February 16, 2011 - Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

God is using language throughout the story of Noah that seems strange. He is “sorry that he had made man on the earth.” God cannot be sorry; he cannot actually regret something. Not only would a literal understanding of this language put God into time, but it would deny his omniscience. This is not a case of trying to defend my own idea of God against Scripture. God is constantly regretting things in the Old Testament, but many verses also make clear that he does not regret anything. For instance, shortly after announcing that he regrets making Saul the king of Israel, he says through Samuel the prophet: “The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”

What are we supposed to do with this contradiction? It seems clear that the phrase “God regrets” is a metaphor, a figure of speech, but it must mean something. Throughout the Scriptures, there are two kinds of regrets that God is said to have. In the one case, he has set forth a plan to good purpose and seen it ruined by the sins of the people involved. In the other case, he threatens punishment against a city or nation and then, when they repent, he relents, as he seems sorry today for having flooded the earth. The suggestion is that human action affects God’s plan.

The history of the world could have been different, if we were different. In this subtle interplay between free will and an eternal plan, God is ready for whatever we do, but that does not mean that we are forced to do it. We make a choice, and we find that God had always accounted for that choice. God planned a world outside of Eden, but if Adam had not sinned it would have been unnecessary. God planned a flood to destroy human civilization, but if more people had been like Noah there would have been no flood. We will never find God unprepared for our actions, but we could always have done something different. Every punishment is eternally part of God’s will, but it is never undeserved. Every miracle is eternally part of God’s will, but it happened because someone prayed for it. God knows right now when the world will end; he knows what you will have for lunch today. He knows everything that has been, that is, that will be.