Monday, August 5, 2013

Numbers: Donkeys, Curses, and Blessings

Hello, and I hope this entry (and all of my entries, really) finds you safe and well. Welcome back to my Bible blog, where we have gotten as far as the Israelites wandering the wilderness in the Book of Numbers.

We find the Israelites wandering from the well at Beer (not a well of Beer), stopping at a few places before arriving at a valley in the land of Moab overlooking the desert. From there, Moses sent a message to king Sihon of the Amorites asking permission to cross his lands. Perhaps having heard what had happened to the folk in Arad, Sihon told them what they could do with themselves, and sent his army to drive them away.

This didn’t work out too well for the Amorites. Israel defeated their army, then proceeded to go and occupy all their cities. Nothing is said of what was done with the inhabitants of those cities, but precedent is not in favor of merciful treatment. Then for some odd reason we get a snippet of a ballad about how Sihon had once defeated the king of Moab. I suppose to try and point out how impressive it was for Israel to have defeated a successful warrior like him or something.

I guess after this point the Israelites were kinda feeling their oats. They dispensed with the pretense of asking people permission to cross their lands, and just flat-out invaded the lands of Jazer and Bashan. The Bible claims that they completely annihilated the army of king Og of Bashan, leaving no survivors.

After obliterating four small kingdoms, the Israelites continued out onto the plains of Moab. And the people of Moab were, understandably, pissing themselves over it. What comes next is one of the more… interesting (a word that here could also mean “psychotic”) stories thus far.

There’s this famous diviner, sorcerer, whatever, named Balaam. And Balak, the son of Moab’s king, comes up with the desperate idea that if they can convince Balaam to place a curse on the invading Israelites, it might weaken them enough that they can be defeated. So he gets together with the elders of Midian to send a delegation to ask Balaam to do just that.

When the delegation speaks to Balaam, his response amounts to “Let me check with God about that.” And that night, God appears to him, and Balaam explains what they want him to do. God tells Balaam not to go with them, and that he can’t curse the Israelites because God has blessed them. So the next morning, Balaam gives the delegates the news that God has refused him permission to go with them. So far, all pretty straightforward (remarkably so, given that God had previously claimed that Moses is the only person to whom he speaks in a straightforward manner).

When he heard this news, Balak put together a larger delegation of more important men, and sent them back to Balaam to tell him they will give him anything he wants if he’ll come and curse the Israelites for them. Balaam tells them that there’s nothing they could pay him to make him go against God’s orders, but if they stay the night he’ll see if God has anything more to say on the subject. And this is where things turn kinda fucked up.

“Num 22:20 And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, ‘if the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.’ 21 So Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. 22 But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of Yahweh took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him.”

Now, is God being a dick, or is he straight schizo here? He orders Belaam to go with the princes of Moab, and then gets pissed at him when he does it! Then he sends an angel to fuck with Balaam as a result.

So Balaam is traveling along on his donkey (the entourage of princes seemingly forgotten for the moment by the narration), when the angel appears in the middle of the road bearing a sword. But here’s the kicker: the donkey can see the angel, but Balaam can’t. So the donkey shies away off the road and Balaam hits it to drive it back onto the road. Then the angel moves ahead to a place where the road passes between two walled vineyards, and appears in the middle of the road again. The donkey shies away again, and pins Balaam’s leg against one of the walls. Once more Balaam strikes the donkey to get it moving. Finally, the angel moves ahead to a spot where the road is so closed in that there’s nowhere to go to either side, and once more spooks the poor donkey. Since the animal can’t go anywhere, it just lies down in the middle of the road. Balaam, still ignorant of the angel’s existence and therefore thinking his donkey is just being ornery, gets pissed and hits the donkey with his staff.

Does this bullshit sound incredibly petty to anyone else?

So now the angel has Balaam stopped on the road. Time to reveal itself, right? Well no, not really. It’s time to give the donkey the ability to talk.

God “opened the mouth of the donkey” so that she could talk, and she asks Balaam why he kept hitting her. And Balaam, apparently completely unfazed by the fact that his donkey has started talking (I guess it was a perfectly ordinary occurrence back in the day - even the donkey seems to take it in stride), replies that she had been making a fool of him with her balking, and that if he’d had a sword with him he’d have killed her by now. She complains that he should know something is up, because he’s been riding her forever and she never behaved like that before, which he concedes.

So now, finally, the God allows Balaam to see the angel. And Balaam throws himself on the ground to grovel a bit. The angel demands to know why he was hitting his donkey, since if the donkey hadn’t kept turning aside the angel would have killed Balaam and let the donkey live. How fucking dumb is that? If you piss off God (by doing what he told you to do), he’ll send an angel to kill you… unless you have a perceptive and skittish donkey? What the hell?

Balaam offers to turn back, if his going with the princes was pissing God off so much. But the angel tells him to go with them, and only say what God tells him to say. Which is exactly what was happening before the angel intervened with all his spook-the-donkey bullshit!

Actually, it occurs to me that I’m being a bit unfair. After all, I kinda grew up in a culture that insists this book is serious business, and has to be approached seriously. But look at this story. It’s wholly ridiculous, and advances the narrative in exactly no way whatsoever. It’s farce. This story must be intended as a humorous interlude. And if you take it as comedy, it makes a lot more sense.

When all of this is done with, Balaam continues his journey and Balak comes to meet him at the city of Moab. Balak bitches about Balaam not coming the first time, and Balaam basically tells him “Well, I’m here now, and I just want to warn you that I’m not going to do anything against God’s orders.” Balak seems to pretty much blow off that warning, and takes Balaam to a place where he can see a portion of the Israelite horde, and asks him to curse them.

Balaam tells Balak to prepare seven altars and offer a bull and a ram on each one while he steps aside to consult with God. And God spoke to Balaam and told him what to say. So Balaam goes back to Balak and recites a poem about how great Israel is and how he can’t curse anyone that God won’t curse. Balak is kind of irritated by this, because he says that he brought Balaam to curse Israel and be blessed them instead. Balaam defends it by saying he’s only saying what God gave him to say.

Then Balak comes up with the brilliant idea that maybe if he takes Balaam to a different place where he can see a different portion of the Israelite masses, he can curse them there. So they move someplace else, and repeat the rigmarole with the altars and offerings and Balaam stepping aside to consult with God. Once again, God gives him some poetry to recite. This time it includes some lines comparing Israel to a lioness that won’t rest until it consumes its prey. Balak is starting to sound kind of alarmed, and is like “Hey! If you’re not going to curse them, at least refrain from blessing them!” Balaam, again, says he can only do what God tells him to do.

Then, because he’s either a congenital idiot or really desperate, Balak decides that if they try doing all this at yet another location overlooking yet another group of Israelites, maybe Balaam will curse them there. Unsurprisingly, this goes about as well as the first two times. And this time, God doesn’t bother waiting for Balaam to step aside for consultation and directly possesses him (or, as the Bible phrases it, “the Spirit of God came upon him”) to deliver his poetry. And this poem is practically a verbal orgasm about how wonderful Israel is, and how beautiful it is to see their tents all arrayed together… oh, and how God is going to help them crush, mangle, and dismember their enemies. It ends by saying that blessed are those who bless Israel, and cursed are those who curse it.

Needless to say, Balak is displeased, and bitches Balaam out. Balaam reminds him once again that he told his messengers before that he wouldn’t do anything other than what God ordered him to. Then he delivers another little poetic oracle about how the lands of all the princes who Balak sent to him are pretty much doomed before leaving to go home.

That’s it for Balaam’s part in this story, so I think it’s a good place to break for the day. Hope y’all continue to be well, and I’ll catch you next time.

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