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God Repenting & Animals Being Wiped Out — Gen 6:5-8 (Coffee Break Version)

This is the fourth post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first three posts:

1) Click here for a discussion on the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) Click here for a discussion on the New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
3) Click here for a discussion on the Causes of the Flood in Gen 6:5-8

This series is a summary series that focusses on broad findings.  For details, nuances, and debate, see the “geeky version” of this series over here.

Again, let’s read the text:

6:5 But the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and he was highly offended. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe humankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth – everything from humankind to animals, including creatures that move on the ground and birds of the air, for I regret that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.


Prologue to the Flood: Gen 6:5-8

Hebrew nuances lost in translation

(f) God repenting of creating humankind

In Gen 6:6, the Hebrew behind the word ‘regret’ is the same as that used for ‘repent’.  It is common for English translations to use the English ‘repent’ when it is applied to humans, and ‘regret’ when it is applied to God.  This English practice accidentally hides a Biblical theology from English readers, who are thus unaccustomed to the Biblical notion of God repenting.  This is complicated further when we have such passages as ‘God is not a son of man that he should repent’ (Num 23:19, see also 1 Sam 15:29), contrasted with Gen 6:6.  These verses either use the word ‘repent’, or the theological concept of God repenting: Ex 32:12-14, 1 Sam 15:11,  2 Sam 24:16, Jeremiah 18:10, and Amos 7:3, among many others.

In other words, God is described many times in the Bible of repenting of either an action or sometimes, of repenting of an action he was going to take, but now won’t.  This creates a ‘tension’ with (or if you’re comfortable with the term, it ‘contradicts’) passages that say God ‘is incapable’ of regretting/repenting due to his omniscience.  Atheists take such contradictions as indications that the Bible isn’t true–and ironically Biblical inerrantists agree, saying they would have to throw out the whole Bible if they ever found a contradiction in it.  However, infallible views of Scripture (2 Tim 3:16), which is what most evangelical scholars believe, use a different term to resolve the issue.

The term is ‘condescension’.  The Bible is viewed under this light as a condescension by God for our benefit.  While the mysteries of God are beyond language, he condescends to us through his Word so that we can understand what is sufficient for us to live a life in covenant relationship with him.  As such, the human writers of the Bible, writing under the inspiration of God’s spirit, use phrases, idioms, and words to convey God’s actions and relations in one part of history, that can contradict descriptions of his character in other parts.  When we understand that both descriptions were condescensions to their context, and that they both point to a deeper meaning behind God’s works that is beyond our language’s ability to communicate, evangelical Christian scholarship sees the contradictions that exist in the Bible and resolves them as ‘paradoxes’, or 2 things that can’t both be true and yet are.

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Examples of paradoxes (from the video game Portal)


When we read, as we do in Gen 6:6, that God repented of something (in this case creating humankind), we don’t need to have a theological crisis because this contradicts theological statements like those in Num 23:19 and 1 Sam 15:29.  God is merely communicating, through Moses, that something like repenting was ‘felt’ by God, but that in reality what God did and ‘felt’ in this situation is beyond Hebrew, Greek, or English to effectively communicate.  The best word God could inspire by Moses’ hand was ‘repent’, but it only points to what God actually was in that situation–it doesn’t encapsulate it entirely and perfectly.

A second concept that is usually packed with God ‘condescending’ to us is that of God allowing himself to be ‘anthropomorphized’, or described in human terms (God’s ‘heart’, God’s ‘back’, God’s ‘eyes’, etc.).  Most evangelical Christian commentaries don’t actually think God has eyes, a heart, or a back.  They just think that since Scripture is about presenting us with everything we need to be in relationship with God, it fits God’s purpose for us to envision him in human terms–without which relating to the Creator of everything is scarcely possible.  Thus when we read of God’s heart or eyes, nearly all commentaries encourage us to read this as ‘approximations’ of the truth, but sufficient for us (that is all, we need to know) for us to understand what God wants us to learn through this episode in the Bible.

Disallowing God the ability to repent by shifting the word to a softer ‘regret’ fails to communicate what God intended in the Scriptures, and puts us at risk of encapsulating God into a smaller theological box than is Scriptural.

