(Num. 23:19) Does this passage forbid the possibility of the incarnation?

CLAIM: Numbers records, “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent” (Num. 23:19). Orthodox Jewish interpreters argue that this passage invalidates the notion that God could ever become a man (Jn. 1:14; Col. 2:9). Is this the case?

RESPONSE: This passage does not teach that God cannot become a man. If you read the passage closely, you’ll see that this text is really just a comparison. Numbers records, “God is not a man, that He should lie…” In other words, in context, the focus isn’t on the humanity of God but on the veracity of God. He is simply trying to show how God cannot lie like a man, but this verse does not preclude God becoming human or dwelling in human flesh. In fact, the OT contains several key passages which speak of God dwelling with people in a similar manner as the incarnation. Of course, Christ’s incarnation was unique to be sure (Heb. 1:1-3), but the concept of God dwelling with his people is not unique to the NT revelation.

Consider Solomon’s dedication of the Temple. On the one hand, he says, “The Lord has said that He would dwell in the thick cloud. I have built You a lofty house, and a place for Your dwelling forever” (2 Chron. 6:1-2). However, he also states later during the same ceremony, “But will God indeed dwell with mankind on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You; how much less this house which I have built” (2 Chron. 6:18). Here we see the omnipresence and transcendence of God, as well as the immanence and closeness of God. This is also captured in the NT when John writes, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14), but he also writes in the same chapter, “No one has seen God at any time” (Jn. 1:18). Many Unitarian monotheists (e.g. Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses) are offended at the notion that God could dwell in human form. However, the OT is filled with examples of God revealing himself in the Temple, tabernacle, or in other created things. For instance, Isaiah 6:3 states that “The whole earth is full of His glory.”

In the account of Moses on the mountain of the Lord, we read, “Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, 10 and they saw the God of Israel” (Ex. 24:9-10). However, later we read, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” (Ex. 33:20) Of course, these are not contradictory accounts (see comments on 1 Timothy 1:17). Instead, God can manifest himself in one sense to humans, but not in another. In the Christian view, he can reveal himself in the Son, but not in the Father.

In addition, the OT is filled with theopanies (or appearances of God).[1] For instance, in Exodus 3, the angel of the LORD talks to Moses (v.2), and yet, this is seen as equivalent to Yahweh himself (v.4), speaking for Yahweh in the first person. Of course, God is no more an angel, than he is a man. But God is free to reveal himself in any way that he chooses, whether this is in the form of an angel (c.f. Gen. 16:7-9, 11; 22:11-12, 15-18; 32:24-30; Ex. 3:2-4; Judg. 6:11-23), a man (Jn. 1:14; Col. 2:9), or even a cloud (Ex. 13:21).

Perhaps one of the most provocative stories in this regard is when Abraham meets Yahweh in Genesis 18. The text says that “the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre” (v.1), and yet it also describes Yahweh as appearing in the form of one of “three men” (v.2). The text even says that the men were dirty, needing their feet cleaned (v.4). Could God really appear in such a crude manner—even with dirt in between his toes? According to the OT, yes he can! Genesis states that the “men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the Lord” (v.22). However, later in chapter 19, we read that the “two angels came to Sodom,” while one of them stayed behind to talk with Abraham. Therefore, while two of the men left Abraham, one of them stayed behind. It is interesting to note that the entire conversation in Genesis 18 (after the two men leave) is described as “the LORD” speaking with Abraham.

For these reasons, based on the testimony of the OT itself, it seems entirely plausible for God to dwell face to face with people. However, the NT states that Jesus did more than appear in the body of a man; instead, he literally took on flesh and became man. For a fuller explanation of the incarnation, see comments on Philippians 2:7.

[1] Theos means “God” in Greek, and phaneroo means “to reveal.” Thus, a “theopany” is a revelation or appearance of God.