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B'Midbar/Numbers 23:3 Perhaps the L-rd will happen to meet me and whatever He shows me, I will tell you.
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Have you ever had one of those days when, from the moment you arrive at the office, you knew that getting out of bed was a mistake? It feels just like a normal day, even perhaps a good one, then you suddenly realise that everything is going to go wrong. Welcome to Balaam's world.
Balaam - the gentile, pagan prophet and diviner from beyond the river Euphrates - has been hired by king Balak of Moab to come and curse Israel. Although first stopped byHaShem from coming and accepting the contract, Balaam was then allowed to come on the proviso that he limited himself strictly to what HaShem told him to say. On the journey around the fertile crescent, Balaam has an encounter with an angel who at first can only be seen by his donkey, with whom he then has a conversation before the angel is revealed to Balaam as well. The angel rebukes him for his attitude and warns him again, "you must say nothing except what I tell you" (B'Midbar 22:35, NJPS). As soon as he arrives, Balak relays this restriction to the king - "Have I the power to speak freely? I can utter only the word that G-d puts into my mouth" (v. 38, NJPS).
Next morning, Balak takes Balaam up onto the mountains, overlooking part of the people of Israel camped on the plains in front of them. Balaam has by now recovered his confidence and no doubt encouraged by royal food, flattery and the prospect of being able to earn his fee after all, tells the king to set up an elaborate sacrifice. He is to sacrifice seven bulls and seven rams - expensive and costly sacrifices, intended to win the favour of G-d - to be sacrificed on seven separate newly-built altars. The three-fold use of the number seven, considered to be the number of the divine, is clearly deliberate as Balaam follows the standard ancient pagan paradigm for getting a result from a god.
Nechama Leibowitz compares Balaam's instructions and procedure - the way in which the altars and offerings are made and carried out - with the biblcal prophets: "The word of the L-RD came to me" (Jeremiah 1:4, NJPS), "the word of the L-RD came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, by the Chebar Canal, in the land of the Chaldeans" (Ezekiel 1:3, NJPS), "The word of the L-RD that came to Hosea son of Beeri ..." (Hosea 1:1, NJPS). The prophets of Israel, she says, "do not run after prophecy; on the contrary a glance reminds us that they objected, as a rule, to this imposition from On High. Balaam, on the other hand, hankers after prophecy and strives, through magical means, to obtain such power, to force it down from heaven, as it were through the medium of seven altars, seven bullocks, enchantments and solitude." Rabbi Hirsch confirms this, commenting that Balaam thought, "perhaps G-d will let Himself be brought towards me by the power that lies in our offering. Balak and Balaam believed they could impose a spell-like influence on G-d by their offerings."
But something has happened by the time we - and king Balak, of course - hear Balaam say the words in our text. Perhaps it was seeing the Israelite camp; perhaps it was the sight of the seven altars or the process of slaughtering and offering seven bulls as burnt offerings. "You stay there", Balaam says to the king, "by your offerings" - apparently standard pagan divination procedure - "while I go off in silence or solitude to listen for G-d." That sounds alright, but sandwiched between those two bookends is our text, which is suddenly far from alright. It starts with the word , an adverb thought to be constructed from , 'or' and or , 'not' (Davidson). David Clines reports that it means "perhaps, supposing that, what if?"1 - hardly the positive and bullish Balaam who had started the day. Balaam's second word - , the Nif'al 3ms prefix form of the root , to happen or to chance - tells us more; Jacob Milgrom explains that it "is used deliberately ... in an address to a foreigner whose encounter with G-d cannot be counted upon." Dennis Cole proposes that, "the use of the particle ulay (perhaps, perchance) denotes a degree of contingency in the words of Balaam ... the text leaves the option of responding to Balaam in the hands of G-d."2
It is as if Balaam is trying to play down his abilities or powers before the king, to prepare for the possibility that there will be no response from heaven, no divine revelation allowing Balaam to curse Israel as the king expects. Why is he being so cautious here when earlier - speaking to Balak's messengers who had been sent to fetch him (22:8, 19) he had been so certain that HaShem would speak to him?Rashi says that Balaam is offering the excuse that "He does not usually speak with me by day." We should notice too that when Balaam speaks to Balak, he uses the tetragrammaton to refer to HaShem, the divine name that suggests intimacy and relationship, whereas when the narrator tells us what happens next, he drops back to , 'G-d': "and G-d met Balaam" (23:4). Stephen Sherwood, on the other hand, says that the use of YHVH is significant because it shows that "It is YHVH, the G-d of Israel, that Balaam expects to encounter."3
Picking up on another word in the text, , - the Hif'il 3ms prefix form of the root , to see, with a 1cs object pronoun, so "He will cause me to see" or "He will show me" - theBaal HaTurim reports that this word only occurs twice in the Tanakh: here and in the verse "May G-d let me look in triumph on my enemies" (Psalm 59:11, ESV). This link teaches, he says, "that Balaam hated Israel and desired to curse them even more than Balak." Perhaps this starts to explain Balaam's hesitancy and diffidence at this point. He is well aware that HaShem told him right at the start, "You must not curse that people, for they are blessed" (B'Midbar 22:12, NJPS) and despite his efforts to forget that inconvenient fact, it has just been borne in on him that HaShem will say what He wants to say, that he will have to report it to Balak and that the king is going to be very much less than amused! All the palaver with the seven altars, bulls and rams is just so much hoopla because G-d isn't going to take the slightest notice of it and - as the saying goes - it is all going to end in tears.
