Numbers 22-24

Good morning! In today’s passage (Numbers 22-24) we get a delightful, whimsical extended narrative of Balak, Balaam, and Balaam’s ass, complete with angels and talking animals. It sounds nothing like the “fire and brimstone” stories we’ve read recently. I can readily imagine this being told around the campfire, a happy story about how the enemies of Israel conspire to bring about its destruction, but instead make for blessing instead.

We meet the main characters at the beginning of Numbers 22. Balak is a king of the Moabites, hoping to defend Moab from the sort of disaster that befell the Amorites at the hands of Israel. Balaam is a shaman of some sort, having power to speak with God, as well as to bless and curse. Balak attempts to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites, but at first Balaam refuses because God declines to endorse the plan. (Notice that God seems less omniscient and supreme here—more conversational and even seeming out of the loop.) On Balak’s second request, God authorizes Balaam to go, so long as he closely obeys divine wishes. But then, evidently, God has a change of heart and sends an angel to stop Balaam. The seer’s donkey balks and resists three times because it can see the fierce angel in the way. When Balaam hits the donkey, God gives it the ability to talk back and explain itself. Thus enlightened, Balaam is able to see the angel of the Lord and learn that the donkey saved his life these three times. The angel gives permission to keep going (for some reason), but again repeats the warning to only say and do as God commands. This part of the story suggests that even the wise can drift astray and not hear the divine word correctly. Sometimes it takes an animal—less “dumb” than it was treated—to see clearly again.

Numbers 23-24 describe the series of oracles that Balaam offered over Israel at the Moabite king’s request. Balak at first eagerly makes provision for sacrifices by Balaam in order to get God’s attention (and, he hopes, curse Israel). God appears to Balaam, and gives him a first oracle—refusing to curse Israel, but instead calling them blessed. Balak is furious, but decides to try again, this time from a different angle! But God again doesn’t foresee any misfortune for Israel, so Balaam cannot and will not curse them. (The favor with which God regards Israel here underscores the likelihood that this is by a different author than the priestly tradition.) Balak tries to stop Balaam from speaking because he’s giving blessings instead of curses, yet he decides to try one more time from a third location. (It would be interesting to do a geographic study to see if there is any significance to these place names.) Balaam’s third oracle is even farther from what Balak wanted, so Balak dismisses the seer to go home without pay. As he goes, Balaam offers a final oracle describing the coming triumphs of Israel and the consequences this will have for other nations.

One of the messages of this story concerns the limits of power and money to coerce divine blessing—Balak ends up looking foolish and wasteful, chasing after that which he cannot hope to control: God’s favor. Does the inclusion of this “counter story” in the tradition (even though it concerns the enemies of Israel) call into question the certainty of Hebrew priests that they could be assured of God’s blessing so long as the sacrifices were completed correctly? What else do you see in this narrative? Happy reading!

Read Numbers 22-24.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Numbers 25-26. Thanks for reading!

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