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B'resheet/Genesis 6:6 And the L-rd regretted that He had made mankind in the earth and He was grieved in His heart.
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This verse provides a challenge to those who seeHaShem as omniscient and all powerful. How could it possibly be that HaShem regretted something that He had done and experienced grief - other translations offer "His heart was filled with pain" (NIV), "He was heart-sick" (NJPS) - in His heart. Let's have a look at the Hebrew text in a little more detail to understand what the words might mean.
Our text starts with - the Nif'al 3ms prefix form of the root , to regret, be sorry, repent, relent,1 with a vav-conversive denoting a narrative past-tense event, "and he regretted", particularly when followed by , 'that', referring to a situation or past action: "and he regretted that ..." Then the subject follows the verb, , HaShem is the one regretting. He regrets that - the Qal 3ms affix form of the root , to do or make, simply "he made". This verb is part of the narrative event, so refers to an action that took place longer ago, so is probably best translated by the English pluperfect tense, "that He had made".
What had He made? The direct object indicator introduces the object of the verb, literally "the man", probably best understood here as referring to mankind. The last word in the first clause , is the preposition in/on and a definite article with the noun , earth; its most likely translation is the simple "in the earth", although some Jewish commentators suggest that it means "with/from the earth" and propose that HaShem is regretting that he made mankind out of earthy material so that he rebelled against his Maker, whereas had He used heavenly materials, man would have remained obedient.
After the atnakh, the second phrase of the verse starts with the verb - the Hitpa'el 3ms prefix form of the root , to pain, grieve or suffer pain. In Hitpa'el stem, it has the sense of grieving oneself or being grieved in oneself because of some external circumstance. The last two words - to His heart - tell us where that grief was felt: in what was considered the seat and focus of the emotions. HaShem was hurt!
Stepping back one verse, the Torah tells us that "HaShem saw" (v. 5) how wicked man had become. This is why He was pained and grieved in His heart. The very creatures that He had created, to whom He had given a position only "a little lower than G-d" (Psalm 8:5, NASB), with whom He had shared the mandate to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it" (B'resheet 1:28, ESV), had turned away from Him, had betrayed His trust and filled the earth with wickedness. Umberto Cassuto comments that "man's deeds and the thoughts of his heart bring grief to the heart of HaShem."2 The early Sages agreed, saying that "they grieved the Holy One, blessed be He, with their evil deeds" (B'resheet Rabbah 27.2).
Given the omniscience of G-d - He is, after all, the One who sees the end from the beginning and the beginning from the end (Isaiah 46:10) - Richard Elliott Friedman asks the obvious question: "What could this mean? If G-d knows the future, how could G-d regret something once it has happened?" Rabbi Hirsch chips in with the idea that "not for nothing does it says, 'when G-d saw'. The wickedness of man was not a matter of necessity. G-d had to see it before He knew it." That is a staggering thought: G-d knew it was going to happen but hadn't experienced it or felt, hadn't known it by experience, until it actually happened and He saw it. Then he knew it. Made in His image, we have the same experience: we know the knife is sharp - at an academic or 'detached' level - but it isn't until we have cut or nicked our finger with it that we know just how sharp it is.
Might this give us some explanation of an otherwise puzzling set of verses: "Although He was a son, He learned obedience through what He suffered. And being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him" (Hebrews 5:8-9, ESV)? How could Yeshua - the sinless Son of G-d, "the radiance of the glory of G-d and the exact imprint of His nature" (Hebrew 1:3, ESV) - need to learn anything or become perfect? One possible explanation is that while He knew everything, He hadn't experienced everything. Of course, G-d wouldn't worship or serve Satan, but the experience of being tempted in the wilderness not only showed Him exactly what temptation felt like, but enables Him to sympathise with us in our temptations as "one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15, ESV).
