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Bible Q

Can God be tempted?

On face value, there is a contradiction between James 1:13 and Psalm 106:14, at least in the King James Version.

James 1:13 says

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.

Yet we are told in Psalm 106:14 that Israel had “tempted God in the desert” (KJV). Modern versions translate this as God being “tested” rather than “tempted”.

This is a translation problem. These days, the English word “tempt” suggests a desire to sin. It used to also mean “test” (the OED lists this as an obsolete meaning of “tempt”). So the KJV was a reasonable translation for these verses when it was produced in 1611, but it is now misleading. The Hebrew word translated “tempt” or “test” is נסה (nasah) which means “to test, to tempt, to prove” (NET Bible notes). Thus, the Hebrew word is broader than our words test or tempt.

The Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) translates the word nasah in Psalm 106:14 as ἐπείρασαν which is related to the Greek word that James uses. So James is teaching that when the word is applied to God, it cannot carry the meaning of “tempt him to sin”, but only of “test his patience”. This is consistent with the rest of Bible teaching that God is unable to sin.

2 Replies to “Can God be tempted?”

  1. Yes. Hebrew and Greek know no difference between test/tempt. And if we think about it, even in English the dividing line is rather subjective, when is a test a temptation? when is a temptation a test? Which is why James has had to add in “with evil” to make it clear that he was not talking about a test from God “with good” or “for good”, such as when “God tested/tempted Abraham” (which is the same word in Greek OT of Gen.22:1 and Greek of Heb11:17 as James’ “tempt). If James’ word “test” already meant “tempt” then his adding “with evil” would be redundant.

    It will seem strange to English readers that James does not add “with evil” to the second verb, but it is quite common to not repeat the adverb if same verb is used in both halves of the sentence like this. The meaning “with evil” carries to the second “test” :

    “God cannot be tested with evil,
    and he [with evil] himself tests no one.” ]

    But that would sound very ugly in English so some modern versions like ESV use “tempt” to make it clear that the context is “test [with evil]”.

  2. A true story may be helpful:

    Some years ago my wife & I were treated to a fine lunch in a London restaurant by a visiting overseas businessman. Very little English was spoken in his country, but he had a great command of our language. Near the end of the meal he asked my wife if she would like a dessert. When she declined, he persisted, and said: “Are you sure? Can’t I seduce you?”. He kept a straight face, but I’m sure he had a twinkle in his eye.

    God will never seduce us.