As the NIVAC commentator points out on this issue, “Passages using terminology such as God’s being sorry, repenting, or changing his mind have been the source of theological confusion, consternation, and debate.  There are three ways to seek resolution. (1) We can simply rethink our view of God. This is exactly what is happening in the new theology called the “openness of God.” (2) We can justify the terminology by seeking to understand ways in which anthropomorphic language is used in describing God’s actions without imputing human limitations to him. This is the path followed in most commentaries” (NIVAC Gen 6:7).  (The third option he gives is too time-consuming for our post here.  See the geeky version of this post for it’s exploration.

This concept is a massive one in it’s own right, so returning to our text, when we read that “God repented that he had made humanity”, we are to see “repented” as a condescension that points towards something like what God ‘thought’ about humanity, but at the same time recognizing that “repent” has all kinds of nuances that cannot necessarily be used to ‘pin down God’.  ‘Repent’ points towards God’s position, but does not fully relate it.  I like how Wenham puts it in the WBC: “Theological systematization is hardly the concern of the biblical narrators.  For them divine repentance [God repenting] is a response to man’s changes of heart, whether for better or worse”1.  It is sufficient for our understanding of God’s reaction, but it is not necessarily complete.  There’s a ‘mystery’ here, as there is in all paradoxes and so much of Christian theology, and we’ll digress back to our text at this point.  Suffice to say, Noah’s story is one of the more picturesque and direct topics on this subject in the Bible, so it is only natural that we think about and wrestle with such theologies when we encounter the Flood narrative on a ‘heart level’.


(g) Hebrew plays on words

For discussion of the many plays on words or puns found in Noah’s name in Gen 6:5-8, see the geeky version of this post here.

(h) What’s up with animals paying for humankind’s evil?

I’ve encountered a lot of people upset about this passage in Gen 6:7, where God states that humankind is utterly evil, but then says he will wipe out not only humankind, but also all land and sky animals.  The fact of the matter is that if we see in this a ‘problem of God being unfair’, we’re actually imposing a modern question alien to the text on the text itself.  In other words, it’s an ‘unfair question’ to ask of the text, because Moses (and God) have something else in mind to communicate with these words.  As a crude analogy, asking about why the land and sky animals had to be destroyed is like asking about the physics of distant stars based only on the Star of Bethlehem.  The passage about the star in Matthew 1-2 is not about the physics of stars–it’s about the divine guidance of astrologers for God’s purpose.  God never intended (so modern evangelical theologians state in near-consensus) for us to draw mathematical models of the movements of stars from Mt 1-2.   Imposing this question on the text is alien and ‘bad exegesis’ or ‘bad theology’.

What, then, is the point of Moses mentioning that other animals will die too?  The point of mentioning them is to echo directly the idea of Creation and it’s unravelling.  That is, Gen 6:7 is meant to recall Gen 1:24-30 and Gen 2:18-20 (the idea of animal-kind being created for humankind), and then having recalled these ideas, Gen 6:7 reverses them.  In Gen 1-2, the birds of the sky and the beasts that walk on earth and the creeping things that creep along the ground are there for humankind.  The relationship is iron-clad, animal-kind for humankind.

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Animal-kind and the Flood
Source: http://twolittlecavaliers.com/2011/10/thai-activists-rescue-flood-dogs-in-bangkok.html

Scholars and translators are divided on the contextual meaning of the Hebrew word for ‘flesh’ used in Gen 9:12, which also refers to animal-kind being punished.  Some take it to mean ‘humankind’, in the context of the corruption that is being described.  Others take it to mean all creatures of the earth, from birds to humans to beasts to creeping things, in the context of the use of this phrase throughout Gen 6-9 (Gen 6:17, Gen 6:19, Gen 7:15-16, Gen 7:21, Gen 8:17, Gen 9:11, Gen 9:15-17) to refer to just that.  For myself, the context points very strongly to it meaning both humankind and animal-kind, though like most moderns this makes me uncomfortable in that animal-kind is suffering for humankind’s chaos.

