Do Genesis 22:1 and James 1:13 contradict each other about temptation?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Do Genesis 22:1 and James 1:13 contradict each other about temptation?

“And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.” (Genesis 22:1, KJV)

“When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;” (James 1:13, NIV)

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries. It will be my pleasure to respond to your query today… and let me say right off the bat that these two passages do not contradict one another.

We find our first clue as to why they don’t in the contexts of these passages. When we ask the question, what’s going on here… or perhaps more precisely… what is the action in the two stories, we find that two different things are happening: James is talking about how we should respond when we are tempted to do evil, while Moses is telling the story of how God tested Abraham.

Now, it would be folly to go any further in this discussion unless we understand for sure that tempting and testing are two different things. So, let’s explore that starting with tempting.

James hints at the reason why God does not tempt anyone to do evil when he said, “For God cannot be tempted by evil…” (emphasis mine). So why can’t he? God is infinitely good. This means that his nature will not allow him to perform any evil acts… and tempting someone to sin would be evil.

But there’s more. His omnipotence prevents others from doing any evil to him. So, since God cannot do an evil act and cannot be affected by evil in any way, evil never sticks to him (if you will). But we are not so lucky. It clings to us like glue!

Evil acts affect people… I mean, that’s what it does for a living! But the reason we can perform evil against one another is that we have sin natures (Isaiah 53:6; Colossians 3:5). So, unlike God, people can (and we do) respond to temptation… and James used that contrast to teach that these trials are pretty common, but also, that to affirm that they are not God’s fault.

The Bible teaches that we have three enemies: the world (1 John 2:15-17), the flesh (Galatians 5:16-17) and the devil (John 8:44) — and that none of these are God… although it’s true that he “caused” these on some level. After all, he who created the universe and gave us free will is the “cause” of everything at the most basic level. But James was focusing on our everyday experiences here, and not on Natural Theology.

By way of contrast, if you read the story in Genesis 22 — and not just a line or two, but the whole account — you will see that God was not tempting Abraham. God was testing Abraham… and that’s different. God was proving Abraham’s spiritual metal by giving him a trial of faith, and this is different than if he were tempting Abraham to sin… as when the serpent tempted Eve in the garden (Genesis 3).

So what’s with the word “tempt” in some versions of Genesis 22:1? Four-hundred years ago, the word “tempt” was sometimes used to communicate what we mean today by the words “test” “try” or “prove.” The Hebrew word “nawsaw” (naw-saw) showed up 36 times in the Bible, but even the King James version chose to translate it as “prove” twenty times, but “tempt” only twelve times.

The problem is that every time that it renders nawsaw as “tempt” in English, it sends a wrong signal to today’s reader — that this was a tempting-to-sin rather than a proving of some sort.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The King James Bible changed the world… and “tempt” was a solid translation option 400-years ago. It’s just that it causes problems today. To use the King James Bible effectively, you have to dial your English back to Shakespearian vernacular… and fewer readers can do that today than yesterday.

To show you how a more up to date English rendering can help keep us out of these types of troubles, here’s Genesis 22:1 in three different versions:

“And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.” (Genesis 22:1, KJV)

“And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham; and he said, Here am I.” (Genesis 22:1, ASV 1901)

 “Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied.”
(Genesis 22:1, NIV)

Also, here’s a link where you can compare twenty-two different English renderings of this verse! But that page also has some word study help and some commentary on these verses if you are interested.

I pray this information has helped you. God bless you.

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