Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Troubler of Israel or True Prophet?

Daily Readings
Proverbs 5 + Numbers 24 + Deuteronomy 17 + Galatians 5

Quote of the Day
And Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will; what the Lord says, that is what I will say’? Numbers 24:12, 13

Daily Text: Numbers 24:14-17
14So now, I am going to my people; let me advise you what this people will do to your people in days to come."
15 So he uttered his oracle, saying: "The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is clear, 16the oracle of one who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down, but with his eyes uncovered: 17I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near-- a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites.

Troubler of Israel or True Prophet?
In the second of his two oracles in this chapter, Balaam, after he is dismissed in contempt by Balak offers his summation of God’s intentions for Israel, Moab and the surrounding nations. Even though Balak has already told him that he will receive no payment for his oracles, he offers this last. He prophecies a future rise in power of Israel that will result in the destruction of Moab. This did occur in David's time. We have a picture in these four chapters of Numbers of a man of God, without reference to his life before this ‘day’ or his life after this ‘day.’ In no way did he betray the trust of the God to whom he prayed.

The besmirching of his character in later years may have more to do with a tradition that grew up unwilling to accept that the LORD had a prophet outside Israel than any real reference to Balaam himself. Yes, there are some contradictions within the text itself as noted in chapter 21, however, the texts as we have received them unequivocally show this seer’s faithfulness to God’s blessing of Israel. Following Gray in the International Critical Commentary on Numbers, the notion that God changed his curses into blessings simply cannot be supported by the text. [Cf. Deuteronomy. 23:5, Nehemiah 13:2, Joshua. 24:10] The earliest reference to Balaam may have been Micah 6:4, 5 where the author is suggesting that in the same way that God frustrated the designs of Egypt by the hand of Moses, so he frustrated the designs of Balak by the hand of Balaam. By the time Numbers and Deuteronomy were complete the editors had perpetrated the tradition that Balaam was a hired giver of curses. Not all followed this smear, but Christian references were so influenced by it that they did. The earliest charges of avarice are made in Philo, and in the New Testament, II Peter 2:15, Jude 11. Revelation 2:6, 14-15 charge him with being the originator of the sins of the Nicolaitans, the eating of food offered to idols and fornication. Evidently, such sin did occur as we see in Numbers 25, but there is no evidence that Balaam was behind it. Caird in The Revelation of St. John the Divine, p. 39 notes that “The Balaam saga had been developed into a cautionary tale in the Jewish midrash for two quite distinct purposes: his acceptance of Balak’s bribe… and his supposed responsibility for the episode at Baal-peor (Numbers 25:1,2 and 31:16).” Again, while it cannot be determined what actually happened, there is no textual evidence for perfidy on the part of Balaam, unless one accepts later glosses and comments as more authoritative than the original story. It seems more likely that Balak was the one solely responsible for the Baal-peor incident, since he was intent on troubling Israel. Not only that, Numbers 24:25 states that Balaam “got up and went back to his place” immediately after his fourth oracle and dismissal by Balak, and that place was in Mesopotamia!

from Davideis, Book I
Abraham Cowley

So covetous Balaam with a fond intent
Of cursing the blessed Seed, to Moab went.
But as he went his fatal tongue to sell;
His Ass taught him to speak, God to speak well.
How comely are thy Tents, oh Israel!
(Thus he began) what conquests they foretell!
Less fair are orchards in their autumn pride,
Adorned with trees on some fair river’s side.
Less fair are valleys their green mantles spread!
Or mountains with tall cedars on their head!
‘Twas God himself (thy God who must not fear?)
Brought thee from bondage to be master here.
Slaughter shall wear out these; new weapons get;
And death in triumph on thy darts shall sit.
When Judah’s Lion starts up to this prey,
The beasts shall hang their ears, and creep away.
When he lies down, the woods shall silence keep,
And dreadful tygers tremble at his sleep.
They cursers, Jacob, shall twice cursed be;
And he shall bless himself that blesses Thee.


Blogger Norm said...

Great insights re: Balaam. Indeed, it does seem to make more sense that he was a "true prophet", albeit one outside of Israel. Thanks Fr. James!

It may also make more sense that Balaam was not actually from Mesopotamia. Bryant G. Wood / William Shea report this interesting possiblity: Balaam's home may have been "Adam", not "Aram".

"At the time of the Numbers 22-24 incident, the Israelites were camped on the Plains of Moab, across the Jordan river from Jericho. Deir Alla is located about 25 miles north of this area, where the Jabbok river flows into the Jordan valley. Balaam was from Pethor, near "the river" (Num 22:5), in "Aram" (Num 23:7; Dt 23:4). The reference to Aram has led most scholars to conclude that Balaam was from northern Syria, in the vicinity of the Euphrates river. That does not fit well with the Biblical account, however, since Balaam's home seems to have been close to where the Israelites were camped (Num 22:1-22; 31:7-8). In view of Balaam being revered at Deir Alla, one would expect that Deir Alla was his home. This is exactly what William Shea has proposed, based on his reading of the name Pethor in an inscribed clay tablet found at Deir Alla (1989:108-11). In this case, the river of Numbers 22:5 would be the Jabbok river and the naharaim (two rivers) of Deuteronomy 23:4 would be the Jabbok and Jordan rivers. With regard to the references to Aram, Shea suggests that the original place name was Adam, with the "d" being miscopied as "r," since the two letters are nearly identical in ancient Hebrew. Adam was a town about eight mi southwest of Deir Alla, on the east bank of the Jordan river, where the Jabbok meets the Jordan."

12:24 PM  

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