Going back to the Hebrew language in our text, it is interesting that the root is also used in the verses, "God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind" (B'Midbar 23:19, ESV) and "Moreover, the Glory of Israel does not deceive or change His mind, for He is not human that He should change His mind" (1 Samuel 15:29, NJPS). As DavidKimchi insists: "There is never any change whatsoever in G-d the exalted." G-d knows all out ways and thoughts, He sees every action and mistake we make - He does not need to change His plan when we disobey Him or make bad choices. Nevertheless, as His creatures (in general) and His friends and followers (in particular), our disobedience and stubbornness cause His heart to be saddened - He regrets our decisions and weaknesses. The Ramban quotes Isaiah and puts it this way: "'they rebelled, and grieved His Holy Spirit' (Isaiah 63:10, NJPS) by their crimes." Ovadiah Sforno points out that this is directly opposite to His wishes, for "He does not desire the death of the wicked, on the contrary, 'may the L-RD rejoice in His works!' (Psalm 104:31, NJPS)."
Let's take this argument on another step. Commenting to the wayTargum Onkelos treats our text, Drazin and Wagner write that, "rather than portraying G-d as passively saddened, the targumist has the deity act - 'He decided by His will to break their power.'" This points us towards the most important lesson from this verse. HaShem was grieved, He regretted man - yet He accepted responsibility and resolved to fix the problem rather than just walking away or wiping everything out and starting again. In fact, He had already resolved to fix things before creating mankind! How can we make this amazing assertion? Writing to the early Yeshua-following congregations, John speaks of "the Lamb slaughtered before the world was founded" (Revelation 13:8, CJB). Yeshua was already marked as 'slain' before creation took place. G-d knew that sin would happen and that mankind would need redeeming, so He had already organised for that before He went ahead with the creation. More, taking another translation of the same verse John warns that "everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the Book of Life of the Lamb who was slain" (TLV) will worship the first beast. Not only did G-d provide the solution before creation, but the names of those who will accept His offer of redemption are written in the Lamb's Book of Life before creation!
Notice that G-d's foreknowledge doesn't compromise either human or divine free will. We don't know what the outcome of our choices will be and the way that G-d's plans will work out, so we always have freedom of action in all our decisions; we remain totally responsible for those decisions and can be fairly judged for the choices we make. That is essential for divine justice to actually be justice. At the same time, G-d always has the absolute freedom to act or not act in the way that He knows and has already known is most appropriate for fulfilling His plans, whether through human agency or by stepping outside the normal physical rules of the universe and doing something supernatural.
We must not be afraid of language; Nahum Sarna tells us that "the biblical writers frequently took the risk of expressing G-d in concrete and imaginative terms for the sake of emphasising His vital presence and personality; otherwise, the G-d idea would have lost all meaning for them." Just as we are hurt, saddened and grieved by our own actions and those of others, we would do well to recognise and voice that G-d is hurt, saddened and grieved by our actions too. The way back, the way to reconciliation and healing, both for us and for Him, is through Yeshua and the cross. There, heaven and earth touched; reconciliation and forgiveness, joy and restoration became possible. God - who alone could do it - made a way, according to His promises and His faithfulness. He didn't just shrug His shoulders and fold up the game board, scattering the pieces on the floor. Neither should we! No matter how bleak our situations may seem, we must never give up, always clinging to Him and calling on Him to act and speak - our very lives depend on it.
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 269.
2. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part One - From Adam to Noah, (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1978), page 304.
Further Study: Ezekiel 24:14; Joel 2:12-14; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19
Application: Do you ever look around and despair of what you see, allowing yourself to be drawn into depression or even suicidal thoughts? An increasing number of people - tragically, the greatest increase is among young people - are succumbing to the enemy's lies in these days. G-d has already provided the solution for them and for us, together. We have to share it with them and reach out to help them find their way home.
Comment - 10:17 14Oct23 Ann Pangbourne: So well clarifying a number of texts. How His heart must hurt as Ge experiences the wickedness of man in our days.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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