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“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? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? (Numbers 23:19 NKJV)

לא איש אל ויכזב ובן-אדם ויתנחם ההוא אמר ולא יעשה ודבר ולא יקימנה

Two different words for "man" are used. The first, איש ('iysh) can mean man, husband, human being, servant. The second, אדם ('adam) can mean man, mankind, Adam.

The two meanings are similar, but it seems some distinction in the two types is intended: familial (father/son), marital (husband/unmarried), age (older/younger), or literal (man and son of Adam).

"God is not a man that He should lie," is a straight-forward statement. On the other hand, "God is not a son of man that He should repent (נָחַם)," is not so obvious if "son of Adam" is intended to suggest the reader consider how Cain responded after murdering Abel.

"Repent" in Numbers appears to conflict with Exodus, as noted in this question: help me explain difference between Numbers 23;19 and Exodus 32;10,14 But נָחַם does have a meaning beyond "repent" which could explain the conflict.

Should ובן-אדם ויתנחם be taken to mean God does not repent as a son of Adam (i.e. Cain) did?

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  • 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 12:15
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This is classic Hebrew parallelism. The two meanings are identical, but the B-parts of the cola (lie - repent) is different. Note that "God" from the first colon is not repeated, and hence the author may have chosen a longer term in the second colon to keep the cola equally heavy (in terms of syllables).

The same structure is also present in the second half of the verse, where אמר and דבר are also largely synonymous.

In general, son-of-X is a very common Hebrew way to indicate peoples, and also mankind. The X does not always bring associations of the proper name. When somebody says he is an Athenian, this does not immediately cause us to think about the Greek goddess Athena, and similarly when somebody is a son-of-Adam we should not take this to refer to the Adam from Genesis.

The word for repent, נחם, is a rather general root which indicates regret over plans made previously. It does not primarily indicate a promise to act differently in the future (which is what English "repent" suggests), but focuses on the past. The NIV provides a more fitting translation here with "change his mind". This is more in line with the parallelism as well: while humans lie or say something but change their mind, God remains true to his word. This is also what is reflected in the second half of the verse (which however moves the focus to the things God will do). Lastly also note that נחם is in the hitpael, which does not mean "repent" in the English sense anywhere; this translation is largely based on the sense of the niphal, while the hitpael of this root focuses more on the inner state of the subject.

Since the Bible is a product of many different people from very different times and cultures, I don't see a problem with the apparent 'contradiction' with Exod. 32:10,14 or other instances (Deut. 32:36; Ps. 135:35). But even if one wants to resolve all such apparent contradictions this one is not particularly hard: Num. 23:19 need not be read as a general rule. You may know of the distinction between the negation particles לא (which marks general rules) and אל (which marks particular rules). Here, we have לא thrice, but not in that sense: the first is not a command-לא; the last two are dominated by a conditional (אמר and דבר) which makes them non-general. The rules here are expressed by the yiqtol conjugation, which marks verbal modality as a rhetoric device: "would he lie/repent?"

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  • Cain was a son of Adam, and is called איש ('iysh) when he was born (4:1). Doesn't the parallelism work better when it is drawn from real events? – Revelation Lad Sep 3 '18 at 4:17
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    @RevelationLad you mean that the parallelism implicitly refers to that episode? I doubt it. Both are very common terms. If they would be rare words, maybe. – user2672 Sep 3 '18 at 5:28
  • My question was more about which meaning of "repent" applies to God. – Revelation Lad Sep 3 '18 at 7:59
  • @RevelationLad I'm sorry, I missed that. I addressed this in my edit. – user2672 Sep 3 '18 at 8:29
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I would say that either "a son of a man" or "the son of Adam" would both be equally valid translations of the Hebrew. Both would preserve the poetic parallelism. After all, every human (excluding Adam and Eve, of course) is descended from Adam. (Genesis 3:20) Keep in mind that "son" is not limited to merely one generation of children, but often refers to descendants in general, so we need not limit ourselves to Cain and Abel.

A Hebrew reader would have the advantage of seeing a double-meaning in the verse, and perhaps the Author intended for there to be a double-meaning. For English readers, unfortunately, the translator can only pick one way of translating אדם.

Pros for translating אדם as Adam

Translating the verse as "the son of Adam" seems to better bring out the theological depth of the verse. After all, Adam's descendants are born with a fallen nature ("original sin") and consequentially fall into sin extremely easily. "Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned." (Romans 5:12) Lying and repenting, therefore, is to be expected from Adam's descendants.

Cons for translating אדם as Adam

The downside to translating אדם as Adam, however, is that it doesn't parallel איש as nicely. As mentioned above, the parallelism would still be preserved, just not as nicely.

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