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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Poor Balaam – The Unrelenting Denigration of the Prophet from Pethor

Balaam, the prophet from Pethor, has not fared well in the remembrance of God’s people.  Even though he described himself as an obedient follower of Yahweh, his God (Numbers 22:18), and even though the only narrative we have in the collected books of holy scripture (Numbers 22 – 24) portrays him in a positive light, Balaam has come down to us as a greedy and wicked man, a false and dangerous prophet who enticed the faithful to worship foreign gods. 

Poor Balaam.  He deserves better.

We first meet Balaam, the son of Be’or, in the book of Numbers.  The Israelite people are on the march and about to enter into the land of Canaan and this makes Balak, King of Moab, very nervous. He’s afraid of their great numbers and unwilling to commit his troops to battle against them without some sort of advantage.  To this end he sends messengers, with money, to Balaam, inviting him to come and to curse the Israelites, “since they are too mighty for me; perhaps [if you curse them] I shall be able to defeat them… for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed (Numbers 22:6).”

But Balaam isn’t willing to commit his blessing or cursing powers without first consulting the one who’s given him this power.  He defers the messengers overnight and consults with God, who tells him that, no, he’s not to curse the Israelites.  The next morning Balaam relays the word to the messengers who go home to King Balak.

Balak sends messengers to plead with Balaam again.  And the prophet of Pethor told them, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond what the command of Yahweh my God, to do less or more(22: 18).”  He checks with God again, and God says ‘Go with them, but only say what I tell you to say.’ 

So the next morning he saddles up and heads out.  And this is where the story gets a little disjointed – we read that “God’s anger was kindled because he went (22: 22)” and an angel of Yahweh was dispatched to kill him.    Balaam was only spared because his ass was able to see the angel and spoke with a human voice to tell him so.

Because of the sudden contradiction in this verse, and the repetition in verses before and after this interlude with a talking ass many scholars believe that the story of Balaam in Numbers 22 -24 is a composite story, built from two different traditions that were joined together into this one account.

But however the story has come to us, Balaam is told – twice – by God to go with these men, and to speak only the words that Yahweh gives to him.   And this he does – to King Balak’s extreme displeasure.  Three times Balak set up seven alters with burnt offerings and asked for Balaam to pronounce the curse.  And each time Balaam consulted with God – I can only say what he gives me – and each time Balaam pronounced a blessing, rather than a curse, on the Israelites.  And then Balaam gave a fourth oracle – though he wasn’t asked, which was eventually taken by the Jewish people as an expectation of the Messiah and the star that would herald him.

Frustrated, King Balak sent Balaam away.  And that’s the last we actually hear from the prophet from Pethor.  We’re told that Balaam was eventually killed by the Israelites along with the Midianite princes (Numbers 31: 8, Joshua 13:22). 

 But that’s not the last thing that others in scripture had to say about him.  Later in the book of Numbers (31: 16) he’s blamed for what happened to the Israelites at Peor.  That story follows Balaam’s in Numbers 25 – 26 – but Balaam is not mentioned – not once.  And when the story of Peor is mentioned in other parts of scripture, it’s without reference to Balaam (Deuteronomy 4:3, Joshua 22: 17, Hosea 9:10, Psalm 106: 28 – 31).

In Deuteronomy 31: 3 – 6, Joshua 24: 9 – 10, and Nehemiah 13: 1 – 2  Balaam is described as trying to curse the people of Israel, but that Yahweh refused to listen to him.   But we should keep in mind that these three passages are situated in context of fear of foreigners and the moral pollution they bring.

The final mention of Balaam in the Old Testament is in the prophet Micah:  Remember what Balak devised and what Balaam answered. (Micah 6:5) which is, ambiguous, but certainly not defamatory.

In the New Testament it gets worse for Balaam.  By that time he’d become a figure of pure evil – a lover of gain from wickedness, filled with madness,  lumped in with the murderer Cain, and described as a promulgator of idolatry.  (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11, and Revelation 2:14)

A foreigner, a madman, a false prophet, an idolater, a teacher of idolatry, greedy and wicked – we’ve come a far distance from that prophet of Pethor who said, Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond what the command of Yahweh my God, to do less or more.

Poor Balaam.  He deserves better.

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