Furthermore, though again it makes modern Christians (and non-Christians) uncomfortable, the Biblical worldview contains not only views that animal-kind can be and is ‘sinful’ (Gen 9:5, Ex 21:28-29, Jonah 3:7-8), but in addition the Bible holds the view that the sinfulness of one can ‘contaminate’ the purity of others, making them guilty by association simply through proximity (Josh 7:10-26).  On a more superficial and perhaps overly-literal level, we do of course have the serpent tempting Eve in the garden.  The Hebrew behind ‘serpent’ is quite explicitly a ‘real snake’, not the same ‘serpentine/dragon’ word used later for Leviathan, and ultimately Satan.  The Hebrew text describes a serpent, not Satan, tempting Eve.  Furthermore, Gen 9:6-9, where God makes his post-Flood covenant, is made with humans and animals, not just humans.  It is therefore quite difficult to make an argument that animals were not under divine judgment in the Flood.

As such, it is entirely within Moses’ worldview that animal-kind was corrupted through mere association with human-kind, and thus guilty of judgment.  Again, such a theology makes us uncomfortable today and might even go against Christian theology, but it is certainly more faithful to the letter and spirit of the Biblical worldview than is our modern one of protecting the rights of stray animals in our cities, and even rescuing animals.  This is a far cry from the perspective of Genesis, but a topic that takes us away from Scripture, and so perhaps best left to a discussion.  (Just quickly, however, there is nothing wrong with abandoning some Biblical world views.  If you have married ‘for love’, for example, you have abandoned the Biblical world view of arranged marriages between families).

We have a different view of humankind and animal kind today, so for us the suffering and punishment of animals (such as pets) for humanity’s sins is unjust–as indeed it is in our worldview and thought processes.  But for Moses’ generation, where cats were predators and dogs were scavengers who spread disease, animal-kind existed only to serve and/or ‘be used’ by humankind.  Animal-kind serves no purpose in Creation other than for humankind, so it is meaningless from Moses’ God-breathed perspective to keep animal-kind around.

The point of animal-kind’s fate in the Flood, if we can bring it down to such a simplicity, is the undoing of Creation.  Gen 6:5-7 tells us why, so we don’t need to search for answers elsewhere.  God is lord of creation and order just as he is lord of chaos.  He is the Creator of everything.  He was happy with his good creation before, but after humankind became capable of ‘opposition’ or evil in the Garden of Eden, they descended into absolute chaos before the Flood.  In wiping out humankind and the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth, God is reversing his Creation in Gen 1-2 (especially Gen 2) and allowing chaos to return.

Flood - Noah - Ark - Order - Chaos - Biblical world - ancient near east

Animal-kind and the Flood
Source: www.logsoku.com

Imposing the question of the justice of God’s actions is understandable and fair to ask.  But we need to realize that the question is alien to the thought-world of the Bible.  Whether our new thought-world, in which we defend the rights of animals and see them as distinct from us, is ‘endorsed by God’ or not is possibly a subjective question.  For myself, I believe we have ‘grown up’ to some degree and now act in a more ‘Christ-like’ approach to animal-kind, and that God is ‘happy’ with our maturing.  Others see only a downward spiral from the Garden of Eden (a view I can’t gel with the evidence), and others still insist that the Biblical worldview is eternal and straying from it is always bad (a hopelessly contradictory view, in my opinion, since doing so would force us to only have arranged marriages between 20-something year old men and 13 year old girls, which are for example the marriage customs of both the OT and NT).  Any way you look at it, however, the question is alien to the text, and asking the text to deal with a ‘theological problem’ it was never meant to address leads only towards endless subjective ideas and philosophy, tapering off from the ‘evidence’ of the text.


Noah’s Genealogy in Context: Gen 5

For time and complexity reasons, a discussion on the complicated issues behind Noah’s genealogy will only be in the geeky version of this post, found here.  This includes discussion on textual traditions that all have different numbers, as well as ancestors of Noah who, in, the LXX (Septuagint) tradition, are still alive during and after the Flood.



What do you think about the tension of God both repenting of various deeds and thoughts, but also of never doing so according to other passages?  Feel free to comment below!

What do you think about the death of all animal-kind as recorded in Genesis?  Have we ‘developed’ in God’s eyes since the time of the writing of Genesis, and if not, how do we account for the evil of humankind being inflicted on animal-kind as well?



This is the fourth post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first three posts:

1) Click here for a discussion on the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) Click here for a discussion on the New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
3) Click here for a discussion on the Causes of the Flood in Gen 6:5-8


This series is a summary series that focusses on broad findings.  For details, nuances, and debate, see the “geeky version” of this series over here.