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B'Midbar/Numbers 23:4 And G-d met Balaam and he said to Him, "Seven altars I have arranged and I have lifted up a bull and a ram on the altar."
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Seven was considered a significant number throughout the ancient world. Within the biblical word, Gordon Wenham points out, creation took seven days, the seventh month of the year hosts the entire set of autumn festivals, the seventh and the fiftieth (seven times seven plus one) years are to be sabbatical, and seven or fourteen lambs are offered the the major festivals.FootnNoteRef(1) Dennis Cole adds that the book of Revelation features seven seals, seven angels with seven trumpets, and seven bowls of G-d's wrath.2 Elsewhere, R. Largement has translated a Babylonian tablet reporting, "At dawn, in the presence of Ea, Shmash and Marduk [Babylonian deities], you must set up seven altars, place seven incense burners of cypress and pour out the blood of seven sheep."3 At the end of these rituals, the diviner presented himself before the deity and reminds them that due process has been observed, so that the deity is now obliged to respond to the the diviner in the desired manner. This is what we see happening in our text. Although King Balak has actually made the sacrifices, it is at Balaam's instructions - as he says, , "I have arranged", I have performed my ritual duty - and Balaam now demands that G-d deliver.
Balaam's words show how confidently he builds his case. The Midrash suggests that Balaam's seven altars correspond to "the seven altars which had been built by seven righteous men, from Adam to Moses, and which had been received [by God] with favour. These righteous men were: Adam, Abel, Noah, Avraham, Yitz'khak, Ya'akov, and Moshe" (B'Midbar Rabbah 20:18).Rashi, noticing that the Hebrew text has a definite article on the word , "the seven altars", has Balaam say: "The forefathers of these [people] built before you seven altars, and I have prepared corresponding to them all. Avraham built four - 'he built an altar there to the L-RD' (B'resheet 12:7), 'he built there an altar to the L-RD' (v. 8), 'he built an altar there to the L-RD' (13:18), 'Abraham built an altar there' (22:9); Yitz'khak built one, 'he built an altar there and invoked the L-RD by name' (26:25) and Ya'akov built two: one in Shechem, 'He set up an altar there' (33:20), and one in Bethel: 'There he built an altar' (35:7)." More than that, Balaam has offered seven bulls and seven rams, whereas "Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering" (22:13), Abraham offered only one ram. I have offered more than all these, he says, "If they received a favourable response, how much more should I!"
Although the sequence of building altars and sacrificing bulls and rams is repeated three times, our text shows us from the very first that G-d is not going to be manipulated in this way. Our text begins - as does the second instance in v. 16 - with the word , the Nifal 3ms prefix form of the root , to meet or fall in with. In the Nifal stem, this has overtones of chance or something that happened accidentally. Several commentators connect it with a leak of bodily fluid, suggesting that the encounter with Balaam was unpleasant or distasteful toHaShem. Jacob Milgrom translates it as "chanced to appear." Although the story narrative requires that HaShem and Balaam do actually meet, so we must see it as at least intentional, this is not a pleasant encounter for HaShem. He allows it as necessary to give public witness to how Israel is to be blessed, of how attached to Israel HaShem really is. According to Rabbi Hirsch, "G-d allowed Balaam's expectation to be realised. He gave in to Balaam"; He granted the gift of prophecy so that Balaam could pronounce HaShem's fixed and irrevocable intention to bless Israel.
It is clear from the following verses however, that HaShem simply places a word in Balaam's mouth. There is no intimacy or negotiation about what is to be said. Dennis Olson surmises that "These sacrifices may be intended to bribe the deity to give Balak the curse that the king desired. Just as Balak sought to buy Balaam, so the king seeks to buy G-d."4 But G-d is not for sale. The Midrash retells the story, making clear just what is going on in the minds of Balak and Balaam: "G-d said to him: 'Wretch! What are you doing?' Said he: I have prepared the seven altars. This is like the case of a money-changer who falsified his weights. The Chief of the market came and saw what was happening. 'You are,' he said, 'falsifying the weights!' The other replied: 'I have already sent a gift to your house.' Balaam also acted in like manner. The Holy Spirit said to him: 'Villain! What are you doing?' He replied: I have prepared the seven altars!" (B'Midbar Rabbah 20:18).
