Sunday, March 11, 2007

Like the Beasts that Perish (Numbers 22-24)

Israel inches ever closer to Canaan. Though they successfully maneuver around Edom, several petty border kingdoms send armies to attack Israel. This only results in their own forces being utterly vanquished, and their cities sacked and occupied.

Here we get a rare glimpse of the other side. The story picks up with Balak, the king of Moab, panicking at this vast hoard camping at his doorstep. The Moabites are distant relatives of the Israelitesdescendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot. They might actually be expected to welcome their cousins home from slavery in Egypt. Instead, however, they plot with the Midianites (also children of Abraham) on how they might destroy this ravaging multitude.

Balak enlists the services of Balaam the diviner, himself a worshipper of the god of Abraham. On route to meet Balak, Balaam’s path is blocked by the fearsome angel of the Lord (invisible to Balaam). His donkey sees him, and veers off the path. Balaam beats the poor thing, and then the donkey all of a sudden gains the ability to talk. It’s a funny conversation, with Balaam more concerned about his animal’s disobedience than the fact that he is actually talking to a donkey. Perhaps diviners are used to such things (though presumably they should also be able to detect the presence of an angel from their own god).

Anyway, it’s now the angel’s turn to yell at Balaam. He’s dumber than a donkey – blind to the purposes and agents of the god he purports to serve. A troubled Balaam repents, agreeing to deliver the oracles of God to Balak truthfully, with eyes wide open.

As Balaam chants his messages to a furious and terrified Balak, we are again invited to reflect on how far little Jacob has come.
God brings them out of Egypt
and is for them like the horns of the wild ox.

Behold, a people!
As a lioness it rises up
and as a lion it lifts itself;
it does not lie down until it has devoured the prey
and drunk the blood of the slain.

He shall eat up the nations, his adversaries,
and shall break their bones in pieces
and pierce them through with his arrows.

Blessed are those who bless you,
and cursed are those who curse you.
The time for the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham has arrived! He intends to give this people a land to call their own, where Abraham himself was only a sojourner. As we have seen so far, the Lord’s purposes do not fail. The question to the bordering kingdoms is whether they
will bless Israel and share in his blessings, or curse him and be themselves cursed. Unfortunately for Moab and Midian, they’ve chosen the way of Esau – the way of Cain.

I don't understand why Balaam gets such a bad press. It seems he wants to say only what the LORD tells him - 22:8, 18-19, etc. Why is he a bad example in the NT?

I think this is one literary failing of the book of Numbers - at least as we have it. Moses later on in the book says that it was Balaam who came up with the idea for the women of Moab and Midian to seduce the Israelites to worship their gods. He could not curse them, but if Israel himself could forsake the Lord, then the Lord would no doubt destroy Israel and then the Midianites and Moabites could save their own skins.

This is only hinted at, but I think it's what the NT writers are talking about.

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