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B'Midbar/Numbers 23:19 G-d is not a man that He should lie, or a son or man that He should repent. Will He say and not do, or speak and not fulfil?
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This verse, much beloved as a proof-text ofHaShem's consistency and unchangeability, is quite busy once we start to look at it carefully, but a deeper examination will help us to understand how and when it should be used and what it is really saying. Instead of being spoken, as might be expected, by one of the prophets of Israel, these words come at the start of Balaam's second pronouncement over Israel. Balaam was a Gentile prophet, some would say sorcerer, whom Balak the king of Moab has hired to curse Israel as they lay on the plains of Moab waiting to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land. Balaam has already made it plain to Balak that, "I have no power of my own to say anything. The word that G-d puts in my mouth is what I will say" (B'Midbar 22:38, CJB) and after his first oracle - effectively blessing Israel - he reminds Balak again, "Mustn't I take care to sat just what Adonai puts in my mouth?" (23:12, CJB). Now, at the second pronouncement, he starts by telling Balak to "Listen up and pay attention" (v. 18, my paraphrase) and follows up with this verse.
The first phrase seems straightforward: "G-d is not man that He should lie." The verb - Pi'el prefix 3ms from the root , usually "to lie or deceive" - is preceded by a vav that is better taken as 'that' than 'and'. Literally, "G-d is not a man that He will lie", it makes sense to take a subjunctive tone with the English 'should'. Interestingly, the same verb and stem by the prophets. Isaiah speaks of "a spring of water whose watersdo not fail" (Isaiah 58:11, NASB), adding the idea of running out or being exhausted; perhaps even "sucked dry". Habakkuk applies it to a vision: "For the vision is yet for the appointed time; it hastens toward the goal, and it will not fail" (Habakkuk 2:3, NASB); the verb here seems to mean 'unfulfilled'. So G-d not only will G-d not lie, but He cannot run out of capacity or be exhausted in doing what He has said; His words or vision will not be unfulfilled.
The second phrase also seems uncontentious: "or a son of man that He should change His mind". Here the vav that starts the phrase is 'or' rather than 'and', but could be taken as 'and' if the , 'not' that starts the verse is 'gapped' into the second phrase: "and He is not". , "son of man" is taken to denote a class, in the same way as , "the sons of Israel" is often taken as the class of 'Israelites' and , "son of a prophet" (Amos 7:14) can be rendered "a prophet's disciple" (JPS) or even "one of the guild prophets" (CJB). The verb - Hitpa'el 3ms prefix form of the root , "to repent, regret, seek release from" (Davidson) - brings us squarely up against one of the ways in which the Bible is challenged or attacked. The same verb is used in a very parallel sounding pronouncement spoken by the prophet and judge Samuel to Saul, as he tells him that G-d is taking the kingdom away from him: "the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind" (1 Samuel 15:29, NASB). Yet what is G-d doing in this action but changing His mind? The text itself seems to confirm this when it says, just six verses later, "the L-RD regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel" (v.35, NASB). Jacob Milgrom comments that "G-d may change His mind, but He is not capricious, His standards remain." He does not change His mind on a capricious or willful basis, on a whim as it were, but only in line with His unchanging standards and to correct a situation where man has fallen away from his part in the agreement. Milgrom explains that "He may change His mind as a result of prophetic intercession" - and here he points to the sin of the Calf when HaShem says, I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them" (Shemot 32:9-10, NASB), but after Moshe prays for the people and reminds HaShem of His promises to the patriarchs, He then relents: "So the L-RD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people" (v. 14, NASB) - or repentance, such as the people of Nineveh: When G-d saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then G-d relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it" (Jonah 3:10, NASB). On both occasions, G-d spoke (rightly) in judgement, but repealed the sentence when appealed to by prayer or repentance.
The last phrase - "Will He say and not do, or speak and not fulfil?" - also has its nuances to explore. The first word, starts with an interrogative hay, rather than a definite article. It is a question rather than a statement: "Will He ..." rather than "He is the one who ..." TheRashbam explains that "the text is framing a question - how could G-d lie? how could He change His mind?" Targum Onkelos is so shocked at even the suggestion that G-d could lie so changes the whole verse around to say "Not like the word of men is the word of G-d. Men speak and lie. Also unlike the deeds of the sons of flesh, who decide to do things but change their minds. He says and it is done and all His word are fulfilled." Rashi seems to see Balaam mocking Balak, saying, "He has already sworn to bring them in and to give them the Land of the seven nations, and are you under the impression that you can kill them in the wilderness?" Rabbi Hirsch, on the other hand, is very definite: "G-d does not speak in the ambiguous words of the oracles. If G-d says that something is blessed, then it is blessed and there is no phase of it which is accessible to reverse. And if G-d has once said, He does not afterwards change His mind and give permission for the opposite." The phrase and comments remind one of G-d's question: "Shall I bring to the point of birth, and not give delivery?" (Isaiah 66:9, NASB).
TheBekhor Shor says, "There are three scenarios in which human beings do not fulfil a promise - either they decide not to, or they are unable to, or the recipient of the promise has not fulfilled his side of the bargain. Balaam's reply pertains to the first two of these." Is he suggesting that these three criteria also apply to G-d? The text seems to tell us unambiguously that the first one - deciding not to - is not in G-d's character. The second - being unable to - doesn't apply to G-d; He is never unable to do what He has said. Yet the third - that G-d is released from His commitment if the human partner fails - also needs addressing. Is G-d's faithfulness conditioned upon man's behaviour or consistency? Just a few verses before the Isaiah text above, the prophet says on behalf of G-d: "So will I choose to mock them, to bring on them the very thing they dread. For I called and none responded, I spoke and none paid heed. They did what I deem evil and chose what I do not want" (Isaiah 66:4, JPS). This demonstrates that G-d continues to call and reach out to people, but that they choose not to listen or pay attention when He speaks; what happens then is not a petulant or vengeful response by G-d, but the natural consequences of man's own decisions.
Another verse that is frequently connected with our text is, "Yeshua the Messiah is the same, yesterday, today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). How do we connect this to our study so far? We can see from the gospels that Yeshua's approach to different people varies, depending on who they were - the rich young ruler, the questioning lawyer, Nicodemus - and where they were, their needs and issues: the lepers, Jairus, the Syro-Phoenecian woman. Some He touched, some He spoke to, some He called down out of trees, some He ate with and some He went to parties with. Although His approach may have varied, however, His grace, truth and mercy remain constant. His arms are always open, forgiveness in His name and relationship with G-d are always available to anyone who asks or will respond to G-d's call. Yeshua never asked anyone to pay for relationship with Him, but He told the crowds plainly that knowing G-d was worth everything they had: "The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it" (Matthew 13:45-46, NASB). And His valuation can be trusted, because G-d never lies or changes His mind - He packages His offer so that the maximum number of people, including you, will want to accept it!
Further Study: Isaiah 55:10-11; 2 Corinthians 1:18-20
Have you taken G-d at His word and bought into the offer He has made? You
won't regret it, for He alone can be trusted, for He is true and will
fulfill every good thing that He has promised.
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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© Jonathan Allen, 2015
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.