Balaam and his Ass by Pieter Lastman, 1622, currently at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel

After so many chapters and verses going over God’s laws and rules for the Israelites, it’s so nice to have some narrative. Get ready for some good stuff.

In Chapter 21, the Israelites are FINALLY on their way to take over Canaan, the Promised Land. The leaders of the Canaanite lands are getting word that this huge community is coming and they ready their armies. The Canaanite king of Arad calls for attack on the Israelites, and the Israelites promise God that they’ll destroy the cities if He makes it possible. God does, and BLAM, Israel crushes them.

The Israelites keep going and once again the long travels irk them. YET ONCE AGAIN they start complaining against God and Moses, blah blah blah, God gets irritated right back and sends venomous snakes to bite and kill many of them. The Israelites cry out to Moses to save them ONCE AGAIN, blah blah blah, Moses prays on their behalf, and this time it’s a little different. God tells Moses to “make a snake” and put it on a pole. Anyone who is bitten just needs to look at it, and they will live. Moses has a big bronze snake fabricated, he puts it up on a pole and anyone who is bitten can look at it and be healed.

The Israelites go from Oboth to Iye Abarim to the Zered Valley, and they’re nearing Amorite territory near Moab. The author(s) of Numbers then explains, in verse 14: “That is why the Book of the Wars of the LORD says: ‘…Zahab in Suphah and the ravines, the Arnon and the slopes of the ravines that lead to the settlement of Ar and lie along the border of Moab.’” 

Things They Don’t Talk About in Sunday School: There were a few really ancient texts that the authors of the Pentateuch knew well and referred to while in their own writings, and this is the first one to be mentioned: The Book of the Wars of the Lord. It’s believed to have been written around 1100 B.C.E. and is one of several that believed to be completely lost to history with only excerpts mentioned here and there. The Encyclopedia Judaica Online reveals that this verse is the book’s only mention in the Bible, and it’s comprised of poems and songs that describe God’s victories over Israel’s enemies – which is why it’s quoted here. Earlier in Exodus, the author(s) mention(s) an unnamed book that describes the Israelites’ victory over the Amalekites with reference to Joshua, and some Torah scholars think that bit may have referred to The Book of the Wars of the Lord, as well.

Israel sends messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites, saying that if they let them pass through peacefully, they won’t do them any harm. Sihon says no and sends out his army to stop them. Israel defeats them and occupies all the Amorite cities. They head to Bashan, and it’s pretty much the same story with King Og of Bashan and his armies.

In Chapter 22, the narrative switches from the viewpoint of the Israelites to that of the Moabites, and their prince, Balak, son of King Zippor. This, to me, is FASCINATING. Up until now, the Torah’s focus has been on the Israelites – their pre-history, their leaders, their choices, their good and their bad. With the turn of a page, we have a new perspective and the narrative is exceedingly descriptive. In the preceding chapters, it’s pretty much “Israel asks God to defeat the XXXXites, God allows it, the Israelites occupy those lands and keep moving, lather, rinse, repeat.” Here, there’s detail and dialogue, and as far as narrative devices go, it’s amazingly effective story-telling.

So, Moab is terrified of the advancing Israelites and their armies. Prince Balak sends for Balaam, a Moabite soothsayer/prophet. Balak tells Balaam to put a curse on the Israelites so they can be driven out. Balaam is apparently a successful prophet, as Balak says in verse 6: “…For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” Balaam spends the night asking God for the answers, and God tells him the Israelites are blessed and so cannot be cursed. Balaam relays this message but Balak is undeterred. He sends a larger number of officials to reiterate the need for a curse. Balaam tells the officials, in verse 18: “…Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the LORD my God.” It seems Balaam so far is way more trusting and fearful of God than the Israelites have been, which is saying something, for someone considered a gentile. God tells Balaam to go with the officials back to meet with Balak.

The next day, Balaam saddles up his donkey and joins the Moabite officials on their journey back to Balak. God becomes angry while they travel and sends an angel to block their way. Balaam doesn’t see the angel but his donkey does, and the donkey turns off the road. Balaam starts beating the donkey to get back on the road, and after three attempts to get the donkey moving, God allows the donkey to speak. The donkey asks Balaam, basically, ‘what did I ever do to you, to deserve such beatings?’ and apparently talking livestock are common in Moab because Balaam just answers back, ‘you’re making me look stupid.’

God then opens Balaam’s eyes so that he can now see the angel blocking the roadway, and the angel joins in with the donkey, ‘Yeah, the donkey saw me and did as I directed – why’d you beat him? If you had passed me, I would have killed you. Your life was spared because of your donkey.’ Balaam apologizes to the angel (sadly, not to the donkey) and the angel tells Balaam he can keep going with the officials, but only if Balaam promises to say only what he is told to say from here on out. When they all arrive at Balak’s court, Balaam faithfully announces in verse 38: “…I can’t say whatever I please. I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.”

In Chapter 23, the Moabites prepare the altars and sacrifices that Balaam requests. God speaks to Balaam again, and Balaam tells Balak the message: he cannot curse or denounce those whom God has not cursed or denounced. Instead, in verse 9, he sees the Israelites as “…a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations,” and that he wishes to be considered as righteous as they are. Balak doesn’t take the news well, as instead of cursing the enemies, Balaam appears to be blessing them. He tries again to get Balaam to curse the Israelites and takes him to a high peak on Pisgah so they can see the vast hordes of the Israelite community, encroaching on Moab. God speaks to Balaam again, and with verses 19 – 24 we see the final point in the narrative switch: so that the Torah’s overarching theme of the Israelites being God’s Chosen People is reiterated, but this time from one of those considered to be their enemies. The verses are rousing and are still inspiring to Jews:

“God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? I have received a command to bless; he has blessed, and I cannot change it. “No misfortune is seen in Jacob, no misery observed in Israel. The LORD their God is with them; the shout of the King is among them. God brought them out of Egypt; they have the strength of a wild ox. There is no divination against Jacob, no evil omens against Israel. It will now be said of Jacob and of Israel, ‘See what God has done!’ The people rise like a lioness; they rouse themselves like a lion that does not rest till it devours its prey and drinks the blood of its victims.” 

It’s not the work of the Israelites that brought them here – it’s all due to God and His works and influence, and what God has put into action cannot be changed by man. It’s a message that we humans still have difficulty remembering and understanding today.

So, in Chapter 24, Balak takes Balaam to five more prominent places to see the various peoples throughout Moab so that sacrifices can be made and maybe a curse will be worked out after all. Each time, Balaam looks at those peoples – of Sheth, Edom, Seir, Amalek, Ashur, Eber – and repeats that Israel will be blessed and all those other tribes will be subdued. Finally, after Balaam doom-and-glooms the various Moabites for the seventh time, he’s allowed to go home and Balak goes back to his court distressed.

Additional Info: Balaam as one of seven gentile prophets heavily studied by Hebrew scholars. Even though Balaam reiterates God’s messages of blessings for the Israelites, the overall view of him is mixed. A majority of rabbis have a negative view of Balaam, believing that he was willing to curse the Israelites on behalf of the Moabites but God was able to manipulate his visions to prevent it from happening. Some look more positively at Balaam, thinking that when enemy nations turned to him, he stated truthfully that their fear was the result of God’s favor of the Israelites. Either way, though, most blame Balaam for a really bad incident involving the Israelits called the Heresy of Peor – which we’ll read about in the next chapter. Stay tuned!

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