Sunday, October 07, 2007

Numbers 22 - 24: Balak and Balaam

Rembrant, Balaam and the Ass.The Israelites are starting to become a regional power, and other inhabitants of the region are getting nervous. In particular, the king of Moab, one Balak son of Zippor, sees the Israelites coming and is scared silly. There are a lot of them, and they represent both a military threat and an ecological threat -- they, with their animals, could lay waste to the land simply by feeding and watering themselves.

Balak reaches into his bag of tricks and sends a messenger east to an oracle named Balaam, who lives near the Euphrates, asking him to come to Moab and lay a curse on the newcomers. Balaam, surprisingly, worships and receives his visions from God, the God of Abraham (unlike Pharoah's magicians, for instance, who seemed to derive their power from a lesser competitor), and wants to talk to him before responding to Balak. God, of course, tells him not to mess with the Israelites, so Balaam sends word back that he won't be able to take the commission.

Hearing this, the king sends a high-power delegation with the authority to offer serious money if Balaam will come back and lay down this curse. Balaam talks to God again, and this time God tells him to return with the men to Balak. Obviously, he has something in mind.

The Famous Donkey Story

So we come to the story of Balaam's Donkey. It's a popular story, and the subject of many paintings. That's probably in part because people (and painters) like stories about animals, but it probably has meaning that resonates for people, too. Unfortunately, I may be missing some or all of the point. I can recognize a few themes that seem to resonate, sure. But the tale, in context, doesn't make a lick of sense.

Gustav Jaeger, Balaam and the Angel
What happens is, at a narrow place in the road a mighty angel blocks the way. The donkey sees the angel and stops, but Balaam doesn't understand why the donkey is stopping, and beats it. This happens three times. After the third beating, God lets the donkey talk, and it says exactly what you would expect: "hey, Balaam, why do you keep beating me?"
22:29 Balaam answered the donkey, "You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now."
30 The donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?"
"No," he said.

At this point, the angel reveals himself to Balaam, and tells him that he has been wrong to beat his donkey. "I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her." (32-33) Balaam offers to turn back, but the angel says no, keep going, we've got something planned.
Pieter Pieterszoon Lastman, Balaam's Donkey.So, there's a nice little theme here of having humility and listening to those less powerful than yourself. Plus, the donkey gets a pretty good line. But, as I said, the story doesn't really make any sense in context.

The problem is, since God had already told Balaam to go back to Balak, his path is anything but a reckless one. He's already doing what God told him, and has no reason to be expecting divine intervention. Apparently, the angel hadn't got the memo on the whole Balaam project.

Balaam's Oracles

Over the next few days, Balaam turns out to be a huge disappointment to Balak. They go to a high place where they can see a portion of the Israelite host. Balaam has Balak build seven alters, and they sacrifice a bull and a ram on each of them. Then, Balaam leaves to commune briefly with God, coming back with a blessing for the Israelites instead of a curse. King Balak figures maybe they weren't standing in the right place, and tries again the next day on another hill. Again, they build alters, sacrifice 14 animals, but Balaam ends up blessing the Israelites again. Same thing happens on the third day.

By now, Balak is hopping mad. He sends Balaam home without paying him. Balaam takes this in stride, but before he leaves he makes a colorful prophecy predicting Israelite ascendence and the destruction of Edom, Moab, Sheth, and the other local kingdoms. Then, Balaam goes home, and Balak went his own way. (24:25)

Balaam, from the Nuremburg Chronicle.This entire episode, three chapters long, is an interesting digression. Since mid-Genesis, the narrative chapters of the Bible have all been told from an firmly Israelite implied point of view. The story of Balak and Balaam, however, is something that happens not to the Israelites, or within their camp, but because of them. No Israelite would have known about these events as they were happening. Coming as it does immediately after the chronicles of the first Israelite military successes, the story implies a broadening of scope. God's people are starting to have an impact on the wider world.


Karin said...

"God's people are starting to have an impact on the wider world."

This is likely the reason this story made it into the canon at all.

BTW: a certain manager where you still work, who shall remain nameless, would do well to read The Famous Donkey Story with the nice little theme here of having humility and listening to those less powerful than yourself.

Perhaps you should leave a copy of it on her chair (you know how she is about leaving things on her desk).

chuckdaddy said...

Why didn't the donkey tell Balaam why he'd stopped when he could talk? I'm anti-ass here. I mean, why wouldn't Balaam be upset that his ride had stalled? He's supposed to have just trusted that the donkey stopped for a good reason?

Michael5000 said...

Chuck, after four years of thought I have come to the conclusion that the ass probably didn't realize that Balaam couldn't see the angel. So it was basically saying "Why are you beating me [when I obviously can't proceed, what with the mighty angel in our path].