Day 12: Numbers 22-36 God does not change his mind and responsibility of men

Derek Ouellette —  January 15, 2011

Today’s reading concludes the book of Numbers. The following are two not-so-simple random reflections.

God Will Not Change His Mind

Israel is camped at the boarder of Moab and the king summons Balaam to curse Israel so that he can attack and beat them. The Lord forbids Balaam from doing so. In the midst of the exchanges between Balaam and Balak and among Balaam’s oracles we find this statement:

God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. – Numbers 23:19

There are very few passages in scripture which explicitly state that God will not change his mind, and this is one of them. Generally it is assumed that God will not and cannot change his mind. The reasons for this are clear. Theologians have theorized that either God has decreed and determined all things, in which case it would be absurd to say that God decreed that he changed his mind. Or they theorize that God knows the future in its entirety by – for example – having seen all of history prior to creation (Simply Foreknowledge). In this case it may be said that God has changed his mind if God saw before he acted that he would change his mind. But this is the chicken and the egg dilemma on a divine scale.

Others may choose to avoid the mind teaser because it results in forcing God into our boxes. If we say that God cannot change his mind then we need to find a way to cram all of the biblical texts which suggests that he does into our systems. And this may prove to be unfaithful to the biblical testimony by raising our static forms of interpretation about the clear testimony of the bible.

I think there is no shame in admitting that there are things I do not understand. Somehow God determines, somehow God foreknows, and somehow things are open.

Having said all of that, we should still observe the biblical text so that we may faithfully understand it. And in every instance I am aware of where God cannot change his mind a qualification is always added and often overlooked. In our passage, the qualification is that God “is not a man… nor a son of man” that he should change his mind. In the context of the story, Balaam is being paid in increasing intervals by Balak to curse Israel.

The qualification seems to indicate not that God “cannot” change his mind, but that he is not a man that he can be bribed to change his mind. If God has made up his mind, then his mind is made up. God is not like the other Middle Eastern god’s who can be persuaded by bribery to do the bidding of men. God is not a man that he should change his mind.

The same qualification is added in 1 Samuel 15:29: “[God] is not a man that he should change his mind”, and this after Saul pleads with Samuel to “honor him” before the people as they “worship the Lord” together.

Men, Women and Foolish Vows

A friend of mine theorizes that had Adam not eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he could have undone Eve’s foolish act, and the fall would have never occurred. It is an interesting theory which no doubt would inflame egalitarians everywhere.

Without affirming or denying my friends theory, he finds support for it among today’s reading. According to the Lord in Numbers 30, if a young girl living at home with her father makes a foolish vow or pledge, she must be held to that pledge unless her father releases her. If he does forbid her vow, “the Lord will release her because her father has forbidden her” (Numbers 30:5).

The passage quickly turns to husbands and wives and says that if the wife makes a foolish promise or vow, she will be obligated to keep it, “but if her husband forbids her when he hears about it, he nullifies the vow… the Lord will release her” (Numbers 30:8).

Now in years gone by I would quickly accept or reject a passage based on whether or not I believed it was relevant for today, and obviously a great deal of the passages are not very relevant for today. But my approach has changed. Things are no longer so clean for me. I no longer want to view everything in terms of “in or out”, “relevant or irrelevant”, “black or white”. Rather I want to understand the text and ask the “why” questions. To me, answering that question is far more powerful then to simply accept or dismiss it based on whether or not it is relevant. I want to know why God says what he says, even if it is not applicable for today.

With our text in question it is easy to dismiss it as being chauvinistic. The remnants of a bygone culture. A little bit of biblical pollution.

But I want to know, “God, why did you make this regulation in Israel’s society”. The answer, I believe, is not just because men were dominant (“so let’s leave it at that and move on quickly”), but because in God’s eyes, men will be held responsible for the actions of his family. God’s motive is clearly spelt out in the final verses of the chapter. If the husband knows about the vow, but says nothing, in God’s eyes he is affirming her vow by his silence and will be held responsible for her decision. However, if he nullifies the vow sometime after the vow is made (seeing it to have been a foolish vow), it is too late, “then he is responsible for her guilt” (Numbers 31:15).

Adam could have nullified Eve’s actions had he done so immediately. But either by his silence (which God would have taken as his approval) or by his actions of partaking, Adam then becomes guilty of Eve’s actions so that even though Eve was the first to eat, Paul could write that sin entered the would “through one man” – Adam, not Eve.

That’s the theory anyways.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.