May 18, 2007

Numbers 21-22: A change of perspective

Today's reading is Numbers 21-22 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the destruction of Arad; God's sending of snakes to the Israelites and their recovery from them; the Israelites' journey to Moab; the defeat and destruction of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan; and the request of Balak, king of Moab, for Balaam to curse the Israelites, and the resulting story.

With the modern stereotypes of Jews as neurotic bankers and Christians as "turn the other cheek" altruists, it is sometimes difficult to remember that these nations were born from a group of potent warriors. Num. 21-22 reminds us of the militaristic history of the Israelites, as they move ever closer to the promised land, conquering nation upon nation along the way.

In Num. 21, the Israelites conquer and defeat the Canaanites under King Arad (Num. 21:1-3), the Amorites under King Sihon (Num. 21:21-31), and the Bashanites under King Og (Num. 21:32-35). Nor do the Israelites go for half-measures. When they conquer a people, they stay conquered, generally because they are dead. We read that Israel "utterly destroyed" the Canaanites and their cities. (Num. 21:3) They killed King Sihon, possessed all his land, and lived in his cities, especially the city of Heshbon, Sihon's capital. (Num. 21:24-26) Finally, they killed King Og, his sons, and his people until "there was none left him alive," and possessed his cities as well. (Num. 21:35) In other words, these were a ruthless conquering nation, fully prepared to destroy anyone who got in their way.

It comes as no surprise, then, that King Balak of Moab was a little nervous when he saw the Israelites massing on his borders.

Balak knew that he was outnumbered. He knew what the Israelites had done to the Amorites, and wanted any advantage he could get to avoid sharing their fate. So he did what any sensible ancient king would have done: he tried to engage the favour of the Gods. (Num. 22:2-6)

Specifically, he sent messengers to Balaam, son of Beor, asking him to curse the Israelites. We do not actually know very much about Balaam. He seems to have been a prophet, and was likely not an Israelites, but that is all we know from this section of the text. On the other hand, he seems sufficiently experienced that the king of Moab, when looking for a way to turn the tide of battle against the Israelites, asked for his help.

To return to our narrative, Balak sends noble messengers with gifts to Balaam, asking him to curse the Israelites. Balaam does not respond immediately, but asks his guests to stay the night, to give him time to commune with God. While this might seem strange from a non-Israelite, God does in fact visit Balaam, telling him neither to go with the messengers nor to curse the Israelites, for they are blessed. Balaam conveys this conversation to Balak's messengers, who leave. (Num. 22:7-14)

Balak isn't finished with Balaam, however. He sends more messengers, these ones honourable princes laden with gifts and promises of great wealth and great prestige, if only Balaan will curse the Israelites. Balaam again asks them to stay the night, and again communes with God. This time, God tells him to go with the messengers, but only to speak the words that God tells him. Balaam dutifully does so. (Num. 22:15-21)

However, God has a sudden change of heart. As soon as Balaam gets underway, riding his donkey, God becomes angry that he left. He sends out an angel, sword in hand, to block the road, which the donkey can see but Balaam can't. The donkey, quite sensibly, tries to turn away from the flaming angel, but Balaam hits him three times. (Num. 22:22-27)

Here is where the story becomes truly bizarre: the donkey speaks to Balaam, asking what he has done to cause Balaam to hit him. (Num. 22:28-30) The only other talking animal in the entirety of the Old Testament is the serpent from Gen. 2-3. Though talking animals are very common in other folkloric traditions, they are exceedingly rare in the Bible. This has led numerous Biblical scholars to view this entire episode as a vision, as opposed to an actual event, even though there are none of the traditional references to a vision in the text. If it were actuality, and not a vision, I suspect Balaam would be far more perturbed at his donkey suddenly developing the ability to speak.

To return to our narrative, however, God finally opens Balaam's eyes, so that he sees the angel. Balaam prostrates himself, asks for forgiveness, and offers to return home. The angel, instead, tells him to continue on to Balak, but only to speak the words that he, the angel, tells him. (Num. 22:31-36) The chapter ends with Balaam and Balak united at Kirjathhuzoth (KJV; Kiriath Huzoth in the NIV), on mount Baal, looking down on the Israelite people. (Num. 22:37-41)

I should note at this cliff-hanger that this is one of the few incidents in the Old Testament told entirely from the perspective of a non-Israelite. (I count Adam, Noah, etc. as proto-Israelites.) We have had a few others in Genesis, such chapter 20, one of the several "she's my sister, not my wife" incidents (the others being in Gen. 12 and 26). It is especially interesting to note that people other than the Israelites recognized God as the supreme being and treated him accordingly. Balaam certainly had a healthy respect for the Lord, despite his non-Israelite nationality.

Of course, it might simply be that Balaam would have a healthy respect for the God of any conquering nation at his doorstep. It's just good sense.

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