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B'Midbar/Numbers 22:19 And now, rest please, here, you too, for the night, and let me know what the L-rd will speak again with me.
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Balaam, the man called upon by Balak, the king of Moab, to come and curse Israel for him, has just received a second visit from Balak's messengers. On the first occasion, Balaam checked withHaShem about whether he should accept the commission and go. HaShem's response was unambiguous, "Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed" (B'Midbar 22:12, NJPS), so Balaam told the messengers, "Go back to your own country, for the L-RD will not let me go with you" (v. 13, NJPS). That should have been the end of the story, but the king of Moab was desperate so, guessing that perhaps money or protocol issues were at stake, he sent a second higher status delegation to try again sweetened with the promise of a larger fee.
After they have delivered their enhanced offer, Balaam warns the king's messengers that, "Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the L-RD my G-d" (v. 18, NJPS). "Nothing doing," he says, "I already have my orders." Then, remarkably, he adds the words of our text. Noticing that although the leading vav is usually translated 'and' it can also be translated 'but', we have the amazing situation where Balaam appears to be saying, "No, I can't come, but if you wait overnight, I'll see if G-d will change His mind." This almost makes it sound as Balaam's divinity is himself and that he is playing for more money or some other reward.
Jacob Milgrom paraphrases, "Perhaps the L-rd will change His mind", then goes on to point out that this is "the unspoken promise behind all forms of divination. The same ritual procedures are repeated until a favourable omen is received." It's rather like modern referenda, when the people (such as Denmark and Ireland who both rejected EU treaty changes at a first referendum were asked again and voted to accept at a second referendum) choose against the wishes of their governing elite and are told, "Wrong answer. Try again!" Milgrom reports that "this was widely attested among the ancient Greeks and the Hittites." We can see the same principle at work in the biblical narrative of Balaam's trip to Moab, where three times he has Balak repeat the same sacrificial ritual, albeit in different places, in order to try and effect the desired result. It might also be why the Bible records dreams being given twice - for example, Pharaoh in B'resheet 41.
On the contrary,Rashi claims that Balaam is speaking prophetically. He points to the words "you too", suggesting that they mean, "you too will leave here sighing with disappointment, like the first delegation"; and to the words, "what the L-rd will speak again", explaining, "He will not change His words from a blessing to a curse. Would that He will not continue to bless! Here he unwittingly prophesied that in the future G-d is going to add blessing (or: speak blessing again) for the Israelites through him." This would imply that Balaam knew HaShem well enough that he knew He wasn't going to change His mind and was therefore much surprised when HaShem said he could go. Commenting to the next verse, Rashi almost has HaShem tell Balaam, "If you think you're going to get paid for this, then you just go and see what happens."
The sages of the Talmud take this part of the Balak/Balaam story as a sign of human responsibility. Rabbi Huna or Rabbi Eleazar said, "From the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings it may be shown that one is allowed to follow the road he wishes to pursue" (b. Makkot 10b). Similarly, the Midrash: "From this you can infer that a man is led in the way he desires to go. For at first Balaam was told: You shall not go, but once he was so brazen as to desire to go, he was allowed to go" (B'Midbar Rabbah 22:12).
Why did Balaam invite the messengers to stay overnight, while he consulted HaShem? Was he seeking confirmation and wanted the messengers to know that he had exercised due diligence in getting that a second opinion? Or was Balaam really expecting that HaShem would change His mind and allow him to go and accede to Balak's request for him to curse Israel?
The Tanakh contains multiple occasions where HaShem appears to change His mind, starting just before the flood when "the L-RD regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened" (B'resheet 6:6, NJPS). Twice Moshe pleads with HaShem to spare the Israelites: after the incident of the Calf, when "the L-RD relented from the disaster that He had spoken of bringing on His people." (Shemot 32:14, ESV); and after the return of the spies, "I pardon, as you have asked" (B'Midbar 14:20, NJPS). During the plague that followed David taking a census, "G-d also sent an angel to destroy Yerushalayim, but when he was about to carry out the destruction, ADONAI saw it and changed His mind about causing such distress" (1 Chronicles 21:15, CJB).
