Numbers 23:19 – God Is Not a Human Being


Numbers 23:19


God has blessed God’s people, and God will fulfill that promise, for God is “not a human being.”


The Balaam story sets up the conflict between the religious and military powers of the ancient world and the seemingly simple word of blessing in the mouth of God. Neither the military might of Moab nor the terrible curses and divinations of ancient religion can thwart God’s promise to bless God’s people. The blessing of God will prove stronger than all contenders (see Numbers 23:23). Here is an early form of the ongoing biblical notion of God’s strength through weakness, that God’s word of promise is stronger and more trustworthy than all the powers of the world and the forces of human religion.

The rationale given here for God’s fidelity to the promise is that “God is not a human being,” not “a mortal.” Thus, God will not lie (as a human might!) or change God’s mind. In Hebrew, God is neither an ‘ish (a man, a male, a husband) nor a ben-‘adam (a “son of a human ” a member of the human species). That God is not a male human being is seen as good news. The Bible knows that no “likeness”–not that “of male or female”–can depict or capture God. God is rather present, as God chooses to be, in God’s word (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15-18); here, in Balaam’s oracle of blessing, it is that word of divine promise that will determine Israel’s future. Hosea, too, knew that God was “no mortal” (that is, not an ‘ish), also recognizing that to be good news, for it was a mark of God’s gracious holiness that would not subject Israel to wrath.

Before we accept too much theology from Balaam, however, we must remember in this passage that Balaam is an unreliable seer. While Balaam does occasionally speak truth, he also is less sensitive to the reality of the spiritual world than his donkey (Numbers 22:22-35). While God does not lie, Scripture repeatedly claims that God does change God’s mind (Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14, Jonah 3:10). Why would Jesus spend time praying in the Garden of Gethsemane that the cup be removed from him if possible (Matthew 26:39) if Jesus held no hope for God changing the divine plan? The prophet Samuel affirms the words of Balaam, that God does not lie or change his mind (1 Samuel 15:29). But it seems that Samuel in his anger at Saul forgot that God had just informed the prophet (18 verses earlier) that indeed, God repented of having chosen Saul in the first place (1 Samuel 15:11).

We can certainly agree with Balaam that God is not a human, and that no human gender could possibly encompass all that God is. Moreover, God does not lie. However, the claim that God does not change the divine mind does not seem to be supported by a careful reading of Scripture.