This week’s Torah reading is called Balak and it is Numbers Numbers 22:2-25:9. Here is a brief commentary by Baruch:
There are several ways to define spirituality, one of which is a pursuit of G-d. The person who has a genuine faith in HaShem will want to know Him and experience Him more and more. This is what theology is all about. I remember while in seminary that one of the first courses that I had was systematic theology where we focused on the attributes of G-d. One of the verses that was studied was from the book of Hebrews which informs the reader that it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). In this week’s Torah portion one encounters a verse that teaches the same thing,
“G-d is not a man so He should lie, nor a human so that He should relent, what He has said will He not do, and what He spoke will He not establish?” Numbers 23:19
Recently I had a discussion with an individual who did not believe that the Bible was without error. He offered this verse as a proof text that the Scriptures contradict themselves. He correctly points out that in many places the Bible says that G-d relented. For example in the book of Jonah one reads,
“And G-d saw their works that they had repented from the evil way and G-d relented concerning the evil which He said to do to them, He did not do.” Jonah 3:10
Is this not a clear contradiction? Some English translations may render the verb differently, but the person who pointed this out to me took great pleasure in pointing out that the same Hebrew word appears in both texts. This is an example of when a little bit of knowledge is a bad thing. Yes the same Hebrew root is in both texts, however not the same verbal construction. The Hebrew verb is most complex and has seven different stems. What is unique about the text from Numbers is that it is a Hitpael (most grammar texts have Hithpael) stem. The basic verbal rootנחם appears 108 times in the Hebrew Bible, but the Hitpael form התנחם only appears seven times. Of these seven occurrences four of them have HaShem as the subject.
It is important to note that the basic verbal root נחם can have two meanings. The first is to find comfort and the second is to relent in the sense to make a change. Whenever the Hebrew Bible states that G-d relents, as in Jonah 3:10, the change is never for His benefit, but for man’s. It is also important to note that it is always a return to what G-d had originally intended to do. In the case of the people of Nineveh, HaShem did not create them to destroy them. Rather, like all humanity, G-d’s will is that one would turn from his evil ways and find G-d’s mercy and forgiveness.
In our passage from Numbers 23:19, the Hitpael is used not to imply a change that G-d makes, but rather an action in keeping with His character, which brings Him comfort (The idea of comfort here is simply G-d upholding Hi righteousness). G-d making a change or behaving in a manner which is not in keeping with His character is not found in the Scripture. Let’s look at a verse that illustrates this concept.
“For HaShem will judge His people, and concerning His servants He will be comforted, for He will see that they are sold out, there is none stopped or left.”
This verse is stating that when His servants have been sold out or betrayed by all and there is none who is stopping to assist them or who is left to assist them; that G-d will move to help them and place His righteous judgment on the situation. He is comforted by His action that He did not stand by and not respond.
Also when one reads in Ezekiel 5:13, he learns that HaShem finds comfort when He punishes the wicked with His wrath. Please note that this does not involve a change in G-d’s character or in what He had previously stated. Finally in Psalm 135:14 one finds a statement most similar to Deuteronomy 32:36, asserting that G-d will find comfort when He judges His servants. In this passage the text contrasts His servants with the wicked. Hence, when the Hebrew verb which we are studying is used in regard to HaShem, it either implies an element of comfort which G-d receives when acting in accordance with His nature and with His will, or a change back to what He had originally intended to do. Never does the verb imply a change in a statement by G-d which represents a distortion of word or a lie. This is why the writer of Hebrews states,
“That by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie; we have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to take hold of the hope set before us.”