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Does God tempt?

A popular Skeptic writes:

An example of a simple, direct contradiction that does not involve figures or numbers occurs in James 1:13, which says that God tempts no man, while Genesis 22:1 says God tempted Abraham. On page 15 of So the Bible is Full of Contradictions Johnson says in this regard, `An understanding of the meaning of the word `tempt' will dispel the seeming contradiction. This word is used in a good sense and in a bad sense. When it's used in a good sense it means to test, to try, to prove. God tested Abraham.... When the word `tempt' is used in a bad sense it means to entice a person to do evil. God never tempts man to sin.' Two major fallacies are immediately evident in this rationale. First, there is nothing in the Bible that would justify such a distinction and there is no compelling reason to make it. Second, if God never tempts man to sin, then why is God entreated to "lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil" in Matt. 6:13? Moreover, Deut 4:34 says that God does use temptations to further his ends.

The mention of Matt 6:13 as refuting the claim of St. James that God does not tempt men is an interesting one. There is a difference between God tempting men directly and allowing or leading men into situations where they will succumb to sin. What James is stating is that God is not the direct agent in a man's temptations; He will not cause one's favorite vice to appear before one's eyes so as to induce sin in the man. On the other hand, as God is omniscient and ruler over all, everything that happens in the universe is known and seen by him. (I am anthropomorphizing here.)

When a man sins, surely God could step in and prevent it, couldn't he? In essence, every sin is "allowed" by God in the fashion just described. I have always understood the petition (in both skeptical and post-skeptical days) in a passive sense -- in His divine mercy may He not allow us to fall into situations where our weak nature will succumb to sin. To press it against James 1:13 as our subject does is to make various texts clash when we here have a reasonable solution which makes the various texts go together.

When our Skeptic also cites Deut 4:34 as being problematic, he is relying on the particulars of the KJV translation, which here translates the Hebrew noun root massah as temptation. However, he neglects the fact that it is not a particular translation that we analyze problems by, but by the original language. It is a fact that massah has a variety of semantic shadings: testing(s), trial(s), and it is debatable about whether or not temptation(s) is a shading of the word.

In fact, the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon does not allow "temptation" as a proper shading of the word. The NIV is more idiomatically faithful to the Hebrew by its replacement of the KJV's "temptation" by "testing".

James 1:13 brings up a secondary issue. It says God cannot be tempted; but what about the Temptation of Jesus? The critics need to read the whole verse: God cannot be tempted with evil. The word behind "evil" means sickness or depravity. Satan made some offers, all right, but none of them were depraved or perverse. And again, the word used here has varying shades of meaning that must be determined by context and subject.

Moreover, this objection fails to differentiate between offering of temptation and receipt of it! Obviously anyone can "tempt" God right now ["Give me this and I'll give you worship!"] but temptation is a two-way street. James' "by evil" comment indicates the two-way version; the Gospels and Hebrews only speak of one way.

Objection: Since God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, it follows that "tempt" should be understood in the negative sense.

Hardly so. Abraham had obtained a promise of a nation through Isaac. Abraham himself was confronted with an apparent contradiction. Would God be true to his promise regarding Isaac? If so, then Abraham could proceed to honor the divine command in confidence that God did not intend that Isaac should die (see here).

-Eric Vestrup and JPH