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Numbers 23:19 (KJV)

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?

Exodus 32:14 (KJV)

And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.

Hebrew word used in Numbers 23:19 וְיִתְנֶחָם

Hebrew word used in Exodus 32:14 וַיִּנָּחֶם

How can these verses hermeneutically harmonize?

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  • Related: "Does God have regret or not in 1st Samuel 15?" – Dɑvïd Apr 6 '17 at 9:30
  • BTW, Google translate translates the two words as (in order) "and be comforted" and "and he was saddened". Yes, Google translate isn't the best place for translations, but nevertheless it is a place for translations – A Child of God Apr 7 '17 at 21:51
  • The rendering of the Septuagint is slightly different, alluding to an appeasement of divine wrath, rather than a total and complete abandonment of all and any form of punishment; see later in that same chapter, verses 27-28. – Lucian Sep 7 '18 at 12:08
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I think a picture well painted of viewing these texts comes from John Piper in The Repentance of God

God’s repentance is not like man’s. I take that to mean that God is not taken off guard by unexpected turns of events like we are. He knows all the future. (“Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them,” Isaiah 42:9). Nor does God ever sin. So his repentance is not owing to lack of foresight nor to folly. Rather, the repentance of God is his expression of a different attitude and action about something past or future—not because events have taken him off guard, but because events make the expression of a different attitude more fitting now than it would have been earlier. God’s mind “changes,” not because it responds to unforeseen circumstances, but because he has ordained that his mind accord with the way he himself orders the changing events of the world.

In Exodus 32:11-14 we are given a clear view of personal relation to YHWH

And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, LORD, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand? Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever. And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.

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?

He is not a man. A man must repent! His soul depends on it. YHWH does not. So how much less like man could he be when He hears the cry of Moses and is moved to put off His perfectly just wrath? He does not 'repent' because He was wrong, He does it purely from love.

So together these two verses paint a greater portrait of YHWH's character. He is moved by those who love Him, not moved because He was wrong and therefore must move, like a man.

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  • This interpretation suggests that God somehow "needed" to hear Moses plea before forgiving the people for their idolatry. Is that what you are suggesting here? – user33515 Apr 6 '17 at 11:56
  • @33515, I would stand by saying God needs nothing. Moses needed God to hear his plea. I'm not sure how I gave the impression God is in need of something. I may need more help to see that, and possibly reword if that is the case. – N.Ish Apr 6 '17 at 16:33
  • There are a lot of needy people around here – A Child of God Apr 7 '17 at 21:53
  • Could we say that the contradiction between 1 Samuel 15:29 and 1 Samuel 15:35 could be associated with literary devices of hyperbole, figure of speech? In other words, for God to repent or to regret something to do with his actions is so disturbing to God Himself that is why Samuel says in 1 Samuel 15:29 that God "will not lie nor repent" ? – crazyTech Dec 31 '20 at 0:20
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"Repentance" cannot mean for God to consider his past actions, think they were wrong, and wish he didn't do them. Modern usage of "repentance" makes the term misleading when ascribed to God, and it is likely that when the King James was translated, the English term's semantic range was broader. We might instead say God, "relented." God does not get new information, nor does he ever make errors or unwise decisions. In this context "repenting" is for God to take a course contrary to the actions he would have taken if human behaviors continued on their course.

You can see this pattern in the book of Jonah. Jonah's sermon to Nineveh was "Yet three days and Nineveh will be overthrown." On a purely factual basis, this statement is untrue, since when Nineveh humbled themselves and repented, God likewise relented of the disaster he had planned. God's word to Nineveh had an unstated contingency, just as God's word against Israel had an unstated contingency.

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  • that's good doctrine brother. God bless. – N.Ish Apr 15 '17 at 2:19
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The context of the Numbers passage is Balak's attempt to have Balaam curse Israel into oblivion out of malice. Numbers 23:19 is God's affirmation of constancy - that He will not arbitrarily let Israel be destroyed. The fuller translation of Balaam's words (JPS Tanakh) is:

19 God is not man to be capricious, Or mortal to change His mind. Would He speak and not act, Promise and not fulfill?

20 My message was to bless: When He blesses, I cannot reverse it.

The context of the Deuteronomy passage is entirely different. In this case, Israel had turned from God to idol worship during the very time that God was giving his word to Moses on Mt. Sinai (v.1-6). God's request to Let Me be (v.10) has been interpreted by both Jewish and Christian commentators to be a hint for Moses to pray for deliverance from God's just punishment. Rashi (1040-1105), for example, comments:

But here, He opened a door for him and informed him that the matter indeed depended upon him Moses, that if he Moses would pray for them, He God would not destroy them.1

The same interpretation is given in Christian commentaries of Ephrem the Syrian (306-373), Jerome2 (347-420), and Augustine3 (354-430). Ephrem recalls Moses' prayer in the context of Jesus' parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13:6-9):

When he wished that the fig tree be uprooted, the event was similar to that earlier one, when the Father said to Moses, “Permit me to destroy the people.” He thus gave him a reason to intercede with him. Here too he showed the vinedresser that he wished to uproot it. The vinedresser made known his plea, and the merciful one showed his pity, that if, in a further year, the fig tree did not yield fruit, it would be uprooted.1

Thus, whereas the Numbers passage affirms God's faithfulness towards Israel, the Deuteronomy passage shows that this faithfulness can persist even when Israel itself turns from God through the intercessory prayer of those who remain faithful.


1 Commentary on the Diatessaron of Tatian 14.27
2 e.g. Homily on Psalm 26
3 e.g. Sermon LXXXVIII

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Jeremiah 18:5-10 "5 Then the word of the Lord came to me. 6 He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. 7 If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. 9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it."

We can see from this passage and also from the story of ninevah repenting in Jonah, that God has rules he is following when he "changes his mind". I put that in quotes because thats what it looks and sounds like to a human mind, but God has in fact already decided what he will do based on conditions that nations and people must meet. So the change actually takes place in the people and causes God to make one of two predetermined unchanging decisions. So God is not in fact repenting, God is simply doing what he said he would do based on our response.

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