Thursday, October 1, 2009

NUMBERS: Who is Agag?

In Numbers: Chapter 24 during one of Balaam's prophecies a curious name is mentioned in verse 7:
24:7 "...and his king shall be higher than Agag...
Who is Agag? The answer is a rather complicated one, considering a king named Agag shows up much later in the book of 1 Samuel, which is five books away from where we currently are here in the book of Numbers when Balaam makes his prophecy.

We're left to deduce one of the following explanations:
1. Balaam predicted Agag long before his birth and reign:Extremely unlikely
The simplest of explanations is also the most faulty. Regardless of the supernatural, mystical, and miraculous claims in the bible we'd still have a lot to explain to make this explanation fit.

The first thing we would have to assume is that either God or Balaaam possessed the power to make a precisely accurate prediction right down to a person's name and their occupation - as well as an assessment of their work - many years before they were born. This would be the equivalent to predicting "Peter Millicent, one of the greatest presidents of all time, will become the president of the U.S. in the year 2412". However, within the context of how Balaam's prophecy is delivered I would have to make my prediction as so: "Your neighbor Fred will become a greater leader than Peter Millicent".

Obviously, you would have no clue as to who I was referring to when I mentioned Peter Millicent, unless either you could see into the future yourself (thereby negating me having to tell you this prediction), or if I had told you previously who Peter Millicent would be. The problem with the latter point is that our only reference point is the bible, which doesn't support or refute that the name Agag was well known to be a predicted future leader, so we'd simply be making an assumption.

If for the sake of argument, we assume that either Balaam or God did predict a great leader named Agag, we would have to assume one of two things. Either this was a self-fulfilling prophecy, meaning that people would possibly name their children Agag in the hopes that their child would become this great leader, or we're faced with the idea that there is no such thing as free will - God would have to know exactly how everything would turn out before it happens.

This would mean that he knew everything that would happen, how it would unfold, beginning from the creation myth, leaving nothing up to free will. Agag's parents wouldn't be able to change their mind and not have children, nor would the parents be able to pick a different name for Agag. Pretty much we've created a logical paradox which simply doesn't fit.

The next problem we have with this explanation is that it doesn't make sense within the context of the story. Balaam was speaking to King Balak when he made this prophecy, his main intent being to tell the king how great of a nation the Israelites were and how they would conquer and dominate the land. Unless King Balak was familiar with the name Agag, mentioning this name would be meaningless to him. Again, it would be like walking up to someone on the street and telling them that they'd be a better leader than "Peter Millicent". You would probably get a puzzled look and perhaps a question asking who Peter Millicent is. If you were in the midst of a long statement to someone else, interjecting the name of a person that you would have to explain to your listener would only derail the delivery of your statement.
2. Agag is actually a title and not a proper nameUnsupported
Another common theory, which on face value seems far more plausible, is that "Agag" was actually a title - like "king" or "pharaoh" - rather than a proper name. This certainly would clear up the inconsistency of King Balak being familiar with the name "Agag", as both a contemporary leader as well as the character from 1 Samuel could easily both hold this title.

The only problem with this theory is that there's nothing to support coming to this conclusion that "Agag" is a title. This would be analogous of someone unfamiliar with U.S. history noting upon seeing an incomplete list, that we've had several U.S. Presidents and Vice Presidents named "George" (Washington and both Bush presidencies, along with VP's George Clinton and George M. Dallas) and assuming that "George" must be a title. It's simply making an "educated guess" based on an assumption, there isn't any further evidence to suggest that "Agag" is a title anymore than someone assuming that "George" must be a title upon hearing that three of our presidents and two of our vice presidents shared that first name.

Which leads me to our next possibility...
3. Agag was a common name in the areaPlausible, but unsupported
The next explanation is the thought that perhaps Agag was a common name in either the area, the time period, or perhaps both. While this is certainly a more plausible explanation than the first two possibilities, there are problems with this argument. First, like the argument that "Agag" could be a title, there's no evidence to support that Agag was a common name. However, a counter argument could be that much like the modern papacy, sometimes rulers will rename themselves to take on the legacy of a former ruler, or in the case of a monarchy ruling from a royal lineage it could be possible that their offspring were named after former great leaders in their ancestry.

Again, this is certainly a more sound explanation than the previous arguments, but again there is no evidence to support that this is the case. The main issue against this argument is that "Agag" is mentioned in a manner as though the reader of the bible should be familiar with the name, and considering that Agag is only mentioned once here in the book of Numbers and then later on in 1 Samuel. This, along with the context that Balaam is also giving a prophecy here, leads us to another possibility.
4. The reference to Agag was added to the story in Numbers to strengthen the notion of prophecy.Plausible, but unconfirmed
In order to understand the motive behind dropping in the name "Agag" into Balaam's prophecy after the fact, we have to revisit our first argument - the belief that Balaam somehow predicted the name of a ruler long before he was born. In the context of the story itself, we'd still be left with the same problem - how would King Balak know who Balaam was referring to? However, the significance of the name "Agag" would actually be more for the benefit of the reader, rather than King Balak.

The whole premise behind most of the bible's mythology is prediction and prophecy (Jesus' birth and divinity is supposedly predicted by the Hebrew texts, Jesus' prediction that he will be betrayed by one of his disciples, Joseph predicts the Egyptian famine leading to his gaining favor with the pharaoh of Egypt, and the entire book of Revelations consisting entirely of prophecy). One of the major tenements to the concept of "truth" to believers mainly rests on the belief that the bible has predicted a great many things accurately. Jesus' divinity was primarily accepted on the premise that he fulfilled the various requirements of Jewish prophecy concerning the messiah. Without those prerequisites, it's possible that his alleged miracles may have been condemned as sorcery or witchcraft, rather than an example of his divinity.

The point being that accurate prophecy is a strong core of the Judeo-Christian belief system. Therefore, that is certainly a motivating factor to make it appear that Balaam's prediction not only covered what we could assume was already inevitable (the Israelites conquering their enemies) but to also add in a prediction that none but a omniscient God would be privy to claim - predicting a strong leader who has yet to be born. In this context, mentioning Agag is more for the benefit of the reader to confirm that God has accurately predicted the coming of a person yet to exist.

Agag plays such a significant role as a character who is viciously torn apart in the book of Samuel as an act of vengeance against the Amalekites, that it is impossible to overlook his casual mention here in Balaam's prophecy. In the context of our story, the mention of Agag doesn't appear to make sense as related to King Balak, but it makes a definite impact upon those reading the bible who are familiar with Agag's infamous role in the book of Samuel.

While there is no concrete certainty to this argument, there is certainly motivation, and on this premise alone it's something we cannot overlook as a possibility.
While we simply can't come up with a definitive answer as to who Agag is within the context of Numbers: Chapter 24, the literalist answers simply don't add up and can only be explained away by guess work. Although we also cannot say with certainty that Agag was inserted into Balaam's prophecy after the fact, there certainly is a likely motivation for doing so. The most obvious explanations often are the most likely, especially when combined with a strong motivational factor.

No comments:

Post a Comment