Last week we left the Children of Israel absolutely face-wrecking the Amorites, man they gave them a canonically legendary curbstomp and gave us some important lessons on sustaining our leaders and looking to God to boot. This week we’re changing focus from the rampaging Israelite horde to their victims.
The camera pulled back at the end of the Amorite war in Numbers 21, sort of the literary version of a camera rolling over burned villages and an artfully placed abandoned doll, and now we zoom in on the Moabites, who are sore afraid, as they should be.1in 22:4 we find that Christians ACTUALLY BELIEVE cows eat grass by licking it; science has proved that cows bite grass, checkmate theists
Balak, king of the Moabites, summons his soothsayer Balaam, who may have been a righteous priesthood holdout like Jethro, though they do bring him silver to cross his palm.2Maybe the rewards of divination were just viewed as payment, some sort of tithing? Maybe details were embellished or added by someone who thought it’d be obvious they treat a prophet like a fortune-teller? Maybe the Lord just worked through soothsayers at this place and time? Balak is being a good king, providing for the welfare of Moab and not relying on the arm of the flesh, but preserving Moab is not the Lord’s plan right now.
So the Lord commands Balaam to stay home, and Balak comes back three times fairy-tale style and of course Balaam goes because why else would we hear about it, and we get one of the most colorful stories in the entire Old Testament. The Lord sends an angel to pull him over, but Balaam is for whatever reason so out of it he doesn’t notice the red-and-blue strobe lights, just that his donkey3If you can say “ass” and not giggle when you read the scripture everyone will know you are a Cool Mormon who can say Naughty Things won’t stay on the dad-gum road.
Donkeys are inherently humorous, and there’s a lot of humor in this story, with Balaam just not noticing the angel directly in front of him, the slapstick of his leg getting crushed against a wall, the poor creature lying down and refusing to move, Balaam ineffectually beating her while the angel’s standing there with sword drawn, and finally she opens her mouth and *talks* to him, says come on Balaam, what am I doing wrong, doesn’t even mention the angel. We seem to be in a Laurel and Hardy zone of comic obliviousness. The angel’s even in on it! His first words aren’t “fear not” or “behold,” they’re “why are you beating your donkey?” And Balaam’s all “Excuse me, I’ll just go back this way.” This is a wonderful break from the heavy atmosphere of the Pentateuch, and I’m sure later Israelite readers were grateful for it.
We study this today because it’s a fun story but also, as the Gospel Doctrine manual tells us, “The Lord shows the danger of Balaam’s stubborn insistence on his own will.” It’s funny because even though there’s a donkey Balaam’s the stubborn one.4Be sure you point that out. The manual doesn’t point out that it’s *really weird* for the Lord to make a donkey talk. This doesn’t happen in the Bible, it’s another fairytale sort of thing. Aside from showing us that people sometimes don’t listen to God, it shows us that God has a sense of humor, that sometimes he just can’t resist messing with people. I think that’s just as important of a lesson.
Now Balaam is told by Balak to curse Israel, and told by the Lord to bless Israel, and apparently he has the power to do either of those. Is that something priesthood holders can do? Would the Lord just make cursings ineffectual, and give Israel all the blessings they needed anyway? What are Balaam’s powers, anyway? The Israelites certainly believed soothsayers could do things. It’s a tough story to really get into from a modern, rationalistic, materialist perspective.
Balaam shows up once again in Num. 31 as the guy who encouraged Moab to try to lead Israel into sin.5Not that they needed help! Don’t teach Israel not to worship Baal-Peor, teach Moabites not to tempt. It seems like a rational thing to do, though the McConkie quote in the teacher’s manual acts like Balaam was just blinded by Balak’s treasure. That’s the sort of lesson we would take from it, but would mercenary magicians be viewed as so morally repugnant by the Israelites of the time? They certainly had no compunctions about laying waste to Moab when they were crossed, and Moab got *rocked*, make no mistake.6They spared children and virgins as a sort of mercy. To think that if they’d just been as morally advanced as us they would have conducted their wars like we do.
Anyway, it’s a nice break from the Law of Moses, and what a broad and beautiful subject that is. Next week we’ll be talking remembrance, how the Lord helps us and helped the Israelites remember covenants, something they actually did become very good at in the end.