For several years now, I have been working jointly with Frank Andersen of the University of Queensland in Australia on a translation and commentary of Amos, the great eighth-century B.C. prophet. In the course of our detailed work, we have come to know the prophet quite well and indeed have become very attached to him.
You will appreciate how pleased I was, then, to discover that our prophet shared a distinctive characteristic with only one other biblical personage—with the great Moses himself. God repents (
I first noticed this when I was studying the so-called Book of Visions: chapters 7 through 9 of the Book of Amos. Although the Book of Visions starts with chapter 7, chronologically it is bound to the beginning of Amos’s prophetic career. Like all the other prophets from Moses to Zechariah, Amos began his prophetic mission because he had a vision.
The visions in Amos’s Book of Visions are revelations of an impending judgment.
“Then the Lord said ‘… the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword’ ” (7:9).
Amos’s initial response to God’s call is different from any other prophet’s, early or late: Amos immediately intercedes on behalf of the people. Using the pleading imperative, Amos tells Yahweh to forgive Jacob (that is, Israel, God’s people). Even before Amos receives his commission to be a prophet, he wants to be not just a messenger but a partner in the decision-making process. Instead of simply delivering a message of doom, he wants to change the message from doom to something else. The text tells us that Yahweh did in fact repent because of Amos’s plea. As a result of Amos’s intercession, Yahweh changed his mind. This is not just a manner of speaking. According to the prophet, God really intended one thing, then changed his mind and decided not to do it.
Amos’s first vision reads as follows:
“Thus the Lord God showed me: behold, he was forming locusts in the beginning of the shooting up of the latter growth; and lo, it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings.”
“When they had finished devouring the grass of the land, I said
“ ‘O Lord God, forgive, I beseech thee! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!’
“The Lord repented concerning this; ‘It shall not be,’ said the Lord” (7:1–3).
057Another vision of doom immediately follows. And Amos repeats his plea and achieves the same salutary effect God repents (7:6):
“Thus the Lord God showed me: behold, the Lord God was calling for a judgment by fire, and devoured the great deep and was eating up the land.
“Then I said, ‘O Lord God, cease, I beseech thee! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!’ “The Lord repented concerning this; ‘This also shall not be,’ said the Lord God.”
Instances when the Lord (or Yahweh) repents (
1. Yahweh sometimes repents spontaneously, on the basis of events. For example, he repents that he made humanity, and he causes the flood because he was sorry about all the evil the people did. This is negative repentance—to destroy. But there can be positive repentance, too.
2. Yahweh repents when people repent first, as in 058the case of the city of Nineveh in the Book of Jonah. The people repented when they heard Jonah’s message—that within 40 days Nineveh would be destroyed. When they repented, Yahweh repented and did not destroy the city. (Jonah didn’t like this, but he conceded that Yahweh is that kind of God; if people repent, he repents: He is called “The one who repents over evil” (Jonah 4:2) (that is, he repents of the evil he plans to do to others).
3. Yahweh also repents when a prophet intervenes, as Amos did. But that kind of repentance is not as common as I thought it would be. The great Jeremiah is told not even to try to get Yahweh to repent (Jeremiah 15:20). Ezekiel doesn’t think Yahweh is the kind to repent (Ezekiel 24:14).
We are told in Jeremiah 15:1 that there are two great intercessors among the prophets, Moses and Samuel. But the only instance of Yahweh’s repentance involving Samuel is when Yahweh’s regrets making Saul king. Samuel may have interceded with Yahweh, since the text says that he (Samuel) cried all night, but in any case, the divine decision was not reversed. Samuel’s message to Saul was one of rejection (1 Samuel 15:11–31).
Turning to Moses, in Exodus 32 Moses interceded with Yahweh to save Israel when Yahweh decided to destroy his people for making the golden calf. In fact, Moses tells God to repent, and that is even more than Amos does. Amos says to God, “Forgive” (Amos 7:2). On the second occasion, Amos says, “Cease”(Amos 7:5), or we might or we might translate it as “Stop it!” or even “Lay off!” But only Moses has the status and the familiarity that permit him to tell God to “turn (
I want to exclude one episode from considerations because it is not really a case of Yahweh repenting. In Genesis 18:23 ff. Abraham bargains with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah: “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are 50 righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the 50 righteous who are in it?” (Genesis 18:23b–24). Yahweh agrees not to destroy the cities if 50 righteous peoples are found. But what if there are only 45? Abraham asks. Yahweh agrees to save the city if only 45 righteous people are found. Eventually, Abraham bargains Yahweh down to 10 righteous people. But, finally, not even 10 are found. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. In this story, Abraham intercedes with Yahweh. But this is not a true case in which Yahweh repents. Yahweh at the time of Abraham’s intercession really hasn’t decided what to do; he has 059come down to investigate the charges. Abraham is arguing in advance about what Yahweh may find, so no repentance is called for and none is recorded.
So aside from Amos, only Moses intercedes successfully with Yahweh and obtains his repentance. This puts Amos in rather exalted company—only Moses is a precedent. True, Moses has the familiarity with God to tell him to “repent.” Amos asks God to “forgive” and to “stop” or “cease,” and as a result, God “repents.” But still the effect is the same.
This episode in Amos shows who the prophet really was and is—an intercessor eager to save his people even before he became a prophet. There is no reason to think he ever changed his attitude, although he was a faithful prophet and, like the others, delivered the Lord’s message as it was given to him, whether he agreed with it or not.
Just when I thought this little analysis was wrapped up, my colleague Frank Andersen told me that the two words that Moses used for “turn” and “repent” are used elsewhere in the Bible—in the Psalter.
With a little foreboding, I checked and found that indeed the same formula is used in Psalm 90:13. The speaker in that psalm addresses Yahweh with the same words, only even more emphatically. There the words are
This astonished me, and unless the reader is already aware of what I am going to say, what follow, will also astonish him or her. Of the 150 psalms in the Psalter, about half are attributed to David. About a quarter are attributed to an assortment of people, such as sacred singers like Heman and Asaph. Only one psalm, however, is attributed to “Moses, the Man of God.” And that is Psalm 90, the psalm in which God is emphatically told to turn and repent! So the statement I made with respect to Amos—that God repents only as a result of the intercession of Moses and Amos—holds.
Whoever put the heading on Psalm 90, attributing it to “Moses, the Man of God” must have known that Moses alone tells God to “turn” and “repent.” Another possibility—and a more likely one in my view—is that the composer of the psalm based it on the episode in Exodus 32 and imagined in poetic form how Moses may have spoken in the circumstances of Exodus 32. But the reader can read this beautiful psalm and make his or her own decision as to what is most likely.
For several years now, I have been working jointly with Frank Andersen of the University of Queensland in Australia on a translation and commentary of Amos, the great eighth-century B.C. prophet. In the course of our detailed work, we have come to know the prophet quite well and indeed have become very attached to him. You will appreciate how pleased I was, then, to discover that our prophet shared a distinctive characteristic with only one other biblical personage—with the great Moses himself. God repents (hinnaµheµm in Hebrew) as a result of Amos’s intercession. I first noticed this when I […]