Balaam completely overstepped his brief, ignored G-d's instructions, acted as if he was in control and set himself up for failure. He is now hoping that G-d will say nothing so that he can get out of the situation with the minimum loss of face and perhaps even his life. How often do we find ourselves in part or something of the same situation? Have you ever set off on a course of action that you know G-d doesn't approve and, part-way through, suddenly realised that He is watching and that you can't get away with this or pretend that you didn't know? Worse still, like Balaam, have you been stuck and unable to withdraw, now painfully aware that you can't do what you had said you would and everyone is going to know that you're in trouble?
Let's look at a piece of narrative from the book of Acts to see someone else who completely misunderstood what was going on and ended up in trouble. After Stephen's death, persecution arose in Jerusalem against the followers of Yeshua; Philip had gone down the city of Samaria and was sharing the good news about Yeshua there, accompanied - as usual - by signs and wonders: many were healed and many demons were cast out. Next, the story introduces a man called Simon who had practiced magic in the city for a long time and been considered quite important. The text tells us that the focus of the city switched to Philip and that many men and women believed in Yeshua and were baptised, adding that "even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed" (Acts 8:13, ESV). Hearing that "Samaria had received the word of God" (v. 14, ESV), the apostles sent Peter and John to pray for the new believers and lay hands on them so that the might receive the Ruach. Next the narrator tells us that "when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, 'Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit'" (vv. 18-19, ESV), to be greeted with a withering rebuke from Peter.
Despite later tradition, I think that we need to cut the man a little slack here and give him some benefit of the doubt. We have to assume that Simon's confession of faith was genuine, otherwise Philip would not have baptised him; Simon was a believer, he had "passed from death to life" (John 5:24). Peter's rebuke may have been - like some of his other outbursts - a bit quick off the mark and not entirely well-judged. The humility of Simon's response - "Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me" (Acts 8:24, ESV) - supports the view that, like Balaam, Simon suddenly realised - too late - that he had acted and spoken in the old paradigm: either forgetting or not knowing that things don't work that way in the kingdom of G-d! Perhaps you too might have found yourself in the same position and found the whole room staring at you in horror. We need to allow each other - new believers in particular - grace as we transition from our old habits and understandings and begin the life-long process of being transformed into the image of Yeshua (Romans 8:29, 12:2). Correcting mistakes and misapprehensions is - of course - necessary, but we should always remember to speak gently and carefully, being salt and light in the world and for each other.
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 8.
2. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), pages 400-401.
3. - Stephen Sherwood, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry - Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), page 178.
Further Study: Ecclesiastes 5:2; 1 Thessalonians 2:4-8; 2 Timothy 2:24-26
Application: How can you come alongside people and help them to grow and mature in their relationship with the Master? What speech habits might you want to correct so as to be gentler and more encouraging to those who who are still fumbling with their new world of faith? Speak to the Master Therapist today to get some tips on how He would like to handle this through you.
Comment - 11:01 26Jun21 Ruth Harvey: This was great. It had helped me to clear up some uncertainties about the whole story. Now I know the full context with application which has given me clarity.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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