The rabbinic notion of teshuvah based on the biblical verb shuv, to (re)turn to God or to turn from evil, is a famously powerful force within Judaism, and is generally translated as “repentance”.
But it is less well known that the noun is not found in the Bible – instead the verb nichem is used to show feeling sorrow, pain or regret – and, most frequently, it is used to describe God as doing the regretting.
On seeing their wickedness, God regrets having created humanity –and brings the flood upon the earth. God regrets having made Saul the King after Saul disobeyed orders and kept Agag and the best of his flocks alive, but killed the weak and feeble.
God also repents threats of violence – such as the intention to destroy the Israelites after they built the golden calf, narrowly averted by Moses’ arguments, or the plague sent after David counted the people that killed many – but was stopped before reaching Jerusalem.
Jeremiah is particularly fond of giving God the chance to repent the evil to be brought upon us unless we amend our ways and listen to God’s voice – and the prophets Joel and Amos also remind us our changing our ways will cause God to regret the severity of the judgments against us and relent.
Bilaam prophesied to Balak that “God is not human, who lie; nor mortal, who might repent: when God has decreed, will God not do it?”, but we see that while the Bible necessarily speaks in human language, God does indeed both repent and relent.
It is one of the Bible glories that God, like us, learns to mitigate the immediate powerful reactions, and that we can change God’s mind – Bilaam’s rhetoric is designed for outsiders, not those prepared to argue with God and provoke a change of the divine mind.
- Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years