Yet at the same time, the Tanakh is also clear that G-d never changes His mind, first from the mouth of Moshe himself: "G-d is not man to be capricious, or mortal to change His mind. Would He speak and not act, promise and not fulfill?" (B'Midbar 23:19, NJPS). The prophet Samuel agrees: "Moreover, the Glory of Israel does not deceive or change His mind, for He is not human that He should change His mind" (1 Samuel 15:29, NJPS). The Psalmist speaks in G-d's voice, saying, "I will not violate My covenant, or change what I have uttered. I have sworn by My holiness, once and for all; I will not be false to David" (Psalm 89:35-36, NJPS). Finally, from the written prophets, Malachi bring a word to Israel: "For I the L-RD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed" (Malachi 3:6, ESV).
How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory positions? At a human level, we want to say that G-d is always constant and faithful, that He never changes, as James tells us - "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17, ESV) - but we do want G-d to hear us when we pray and forgive our sin. Let's look at some examples and see what is going on.
The first example is from the prophet Amos, who receives a vision from the L-rd: "This is what the L-rd G-D showed me: behold, He was forming locusts when the latter growth was just beginning to sprout, and behold, it was the latter growth after the king's mowings. When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said, "O L-rd G-D, please forgive! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!" The L-RD relented concerning this: "It shall not be," said the L-RD" (Amos 7:1-3, ESV). Here the context is a dream; the L-rd is showing Amos something that He could do, but when Amos intercedes, the L-rd backs away from the idea. This is not a public pronouncement or commitment; it is as if the L-rd is showing the idea to Amos to see how he reacts. Then, when Amos prays, He moves on to the next. We can imagine a conversation rather like this: I'm thinking of doing ... That's not a good idea ... Ok, well how about this ... That's not a good idea either ... Then this is what I will do.
A second example starts in the book of Jonah - "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, G-d relented of the disaster that He had said He would do to them, and He did not do it" (Jonah 3:10, ESV) - finds another voice in Jeremiah - "Now therefore mend your ways and your deeds, and obey the voice of the L-RD your G-d, and the L-RD will relent of the disaster that He has pronounced against you" (Jeremiah 26:13, ESV) - before ending up in Ezekiel: "Again, though I say to the wicked, 'You shall surely die,' yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die" (Ezekiel 33:14-15, ESV). Here, the pronouncements of judgement and punishment are both contingent and exhortative. They are contingent upon the behaviour of those being addressed - will they, or will they not, repent - and exhortative to give a very real threat to make people take notice and pay attention. G-d has not changed His mind; although He has issued the warning, He hopes the people will change their behaviour so that He will not have to follow through with actual judgement. Ezekiel explains, "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the L-rd G-D, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?" (18:23, ESV). Yeshua urges His disciples to follow G-d's example: "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him" (Luke 17:3-4, ESV).
The New Covenant Scriptures are very deliberate to be clear that we can trust what G-d has definitively said. Yeshua tells the disciples that, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away" (Luke 21:33, ESV), while Rav Sha'ul encourages Titus to live "in hope of eternal life, which G-d, who never lies, promised before the ages began" (Titus 1:2, ESV). The writer of Hebrews is even stronger, reminding his readers that "when G-d desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of His purpose, He guaranteed it with an oath" (Hebrews 6:17, ESV). This stresses 'unchangeable' and links it to the concept of an oath the strongest possible undertaking in the ancient world, "so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for G-d to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us" (v. 18, ESV). Both the promise and the oath are 'unchangeable', and the writer tells us that "it is impossible for G-d to lie."
Further Study: Psalm 110:4; Isaiah 66:9; 2 Timothy 2:13
Application: When we understand what G-d is doing, we can understand how we can interpret what He is saying. Is G-d giving you an unconditional promise, offering you a number of options or making a contingent judgement to encourage you to obey Him?
Comment - 17:57 16Jul19 Anon: At the application, the point about understanding what God is doing makes us able to interpret what He is saying - however many times I do not understand what God is doing and just have to trust and rely on Him and know that He is with me no matter what.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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