Why did God say He was sorry that He had created man in Genesis 6? Does God make mistakes—was He saying that He is not perfect?
Believers would respond, “Impossible! God is perfect in every way. God cannot make mistakes. He doesn’t change, and He always accomplishes what He sets out to do!”
Through the prophet Malachi, God said, “For I am the LORD, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6). Earlier, through another prophet, God said: “I am God … declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure’” (Isaiah 46:9-10).
Why was God sorry?
But the Bible also says this about God: “And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart” (Genesis 6:6, King James Version). If God is perfect, meaning He has not sinned and never will sin, why did He repent? What did He need to repent of? The New King James Version translates this verse: “And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (emphasis added throughout except where noted).
Even though God didn’t sin, did He make a mistake in creating man? That would seem to contradict a consistent theme of the Bible, such as this powerful verse: “Great is our Lord, and mighty in power, His understanding is infinite” (Psalm 147:5). Scripture consistently assures us that God is omniscient—that He knows everything. As such, He knew in advance mankind’s weaknesses, including our proclivity to sin.
Since the Bible cannot contradict itself (see John 10:35), how should we understand God’s statement in Genesis 6:6—that He was “sorry” and “grieved in His heart” for having made man? To understand what God was saying, let’s begin by noting the context of this passage.
What grieved God?
“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (Genesis 6:5-8).
Looking at the big picture expressed in these verses, we note that God didn’t make a mistake in creating humans. Instead, He was grieving because of the mistakes humans were making. The object of God’s grief was mankind—not some action on His part. Now let’s consider the feelings God was expressing.
Biblical figures of speech
Because God made humans and knew in advance their weaknesses, He was not surprised or caught off guard by their behavior. Even so, God loves His creation and wants all to reap the rewards of obedience. To help readers understand His power, nature and deep love for mankind, He often inspired the writers of the Bible to use figures of speech.
At times, God inspired these writers to describe Him as having physical features including eyes, hands and arms. This style of writing is called anthropomorphism—meaning “man form.” On occasion, God also inspired them to convey His responses in terms of human feelings or emotions. This style is called anthropopathism—meaning “human feelings or emotions.”
The passage in Genesis 6:6 employs this latter figure of speech. By using human terminology for feelings, we can understand how God felt after seeing humanity’s wickedness.
Understanding “it repented the LORD”
Let’s now turn our attention to this word repented. There is an important distinction between human repentance or sorrow and God’s feelings that are expressed in Genesis 6:6. Human repentance or sorrow is over a sin or wrongdoing. God, on the other hand, is free from sin.
The Hebrew word translated “repented” or “sorry” is naham. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament comments:
“1344 [Strong’s equivalent is H5162] (naham) be sorry, repent, regret. … The KJV translates the Niphal of ‘nhm’ [as] ‘repent’ 38 times. The majority of these instances refer to God’s repentance, not man’s. The word most frequently employed for man’s repentance is ‘shub’ (q.v.) meaning ‘to turn’ (from sin to God). Unlike man, who under the conviction of sin feels genuine remorse and sorrow, God is free from sin. Yet the Scriptures inform us that God repents (Gen. 6:6-7; Ex. 32:14; Judg. 2:18; 1 Sam. 15:11 et al.), i.e. He relents or changes His dealings with man according to His Sovereign purposes.
“On the surface, such language seems inconsistent, if not contradictory, with certain passages which affirm God’s immutability: ‘God is not a man … that He should repent’ (1 Samuel 15:29 contra v. 11): ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind’ (Psalm 110:4).
“When naham is used of God, however, the expression is anthropopathic and there is not ultimate tension. From man’s limited, earthly, finite perspective it only appears that God’s purposes have changed. Thus the OT states that God ‘repented’ of the judgments or ‘evil’ which He has planned to carry out (1 Chron. 21:15; Jer. 18:8; 26:3, 19; Amos 7:3; Jonah 3:10). Certainly Jeremiah 18:7-10 [quoted below] is a striking reminder that from God’s perspective, most prophecy (excluding Messianic predictions) is conditional upon the response of men.
“In this regard, A.J. Heschel (‘The Prophets,’ p. 194) has said, ‘No word is God’s final word. Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in man’s conduct brings about a change in God’s judgment’” (2003, comments on naham).
In essence, God repented or was sorry because of mankind’s wickedness. When humans truly repent of their sins, there is deep, heartfelt emotion. Likewise, God has a deep level of emotion when He sees mankind sin—yet not because of sin on His part.
Free moral agency
To understand why God’s feelings change regarding humans, we must note that God created us with free moral agency—the right to make our own choices. Jeremiah clearly shows that most prophecy is conditional upon the response of men:
“The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it” (Jeremiah 18:7-10).
These verses plainly reveal that God’s repentance, naham, is man-dependent or conduct-dependent. God has created us as free moral agents to choose life or death, and His judgments are frequently dependent on our conduct or obedience to His commands.
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown’s Commentary on the Whole Bible further clarifies Genesis 6:6: “God cannot change (Mal. 3:6; Jas. 1:17); but, by language suited to our nature and experience, He is described [here] as about to alter His visible procedure towards mankind—from being merciful to long-suffering, He was about to show Himself a God of judgment; … He was about to introduce a terrible display of His justice (Eccles. 8:11)” (emphasis original).
Why was God expressing this kind of emotion?
As we have already noted, God was grieved because He saw the depth of evil mankind had chosen as a way of life (Genesis 6:5). God did not make a mistake in creating mankind. He was sorry because of the wretched state rebellious man had achieved by the time of Noah.
Does God make mistakes? No. No fault lay with God. He did not feel He had made a mistake in creating man, nor was He bewildered. On the contrary, subsequent passages show that He continued to work with humans and, specifically, with Noah, who “found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (verse 8). Noah, contrary to society around him, was a just man who walked with God (Genesis 6:9).
A lesson for us
Today, we are free to choose whether we will obey God’s gracious commands or not. And just like in Noah’s day, God will either be pleased or sorry for the choices we make. Be sure to take advantage of the resources on this website to help you please your Creator.
Rather than being sorry for your choice, God earnestly desires to be pleased with your commitment to follow Him. Choose God’s way of life so He can joyfully welcome you into His Kingdom, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant. … Enter into the joy of your lord” (Matthew 25:23).