We have now gone well beyond Moses’ arguments with God. God’s power is not automatic or unbridled; it is, rather, an expression of God’s will. God can choose how and when to use that power. Teshuvah is God’s gift to us, a singular opportunity to sway God from anger to compassion. This distinctively Jewish idea also teaches that, ultimately, it is human beings who have the power to determine how God will use that divine power. We invoke this theme throughout the liturgy of the High Holidays.
-Rabbi Neil Gillman
“Chapter 2: God is Power,” pg 25
The Jewish Approach to God: A Brief Introduction for Christians
I often write about what Messianic Jews have to say to Christians, hopefully in a very positive light, but Rabbi Gillman’s book is what other Jews, those who don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah, have to say to Christians. By providing the Jewish viewpoint on God, Rabbi Gillman is attempting to be a “light to the nations,” showing us who he believes God actually is (as opposed to who Christians think God is).
We don’t often think we can change God’s mind but I think Rabbi Gillman may have a point.
Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.”
When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.
–Jonah 3:4-10 (NASB)
Gillman calls Jonah the only successful prophet in the Bible. Typically, all other prophets call for repentance (usually of Israel) and they only receive a deaf ear in return. Often these prophets are killed by the very people they’re trying to save. The prophet warns Israel. Israel ignores the prophet and does not repent. God fulfills the prophesy by doing terrible things to Israel, which usually include war, exile, and death.
…and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
–2 Chronicles 7:14 (NASB)
If the people who are called by God’s Name would humble themselves and pray and seek God’s face and turn from their wickedness, then He would hear from Heaven and forgive their sin and heal their Land. Seems pretty straightforward to me. But then, God set up the conditions. If you do this, then I will do that. If you do not do this, then I will do something else. God is prepared to respond to Israel depending on what choice Israel makes. It’s not as if God changes His mind as such.
But what about this?
The Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst? I will smite them with pestilence and dispossess them, and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they.”
But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for by Your strength You brought up this people from their midst, and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst of this people, for You, O Lord, are seen eye to eye, while Your cloud stands over them; and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if You slay this people as one man, then the nations who have heard of Your fame will say, ‘Because the Lord could not bring this people into the land which He promised them by oath, therefore He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as You have declared, ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.’ Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”
So the Lord said, “I have pardoned them according to your word; but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord.
–Numbers 14:11-21 (NASB)
On the surface, it certainly seems as if God was ready to wipe out the Children of Israel, but Moses, appealing to God’s reputation, gets Him to change His mind. Or was God setting up the situation so that Moses would change his mind? Remember, it’s far easier for a human being to lose his cool than for God to do so. By deliberately putting Moses in between the Children of Israel and God’s wrath, God is forcing Moses to make a choice. Either Moses can side with God and advocate for the destruction of his people, or he can confront God as Israel’s protector…the very role for which God chose Moses.
Ultimately, if God is Sovereign and if His will and His decisions are always perfect, then He really has no need to change His mind. We, on the other hand, have to change our minds all the time, and I think God is at work trying to get us to do this. We are flawed, sinful, imperfect, self-centered creatures and God loves us anyway. It’s like being the Father to billions and billions of two-year olds. We’re all screaming “mine,” all fighting each other over our toys, all hording the goodies for ourselves, and we all don’t want to listen to God telling us to be good and to share.
Yom Kippur starts at sundown on this coming Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. Although the Day of Atonement has very little meaning to most Christians, we can still allow it to remind us that there may be some people we have hurt and we have neglected to repent of that. We may have sinned against God and have neglected to repent of that. As long as we are alive, we have the opportunity to repent, to turn back to the ways of God, and to make amends with anyone we have injured.
But who knows when one will die?
Rabbi Eliezer said: “Repent one day before your death.” His disciples asked him, “Does, then, one know on what day he will die?” “All the more reason he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow.”
–Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 53a
From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
–Matthew 4:17 (NASB)
Even during the days of Mashiach, it will still be permissible for people to repent…but why wait? God is reminding us to make teshuvah now.