Saturday, September 26, 2009

NUMBERS: Chapter 23

Chapter 23
Summary:Balaam now asks King Balaak to build him seven* altars, and to prepare him seven* oxen and seven* rams for animal sacrifices.

The king did as Balaam requested, and King Balak and Balaam sacrificed animals on all seven altars they had built.

Balaam tells the king to stand by the "burnt offering" while he goes to speak with God. He tells King Balak that he will return and tell the king whatever God decides to show him. Balaam then goes to a "high place", and God met Balaam there.

Balaam tells God that he has prepared seven* altars, and that he has slaughtered a bull and a ram on each one. God then "put a word in Balaam's mouth" and tells him to return to King Balak and deliver the message.

When Balaam returned, he found King Balak standing by the burnt sacrifices with all the princes of Moab. Balaam then relayed the message he was given by God:
23:7 ..."Balak the king of Moab hath brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying, Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel.
23:8 How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the LORD hath not defied?
23:9 For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.
23:10 Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!"
King Balak admonished Balaam, exclaiming that he had brought him to Moab to curse the Israelites, and not to have Balaam bless them. Balaam replied that he must heed to what God has instructed him to say.

King Balak decides to bring Balaam to another location where he would see more clearly the people of Israel. Again, they set up seven* altars, sacrificing a bull and a ram on each, this time upon the top of Mount Pisgah located in the field of Zophim. Like before, Balaam tells King Balak to wait by the "burnt offerings" while he goes off to convene with God. God meets with Balaam and again "puts a word in his mouth" to say to King Balak.

When Balaam returned, the king - standing by his "burnt offering" with the princes of Moab - asked Balaam what God had said. Balaam replied with the following message:
23:18 ..."Rise up, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor:
23:19 God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?
23:20 Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it.
23:21 He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.
23:22 God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.
23:23 Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!
23:24 Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion: he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain."
King Balak tried to compromise with Balaam, telling him that if he's not going to curse the Israelites, at least don't bless them. But Balaam argued that whatever God had spoken, he was obliged to follow.

King Balak decides to give it one more shot to try to convince Balaam (and God) to curse the Israelites, bringing him to the top of Mount Peor overlooking the desert of Jeshimon. Again, Balaam requested King Balak to build seven* altars to sacrifice animals upon, and King Balak once again did so and sacrificed a bull and a ram on each altar.
Notes:1.) Yet more mystical significance of the number seven in the bible.
Thoughts:Our adventures with King Balak and his prophet friend Balaam (who also happens to have a talking donkey) continue with the king's desire to have Balaam (and by proxy, God) curse the Israelites, whom he fears are poised to invade his land.

In order to consult with God over the matter, Balaam asks the king to build him seven (again, with that mystical number) altars, and to prepare seven bulls and rams for animal sacrificing - one of each animal is to be sacrificed on each of the seven altars. (I can't help but imagine in a humorous way that this must somehow be the bronze age equivalent of using a payphone to dial up "God's hotline".)

After King Balak and the princes of Moab slaughter up some animals to place the call, Balaam tells them to wait where they are while Balaam goes to speak with God in private in a "high place" (which seems to indicate that our story is taking place in mountainous terrain).

Although it isn't specified whether God speaks to Balaam face to face as he does with Moses (my guess would be that he doesn't), it appears rather strange and suspicious that Balaam follows a similar methodology of climbing a mountain (or a similar "high place") in order to speak with God.

I find this methodology suspicious due to the following factors: if Balaam, like Moses and Aaron, were to deceive people into believing that they were speaking to God when in fact they weren't, the "need for privacy" by climbing a mountain would seem to serve to reduce the risk of being observed, more so than perhaps simply taking a walk in the desert. It would therefore appear that "climbing a mountain" or "going to a high place" would serve to benefit Balaam (as well as Moses and Aaron) in keeping such a deception without being observed, considering that God does not require a person to be on top of a mountain in order to speak with him. God also does not require a person to be secluded away from others when speaking to people directly (God speaks to Moses and Aaron numerous times while they are in the midst of the congregation of Israelites).

Anyways, on top of the "high place" God "put[s] a word into Balaam's mouth" which he repeats to King Balak upon his return.

Balaam's message explains that he cannot justify cursing a people that God has not cursed himself (which - considering all of the plagues, leprosy, and immolation God has bestowed upon the Israelites - is quite arguable to the contrary), and that he cannot defy whom God has not defied (again, quite arguable, considering that God has to be talked out of utterly annihilating them time and time again, not to mention that he won't let any of the current generation of Israelites - save Joshua and Caleb - inherit the "promised land", instead having them march around in the desert for forty years until they all die off).

