Arbtirary thoughts on nearly everything from a modernist poet, structural mathematician and functional programmer.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Balaam is a figure (apparently a prophet, or oracle) in Numbers (22-25) who was summoned by the Moabites to curse the Israelites as they went from Egypt, through Moab to the promised land. He did nothing of the sort, but still did not do as God commanded him to, and in the end, went against Israel. He is most famous for having a donkey which laid down, and then spoke when beaten. "The way" (2 Pet 2:15), "The error" (Jude v11), and "The teachings" (Rev 2:14) of Balaam are all condemned by New Testament authors.

The teachings of Balaam, which come last in Numbers (and aren't explicitly shown to be associated with him until Chapter 31), quite clearly represent an attempt to subvert Israel by intermingling them with Moabites and Moab culture. There isn't much mystery in them, so I will skip them.

The way of Balaam, often confused or associated with the error of Balaam, is typically taken to be greed. The Oxford NIV Scofield Study Bible has, I think, a mostly correct analysis of the error of Balaam: "The error of Balaam was that he could see only the natural morality. A holy God, he reasoned, must curse such a people as Israel. Like all false teachers he was ignorant of the higher morality of vicarious atonement, by which God could be just and yet the justifier of believing sinners." There is, I think more to this story, but it is details, and not incredibly important, so I'll move on.

The way of Balaam, as I said before, is typically taken to be Greed. This comes as no surprise, since both 2 Peter and Jude mention money (Peter says "wages"; Jude, "profit") when characterizing Balaam's problem. I think this is wrong. Firstly, profit and wages are used throughout the New Testament as metaphor for just about everything-- I guess people thought about money as much in the first century Mediterranean world as they do now.
Beyond that, Balaam quite clearly does not go for money. Instead, I think, he is afraid of conflict... afraid to tell people things they don't want to hear. He is too "nice" to go against them. The following are all quotations from Numbers (NIV); I'll try to edit out only what isn't important, but all quotes are "out of context"...

"The elders of Moab and Midian left, taking with them the fee for divination. When they came to Balaam, they told him what Balak [King of Moab] had said.
"'Spend the night here' Balaam said to them, 'and I will bring you back the answer the Lord gives me.'
"The next morning, Balaam got up and said [...] 'The Lord has refused to let me go with you.'"

Notice that he does not immediately go with them, thought they represent the king of Moab. He instead says he cannot go.

"Then Balak sent other princes, more numerous and more distinguished than the first. They came to Balaam and said:
'This is what Balak son of Zippor says: Do not let anything keep you from coming to me, because I will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say. Come and put a curse on these people for me.'
"But Balaam answered them, 'Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God.'"
Again, he does not go for wealth or power.
Later, three times he is asked to curse Israel, by the king Balak himself, and 3 times, he listens to what God says, and tells Balak. Eventually, he is sent on his merry way without gold or jewels.

However, at every point in the story, Balaam is as polite as possible, going as far as he can to satisfy the people who are asking him to do something that God Himself told him he could not do... He is afraid to tell them what they do not want to hear...

insert(Balaam.concluding_paragraph()); //I don't have anything else to say here...

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