God is not a man, that He should lie,
Nor a son of man, that He should repent;
Has He said, and will He not do it?
Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?
We’ve been looking at Walter Moberly’s book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture. The verse quoted to open this post is Numbers 23:19, part of Balaam’s response to Balak when he was asked to look upon Israel and curse them. (I’ve quoted the NASB, Moberly prefers the NRSV which uses human being instead of man and mortal instead of son of man.) This is a verse that many will take as axiomatic and use as a “proof text” for divine sovereignty and a denial of divine repentance as a theological principle. Moberly also points to 1 Sam 15:29: “Also the Glory of Israel will not deceive or change his mind; for he is not a mortal that he should change his mind.”
That God does not lie, deceive, or change is mind is often thrown out as a theological principle. On one level it is something that we all affirm. Certainly God does not lie or deceive. But does he change his mind in response to human action? To address this question Moberly asks what these verses mean in the context of the stories in which they occur.
If to say that God repents implies that God’s relationship with humanity in general, and with Israel in particular, is a genuine and responsive relationship, in which what people do and how they relate to God matters to God, does the denial that God repents deny such mutuality of relationship? Such a denial would surely be prima facie unlikely, for the simple reason that it would deny something central, rather than peripheral, to Israel’s understanding of God and to much historic Jewish and Christian belief and practice.
Of course, such unlikeliness does not rule out the possibility. … Nonetheless, as with the working assumption that the voices of Balaam and Samuel are reliable, one ought to start with a working assumption that their denial may not be of a central principle, but of something else, and only abandon the assumption if one finds that it does not and indeed cannot do justice to the relevant texts. (p. 129)
In both Numbers and 1 Samuel the word niḥam translated repent or change his mind, is contrasted with lie or deceive and with human behavior. Thus “it follows that unreliable speech is being denied in the denial of divine repentance on the lips of Balaam and Samuel” and “There is a qualitative difference between divine and human repentance.” (p. 131)
The concern is to preserve what is said of God – that “God does not repent” – from possible associations to do with the lack of integrity and faithfulness that regularly characterize human speech; God is true and faithful in a way that people are not. Thus it should be apparent that what is being denied here is not the same as what is being affirmed in Jeremiah 18:7-10. It is not mutuality and responsiveness in relationship, but insincerity and faithlessness that are specified for denial. In other words two different topics are in view in what looks like positive and negative statements about one and the same thing. (p. 132)