Wednesday, May 08, 2019

When God Says Things He Doesn’t Mean

Forget pancakes. Here’s a stack of problem verses to chew on instead:

“Take your … only son Isaac, and offer him … as a burnt offering.”

“ ‘Rise, go with them’ … But God’s anger was kindled because he went.”

Let me alone, that I may destroy them and … I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.”

Sometimes God says things he doesn’t really mean. Think about that a bit.

The Argument by the Numbers

Let me frame my argument this way:
  1. When God told Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering, he didn’t mean it. God detests human sacrifice. He never had any intention of letting Abraham follow through on the act he had commanded.
  2. When God told Balaam to go with King Balak’s men, he didn’t mean it. He had already told the prophet once, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” Surely God was not of two minds. It would have been better for Balaam not to go.
  3. When God threatened to destroy Israel and make a mightier and greater nation of Moses, he didn’t mean that either. If you think Moses actually talked God out of his anger, you need to think again. While he appears to reconsider, it is plain the all-knowing God never had any intention of destroying Israel.
How do we reconcile a true and truthful God asking men for things he does not really want?

Fickle, Arbitrary and Emotional

One possible response is that God is fickle, arbitrary and emotional. Like human beings, he says things when he’s angry that he later regrets, so he changes his mind. In this scenario, God meant these things when he first said them, but not later on.

But it takes only a basic knowledge of the Old Testament to recognize that answer won’t work theologically. God does not change his mind. In fact, he put these very words about his own character in Balaam’s mouth when the disobedient, greedy prophet saddled up and went to see Balak.

Further, appeals to emotion might be slightly credible in the Moses scenario, and plausible with Balaam. But with Abraham? When God told the patriarch to offer his son, he was not emotional at all. No, that idea won’t resolve anything.


A second suggestion might be that God was lying. But God does not lie. Scripture says as much in plain language. Not only is God characteristically truthful, he is truth itself. He is the living definition of truth. We wouldn’t know what truth and consistency are if God didn’t model them for us.

In any case, if we examine the things God said more carefully, we realize lying would be far too strong an accusation to level. To Abraham and Balaam he merely gave instructions. In the case of Moses, he offered him one hypothetical way to fix a major problem: start a new nation with Moses. Moses wisely declined the honor.

We may find such statements difficult to rationalize in one way or another, but you certainly can’t call them falsehoods.

Liars tell you untruths in order to hurt you, or to get some benefit for themselves that they couldn’t enjoy by being honest. Even when people say they have lied to protect someone else, it usually turns out they are protecting their own interests first and foremost. But God has nothing to protect and needs no benefit from anyone. Moreover, in every case here, God is looking to bless the person he’s talking to, not injure him. Even with Balaam, he warns him up front not to attempt cursing Israel: it will not end well.

So, no, that suggestion won’t work either.

A Revelation of Character

We are left with this: Sometimes God says things he doesn’t mean, and he says them with the greater good in mind. He says them for the benefit of the person he is addressing, for the benefit of those who read these stories thousands of years later, and for everyone in between. He is looking to reveal his true character to men, so he puts them in situations where they must jump into the deep end, test who he is, and learn for themselves.

My father used to play devil’s advocate with his children when we talked theology. Sometimes he still does. He would throw out a “What about this?” argument in hope of getting us to correct it. What he was doing was testing us to bring out what we really understood, sometimes pressing us to put into words truths we hadn’t yet articulated even to ourselves. He did it for our good, and I suggest God is doing much the same thing in the Old Testament when he says something we know he can’t possibly mean.

A Real Human Sacrifice?

In Abraham’s case, he probably considered the possibility that God really wanted a human sacrifice highly unlikely. It was right out of character. But he reasoned that even if he did, God was able to raise the dead, and God always keeps his promises. So he acted in faith, and the world is still writing about it today. God showed himself faithful, and Abraham got a momentary glimpse into what it means to a father to offer up his son. That’s not a trivial lesson.

It all ended well for Abraham and Isaac. But when God played “devil’s advocate” with Balaam, the greedy man didn’t get the message. Balaam’s tale serves as a caution for those of us who doubt God’s revealed will on any matter. In this case, God’s word to Balaam was “don’t go”. That instruction was intended not just for the good of Israel, but for the good of Balaam. But Balaam went back to God looking for a response that would suit him better, and he got one that didn’t end well for him. He died in the company of the five kings of Midian. The lesson: God does not change his mind. Don’t expect him to. He never gets it wrong the first time. If Balaam didn’t benefit from that revelation of God’s character, at least you and I may.

The Need for an Intercessor

In Moses’ case, God’s offer to make a new nation from Moses was designed to motivate him to intercede for Israel. It worked, though on a more ambitious man it might not have. But of course God knew exactly who he was dealing with. As Moses tells the people much later:
“I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord to provoke him to anger. For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure that the Lord bore against you, so that he was ready to destroy you. But the Lord listened to me that time also.
Moses’ argument against destroying Israel was twofold: (1) remember people are watching; and (2) remember your promises. Neither of these were things God could possibly have inadvertently overlooked, but by allowing Moses to make his case in God’s presence, God made it evident to the world that it was only by his grace Israel lived on.

The Ongoing Problem

Furthermore, the need for an intercessor was ongoing. Moses provided a temporary fix, but the fact that Israel’s rebellion was still a problem in Ezekiel’s day reminds us of the need for a better Intercessor; one who could be trusted to deal with sin and rebellion once and for all. In provoking Moses to say his piece, God was allowing him to express mankind’s desperate ongoing need for Messiah and his finished work.

That’s also not a trivial idea, and God got it out into the world by saying something he didn’t mean.

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