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In Genesis 6:7, we read,

"So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”"

I have never understood how it is that God can experience regret. Does this not imply that He made a mistake?

Perhaps it is only because as humans we experience regret frequently associated with a mistake; however, regret simply means "to feel sorrow or remorse". Remorse is defined as (1) deep and painful regret for wrongdoing; compunction. (2) (Obsolete) pity; compassion.

I can't shake the sense that regret always entails "I wish I hadn't done that".

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It's not just that God is unchanging, but that he's omniscient as well. He knew at the creation of the world all things that would come to pass. –  Richard Aug 28 '11 at 13:17
You've defined "regret" as "to feel sorrow or remorse". List the definition of "remorse" in too. –  Pacerier Sep 4 '11 at 19:09
it was the puzzle of the story of noah that most influenced me to start questioning my beliefs. beyond the fact that god regrets creating humans (which seems contrary to omniscience as you point out), the story says he commits mass genocide and destroys nearly all humans, which seems deeply contrary to his supposed omnibenevolance. add to that the bizarre pleasure god finds in the smell of burnt meat (seems a bit beneath the alpha and omega), the strange followup story regarding noah's drunkenness, the absolute lack of any physical evidence for a flood... –  zipquincy Sep 4 '11 at 23:19
... it all adds up to something that sounds like an ancient folk tale that has little or no moral/spiritual lesson to teach. i just can't see how this story could possibly be divinely inspired teaching, to say nothing of being actually true. –  zipquincy Sep 4 '11 at 23:20
@zipquincy These would be great questions to post on this site! Briefly, His "regret" has to be understood in light of His humility in operating within time for our understanding. Regarding genocide - He is God and Judge, everyone dies, and He can arrange these events in his foreknowledge to illustrate something to us. "Pleasure in a smell" is missing the point of the symbolism (Psalm 51:16, Hebrews 10:1-22.) Noah stepped off the boat to a decimated world... scripture doesn't condone his drunkenness, it only records it. There is abundant evidence of a flood. See 1 Corinthians 2:14. –  Jas 3.1 Apr 21 '12 at 16:56

3 Answers 3

God is completely unlike us, so any attempts to describe God using human language are very limited. In this case an attempt is made to express the sorrow of God over the evil and pain introduced into the world, even though he knew it would happen, and he knows he will not only put it right, but make things even better than they were. This passage shows that God is not indifferent toward our problems.

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he can't be completely unlike us if we were made in his image. –  zipquincy May 2 '12 at 19:48
How do you know what God knows? We have built a mountain of assumptions. –  userSeven7s Nov 8 '12 at 5:07
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD." -Isaiah 55:8 (ESV). It is true that in a way we are like God because we are made in his image, in the same way that a portrait is like the person who is the subject of the portrait, which allows us to draw analogies. For example, human fatherhood is analogous to how God is our Father. In the case of this question, God's sorrow is analogous to human regret. However, we must recognize that these analogies are very weak. God is fundamentally different from us, just as a portrait is different from a human. –  Greg Graham Mar 5 '13 at 15:47
"This passage shows that God is not indifferent toward our problems." I find it humorous that God will show his awesome power in order to genocide almost all of humanity, but won't do the same to save it(i.e end infant mortality, starvation, etc).Where is the argument that God doesn't intervene because then there wouldn't be a need for faith? Science doesn't support a literal flood of course, and to say it is allegory is really to just show that God is capricious. But everyone know's the Noah and Gilgamesh stories are almost identical, which gives us a much more reasonable explanation. –  John Edwards Feb 8 at 21:59

Is God completely unchanging in God's dealing with humankind? The scriptural evidence about incidents of prophetic intercession suggests this is not always the case.

For just one example to the contrary, consider a couple of divine-prophetic dialogs. One is the dialog with Abraham, where Abraham held out for mercy against the people of Sodom. (NRSV). In this example Abraham prevailed in the dialog but the outcome did not change.

For another example, here Moses recounts his dialog. (NRSV, Deut 9:11-21)

At the end of forty days and forty nights the LORD gave me the two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant. Then the LORD said to me, "Get up, go down quickly from here, for your people whom you have brought from Egypt have acted corruptly. They have been quick to turn from the way that I commanded them; they have cast an image for themselves."

Furthermore the LORD said to me, "I have seen that this people is indeed a stubborn people. Let me alone that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven; and I will make of you a nation mightier and more numerous than they."

So I turned and went down from the mountain, while the mountain was ablaze; the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. Then I saw that you had indeed sinned against the LORD your God, by casting for yourselves an image of a calf; you had been quick to turn from the way that the LORD had commanded you. So I took hold of the two tablets and flung them from my two hands, smashing them before your eyes.

Then I lay prostrate before the LORD as before, forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin you had committed, provoking the LORD by doing what was evil in his sight. For I was afraid that the anger that the LORD bore against you was so fierce that he would destroy you. But the LORD listened to me that time also.

The LORD was so angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him, but I interceded also on behalf of Aaron at that same time. Then I took the sinful thing you had made, the calf, and burned it with fire and crushed it, grinding it thoroughly, until it was reduced to dust; and I threw the dust of it into the stream that runs down the mountain.

So here is recounted a change of the divine mind in response to prophetic intercession.

It has to be said, "don't try this at home, kids." Moses was willing to place his own favor with God on the line to get God to relent against the Hebrew people.

My point: every time I think I've studied enough to make simple statements about the mind of God, something surprises me and brings me up short.

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Keep in mind that God allowed humans the privilege of free will, knowing the consequences, because he trusted man.

In an earlier verse, Genesis 6:5, the reason for God's regret is described:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every contention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

In this case, the consequence of God's granting man free will was that man grew wicked.

Don't think of it as a mistake--think of it as though God regretted creating man the way he did.

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But, regret is the result of an unforeseen outcome, is it not? Or perhaps this is like when I allow my kid to do something thinking all the while "I know I am going to regret this". –  Lawrence Dol Aug 28 '11 at 7:24
@Software Monkey: That's how I think of it, yes. –  user92 Aug 28 '11 at 8:05
"think of it as though God regretted creating man the way he did." But you only think that if you don't know if it is going to have a good or bad outcome. If God is omniscient he of course KNEW that men were going to be evil, so when it happened, there should have been ZERO surprise or regret. Of course the writers of the time didn't see the philosophical issue of having an all knowing God who can someone still regret, so they had no problem assigning him a human characteristic so he was more relatable. –  John Edwards Feb 8 at 22:05

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