Num 23:19 “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?
At the time of Moses, the Israel invaded the plains of Moab just on the side of the Jordan. The King of Moab, Balak is threatened and plans a great war against Israel. As is customary he first offers bribes to his gods to ensure a great victory. On three different hilltops, his priest of choice, Balaam, is given seven altars, seven bulls and seven rams as a bribe to God to bring victory for Moab. Each time, Balaam refuses to condemn Israel and blesses them instead. Balak complains. Afterall, he paid for a victory:
Num 24:12 So Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not also speak to your messengers whom you sent to me, saying,
Num 24:13 ‘If Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of the LORD, to do good or bad of my own will. What the LORD says, that I must speak’?
Balak believes he can bribe God, change his mind and have victory over Israel. In the context of this attempt to change God’s mind, Balaam explains that “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent.” God is not going to take back the blessings he has given Israel.
“God does not repent.” Is this a universal statement about God? Does this mean that God never changes in any context? Or might this be a specific statement “I will not change my mind about this situation”? If the waitress says to me after a lunch: “would you like some dessert?” I might reply: “No, I am not hungry.” Does this mean I am not ever hungry? Does this mean that I never will be hungry again? Or does this mean that I am not hungry now? If a neutral observer were to watch my behavior and find that I am hungry many times, this would lend support to the context limiting the claim to a specific situation. This comment would only relate to the specific event at a specific time and would not indicate a universal truth meaning “I am never ever hungry.”
In the same way, we may observe God? Are there times he does repent ( תְנֶחָ֑ם)? The root form Nacham when used in the Hiphil is translated as repent in the Authorized King James. When repent is used of God, 6 times the reference is to “God does not repent.” 31 times the reference is to “God repents.”
The Calvinist Theological Wordbook of the New Testament says this:
The KJV translates the Niphal of nacham “repent” thirty eight times. The majority of these instances refers to God’s repentance, not man’s…On the surface such language seems contradictory…however the expression is anthropopathetic and there is no ultimate tension. From man’s perspective it only appears God has changed… Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament
When the Hebrew scholars translated the Old Testament into the Greek Septuagint from the Hebrew, nacham was translated into metanoes (μετανοέω) and metamelomai (μεταμέλομαι). Metanoes is from two words, the preposition meta which means change and noes which means mind. The word metamellomai is from meta and melo which means “to be concerned about”.
Clearly the Hebrew scholars thought nacham meant to change one’s mind or repent.
The authors of the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament clearly do not believe God changed his mind despite the obvious translation of the words. The word anthropopathetic is a metaphor meaning “to ascribe human feelings to something that is not human.” When people repent they change their minds. How do we know God does not change his mind? Because the Bible “affirm(s) God’s immutability,” they argue. The authors assume God’s immutability and then deny the 31 verses saying God repents. (See enclosed appendix listing all repent verses.)
A metaphor is a comparison between two concepts that have overlapping similarities. What are the overlapping similarities between God repents and God does not repent? The two concepts are mutually exclusive. Perhaps they believe there is some overlapping between “God feels bad” and God repents. Both have negative feelings in common. However how does one know if the metaphor is “God does not repent” and the literal is “God does repent.” Why does the metaphor have to refer to “God does repent?” There is no accepted standard of metaphor other than the interpreter’s bias or preference. Here is one bias “the last resort of a scoundrel is metaphor.” As President Clinton is well known saying, “that depends upon the meaning of ‘is’.”
The answer, of course, is to take God at his Word. In some instances God repents, and in other instances He does not repent. When using this literal interpretation, it is not necessary to resort to metaphor. The attributes of the god of Plotinus are the attributes of the God of classical theology. Even though the Scriptures deny almost every attribute, the classical theologian will dismiss all contrary evidence by neglecting the appropriate passages or pretending to dismiss all evidence with the charge of metaphor or anthropomorphism.