October 12, 2015.
Daily Reading: Numbers 21-24.
Concepts and Connections.
Enemies on the journey: After finishing the days of mourning for Aaron in the previous chapter, the children of Israel set out on their journey once again towards the promised land in this chapter. Their path is detailed here, along with some things that happened along the way. Several different nations came out to fight against Israel as they journeyed, and each time the Lord gave them victory over their enemies. First, the Canaanite king of Arad came out against them when they came by the way of Atharim, and Israel vowed a vow to the Lord that they would destroy the people who came out against them completely if the Lord gave them into their hands. He heard their vow, and indeed the people of Israel destroyed these Canaanites. Just when it may seem like the people had learned their lesson and were finally putting their trust in God, however, they once again complained and grumbled against God and Moses because there was no food to eat other than the manna that they were begin given. The Lord’s anger was kindled and He sent fiery servants among the people which killed many. After the people’s repentance and Moses’ prayer to the Lord, he was told to make a fiery serpent of bronze and put it on a pole, that when the people were bit, they could look on it and be healed.
After the account of the fiery serpents, we are given the details about the journey though the wilderness. Songs are sung about their journey, location and different things that happened along the way, such as when Moses gave them water at Beer. When they came to the land of the Amorites, they sent word to their king, Sihon, asking him to allow them to pass through the land, going by the King’s Highway. They assured him that they would neither turn aside to the fields or vineyards or even drink water of a well in the land. Similar to Edom’s response to this request (see Numbers 20:14-21), Sihon would not let them pass though, but rather gathered his people to fight against Israel. Israel defeated the Amorites and took possession of their land. A song was written about this victory over Heshbon, the city where Sihon lived. The children of Israel further captured villages in Jazar, and Og the king of Bashan came out to fight against them. Again, the Lord gives Og and his people into their hands and they take possession of his land.
Balak and Balaam: In this chapter we are given the beginning of a very interesting story that will be often referenced throughout the scriptures, even though the New Testament (see Joshua 24:9, Nehemiah 13:2, Micah 6:5, II Peter 2:15, Jude 11 and Revelation 2:14). As word had gotten around about what the Israelites had done to the Amorites, the Moabites, in whose plains the children of Israel were now camping, were very afraid of the Israelites. They sent to the Midianites for help and then Balak, king of Moab, sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, who was apparently a prophet of the Lord, with a request that he come and curse the people of Israel that Balak might defeat them. It seems that Balaam’s word was well known and that he offered his services for money. With the fees of divination in hand, the elders of Moab and Midian came to Balaam to deliver Balak’s message. Balaam tells them to stay the night and he will see what the Lord has to say to him. Balaam starts off the story well, as he sends the messengers back on their way after the Lord told him not to go with them, for the Israelites were blessed. However, when Balak sent back more messengers with more gifts, Balaam’s greed starts to take over. Though he tells them that it doesn’t matter what Balak gives, he could not go against the word of the Lord, he again has them stay the night, likely hoping that the Lord would change His mind and give him a different message the second time. He should have known that the message would be the same. He had already been told not to go with them. But this time, the Lord says that if the men call him, to go with them. We can see Balaam’s greed as he rises in the morning and goes without a call, which is not what the Lord had told him to do. Balaam still seems to hold out hope that the Lord would change His mind in his favor.
As they journeyed on their way, perhaps the most peculiar part of this story unfolds. The angel of the Lord went out to stand in the way of Balaam because of the anger of God. The donkey on which Balaam is riding, however, sees the angel and turns aside twice, finally laying down and refusing to go forward when there is nowhere to turn. All three times, Balaam strikes the donkey before the Lord opens the mouth of the donkey to talk to Balaam. It doesn’t seem to phase Balaam that his donkey is talking to him, as he says he wished he had his sword so that he could kill her. But then the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes to see the angel of the Lord and it is explained to him that the donkey had actually saved his life. In immediate repentance (though there still seems to be a twinge of hope that he will go on), Balaam offers to go back, but the angel of the Lord tells him to go on, but only to speak what he told him. When Balaam finally reaches Balak, he asks what took him so long, and Balaam tells him that he is there now, but he could only speak what the Lord put in his mouth in terms of blessing and cursing. Oxen and sheep are sacrificed and on the next day, Balaam is brought up to a high place where he could see a fraction of the people of Israel.
Balaam’s first and second oracles: Even though the Lord has already told Balaam that the people of Israel are blessed, he tells Balak to build seven altars and prepare seven bulls and rams to offer on the altar, and he would speak what the Lord put in his mouth. The oracle that was given to him, however, was not one that Balak wanted. He begins with the call of Balak to curse the children of Israel, but he cannot curse who the Lord had not curse. Rather, he gives a blessing to the people of Israel, that their numbers be great. Balak says “What have you done to me?” and then takes Balaam to another place where he could see another fraction of the people and tells him to curse the people from there. The same procedure of altars and sacrifices were carried out, and again the Lord gives Balaam a word to speak to Balak. This oracle is directed more at Balak, reminding him that the Lord is not man that He should lie or change His mind. He had already pronounced a blessing on the people of Israel, and that was not going to change. There was no enchantment or divination that could be brought against them, for the Lord was with His people and had found no misfortune in them. once again, Balaam pronounces a blessing on the people of Israel instead of the curse that Balak wanted. After this oracle, Balak tells Balaam neither to curse nor to bless them, for he sees that he has gotten two blessings when he wanted a curse. Still in denial and not paying attention to what was said to him in this second oracle, Balak takes Balaam to the top of Peor, overlooking the desert, thinking that it might please God to curse the people from there. It seems that his own self importance had gotten in the way of hearing truth. The same procedure of building seven altars is once again employed here as Balak waits for the word that he wants to hear.
Balaam’s third and final oracles: It seems that at least Balaam has learned a lesson from what God has said, as this time he does not look for omens but rather took up his discourse and spoke the word of the Lord. This third oracle is perhaps the most beautiful of the blessings on Israel, painting beautiful imagery of the people of God and prophesying the blessings that will flow among them. The Lord had brought them out of the land of Egypt and would lead them into the promised land, where they would take possession and drive out their enemies. Those who blessed Israel would be blessed and those who cursed Israel would be cursed. When Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, note how he puts the blame on God for why Balaam would not be honored by him. This is perhaps the most evident statement of his pride. Balaam gives a slight “I told you so” even though he had been greedy in the process, and then gives a final oracle, which was a prophecy of what the children of Israel would do to select inhabitants of the land. Israel would crush the head of Moab, break down the sons of Sheth, possess Edom and Seir, not leaving any survivors in the city. Then he turns and makes specific prophesies against Amalek, Kain, Kittim, Asshur and Eber, foretelling of their destruction. After Balaam’s oracles were done, he and Balak when back to their respective places. Let us learn the lesson of Balak and Balaam, that the Lord’s blessing and cursing are not open for sale, and that we cannot change the mind of God to fit our own desires. Let us not be overtaken in greed and pride, but ever look to the Lord for strength.
Tomorrow’s Reading: II Chronicles 1-5.