Balak and Balaam are treating HaShem as if He is a slot-machine: put your threepenny bit in the slot, jiggle the handle slightly to let the coin settle and then pull out your bar of chocolate. When it doesn't work, even though Balaam is vocally very clear that "I can only repeat faithfully what the L-RD puts in my mouth" (B'Midbar 23:12, NJPS), the king insists on trying again. Although Balak is furious and rebukes Balaam roundly for speaking a blessing rather than the desired curse, he can't shake it out of his mind that if he raises the price, makes another offering and spins the wheel again, he will get the curse that he desires over Israel. This is nothing more than a form of idolatry: thinking that G-d can be manipulated or controlled by ritual actions, prayers or other religious inducements, to do what man desires. But here's an awful lot of it about!
The application for today is quite simple. Do a search on Amazon or your favourite book supplier with the key words "answered prayer" and you will be offered a whole shelf full of titles on how to have your prayers more often or more regularly answered. Based around the spiritual disciplines - study, prayer, fasting, worship, giving - many of these are formulaic methods for doing just that little bit more, pressing the right buttons, putting yourself in the right place, showing you are committed. Well meant and well intentioned, they teach us that - just like Balaam - we only have to follow the formula and our prayers will be answered. They even provide an answer when the formula doesn't work: it was your fault; either you didn't do quite enough of this, that or the other, or you have some unresolved sin in your life. It isn't that any of the spiritual disciplines are wrong in themselves - the Bible talks about them all - it is the way we see them and our reasons for doing them. Are we after something from G-d or are we simply getting to know Him better?
Our G-d isn't a vending machine, collecting up the coins until there is enough to purchase something that we want. He is our loving Father, who delights to give us good things that are good for us and our relationship with Him. Yeshua makes it plain that we are to have a very different attitude from the world around us. Teaching the disciples about prayer, He starts with two important points: "when you pray, don't babble on and on like the pagans, who think G-d will hear them better if they talk a lot. Don't be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask Him" (Matthew 6:7-8, CJB). G-d isn't impressed by either the volume or the quantity of our words; He's in no danger of being overwhelmed by our eloquence or vocabulary choices. Moreover, He already knows our needs. Yeshua continues, "So don't be anxious, asking, 'What will we eat?,' 'What will we drink?' or 'How will we be clothed?' For it is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (vv. 31-33, CJB).
When our focus is in the right place - connecting with Yeshua, listening to His voice and hearing His heart for those around us, quietly and consistently obeying His commands - then we will know how to pray and what to ask. We will see answers to prayer each day as we grow in faith and assurance, asking aright and in the centre of G-d's will. When we are stuck for words or don't know how to pray, the Holy Spirit, the Ruach of G-d, "helps us in our weakness; for we don't know how to pray the way we should. But the Spirit Himself pleads on our behalf with groanings too deep for words" (Romans 8:26, CJB) - straight from our hearts to G-d's ears! Balak and Balaam knew nothing of this for their paradigm was completely wrong; they were working on a transactional contract basis - if we do this, you have to do that. In Yeshua we have access to the Father as our Father and live in relationship with Him. Isn't that a blessing?
1. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 194.
2. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 399.
3. - R. Largement, "Les Oracles de Bile'am et la mantique suméro-akkadienne", Travaux de l'institute catholique de Paris 10, 1964, pages 37-50, page 46
4. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 145.
Further Study: Isaiah 58:3-4; Luke 18:9-14; Romans 3:27-31
Application: Do you ever find yourself trying to bargain with G-d - if I do this or don't do that, will you do ... ? We've probably all been there at one time or another, but we have to move beyond that to simply being with Him and trusting Him for everything. He's really good at that and is just waiting for you to ask? Put the call in today!
Comment - 18:43 26Jun23 Joshua VanTine: A timely reminder that G-d is beyond our ways and thoughts ... no manipulating of the Holy One even if we think we have the right formula!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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