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My Parshah Journal Paul Ikonen
25 June 2010
Portion: Balak Numbers 22:2-25:9 When I first read through this portion the story was almost completely different than how I had remembered it. Sure there was the cast of Balaam, Balak, the Angel on the road and of course, the talking donkey. But I remembered Balaam as the good guy in the story; in fact I was confused when I learned that Balaam wasn't even Hebrew. I confess this was really embarrassing because the text couldn't be clearer, maybe I can blame it on a past Sunday School teacher. The story starts out with Israel setting up camp along the Jordan within the plains of Moab. They had just defeated the Amorites who had taken up their swords against them and the news of this people had been spreading. News of this traveling nation who had fled Egypt and were overpowering their adversaries had even reached King Balak son of Zippor and his people. He knew the stories of how they had slaughtered the Amorites and his people were terrified that they would soon “lick clean all that is about us”. (Num 22:4) It’s interesting to me that King Balak didn’t first gather his troops and fight the Israelites, instead he summoned a local prophet named Balaam. From what we can gather from the Hebrew Scriptures of Balaam, we know He was some sort of Prophet (Numbers 22:6) He practiced divination (Joshua 13:22) He came from Pethor which was along the Euphrates (Numbers 22:5) He spoke with the Hebrew God (Numbers 22:8-12) He was an enemy of Israel (Joshua 13:22, Numbers 31:16) He intended to curse Israel (Deuteronomy 23:4-6; Joshua 24:9-10; Nehemiah 13:2)
With the above in mind I started to read the text in a different light. Rather than seeing a prophet who goes to the pagan king to speak on behalf of God, I see a man who in spite of God's command goes to see the king and maybe, with consideration of another text he meant to speak a curse but, like the donkey, God placed words of blessing instead. Also from Revelation 2, it might be that after failing to give a curse, Balaam gave advice to the king on how to handle the Israelites. Starting on the road to Moab I read the text with another picture in mind. Balaam is on his donkey and is stopped three times by the Angel of the LORD. Each time the donkey sees what Balaam could not see, (maybe this is a discernment that the prophet did not have) and each time Balaam is angry with the donkey. The text says that the Angel was set up as an adversary, why would an adversary be needed if Balaam was going to speak for God? The third time, Balaam beats her again but this time God opens the mouth of the donkey and she speaks to Balaam. The conversation ends when the donkey, appealing to her history with Balaam, asks if she was in the habit of behaving like this and Balaam has to answer "no". Then the LORD uncovered Balaam's eyes and he saw as the donkey saw, the Angel of the LORD standing in the way of their path and He said to Balaam that the reason for standing in his way was that the journey Balaam was on is obnoxious to Him. The Angel seems to see in Balaam an intention to not do what he said he would do. Balaam tells the Angel that he is willing to turn back if He wishes but the Angel instead allows him to pass but with another warning only to say what He tells Him to say. Balaam arrives and in the morning he and king Balak give offerings to God and Balak takes Balaam to a high point to see the Israelite camp (the practice of divination required the person who is cursing to see the one being cursed). We don't know what Balaam's intentions were but the text does say, at least, that he sought the manifestation of God. God did meet with the prophet and gave him instruction to go back to Balak and to speak a blessing over Israel. He does so and Balak is angry because he brought Balaam to curse, not to bless. The explanation Balaam gives, I think, is important; he says that "I can only repeat what the LORD puts in my mouth". Could it be that Balaam would have cursed
Israel but God kept his mouth from doing so? Balak takes Balaam to a second place, they offer another sacrifice and Balaam seeks God. Another blessing is given rather than a curse and Balak doesn't know what to do with Balaam. He pleads for Balaam not to curse or bless, just stop! Balaam continues to say that he can only speak as God commands; Balak attempts one more time to see if at a new location God would allow Balaam to curse Israel. He is taken to the top of a wasteland, they offer their sacrifice and the text says "seeing that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, Balaam did not go in search of omens as he did before." We didn't know this before, Balaam was trying to curse Israel but instead God put a blessing on the tongue of the prophet. This time however, Balaam allows himself to be open to the Spirit of God and he is given a third blessing. The text says that Balak is enraged at this point and tells Balaam that he must leave and he has forfeited his reward. Balaam appears fine with this because he knows that his only option was to speak the words God gave him. On his way out he says one more thing to Balak, Balaam prophesies to the king about what will happen to Moab by the hands of Israel. From this prophesy a word concerning the Messiah is spoken. From the lips of a false prophet God still speaks "A star rises from Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Israel." After the prophecy which spoke of Moab's eventual destruction, Balaam, according to Numbers 24, leaves for home. The story isn't complete though, in chapter 25 we are given a continuation that for me didn't make sense until I put the other Biblical texts mentioning Balaam into the story. Before the last part of the Parshah, I read these texts"(The Moabites) are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so that the LORD's community was struck by plague." NUMBERS 31:16 "I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of
Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality." REVELATION 2:14 Now, back to our portion, we leave Moab and return to the camps of Israel. The text says that the men of Israel were taking for themselves women of Moab and at their invitation they sacrificed to and worshiped their god. We just got done watching as God prevented spoken curses on His people, curses that would have no power but God in His unending love turned into words of blessing, and here His people fall into the trap that, if we keep in mind the text from Numbers 31 and Revelation 2, Balaam and Balak had planned as a sort of plan B since God would not allow their plan A. Plan B I would suggest was to assimilate the Hebrews into their nation. If you can't kill or curse them, maybe they could make them Moabites? It is interesting that God would protect His people from the spiritual attacks (cursing) but He allowed His people to fall when it came to their physical attack (lust of the flesh). Could God have prevented this plan B? Sure He could have but it must mean that He wanted to give Israel another chance to turn from their incessant idol worship but, again, they fail. Now God puts a plague on Israel because of His anger, a plague that will kill 24,000 people. This week's Parshah ends with an Israelite man who takes a Midianite woman (there were close connection between the Moabites and Midianites) to a tent, which could suggest prostitution or more likely an act of pagan worship. The act is said to have taken place in front of Moses and the community. In his zeal (this would later be a story that will rally the first century zealots) Pinchas, the son of the High Priest, took a spear and stabs them both through their stomachs, pinning them to the ground. It was this action, it says, that stops the plague (More on Pinchas will be explored during next weeks Parshah which is labeled with his name).
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