Milking the teats off the text: the rabbinical interpretation of Numbers 23:19

In Raphael and Picasso pay attention: God is not a man that he should lie (Numbers 23:19), I focused on the first half of Numbers 23:19, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.”

I argued that from “God is not a man,” or/and “God is not a son of man,” Jewish exegetes derive the following “watertight” conclusion:

Major premise: God is not a man.

Minor premise: Jesus is a man/a son of man

Conclusion: Therefore Jesus is not God.

What I’d like to show here is that although Judaism sees everything in this verse to prove that a man can never be God, Christians should rightly see nothing in this verse that could be used as evidence to either prove or disprove that God can never be a man. that is, take on flesh.

Here are verses 18 and 19 of Numbers 23:
[18] And Balaam took up his discourse and said,

“Rise, Balak, and hear;
give ear to me, O son of Zippor:
[19] God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
(Numbers 23:18-19 ESV).

According to rabbinical exegesis, the following imaginative scenario is consistent with their view. God speaks: “I’ve noticed that some/many/all of my people have this idea that I have arms and legs. Better put them straight. And while I’m about it, I’ll also tell them that I don’t lie, that I don’t change my mind, and that I do what I say; and no one with arms and legs, even with Hebrew arms and legs, better tell me otherwise.”

Numbers 23:19: “God is not a man that He should lie” יט לֹא אִישׁ אֵל וִיכַזֵּב

The verb “(vay)cha’zev” וִיכַזֵּב, refers to being unfaithful to one’s commitment.

Now, why would God want/need to inform his people that He doesn’t have arms and legs (“God is not a man…”)? I answer: the Israelites were not that dumb to think that the “arm of the Lord” meant that he has a physical arm. (Why Rambam, 15 centuries or so later, spent so much effort to hammer this Torah truism home beats me). It had also been drummed into the Israelites for centuries that God was NOT a man. Nor did Israel’s enemies believe that their gods were men, or supermen with very big muscles. For example, consider the Babylonians. When the King asked the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers to interpret his dream, they replied: “The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is NOT OF FLESH” (Daniel 2:11).

In numbers 23, Balak is the King of Moab. The god of Moab was Molech. Although the Moabites had a statue with a big furnace for a stomach into which they threw children, they didn’t believe that Molech had a human body, or any other kind of body. Molech was the sun, or the fire that emanated from it.

Christians with any knowledge of basic grammar are not worried that Judaism uses Numbers 23:19  as a disproof text against their belief that God took on a human body. Judaism, on the other hand, milks the teats off the text to buttress its belief that God could never be a man.

To sum up, both the grammar and the historical context make it clear that God is not trying to prove that He does not have a body. Nothing as outré as that. God is merely saying – contra Judaeorum – that men (all men) and women (all women) lie and go back on their commitments, which is why human beings are not like God – why they need a Saviour. The New Testament reveals  that the Saviour , the Son of God,  took on flesh (John 1) which Christians celebrate this very day of Christmas:

[1:1] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [2] He was in the beginning with God. [3] All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. [4] In him was life, and the life was the light of men. [5] The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. [6] There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. [7] He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. [8] He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
[9] The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. [10] He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. [11] He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. [12] But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, [13] who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
[14] And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-14 ESV).

God took on a body, an unblemished body, to save bodies and souls,  sinful bodies and souls, from eternal fire.

9 thoughts on “Milking the teats off the text: the rabbinical interpretation of Numbers 23:19

  1. Excellent post Raphabog!! Emmanuel – God is with us!


    • David, I think that Luke (comment on 26 June) has milked the cow off its teats on this one. So, I can’t better that. You have also made strong points on the topic. Here is Luke (the modern version). He is responding to P.Helgm ):

      In Yeshayahu 53:3, it says that Israel hid its face from Israel, right?
      In 53:4, according to you, Israel bore its own grief and its own sorrows, but Israel esteemed Israel stricken by G-d and afflicted. Do I have that right so far? Then in 53:5, somehow Israel was wounded for Israel’s transgressions and Israel was crushed for Israel’s iniquities. Upon Israel was the punishment that brought Israel peace and by the lashes that Israel received, it healed itself. Well that seems strange, doesn’t it? Let’s read a bit more…

      In 53:6, we see that all of Israel has gone astray and has turned to its own way, but the L-RD has laid on Israel the iniquity of all of Israel. Well, I guess that makes sense. I mean, where else would He lay it?
      Now wait, this is weird, it says in 53:8, that Israel was cut off from the living for the transgression of my people. Who were Yeshayahu’s people? Israel, right? How was Israel killed for Israel? Something doesn’t add up here. And it gets really strange the more you read. In verse 11 and 12, for instance, it says that Israel bore Israel’s iniquities, the sins of many, AND, somehow, intercedes for Israel.

