Pastor of Iglesia Conexiones, and author of Biblical Prayer for Today's Believers: Transform Your Prayer Life (available on Amazon).
Gang nach Emmaus (On the Road to Emmaus)
"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?"
— (Numbers 23:19, KJV)
I have watched several videos in which Rabbi Tovia Singer uses Numbers 23:19 to teach that the incarnation is impossible (the incarnation is the Christian doctrine that the God of the Tanach became a human being known as Jesus of Nazareth).
In this article, I will demonstrate that Numbers 23:19 does not teach the incarnation is impossible, and that there are good reasons to consider the God of the Tanach would become human.
Interpreting Numbers 23:19
Numbers 23:19 states that “God is not a man.” What does this statement mean? Does it mean (as Rabbi Tovia Singer teaches) that God can never adopt a human form? Let us look at its context.
Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel, but Balaam could not curse Israel because God Himself would not curse Israel (Numbers 23:5-10). Balak asked Balaam to pray from a different location to see if God would change His mind and curse Israel (Numbers 23:11-15), but God replied that He would not change His mind and curse Israel (Numbers 23:16-23).
The relationship between the clause “God is not a man” and its context is clear. God was telling Balak that since God is not human He is not subject to human behavior: He cannot be manipulated, He does not lie, He cannot be persuaded to turn back on His promises.
In fact, the clause “God is not a man” is part of a complex sentence whose independent clause makes the same point. The entire complex sentence is “God is not a man, that he should lie” (Numbers 23:19, KJV).
Within its context, the purpose of the clause “God is not a man” is evident. Its purpose is not to teach that God can never adopt a human form, but to teach that God is intrinsically not a human, and therefore He is not subject to human character flaws. To say that “God is not a man” means God can never adopt a human form, is to disregard the clear meaning that “God is not a man” derives from its context.
Is It Bad to Be Human?
Rabbi Tovia Singer also argues that God cannot become a man because to become a man is to become something that is "not good" (you can watch Rabbi Singer's video at the end of this article). This argument, however, is not a biblical argument.
When God created the first man and the first woman, He said that everything He had created was "very good" (Genesis 1:31), and this included Adam and Eve themselves. In fact, the book of Psalms teaches that God has crowned human beings with glory and honor (Psalm 8:5). That doesn't sound too bad, does it?
Of course, Adam and Eve eventually failed God, and all human beings became sinners (Psalm 51:5). Nevertheless, to be a human is not inherently bad, but "very good" (Genesis 1:31). Could not the all-powerful God become a "very good" human being instead of sinful one? Of course He could! After all, He originally created the human race "very good."
God Reveals Himself As A Man in Genesis 18
In reality, as we read through the Tanach, we learn that there are several instances when God reveals Himself in the human form of a man. These are not mere anthropomorphisms, but actual manifestations of God in a human body.
Genesis 18:1 tells us that Hashem (God) appeared to Abraham in the plains of Mamre. Genesis 18:2 to 18:33 narrates the event for us. Abraham saw three men walking toward him, and he addresses one of them as "my lord" (Genesis 18:3).
Abraham offers his guests water to wash their feet, food to eat, and shade under a tree so they can rest. These actions (washing feet, eating, and resting) prove that this manifestation is not just a mere anthropomorphisms, but an actual manifestation in human bodies.
As we read through the passage, Abraham speaks to the three men (Genesis 18:4), and the three men speak to Abraham (Genesis 18:5 and 9). Nevertheless, Hashem often takes the lead in the conversation (Genesis 18:10, 13-15).
The men then get up (Genesis 18:6) and leave toward Sodom (Genesis 18:22), but it seems God stays behind since Abraham stays talking to Him (Genesis 18:22).
God finally ends his conversation with Abraham and leaves (Genesis 18:33), and in Genesis 19:1 we are told that two angels arrived to Sodom at even.
Thus, we conclude that of the three men that ate with Abraham, two men were angels in human form, but one was Hashem in human form.
