I've posited in my musings before this idea: that a G"d that cannot change its mind is no G"d. The haftarah for Shabbat Zachor challenges this directly:
וְגַם נֵצַח יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יְשַׁקֵּר וְלֹא יִנָּחֵם כִּי לֹא אָדָם הוּא לְהִנָּחֵֽם׃
Moreover, the Glory of Israel does not deceive or change His mind, for He is not human that He should change His mind. (Samuel 15:29)
I cannot tell you how many things wrong I find with that simple assertion, despite its source.
Yes, among modern theologies is the concept of a self-limited G"d (and that's not such a new idea, when consider the Jewish idea of tzimtzum) yet I find it a rather preposterous notion that a G"d might self-limit itself from changing its own mind-at least without some kind of loophole. (If, indeed, G"d has self-limited, and that limitation includes an inability for G"d to change G"d's mind, well then, on the one hand, I have a great deal of respect for the nobility of that limitation, yet simultaneously, incredulity at the sheer idiocy of so doing. I think it also takes a lot of hubris and ego for G"d to assume it is safe to self-limit to prevent mind-changing,as that assumes that G"d has so perfectly ordered the universe that there is never any chance that modification might be required. Now, I will admit that for some, everything that G"d has ever done, is doing, and will do, is perfect, and all part of some Divine plan which we cannot fathom. The whole idea of an ineffable G"d is appealing to those with an intense desire to whitewash all the inconsistencies which G"d presents to us. I am one who revels in the inconsistencies of the G"d of my understanding, and wholeheartedly believes that G"d must be capable of changing G"d's mind. As one who reads much of the Torah as illustrating G"d's learning curve (and G"d is not that good a student, frankly) I find that G"d can and does change G"d's mind, and thank G"d for that!
Now back to the text in question. Once again, with all due respect to the illustrious and respected editors of the JPS Tanakh 1985/199 English translation, I think they've gone out on a limb to translate the Hebrew as they have. A more accurate rendering of the text might be:
Moreover, the Glory of Israel does not deceive or come to regret, for He is not a human that regrets
It's a matter of semantics, but I think there's a significant difference in saying that G"d does not change G"d's mind and saying that G"d does not come to regret.
One does not have to come to regret things in order to know that they need changing. One does not have to come to regret things in order to change one's mind about them. G"d may very well dispense with the notion of having regrets, or even of admitting to mistakes. G"d can still proceed to change G"d's mind about something, and proceed to change things.
G"d doesn't regret, G"d just does. If it works, fine, if it doesn't, well then, time for Plan B. No need for regrets.
Yes, humans do regret. Sometimes, humans regret things too much. Other times, they don't regret things enough. Is regret a weakness, that it is to be spurned by G"d? Of that I am not certain.
There was a great article on the Psychology Today blog a few years back. It's author, Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D, started out this way:
When I give seminars at colleges and corporations, I ask if anyone has lived a life without regrets. If so, I ask them to raise their hand. More than 8 out of 10 people look me in the eye and with great pride, shoot their hands into the air. 80% of people living an entire life without any regrets. Either I am surrounded by the most mindful, compassionate communicators and problem-solvers in the world or what I am witnessing is how people are concerned about their public image. Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D, "We Are We Afraid of Having Regrets?," http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/curious/201008/why-are-we-afraid-having-regrets
The author writes that regret serves a purpose - that it can motivate us to redress wrongs or mistakes we made, and help us make better decisions. That's useful for humans and deities. The article also mentions that regrets are rarely found in children under the age of seven. Might that be true as well of an immature G"d?
Might we humans be projecting our own discomfort with having regrets, and the weaknesses that supposedly exposes, upon G"d? Kind of us, I suppose, to worry about G"d's public image. Or manipulative. The Torah has a few examples of our successfully appealing to G"d's vanity when it comes to G"d's public image (and saving our own asses.)
Once again, I assert my belief in the converse of b'tzelem El"him, that G"d is perforce b'tzelem anashim - we are both - G"d and humankind - capable of the same range of emotions and beliefs, including regret, and changing our minds. The Torah doesn't say we were created in the partial image of G"d. If we have it, G"d has it too!
If we look at the context of Samuel 15:29, it comes just after Samuel has told Saul that he has lost G"d's favor and there is to be a new King. Samuel is telling Saul that G"d has made the decision to replace him and that it's too late to change G"d's mind. It's a pronouncement just dripping with irony. G"d reluctantly gave Israel a king in the person of Saul, and now G"d is changing G"d's mind and deciding to give the kingship to someone else, since Saul has proven unworthy. It's a real razz to Saul - Samuel telling him that the G"d that made Saul king is now having a change of mind, and replacing Saul - but don't you dare hope for a reprieve Saul, because once G"d has decided, G"d does not change G"d's mind. Nyah, nyah.
Saul pleads for forgiveness, but none is forthcoming. Samuel then proceeds to kill Agag, King of Amalek, himself, completing the task which Saul has forsaken. What a lovely thought. G"d was upset with Saul because he didn't slaughter every last Amalekite. Yeah, that's a G"d I can love. Right.
Anyway, the whole "G'd doesn't change G"d's mind" or "regret" thing gets negated just a few verses further on, after the haftarah ends. The last verse of Samuel Chapter 15 reads:
וְלֹא־יָסַף שְׁמוּאֵל לִרְאוֹת אֶת־שָׁאוּל עַד־יוֹם מוֹתֹו כִּֽי־הִתְאַבֵּל שְׁמוּאֵל אֶל־שָׁאוּל וַיהוָה נִחָם כִּֽי־הִמְלִיךְ אֶת־שָׁאוּל עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Samuel never saw Saul again to the day of his death. But Samuel grieved over Saul, because the L"rd regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel. (Samuel 15:35)
Same verb root that in verse 29 they (the JPS editors) translated as "change His mind" is now translated as "regretted."
So verse 35 makes a liar out of Samuel in verse 29! O what a tangled web we weave...
Now, truth be told, I knew before I went off on my little rant here in response to verse 29 that verse 35 said exactly the opposite. I learned a long time ago to always examine a broader context than just what's presented in the parasha or haftarah reading.
G"d does regret. G"d does change G"d's mind. G"d has more human characteristics than it is often convenient to attribute to G"d. Thus Samuel's bold lie to Saul, a little sticking in the knife and twisting it. (Considering how easily Samuel the prophet dispatched Agag, King of the Amalekites in cold blood, it's not surprising he could just as easily use wield words as a weapon against Saul.)
You gotta love it. Just six verses apart our holy text makes seemingly contradictory statements. Yet they may not be so. The latter example, in verse 35, is in the narrator's voice. The statement that G"d does not change G"d's mind in verse 29 is in Samuel's voice. Is verse 35 there precisely as a corrective to Samuel's misstatement?
I see all of this as a reminder to be careful with our words. A reminder to Samuel to be careful what he says about or attributes to G"d even in anger. A reminder to all of us to listen and read closely. A reminder to all of us that when something feels wrong, it's worth a closer look.
A perfect G"d, a G"d that does not or even has no need to have a change of mind is an idea that bears close examination. Very close examination. Happy examining.
Adrian © 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
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