Monday, June 04, 2007

Numbers 22:1–20

Numbers 22:1–20: Balak and Balaam—Balak Summons Balaam

Synopsis

In this passage we begin what I believe to be one of the strangest stories in the Bible. (I’ve probably said that before; there are a lot of “strange” stories in the Bible, and, for a writer, I have a pretty limited vocabulary.) You may have other stories that you’d put higher on the list, because we’re all different and unique and the world is all one big rainbow, but for me, this is one of the strangest.

In Numbers 21, Israel had a number of resounding victories around the nations in the area. In this passage we find out that this is making some people very nervous. In fact, “Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites” (verse 3). And, in a turn of phrase that I love, “The Moabites said to the elders of Midian, ‘This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field’” (verse 4a)

So Balak, the king of Moab, comes up with a plan: he will contact Balaam, and hire him to come and put a curse on the Israelites. Balaam has a reputation: those he blesses are blessed, and those he curses are cursed (verse 6). Perhaps, with Balaam’s curse, the Moabites will be able to defeat the Israelites.

He sends the elders of Moab go to visit Balaam, bringing with them the “fee for divination” (verse 7). He tells them to spend the night, and he will bring them back the answer that the LORD gives him. That night, God comes to visit Balaam, and asks him who these men are, that have come to visit him. Balaam tells God who they are, and why they have come, and God instructs him not to go with them to curse the Israelites, because they are blessed (verse 12).

So that’s what Balaam tells them: he can’t go back with them, because the LORD has refused to let him. They go back to Moab, and report to Balak what has happened. He then sends more princes to Balaam, to try and change his mind. He sends the message that Balaam will be rewarded handsomely, if he just puts a curse on the Israelites. Balaam tells the new princes that he cannot do anything beyond the command of the LORD, but instructs them to stay the night, and he will find out what else He would tell him.

God comes to see Balaam again that night, and tells him that he can go with the men, but that he is only to do what God tells him to do.

Thoughts

The first strange part about the story of Balaam and Balak is this: Was Balaam a worshipper of God? He obviously wasn’t an Israelite, and yet his first response, when the Moabites came to see him, was to seek the LORD’s will in the matter. Doesn’t sound right, to me. Even more strange is his response when the second group of princes comes to visit him:

But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the LORD my God.” (verse 19)

The closest I can figure is that he probably wanted to go directly to the “god” for the nation he was going to curse; in that day and age, every nation basically had their own god or gods, so when he wanted to curse a nation, he would probably go to that nation’s god(s) and ask them to curse the nation. As far as Balaam was concerned, God was just another god, no different from the god of any other nation.

I do wonder, though, if he was surprised when the LORD came to visit him, and instructed him what to do. Surely other “gods” were not doing that! Perhaps that is why he started referring to Him as “the LORD my God.”
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