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In a discussion about the trinity, I was asked about Numbers. I was completely stumped.

Numbers 23:19

God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?

"If Numbers says that God is not a man, how can Jesus be God?" Is the question I was presented and I had no answer.

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    The question may be better on BH.SE, but it is an interesting one here. – Dick Harfield Feb 19 '16 at 20:07
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    @LeeWoofenden do you think that the answer would be different between trinitanian denominations? I think they would agree here - but that is just my opinion for what it is worth. – The Freemason Feb 20 '16 at 14:19
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    Jesus = God, God =/= Jesus, Jesus as man = God, God =/= man. Real Trinitarianism believed this is all true or else we get a Jesus that isn't God or we get three gods. – Joshua Feb 23 '16 at 21:19
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    @AthanasiusOfAlex I think you've just opened Pandora's box. I would append your comment with "God is eternally a Trinity... according to the trinitarian doctrine" – The Freemason Feb 25 '16 at 14:22
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    This would not be a good question on BH.SE since it jumps straight from the Hebrew Bible to Jesus and presupposes a belief that did not exist until thousands of years after this text was written (Trinity) without connecting the dots along the way. This is fundamentally a Christian theological question, not a strictly textual question. – Dan May 12 '16 at 21:39
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This is not a very good Trinitarian objection for a number of reasons. First, the incarnation occurred at a definite point in history. As the Nicene/Constantinopolitan creed states, "[He] was made man." At the point Numbers became canonical, the Son of God was not yet incarnate.

But perhaps more fundamentally, we should not read the Bible in a rigidly literal way that misses the effect of what is being said. It's pretty clear what the point of the statement is: God isn't like sinners. God isn't like you people who go back on your covenants and can't be trusted for your words because he is fundamentally different.

Christians often refer to the things that prompt us to sin as, "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil," but Jesus had literal flesh, he came into the literal world, and was tempted by the literal Devil and he never sinned. That's the problem with this form of literal reading. The "flesh" that prompts sin in humans is the fallen nature of humanity, but is unfallen and perfect in Jesus. The "world" is not the planet itself, but the system of fallen sinners who form a sinfully willing collective that drives people, places, and things towards brokenness and godlessness. And the Devil can only tempt by deception and suggestion, something that leaves fallen humanity vulnerable, but divine humanity (Jesus) triumphant.

To say God is not a man that he should lie, is not to deny that God became man in the person of Christ, but to deny that God is like man in his fallen state. The fallenness is implied just as it is when the Bible speaks of worldliness, fleshliness, and temptation from the Devil.

  • Just FYI, the Nicene creed explicitly says that he was NOT made as you quote: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/633/… – The Freemason Apr 6 '16 at 13:35
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    @TheFreemason the Son was not made, but he was made to be man. It's sometimes translated "became incarnate". That's what I'm asserting in this answer, not that the Son himself was made or created. Just that the incarnation was an event of history that came to pass and was not eternally so – Ben Mordecai Apr 6 '16 at 13:39
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    The original text of the Creed reads, “[Πιστεύομεν εἰς τὸν Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν] σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου,” literally, “[We believe in Jesus Christ], made flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” The key word is σαρκωθέντα, which is the aorist passive participle of σαρκόω “to make flesh.” (The noun form, σάρκωσις, is just the Greek word for “Incarnation.”) The use of the aorist means that the Council Fathers intended to say that the Incarnation happened a given moment in history. – AthanasiusOfAlex May 13 '16 at 3:48
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Balaam's second prophecy, from which you quote, may not be reliable. The context of this passage is the story of a Moabite king Balak and questionable prophet named Balaam. Consider the introduction to the story from Numbers 22-24.

Numbers 22:4-7 And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time. So he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the River, in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people came out of Egypt; behold, they cover the surface of the land, and they are living opposite me. Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed. So, the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam and repeated Balak’s words to him.”

It's a good story that spans Numbers 22-24. Balaam is clearly not a prophet being consulted. He is a diviner who is collecting a fee from the enemy of the Isrealites to communicate with their God in order to obtain a curse upon them. Balaam and the King sacrifice animals to Yahweh, and Balaam is successful1 in his attempt to contact Yahweh, who forbids Balaam to place a curse on Israel, and so he pronounces a blessing instead. However, presumably in the interest of collecting the fee, Balaam continues to work with Balak to divine a curse against Israel.

Numbers 23:13-16 Then Balak said to him, “Please come with me to another place from where you may see them, although you will only see the extreme end of them and will not see all of them; and curse them for me from there.” So he took him to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each altar. And he said to Balak, “Stand here beside your burnt offering while I myself meet the Lord over there.” Then the Lord met Balaam and put a word in his mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.”

