The mutableness of God

March 5, 2008 at 3:21 pm 3 comments

Studying Exodus 32-34 recently (the record of the golden calf incident and its aftermath), it became clear to me how un-God-like God is at times. He is strikingly changeable, emotional, and downright human on occasion. Examples:

  • In reaction to the making of the golden calf, God burns with anger. He tells Moses to “let Me alone, that My anger may burn against [the Israelites] and that I may destroy them” (Ex. 32:10).
  • Four verses later, He changes His mind in response to Moses’ pleas.
  • In ch. 33 he tells Moses to go on into the promised land, but says that He will not go along, “because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way.”
  • In 33:5, God indicates His uncertainty about what to do with his people, telling them to “put off your ornaments from you, that I may know what I shall do with you.”

God appears strikingly mutable. He changes his mind, regrets past actions, is subject to anger, and argues with his people. These might not fit neatly in our western conceptions of God as omniscient, sovereign, and unchanging, but they are biblical descriptions. Says Peter Enns in the NIV Application Commentary on Exodus (Gen. ed. Terry Muck [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000]),

Again, we see a very “human” portrait of God. The Lord does not know how he might react at some point in the journey; he does not seem to trust himself to control his anger. Thus, it is better that he not go at all. We should resist the temptation to gloss over this description of God. This is God’s Word and this is how he is described. We should not dismiss it on the basis of what we “know” God to be like. As we have seen above, the writer is not concerned to reveal to us the absolute, abstract essence of God, but God in the context of his dealings with his people. (578-9)

He goes on to suggest,

Too often, it seems to me, despite our biblical literacy, we think of how God ought to be rather than how he has actually portrayed himself. (592)

Worth considering.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rick Beckman  |  March 5, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    I just recently started blogging my way through Genesis, and the “human side” of God is definitely something I’m going to have to keep in mind. We see it come in to play as He seeks Adam after he realizes he’s naked, when the wickedness of man provokes a worldwide flood, when ancient man attempted to build a tower to the skies…

    Thank you for the reminder, Jamie!

    Reply
  • 2. Jason  |  April 1, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    perhaps our emotions reflect the “image of God” in more than we thought…

    good post.

    Reply
  • 3. Andrej Kis  |  July 24, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    First of all, I am not a Theologian. Having said that, my approach to understanding God’s mutableness in anger is viewed very differently than understanding a human’s mutableness. it is important to keep in mind what Ephesians 4:26 says: “‘In your anger do not sin…'” It would definitely look as though God is coming across as un-God-like when He gets angry. I’m not saying that He is sinning. Rather I am saying that God’s anger must be separated from the typical human anger that has the ingredient of sin in it. It is hard for me to see God’s anger as being un-God-like, even in the reading of Exodus 32-34 in light of Eph 4:26 and Rom 3:5. Its very easy for us to see God’s anger and its mutableness from our perspective and from our way of being mutable (by including the element of sin to it). I do my best (easier at times than at others) in trying to understand God by suspending as much of my tendency to understand Him from my human perspective and try to understand Him as He seeks to be understood. I think it actually makes it easier to see His mutableness very differently.

    Reply

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Profile

profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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