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B'Midbar/Numbers 23:5 And Adonai put a word in the mouth of Bil'am and He said, "... and thus you shall speak."
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This text comes just before Bil'am delivers the first of three "blessings" on Israel to Balak, the king of Moab. In the previous verses, we have been told that Balak has hired Bil'am to come and curse Israel so that they should not be able to threaten Moab, and thatHaShem has told Bil'am very clearly, "Go with the men, but you shall speak only the word which I shall tell you" (B'Midbar 22:35, NASB). Bil'am has repeated this to Balak: "Behold, I have come now to you! Am I able to speak anything at all? The word that G-d puts in my mouth, that I shall speak" (v. 38, NASB). This text is repeated almost word for word before the second "blessing" in 23:16 and the combination generates some comment on the subject of prophecy. Was this complete dictation - Bil'am could say only the exact words that HaShem provided, akin to a human tape-recorder - or were the words subject to shaping and interpretation by Bil'am's own vocabulary or personality?
Rashi, who comments only on the second instance (in verse 35) and is convinced that Bil'am really wants to curse Israel and will need coercion for anything else to happen, draws a picture of a bridle and a hook: "like a person who pricks [the mouth of] an animal to take it wherever he wishes, [G-d] told him, 'Against your will, you will go back to Balak [and say ...]'". In Rashi's mind, then, Bil'am has no choice over the words that he speaks; while not quite absolute dictation, Bil'am is not able to change or modify the message in any way. The Baal HaTurim confirms this idea by pointing out that the gematria of the word is equivalent to both - angel - and - the muzzle; from this he deduces that "G-d placed an angel as a muzzle in his mouth" to make sure that Bil'am only spoke G-d's words. Milgrom too confirms that "the L-rd told him the exact words" and cites "I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him" (D'varim 18:18, NASB) to adduce that "and so it is with every prophet."
TheRamban seems to suggest some sympathy with the opposite idea, and explains that in his opinion, Bil'am did know and understand what he was saying; that is, he participated in the process. The Ramban says that, "He taught him the words so that he should recite them with his mouth, and he should not forget or omit any part of it", but that in the same way as Moshe is told, "Now therefore, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the sons of Israel; put it on their lips, in order that this song may be a witness for Me against the sons of Israel" (D'varim 31:19, NASB), Moshe must engage with the people and they must participate with him in learning the song, so Bil'am had to learn and absorb what HaShem had given him to say.
The prophets themselves speak as if they had ownership in their messages, even if the themes came from G-d. Jeremiah, for example protests, "I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For each time I speak, I cry aloud; I proclaim violence and destruction, because for me the word of the L-rd has resulted in reproach and derision all day long. But if I say, 'I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,' then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it" (Jeremiah 20:7-9, NASB). Hosea is himself a living word of prophecy, speaking out of his own anguish and marital stress of the relationship between G-d and His people. Jonah was sent to the people of Nineveh, but ran away because he feared the embarrassment that he felt would follow his proclamation of G-d's wrath in that city; his final argument with G-d about the gourd show how much his own personality was involved in being a prophet and bringing prophecy. Speaking about the way that G-d's word moves within him, Job records "For I am full of words; the spirit within me constrains me. Behold, my belly is like unvented wine, like new wineskins it is about to burst. Let me speak that I may get relief; let me open my lips and answer" (Job 32:18-20, NASB), while the Psalmist describes the process of prophecy in three distinct phases: feeling the sense or emotion of G-d's word, phrasing and choosing words to express it and then finally speaking it out: "My heart was hot within me; while I was musing the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue" (Psalm 39:3, NASB).
Despite the standard teaching within rabbinic Judaism that prophecy ceased shortly after the return from the Babylonian exile, there was clearly some understanding within Second Temple Judaism of the way prophecy worked. Following Yeshua's Resurrection and the outpouring of the Ruach, the disciples were teaching in the Temple each day; after the healing of the lame man at the gateway to the Temple, Peter and John were arrested by the Temple authorities who, unable to deny that a great miracle had occurred, ordered them not to teach any more in the name of Yeshua. "But Kefa and Yochanan answered, 'You must judge whether it is right in the sight of G-d to listen to you rather than G-d. As for us, we can't help talking about what we have actually seen and heard'" (Acts 4:19-20, CJB) - effectively: we must follow the direction of the Spirit. After threatening them - at a human level - the Sanhedrin were unable to say or do any more since the public miracle could not be denied.
This, then, provides the context for Rav Sha'ul's teaching on prophecy. "Let two or three prophets speak, while the others weigh what is said. And if something is revealed to a prophet who is sitting down, let the first one be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, with the result that all will learn something and all will be encouraged. Also, the prophets' spirits are under the prophets' control; for G-d is not a G-d of unruliness but of shalom" (1 Corinthians 14:29-33, CJB). First, we see that prophecy is not an unknown or unexpected phenomenon; this is not something that died out four hundred years ago, since no-one would know what it was or how it worked. Secondly, that prophecy is to be weighed and considered by other prophets or those in leadership. Thirdly, so that there is order, everyone doesn't shout out their prophecy at once, but takes time to bring it forth, waiting if necessary until the previous person has finished so giving time for composition and consideration. Lastly, Rav Sha'ul makes it clear that the prophet controls the process. In modern terms, not only is the timing of when to bring the prophecy under the control of the people involved - the prophet themselves, the leaders of the congregation and so on - but that the exact wording and manner of delivery is also under the prophet's control. The Spirit works through the prophet's natural voice, pitch and intonation, accent and - often, but not always - vocabulary.
How do we learn from these things for our congregations today? Primarily, of course, we must recognise that G-d wants to speak to - to encourage, to challenge and sometimes even to rebuke - His people today as in every age. Whilst congregational leaders may differ as to how exactly this is to be done, tested and received, Rav Sha'ul seems clear: "Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances, but examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, NASB). Secondarily, while some variation is clearly to be expected, prophecy is neither something that should be delivered in King-James English, nor swamped in theatrical performance that obscures the message and makes the delivery more important than the content. Prophecy is meant to be understood easily and clearly by those present, in a way that is faithful to the revelation of G-d's heart that inspired it, so that it can be measured on its own merits rather than being rejected (or despised) because of the packaging. Above all, we must speak the words that G-d gives us without interpreting those words in the light of our own theological or emotional positions. That way, G-d will place a word in our mouth and thus we shall speak.
Further Study: Jeremiah 1:9-12; Amos 8:1-2
Application: If you have witnessed the gift of prophecy in operation and it has made you feel uncomfortable, try and distinguish between the message and the messenger. We are all clay vessels, but G-d can nevertheless speak through any of us. We need to listen and expect Him to speak, especially in these last days.
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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