Yahweh commands that Balaam speaks a blessing over Israel. The discourse that Balaam then makes is the source of your verse. After the discourse, Balak again suggests that they visit another place and try to obtain a curse instead. Balaam repeats the routine, hoping again for a different result. Indeed, this third time the Spirit of Yahweh enters Balaam.

Numbers 23:27-24:3 So Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor which overlooks the wasteland. Balaam said to Balak, “Build seven altars for me here and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here.” Balak did just as Balaam had said, and offered up a bull and a ram on each altar. When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go as at other times to seek omens but he set his face toward the wilderness. And Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe; and the Spirit of God came upon him.

Balaam's usual procedure is the reading of omens. He is a diviner, not a prophet. A passage cited below tells us that Balaam is from Mesopotamia not Israel so it's likely that these sacrifices are not being offered to God in the prescribed way. The Scripture says that The Spirit of Yahweh came over him (v. 24:2), but only after he had delivered the discourse from which you quote (23:7) and sacrificed animals upon strange fire2 a third time, after Yahweh had already delivered his word twice.

Balaam then pronounces a blessing over Israel that sounds like genuine prophecy. He blesses Israel, then speaks to the Canaanite kings saying, "And now, behold, I am going to my people; come, and I will advise you what this people will do to your people in the days to come.” He pronounces destruction over them, and then3 announces the coming Messiah.

As I said, it's an interesting story. It ends with Belaam and Balak simply parting ways, though we find much later in our reading that the Israelites put Balaam to death by the sword for practicing divination:

Numbers 31:8 They killed the kings of Midian along with the rest of their slain: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, the five kings of Midian; they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.

Deuteronomy 23:3-5 No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the assembly of the Lord, because they did not meet you with food and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless, the Lord your God was not willing to listen to Balaam, but the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you because the Lord your God loves you.

Joshua 13:22 The sons of Israel also killed Balaam the son of Beor, the diviner, with the sword among the rest of their slain.

Balaam is remembered as immoral, even in the Revelation to John:

2 Peter 2:15 forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness;

Jude 1:11 Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah [cf. Numbers 16].

Revelation 2:14 But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.

Because of these, Balaam's first and second prophecies, from before the Spirit entered into him, might be called into question.


1. I like to think that this does not imply that Balaam was a prophet or even a genuine diviner, only that the Spirit he was attempting to contact in this case was genuine, and had something to say to the enemies of his people.

2. cf. Leviticus 10:1

3. Suprise!

2

This is a terrible objection to the Incarnation. In fact, the very word 'incarnation' means becoming or taking on flesh (from Latin). (Jn 1:1,14; Phil 2:5-11)

So already, God is seen to not be a man: the fact that He took on flesh means He is eternally other than having flesh, and therefore not a man.

In order for this to be a valid objection, God would need to be intrinsically a man by nature/definition ('God was always a man' and not 'God took on a human nature' which makes Jesus, a man, technically God because His Person is none other than the Divine Word: God).

Furthermore, it defines the Godhead as the human nature of Jesus Christ (i.e. alone). Which is not correct. Yes, it's technically incorrent to say 'God is Jesus.' Because it defines God as 'Jesus' only. Whereas Jesus is God—God referring to His nature (divine)—is semantically true.

But this argument is very weak even if it had any substance. That is, God is clearly using a rhetorical comparison between the Almighty and Eternal God, and His creature, man, who is weak and forgets etc, whereas He doesn't. He isn't just claiming that God isn't a man: no one needed told that.

This is what I mean:

"God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent:"

This never meant God was claiming He wasn't a man (He isn't, but that's not His intention in saying this). Again, people didn't think this. This was pedagogic/didactic. Imagine someone today saying 'I'm not a politician' as an emphatic way of saying you aren't corrupt, for example. They are notorious for that, men are notoriously distracted and unsure of mind, unlike God: His whole point here.

('son of man' is a Hebraism for 'man,' that's all it means—albeit perhaps with a nuance of emphasis on the humility of the human nature; the 'man, that He should lie...son of man, that He should repent...' is a classic Hebraistic parallelism and is common to the Hebrew Bible: "My soul doth magnify the Lord; and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour")

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Though the trinity had existed, the incarnation had not. The statement therefore is not out of place.

As to future events, the incarnation having a will united to that of God the Father, mirrors his perfect nature falling short of the sinful nature of fallen man.

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The NIV translates it as “God is not human that he should lie, not a human being that he should change his mind.” We all know that failing to come good on promises and changing our mind about our pledge is a typical human weakness. But God does not have any such human weaknesses! He fulfills every promise He makes and to Him all promises are ‘Yes and Amen (2 Cor.1:20). At a certain appointed time, Jesus was incarnated/born as a human (see Philippians 2:7 and Galatians 4:4) but even then, He remained sinless despite the fact He was subject to all the temptations that human beings are prone to (Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22).

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