Balaam’s Prophecy for Moab

Contents


Brief

A friend of mine once followed a Bible In One Year reading plan. Such plans are excellent in helping readers familiarize themselves with the bible outside of the few popular stories we all know.

The plan also helps readers notice peculiarities in the biblical texts which would otherwise go unnoticed. My friend immediately noticed a thematic and verbal parallel between the stories of Ruth and Elisha: they both attached themselves to a mentor, who told them to ‘go return’; Ruth and Elisha each refuse to ‘return from following’, objecting that they ‘will not leave you’.

However, some of these peculiarities are more confusing than enlightening. My friend came to the famous story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22. In this passage, the Israelites are in the land of Moab. The Moabites are worried that the Israeites will be overrun by the Israelites. So, Moab sends for a famous prophet, Balaam, to come to them. Balaam rides on his donkey to Moab, who hire him to prophesy a curse over Israel.

My friend didn’t make it very far into the story before he ran across this puzzle:

Num 22.20–22 That night God came to Balaam and said to him, ‘If the men have come to summon you, get up and go with them; but do only what I tell you to do.’ So Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the officials of Moab. God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of Yahweh took his stand in the road as his adversary.

See the problem? God tells Balaam to go to Moab, but is then enraged when Balaam goes to Moab. Why is God angry with Balaam for doing exactly what he told him to do?

If one expects the bible to be inerrant, without contradiction, then the answer to problems like this aren’t always satisfying. However, sometimes the unsatisfying answer is still the correct one. In this case, we found a century-old article discussing this passage to be helpful. (J.A. Bewer, ‘The Literary Problems of the Balaam Story in Numb., Chaps. 22-24’. The American Journal of Theology 9.2, 238-262.)

The flood myth in Genesis 6-9 has two versions of the same story had been stitched together, with their contradictory details allowed to remain in the text. Here in the Book of Numbers we have a similar occurrence: two versions of the same story have been sewn together. The editors who united the two versions made a few editorial adjustments at the beginning of the story, after which they simply placed the parallel paragraphs one after the other.

In the one version, Moab is represented by its ‘elders’. They send for Balaam to curse Israel. Without a word, Balaam promptly saddles his donkey and rides for Moab. In his desire to protect Israel, God is angered that Balaam, a prophet, would abuse his gift this way. So, God sends an angel to oppose Balaam. The donkey sees the angel when Balaam doesn’t, Balaam gets angry at the donkey for swerving off the road, and the donkey miraculously talks back. The angel then reveals himself to Balaam, telling him he may go to Moab only if he prophesies what the angels tells him to.

In the other version, Moab is represented by King Balak. Balak sends for Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam first consults God, who tells Balaam not to go. Balaam rejects Balak’s messengers. They return a second time to pressure Balaam. Balaam refuses to disobey the command he received from God. After this, God then permits Balaam to go, as long as he does not curse Israel. No angel, no donkey, no wrath of God in this version.

Comments

  1. Being that "friend", I remember this vividly as one of the first moments I could actually make a parallel. A proud moment. Especially when it wasn't a well-known parallel. As for the donkey, it was frustrating to have this realization regarding the bible. I still struggle to believe that these were just people putting stories together.

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