May 21, 2007

Numbers 23-25: The power of good public relations

Today's reading is Numbers 23-25 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Balaam's oracles to Balak; the Moabite seduction of the Israelites; and Phineas' murder of an Israelite man and Midianite woman.

Last essay, I spoke about Balaam, the presumably-Moabite prophet, who journeyed to visit King Balak of the Moabites. Balak ordered Balaam to curse the Israelites, camped at the outskirts of his lands after conquering many of the neighbouring kingdoms. Balaam, however, was under orders from God not to say anything other than what God told him to.

In Num. 23 and 24, we read the prophecies and poems Balaam spoke, and the results are about what we might expect. Instead of cursing Israel, Balaam blesses them. Balak, understandably angry at having his will thwarted, tells Balaam to do it again, and again Balaam blesses them. This happens a number of times, until Balaam finally predicts the destruction of Moab, Edom, Seir, Amalek, Kenite, Asshur, and Eber. (Num. 24:15-24) Finally, Balak realizes he won't get his curse and leaves, as does Balaam, each towards his own home.

Balaam's poems are beautiful, full of metaphor and imagery. No doubt the translated text before me does not do justice to the original language. On the other hand, we can still appreciate the imagery, for example, of Israel like a lion waiting to devour its prey. (Num. 23:24, 24:9) It is precisely this type of imagery that struck fear into the hearts of enemy kings as they saw an army six hundred thousand strong waitting on their doorstep.

Of course, some things need not be conveyed in poetic imagery. In terms of the Israelite army's numbers and strength, the sight of their camp was enough. Balak already knew the strength of the Hebrews when he summoned Balaam. Even a foolish king would need to pause in consideration at an army of that size nearing his lands. Strength of numbers and military prowess are the sort of things that can be assessed by an enemy commander long before the first battle is ever fought. No matter how powerful the poem, and no matter how skilfully conveyed, Balaam's warnings about these particular issues would be, at most, a supplement to what Balak already knew.

Balaam does not stop at the tangible, visible strengths of the Israelites, however. He goes on to say that God favours them and has blessed them. In the second oracle, Balaam says this about God and his relationship with the Israelites:

19. God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?
20. Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it.
21. He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.
22. God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.
23. Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought! (Num. 23:19-23, KJV)

I highly encourage my readers to review this passage in the NIV as well, which is much more readable to a modern audience.

A number of things jump out at us from this oracle, jarring in its opposition to what we have been reading in the rest of Numbers. First, in verse 19, Balaam says that God never lies or repents, and that he always follows through on his promises. We have seen throughout Numbers that this is not true, thankfully for the Israelites. God has repeatedly threatened to wipe out the entire Israelite nation, and it is only through Moses' intervention that God does not. God has not "made good" on his threats, despite what Balaam claims.

Next, we read that God has not observed iniquity or perverseness in Israel. ("Misfortune" and "misery" in the NIV) This is, yet again, twisting the truth. Despite Moses' mollifying words, God repeatedly becomes angry at the Israelites and sends fire and plague to torment them. As a brief recap of the highlights, he sends fire and plague in Num. 11, an earthquake, fire, and plague in Num. 16 (killing 14,700), and denies them entry to the promised land in Num. 14. It certainly seems like God has found iniquity and perverseness aplenty among his chosen people.

But, and this is the important part, all those plagues and fires are within the people. In the eyes of outsiders, the Israelites are one big, happy, conquering family. In the same way that many dysfunctional families appear perfectly content to strangers, so too with the problems of Israel. No matter how many times God threatens to punish or destroy his people, it is an internal conflict.

It is as though the Israelites have two images, one which they present to themselves, and one which they present to others. Among themselves, Moses may rave that they are a stiff-necked people, always complaining and never living up to God's standards. Even God may threaten them on occasion, to keep them in line. To others, however, there is no ambiguity. The Israelites are blessed, God's chosen people, and woe to any other nation who forgets it. No matter how bad the Israelites have been, they are still more blessed than their enemies.

This is why Balaam's message seems so strange after the long string of complaints and threats which occupied the bulk of the text in Numbers. Balaam is not of the people, nor is Balak. They don't need to know about Israel's internal squabbles. All they need to know is that the six hundred thousand warriors preparing to invade are blessed, special, and more powerful than their own armies. It is, incidentally, the exact same reasoning that led to modern news networks having two feeds, one domestic and one international.

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