Imagine knowing the consequences of your actions before taking them; knowing all the paths of fate for each possible option; knowing them completely and perfectly. Imagine being omniscient, like God. With such knowledge, it would be practically impossible to repent. As Numbers 23:19 puts it, God is not like a man, who changes his mind.
This is the third part in a series of studies where God obviously does repent and change His mind. The first part covered the well known legend of the Flood of Noah. The second part discussed how God wanted to kill all of the Israelites for making a gold cow idol.
These episodes cast serious doubt in the omniscience of God, or that God had any kind of master Plan. In this study from the book of Numbers, God's Plan and omniscience are challenged again by God Himself, and we learn a disturbing twist on God's forgiveness.
Here in Numbers, after squashing rebellions about food and leadership, the Israelites traveled on to the border of the Promised Land. Finally, after over a year of leisurely wandering in the desert, they will see the land which God had promised to give them before they had left Egypt.
Repentant God, Part 3
The Bible sometimes tells a story twice. Furthermore, the Bible sometimes tells a story twice. Sure, the details will be different, but the underlying plot will be strangely similar, like a copy of a copy of a copy. We have seen this with senior citizen Sarah being taken in as a concubine by Pharaoh and then taken 24 years later at the age of 89 by Abimelech, and again when God gave the Israelites quails and water after they complained and later gave them quails and plague after they complained.
Similarly, this study will call back to the infamous tale of when the Israelites made a golden calf while Moses was on a mountain talking to God in Exodus 32. In that tale, God became furious, wanted to kill all of the Israelites, and wanted to instead make a new nation out of Moses. Moses had to convince God not to kill them because the Egyptians would think badly of God and because doing so would break God's promise.
For this study, we begin in Numbers 13. Now that the Israelites are on its borders, God has Moses send out one leader from each tribe to survey the Promised Land (Numbers 13:1-16). Before they set out, Moses instructed the leaders to spy out how militarily strong the native nations were, among other things (Numbers 13:17-20).
The surveillance team explores the Promised Land for forty days (Numbers 13:21-25). Then they report to the Israelites that the land is flowing with milk and honey, but that the existing nations are very strong, even including some descendants of Anak (Numbers 13:26-29). Caleb, the spy from the tribe of Judah, tells the Israelites that they should go take the land (Numbers 13:30). The other spies reject this opinion. In a “bad report,” they say that the present inhabitants are far stronger, and furthermore that there are Nephilim (Anak was a descendant of Nephilim) there (Numbers 13:31-35).
(Who are the Nephilim? Genesis 6:4 is where you will find the Nephilim briefly described. It appears as though they are the result of mating male angels and female humans, resulting in giant and powerful offspring. They would have been completely wiped out by the Flood. However, note that the Genesis 6:4 statement of “in those days—and also afterward” suggests that this supernatural-inter-specie breeding went on after the Flood as well.)
The Israelites are frightened by this report. They wail that they would have been better off dying Egypt or in the desert, and begin thinking about returning to Egypt (Numbers 14:1-4). Joshua and Caleb tear their clothes, and try to rally the Israelites by reminding them that the land is highly desirable and that they will be successful because God is with them (Numbers 14:5-9). The Israelites then talk of stoning Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:10).
Here is where the story takes a familiar turn. God is furious. He tells Moses that He will kill all of the Israelites with a plague, and then build a new nation out of Moses (Numbers 14:10-12). God repented bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. Again.
As discussed before, God's solution to rebellious people is consistently to kill them all and start again. There is no soul winning. There is no suit of love to draw them back to God. There is no Messiah. There is only death. (Yes, because that strategy worked so well the first time with the Flood. Not!)
God's omniscience and master Plan are thrown out of the window. Instead of taking preemptive actions to circumvent this known future, God lets it happen. Instead of acting like He knew this would happen, God reacts in a fit of rage as if someone had unexpectedly slapped Him across the face. Instead of remembering temperance to ensure that His Plan for the future would occur; that the not-yet-born King David would provide a royal human bloodline for Jesus (Matthew 1:1-6) in the yet-to-be-prophesied eternal kingdom (2 Samuel 7:8-16); God is ready to cut off that thread of fate by killing its forefathers.
Just like with the golden cow incident, here again it is Moses who must quench God's fiery rage in Numbers 14:13-19. Moses tells God to think about the fact that the Egyptians will hear about God killing all of the Israelites in the desert, and will thereby have cause to mock Him. Moses even goes so far as to throw God's own words back into His Holy face, quoting Exodus 34:5-7 back to Him in Numbers 14:18-19. (That was when God called Himself “slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion.”)
Why is it that an imperfect human (Moses) has to point out to a perfect God that His intents are poised to break His own promises and turn Him into a hypocrite? God should be the rational one here, not Moses.
In Numbers 14:20, we find:
The LORD replied [to Moses], "I have forgiven them, as you asked." NIVTo forgive is to pardon, or in other words, to drop any bad feelings and relinquish any punishment of the guilty party. God, being perfect, should be the shining example of how to forgive. However, that is not what we find here. Instead, in Numbers 14:21-35 we see how God intends to punish the Israelites by making them wander the desert for forty years, and how during that time everyone who was twenty years old or older at the time of this rebellion will eventually die in the desert and how their children will suffer for their transgressions. Only Joshua and Caleb will survive to enter the Promised Land.
(Note that this particular passage could be used as support of the Catholic dogma of purgatory. The Israelites are forgiven, but must still suffer until their sins are purged away.)
So what have we learned? God seems to have imperfect omniscience. God repents. God is not slow to anger. God is willing to scrap His Plan and promises like they do not exist. God's forgiveness will not prevent His wrath. These traits are not very reassuring if you are banking on an eternity in His presence.