* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Numbers 22-24: You Cannot Change What Is True by Proclaiming Lies (and a talking donkey)

Most of the book of Numbers is about what the Israelites said and did, a sort of idealized history of the community's nomadic years under Moses' command.  Chapters 22-24 contain a stories about Balaam (a non-Israelite prophet or diviner) and Balak, leader of Moab.  Since the Israelites have run roughshod over some of Moab's neighbors, Balak is apparently afraid of what the locust-like hordes of Israelites will do if they cross his borders.  So Balak asks Balaam to curse the Israelites, and after an initial refusal, Balaam agrees with the caveat that he can't do anything to change God's approval of the Israelites.

You can read the story for yourself.  You may marvel that Balaam seems to think talking donkeys are commonplace, and you may be a bit shocked that God would tell someone to take a journey just so he could send an angelic assassin to meet him on the road.  There are many folklore elements of the tale that are charming in their own way, but the meat of the story comes later, when Balaam actually speaks prophetic blessings about the Israelites instead of cursing them, much to Balak's chagrin.  The poetic "prophecies" were written down much later, and even if Balaam actually spoke the words, no Israelite was around to hear them.  So we are looking at poems that were written after the fact essentially to acknowledge how God blessed the Israelites and laid low all of the other communities of the area.

Later on, in chapter 31, the Israelites are going to kill Balaam because he apparently had something to do with Israelites being seduced by Moabite women and religion.  Based on the Israelites' own story about themselves in previous chapters, it doesn't really seem that they needed much outside influence to seduce them away from their miserable lives in the wilderness, but it's nice to have someone to shoulder the blame, even if that person only managed to demoralize Balak about the Israelites' favored status.  Jewish rabbinic literature spends a great deal of time expanding on the story, elaborating Balaam into a much more villainous character, which allows them to draw contrasts between "godly" prophets and Gentile prophets.  Muslims have their own varied stories about Balaam, although his name doesn't actually appear in the Qur'an.  Some literary characters begin to take on a life of their own.

There is some real value of the story, though, apart from the assertion that God loves the Israelites and destroys everyone else.  Throughout the tale, Balaam consistently says that he cannot say anything contrary to what the Lord puts in his mouth.  In other words (without the religious trappings), one cannot change what is true by proclaiming lies.  The reality of a situation is solid -- a discernible truth.  Sometimes our perception of that truth is skewed, and we are prone to misjudging things simply because we don't see things fully.  But we cannot make up our own version of what we want reality to be and expect it to work out the way we want.  There are things over which we have some measure of control, and there are things which we don't control at all.  It's important to recognize the difference.

When things we don't like happen, it's tempting to go into denial and assume that there is something we can do to turn the tide of locust-like hordes on our borders, or to change the attitude of a hostile co-worker, or to break the cycle of addiction in a family member's life.  We want to believe that we can force everything to work out the way we want, if we just figure out the right thing to do.  As if speaking the right words, taking the right actions, spending the right amount of money, or whatever the case may be, will cause reality to bend to our will.  Denying reality only serves to consume our time and energy.  Reality is.  Our challenge is not how to change reality, but how we are going to be in the midst of it.

There will be times when people do horrible things.  There will be times when the hordes overrun your borders.  There are things that are out of our control, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the happier we will be.  There are also things we can influence.  There are ongoing injustices in the world that can addressed.  We can take meaningful action that has an impact on the future, but that action has to be in line with reality if it is going to have any value.  I cannot assume that shooting a doctor is going to end abortion -- violent actions will have greater repercussions on my own life than on any greater issue I want to address.  Writing an angry letter may get an appeasing response, but will it really change the course of things?  It's not necessarily easy to take meaningful action, but if we are passionate about something, it's worth considering if there is anything we can do to have a meaningful positive impact.

Engendering fear in other people almost always involves distorting reality.  Fostering hope requires a little more effort, but often involves creating a reasonable way to take action with an intended result.  If you don't know what you're trying to accomplish, your actions may only serve to keep you busy for awhile.  But if you see clearly what you can and cannot influence, are willing to address things in partnership with reality, and can do so in a way that fosters hope in other people, you can potentially have a positive impact with lasting value.  The first step to it all, though, is recognizing what is real and how little of that reality you actually control.  You cannot change what is true by simply saying it isn't so.  Accept what is, and you stand a better chance of seeing how to get from there to where you want to be.


  1. You say obviously the prophecies were written much later, after the events they
    'predict' had already happened. What are you basing this on? Is it something in the actual text that gives you that impression? Do you think the same thing about all Bible predictions? Just curious.

  2. I rely on the research of biblical scholars as far as the dating of when various parts of the Bible were recorded and/or assembled. There is nothing in the actual translated text that gives away anything about when particular verses were written, but there are people who have spent a lot of time reconstructing the origins of different pieces of the Bible.

    Prophets have not always been seen as forecasting future events. At one time, prophets were simply those people who proclaimed the word of God. Sometimes that proclamation was meant to convict people of some unrighteous behavior, and so there were some grim predictions about what would happen if people didn't change their ways. Other times, prophets spoke words of hope. In either case, saying "prophet" was like saying "preacher."

    Still, there are some parts of the Bible that are intended to seem as though they are predicting future events. I see two types of these "predictive" texts. The first type is like Balaam's poems. They were recorded after the events occurred, and written back into a prominent "prophetic" figure's story. It was a way of recording history and giving God credit at the same time.

    The other forecasting that happens in the Bible are apocryphal texts like the book of Revelation and parts of the book of Daniel. While the imagery is striking and the story is set in the future tense, these writings were intended to give hope to the people of the time, not to actually predict real future events. They don't describe events that actually occurred, but they're not intended to accurately describe events that will literally happen either. They are words of hope to oppressed people, describing how the wicked will eventually get their comeuppance and the present suffering by good people will one day be rewarded many times over.

  3. OK. That makes sense. I'll watch for some of those other places when you get to them.

  4. The story of Balaam is fascinating. In this section of Numbers he is basically an instrument of God, but later, as you mentioned, he is slaughtered for leading the people astray at Baal Peor. I just wanted add that several New Testament writings refer to a tradition that Balaam was a false teacher motivated by greed (see 2 Peter 2:15-16; Jude 11; Revelation 2:14). And as you also mentioned, he seems to have been a famous prophet in nations other than Israel, based on other ancient texts. Super cool, super interesting stuff.

    I also wanted to mention that while the book of Daniel is indeed apocalyptic, and not prophetic, as you mentioned -- the fathers of the early (Christian) church almost unanimously understood Chapter 9 of Daniel to be a prophecy that predicted the coming of Christ, with some pretty stunningly accurate timing.

  5. Yes, Balaam has a greater presence in Jewish tradition than what wound up in the Christian Bible. Presumably, the writers of the New Testament were writing from a cultural perspective to which the upstanding Jews of the time could relate.

    And I look forward to a more in depth discussion of Daniel when we get there!