God Reveals Himself As A Man in Genesis 32
In Genesis 32, God revealed Himself to Jacob as a man. After many years, Jacob was finally heading home, but he was still afraid of his brother Esau; so Jacob prayed to God for deliverance from Esau (Genesis 32:9-12).
That night, when Jacob found himself alone, we are told that a man wrestled with him until dawn (Genesis 32:24). The man wanted to leave, but Jacob would not let him leave because he wanted the man to bless him (Genesis 32:25, 26). Why would Jacob want a mere man to bless him?
The man realized that he could not prevail against Jacob, so he wounded Jacob on his thigh (Genesis 32:25) and afterwards blessed him (Genesis 32:29).
What the man said to Jacob was significant. The man gave Jacob a new name: Israel. He gave him this name because Jacob had prevailed while wrestling with God and men (Genesis 32:28).
Jacob then came to this conclusion: he said that there he had seen God face to face (Genesis 32:30). Moreover, the prophet Hosea came to the same conclusion: he said that Jacob had overcome God with strength (Hosea 12:3).
The man with whom Jacob had been wrestling all night was Hashem (God) in human form.
How Human Were These Manifestations of God?
When Hashem appeared to Abraham and to Jacob in human form, Hashem had really become human.
Hashem washed his feet with water that Abraham brought to him; obviously, his feet had become dirty while walking on the earth. Hashem also ate the food that was given to him by Abraham; obviously, Hashem experienced hunger while He had a human form. Finally, Hashem rested under the shade of a tree, which indicates that he was tired from his journey.
Hashem also became tired while wrestling with Jacob, and He was overcome by Jacob. In his human form, Hashem was still God, nevertheless He was a human who could get tired and be overcome.
God Also Appears As a Glorious Man
In the first chapter of his book of prophesy, Ezekiel describes "the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD" (Ezekiel 1:28). Ezekiel describes a majestic and fearsome throne on wheels, guarded by four winged creatures.
What does Ezekiel see on the throne of Hashem? Let us read what Ezekiel says.
"And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it" (Ezekiel 1:26, KJV).
On the throne of God, over the glory of Hashem, sits a glorious man whose appearance is bright like fire.
Ezekiel is not the only one who saw God as a man. The prophet Daniel describes God as a glorious, elderly man. Daniel calls Hashem The Ancient of Days, and he describes Him as wearing white clothes and having hair like pure wool (Daniel 7:9). Clearly, Daniel is describing a human!
Moses himself, and the elders of Israel, saw the God of Israel in the likeness of a man. He had feet, He sat on a throne, and it appears He even ate with them (Exodus 24:10-11).
I have watched several videos in which Rabbi Tovia Singer uses Numbers 23:19 to teach that the incarnation is impossible.
In this brief article, I have explained that Numbers 23:19, given its context and wording, only means that God is not intrinsically human, and thus this verse cannot be used to argue that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation is wrong and that God would never reveal Himself in human form.
In fact, the Tanach mentions several instances in which Hashem (God) was pleased to reveal Himself in human form. He appeared unto the Patriarchs as a human being who experienced hunger and tiredness, and who could be overcome by other human beings; and He revealed Himself to Moses and other prophets as a radiant and glorious human being.
As we read the New Testament, we find that Jesus of Nazareth is depicted in this same pattern. Jesus suffered tiredness, He slept, He experienced hunger and thirst, He was beaten, He was crucified, and He was even killed by Roman soldiers. Nevertheless, after He resurrected, He could appear and disappear in an instance, and He could walk through walls. Finally, when He appeared to the Apostle John, His appearance was like the one described by Ezekiel.
Could it be that Jesus is the God of the Tanach revealing Himself as a human being? I believe so.
The Doctrine of the Incarnation
"And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory."
— (1 Timothy 3:16, KJV)
Rabbi Tovia Singer on Numbers 23:19
© 2018 Marcelo Carcach