorphic representations of God in the Hebrew Bible. When the people suffer under slavery in Egypt in the book of Exodus, God is said to have been moved by emotion. “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Exodus 2:23-25).
When we notice how God is moved by human cry and seems to have an emotional life, the question, “is God fickle-minded?” is then a moot question. As Kuhn (28) notes in Having Words with God, “God listens to human creatures and is willing to be moved by them, even in situations in which human sinfulness threatens God’s relationship with and loving intentions for humanity.” If God is thus better understood as “most moved mover” (Kuhn, 30) rather than the unmoved mover, this gives us a God who invites dialogue and intervention.
If God invites dialogue and intervention and is moved by human persons, God is thus open to changing God’s mind. This picture of God has implications for human interactions. In cultural and political movements, people often make up their mind and are unpersuaded by what other people say or do. When these others are suffering others, being unpersuaded is a mark of tyranny. When evidence of malevolent intention is presented and the evidence is brushed aside in favour of aligning with larger—national or otherwise—interests, impassibility is a crime.
There is a deep irony that one needs to name. The irony is that those who are unmoved and unpersuaded often highlight their “principles.” If God is revealed in scripture as one who is not bound by “principles,” then Christians need to undertake a reassessment of their self-created unpersuadable worlds.
In the context of the story of Noah, it is perhaps also helpful to compare Noah of the backstory in Genesis 6 and the character of Moses in Exodus 32. In Exodus 32, when God makes up God’s mind to destroy, Moses persuades God to change God’s mind. In the case of Noah, however, what Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg (cited in Ma. Maricel S. Ibita, “The Great Flood in Genesis 6–9,” 72) notes seems to be true: “[Noah] is incurious, he does not know and does not care what happens to others. He suffers from the incapacity to speak meaningfully to God or to his fellow human beings.”
The covenant that God makes with Noah in Genesis 9 is a good thing. It recalls the original blessedness that is portrayed earlier in the book. In the creation account, God looks upon human persons and deems them “very good” (Genesis 1:31). When seen against this background, God might be understood as having become persuaded that God ought not to be overcome with anger by adhering to a sort of principle that comes in the way of actually relating to human persons made of flesh and blood. This seems to be a major take-away from the text for our own time. Principles, policies, and governmental practices—human or divine—cannot take priority over human persons whose lives are far more precious than so-called “principles.”