Balaam continues, telling the king that he has seen the Israelites from high upon this mountain, and that they dwell alone and shall be distinct among the nations of the world. He tells the king that the people of Jacob (Israel) are as numerous as particles of dust, and that he would like to die a righteous death like Jacob.

I find this rather odd the mention of Israel's former name of Jacob, and the loose interchangeable usage of both names between Balaam and King Balak. Perhaps we are supposed to assume that the details of Israel's life were so legendary that they were known widely to other civilizations 400 years after his death, but I find this very difficult to accept. Our modern leaders probably have very little knowledge about the history of other countries from 400 years ago, especially a trivial bit of information like the former name of a historical figure.

Almost as of it were a Monty Python sketch, upon hearing this message, the king exclaimed that he had summoned Balaam to Moab to curse the Israelites, not to have Balaam bless them. Balaam offers up a response asking if he's supposed to not take heed to the message God has sent him.

King Balak then seems to think that if Balaam gets a better view of the Israelites from a new and different location, then perhaps he might change his mind and agree to curse them. King Balak also might not be the bible's best example of brilliance either, but that's to be expected from "bad guy" characters in the bible.

The king now drags Balaam through the field of Zophim and atop Mount Pisgah, and again sets up seven altars to sacrifice seven bulls and rams upon - again, one bull and one ram per each altar. Balaam tells King Balak to wait by the smoldering animal carcasses while he ascends the mountain to get his instructions from God.

Once again, God "puts a word in [Balaam's] mouth", and Balaam returns to deliver his message to the king.

Balaam's new message says the following, which is riddled with questionable claims:
"God is not a man..."True
"...that he should lie..."
(meaning: God doesn't lie)
(While we haven't encountered a direct bold face lie so far, we have read various passages with God clearly being deceptive or not completely up front and forthright.)
"...neither the son of man..."Debatable / True
(This is true in the context of our story, but debatable in the real world, where some can assert that God, and the concept of God, is in fact "man made".)
"(neither the son of man) that he should repent;"
(meaning: God doesn't repent)
Exodus 32:14 clearly states: "And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people"; and while we can't be completely certain about God's true motivations, it is also stated in Genesis 6:6 that God has regrets about having created man; in both Genesis chapters 8 & 9 God promises never to commit mass genocide again, sealing said promise symbolically with a rainbow.
"hath he said, and shall he not do it?"
(meaning: has he said something and not done it? In other words, God doesn't change his mind)
God clearly has changed his mind twice, once in Exodus Chapter 32 where his intent was to kill off all of the Israelites for worshiping Aaron's golden calf, until Moses talks him out of it; and secondly in Numbers Chapter 14 when he once again wished to kill all of the Israelites, until Moses again talked him out of it, where God instead decided to simply allow them to die out in the desert over the next 40 years.
"hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?"
(meaning: has he claimed to do something and not follow through. In other words, God doesn't lie)
Debatable / True
While it could be argued that God promised land to Abraham, Jacob, and the Israelites and did not follow through in their lifetimes, the Israelites eventually do take over the lands God "promised" them. It may have been centuries later than from when God first issued his promise, but we can't technically call this a lie.
"He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob"
(meaning: God has not seen "sin" in Jacob)
Largely dependent on whether "Jacob" is referring to solely Jacob himself, or to his descendants the Israelites. The Israelites themselves have sinned numerous times.

While Jacob was not specifically accused of "sinning" by God, there are many acts Jacob committed that are seen as "sinful", or at the very least, unethical behavior:
"...neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel..."False
Regardless of whether "Israel" is referring to Jacob or his descendants, both have committed acts that God has deemed perverse. The Israelites with the "golden calf" incident, and Jacob with his marriage to two sisters, which God forbids in Leviticus Chapter 18
Balaam finishes off his message by stating that God is with the Israelites, and has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of a "unicorn". No curse nor "magic spells" are to be performed against the Israelites, and that they will simply observe the Israelites conquer other lands violently - as a lion would eat its prey and "drink the blood of the slain".

Upon hearing the message, King Balak pleads that if Balaam will not curse the Israelites, at least don't bless them! Balaam however, insists that he is bound to do whatever God commands him to do.

The king again shows his stupidity by not being convinced that this is an unwinnable situation, and gets Balaam to try again - this time on top of Mount Peor. Balaam again has the king construct seven altars and to sacrifice a bull and a ram on each of them.

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