The word translated as "regretted" in the New English Translation (NET) is naham and "reflect(s) the idea of breathing deeply, hence the physical display of one's feelings."1 It commonly refers to feeling sorry for a past action. The problem is, the Bible says God is unchanging and does not ever reconsider a thought word or deed (Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29, Psalms 110:4, cf. Hebrews 13:8, James 1:17). So, which is it? Does God occasionally wish he hadn't done something or is his will unalterable?
Part of the problem is found in modern Christianity's tendency to think God is like us. Indeed, the Bible indicates this has always been a problem. So, it seems difficult for some 21st-century Evangelical Christians to recognize that the very fact of God's complete otherness is what requires the use of common language to enable humanity to understand deity. In other words, a heavenly description of God would be couched in inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter (2 Corinthians 12:4, NKJV). Therefore, "heavenish" language simply will not do. God and his ways must be described in words we can understand. Nevertheless, we do not really understand unless we recognize the language used is inadequate to fully describe deity.
While I believe it is true God does experience something we might describe as emotion, it is unlike the human experience. Additionally, any "regret" experienced by God is different in kind from the regret endured by human beings. Human regret is commonly a response to an unforeseen outcome. The regret felt by God is always foreseen. Thus, the question most readers of the Genesis account ask is, "if God somehow regretted the outcome of humanity's creation, why did he bring this world into being in the first place?" Perhaps a simple illustration will help.
Suppose a man had a son to whom he entrusted the family business even though he knew his offspring was unequal to the task. Nonetheless, the man turned the entire firm over to the son because he loved him. And even if the expected failure came to fruition there would be valuable work done and lessons learned. We might say the man turned the company over to his son because he felt it would be the best way to enrich the life story of his child regardless of the outcome.
Like all illustrations and analogies purported to explain something about God, this brief story falls short. Yet, it may give us an inkling of why God would do something he knew would "fail." You see, creation was brought into being not for our sake but for the sake of God. Truly, it is a mystery why God created mankind and invited him to participate in the Grand Adventure. And we must not forget that the hero of this cosmic drama is Jesus the Christ. All things were brought into being for his sake and the story-line was - from eternity - plotted for the sole purpose of the eternal son and his glory. Indeed, the apostle Paul emphatically says, Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God. He is the first-born Son, superior to all created things. For through him God created everything in heaven and on earth, the seen and the unseen things, including spiritual powers, lords, rulers, and authorities. God created the whole universe through him and for him (Colossians 1:15-16).
Therefore, we must interpret Scripture in light of God's purpose in bringing about this material realm. It was created through the Word and was created for his story. It was brought into being to facilitate the cosmic drama of which Jesus the Christ is the hero. It was fashioned to express the Grand Adventure of the hero who rescues the damsel in distress and establishes the kingdom of righteousness that he and his bride might enjoy it forever. Yet, unless the story is told to us in human words it will remain a mystery.
Like any good story, God's tale is one of hardship and heroism, conflict and compassion, death and life and obstacles overcome. Just as the sinful response of Pharaoh to the plagues was ultimately designed to bring glory to God (Exodus 11:9), likewise, the worldwide decadence leading to destruction recorded in Genesis is part of the greater story of the glorious hero. Frankly, it would not be much of a story if there were no villain or villainous deeds.
Hence, an expression of regret for past deeds on the part of God must be understood as anthropopathic and a means of allowing finite humanity to, in some small way, understand infinite God and his story. Nothing has happened in the narrative of the universe that should not have happened. It is all part of the eternal epic tale authored by God.
1. R. L. Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 2, 2 vols. (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1980), 2.570.
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