      Now, “Flem”, the only reason I bring this up is because I know you’re so learned. Can you please take some time to explain this to me and Rey? We’d really appreciate it.

      • bog, David, Luke, and all other missionaries:

        I have noticed that in all of your apologetics regarding Is. 53, the common thread is the insistence on ignoring Is. 52.

        Once missionaries toss out the context, and the clear definition of the narrator of chapter 53, they are free to make up all sorts of identities for the characters. Missionaries cannot stand being confined by Is. 52:15, the verse that immediately precedes Is. 53:1, in which the Bible makes clear that the speakers are the kings of the gentile nations. Similarly, the Book of Isaiah is explicit on the identity of the suffering servant: it is the Jews (Is. 41:8, 42:1, 43:20, 44:1, 44:2, 45:4, 49:3, 65:9, 65:15, 65:22, etc.).

        In excising Is. 53 from the rest of the Bible and its context, the missionaries have freed themselves to assign alternative identities to the parties, so although G-d emphatically and repeatedly chose Israel, the missionaries chose Jesus to be G-d’s suffering servant. Fancy that fancy footwork of theirs. Fast and loose with the word of G-d.

  2. Pingback: Resources for Numbers 23:18 - 19
  3. Good writing. If you describe Numbers 23:19 as that “God is merely saying – contra Judaeorum – that men (all men) and women (all women) lie and go back on their commitments,” a problem exists nonetheless. It is true that God does not go back on His commitments. To this end Jeremiah 33:25 says, “So said the Lord: If not My covenant with the day and the night, that the statutes of heaven and earth I did not place…” Replacing the covenant (of the Jews, with any of its details) with another, modified covenant, certainly qualifies God as going back on His commitment to that original covenant. That He no longer expects Jews to observe it, or that He no longer considers observance of the Law as the source of salvation, qualifies God as having lied. If “lying” means to present information with the intent to deceive, then God certainly lied (to all Mankind) when He said, “You shall therefore obey the Lord, your God, and fulfill His commandments and His statutes, which I command you this day.” (Deuteronomy 9:10)

    • Yaniv, thank you for your important comment.

      God is both transcendent/eternal and immanent. He relates with us through time – naturally (in nature and obviously so). The Bible is both an historical record where God (who is all knowing and all powerful) works out His decrees in time and space.

      Regarding your point about the covenant with Israel, God says:

      Jeremiah 31:31-33
      , the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: 32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them, saith Jehovah. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith Jehovah: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people:

      I found this explanation of the problem by John Frame useful:

      Does God Change His Mind?

      by John M. Frame

      Sometimes in the Bible, God appears to change his mind. For example, in Gen. 6:5, he declares that he is grieved that he made man. And in the prophecy of Jonah, he announces that Ninevah will be destroyed (Jonah 3:4); but Ninevah is not destroyed, because the city repents of sin before the true God.

      Jonah understands, however, that God’s “change of mind” is merely the expression of a deeper unchangeability: the constancy of his character as abounding in love (4:2) (see also Ex. 34:5-6, Jer. 18:7-9). So God’s unchangeable nature and his historical actions are related in subtle ways.

      God’s omnipresence may be one key to the problem. He is omnipresent, not only in space (Jer. 23:24, Psm. 139), but also in time: as God with us, he is both here and now. He is transcendent, the Lord of space and time, and also immanent, the Lord present in space and time. As the transcendent Lord of time, God sees all times equally and acts as their sovereign, working all things according to the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:11). As the immanent, omnipresent Lord, he is here and now, an actor on the historical stage. Within time, he sees time as we do, the past as past, the future as future. He responds appropriately to each moment, each day, as it comes: with rejoicing or grief. When his rejoicing turns to grief, or vice versa, we can say as the biblical writers do that he changes. But these changes are not changes to his eternal plan. Rather they represent his changing relationships to creatures, as he executes his eternal plan through history.

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