Well, this is weird
Among the most difficult verses in the Torah’s account of the earliest generations of humanity (which, of course, has no shortage of puzzling verses to puzzle over), Bereishit 6:3 states: “And Hashem said, My spirit will not judge Man forever, in that he is [also?] flesh (b’shagam hu basar), and his days will be 120 years.”
What does He mean by “spirit”? What has this spirit been judging, and why will it not continue? Which “forever”; is this a statement about misbehavior of the times that must be stopped, or is God making a statement about the future of humankind? Is the 120-year time limit a matter of how long God will give the current populace to repent before facing a flood of destruction, or is it a proclamation that no human will ever live to test God’s patience longer than 120 years? What does b’shagam even mean, and what does human fleshiness have to do with anything?
Multiple commentators frame their thoughts on this verse in the context of its difficulty. Ohr Hachaim, for instance, opens with “This text requires someone to explain [lit. tell] it. Our Sages, of blessed memory, derived many interpretations about it, but the straightforward meaning of the text is not known.”
After that lengthy introduction about complexity and difficulty, we have little space left for insights into the meaning of the verse – but as it happens, one might suggest that complexity and difficulty are precisely the point.
Is God indecisive? (I’m not sure)
Rashi explains the first part of the verse, “My spirit will not judge man forever,” as a reflection on what sounds (somewhat shockingly) like indecision on God’s part: “My Spirit has been contending within Me whether to destroy or to have mercy; this deliberation will not be in My Spirit forever – i.e., for a long time.”
As a fairly indecisive individual, I can relate to this portrayal of internal debate, as well as to its potential to continue indefinitely. People struggling with indecision are often reminded that failure to make a decision is itself a decision; if nothing is decided, nothing will be done, thus a decision has been made toward inaction. If God continues to struggle, as it were, over how to respond to the sins of mankind – He will be essentially taking the path of least resistance toward the side of mercy. Better to make that choice actively than leave the decision in limbo forever, when perhaps they really should have been punished.
It might seem strange to portray this type of struggle on God’s part (though there is much discussion in midrashic tradition about God’s different attributes pushing toward different actions), but perhaps we can gain insight through a deeper consideration of the verse and, more generally, what it means to make decisions.
Based on Seforno’s commentary, I would suggest that the verse alludes not to an internal conflict between different aspects or opinions of God, but an external conflict between different facts about humanity. On one hand, humans were created in the image of God; they have incredible potential and capabilities, and should be held strictly accountable for misbehavior. On the other hand, “for he is also flesh” (see Rashi for an explanation of the word b’shagam): humans are not only like the divine, but are also drawn by their physicality to sin, and therefore it is appropriate to extend mercy to them for failures to rise above that challenge.
Mutually exclusive truths?
How is it possible for there to be a conflict within God about any decision? Because there is a conflict within the reality about which He must decide. Because the world, and the humans, that He created are legitimately complex. It is true that they deserve punishment, and it is also true that they deserve mercy. How is a God of truth to decide between two things that are true?
As a fairly indecisive individual, I can relate. People who struggle with indecision do so because they see the truth of both sides; because things are complicated.
And so what is God, or a simple human, to do?
Perhaps the only thing we can do is look for a balance, some way to meet both truths: “His days will be 120 years,” a deservedly merciful opportunity to improve and meet some divine potential, and after that – justice.
And we can take comfort in the idea that we’re not alone, that even God faces tough decisions sometimes. Because truth is complex, and the struggle is real.