This chapter reminds me a lot of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, except that the instructions have all disappeared.

The easy-peasy version of the story has a king getting antsy at the approaching Israelites, so he calls on a magician, Balaam, to curse them. Balaam refuses, and the king asks him again. This time, God tells Balaam to go. Balaam obeys, but God suddenly changes his mind and there’s a humorous episode involving an ass, and the  Balaam submits his final refusal to aid the king against the Israelites.

God’s sudden change of mind makes very little sense unless we realize that this chapter is actually a proto-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book written, unfortunately, before the use of page numbering. (Or, you know, two separate traditions have been melded, or its an attempt at – as my Study Bible so quaintly puts it – “oriental humor.”)

The Moabite king

While the Hebrews are camping in the plains of Moab, the Moabite king Balak, son of Zippor, starts to get nervous. He’s heart about their defeat of the Amorites and, justifiably, isn’t sure he wants them hanging around his territories.

To deal with the situation, he sends messengers to Balaam, son of Beor. The messengers ask Balaam to use his super awesome magical powers to curse the Hebrews, “since they are too mighty for [Balak]” (v.6). Balaam does seem to be a magician of some renown: “he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” Interestingly, though the effect would be the same, Balak has asked for his enemies to be cursed rather than himself to be blessed – something that may be a smart move if Balaam is getting his power from the God of the Hebrews.

Unwilling to act rashly, Balaam tells the messengers that he needs to sleep on it.

At some point – the context seems to indicate that this happens in a dream since, afterwards, we’re told that “Balaam rose in the morning” (v.13) – God comes to Balaam and tells him not to go with the messengers and not to curse the Hebrews.

The conversation between Balaam and God seems to indicate that Balaam is familiar with the Hebrew God. In fact, he tells his guests that he needs to take the night to consult first, “and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me” (v.8) – suggesting (assuming that I’m not getting duped by a crappy translation) that Balaam is deliberately seeking the will of the Hebrew God. Yet the context makes it very clear that he is not an Israelite himself.

Duane Smith, of Abnormal Interests, also brings up a very interesting discussion regarding solicited versus unsolicited divination, which he refers to as omina impetrativa and omina oblativa. In the former case, a diviner will actively perform some kind of ritual with the intent of divination – such as reading the entrails of an animal or interpreting the flight of birds. In the latter case, the divination is passively received by the individual without having previously been sought.

For obvious reasons, divination through dreams – oneiromancy – is generally thought of as passive, unsolicited divination. Yet in this case, Balaam is very clearly going to bed with the explicit intention of chatting with God.

David Plotz points out that this isn’t the first time God appears in a dream to a non-Hebrew. Way back in Genesis 20, he came to Abimelech and warned him not to sleep with Sarah. In both cases, the non-Hebrews seem to obey God more readily than most of the Hebrews.

But now we get our choice: Should Balaam listen to God and refuse the king’s request? Or should he disobey God and go back with the messengers? YOU DECIDE!

Balaam refuses the king’s request

Balaam tells the messengers that God has forbidden him from going to King Balak, so they return with the message.

Balak decides to try again and he sends a second wave of messenger princes, more than before and of higher status. They arrive and ask Balaam, once again, if he could pretty please with a cherry on top come curse the Hebrews.

But Balaam refuses. No matter what the price, he won’t come so long as God doesn’t want him to. However, because he’s such a nice guy, he’ll go ahead and ask the Big Man Upstairs for permission again.

That night, God’s tune changes. Now he wants Balaam to go to Balak, only he must do exactly as God instructs.

Balaam returns with the messengers

Now there’s a gear shift. Balaam is heading back to Moab with the messengers, as God asked, but “God’s anger was kindled because he went” (v.22). Talk about mixed messages!

Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

Then God continues his hissy fit by refusing to actually voice his concerns to Balaam directly. Instead, he just sends an angel to stand in Balaam’s donkey’s path.

The donkey, seeing the angel (that’s invisible to Balaam), turns off the road and walks in the field instead. Balaam, confused, starts whacking his ass (*gigglesnort*). In typical mythic fashion, this happens three times. The third time, the donkey opens its mouth and complains: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (v.28).

Balaam, acting for his part as though it’s perfectly ordinary for his donkey to sit down for a chat, goes on about what a bad-ass the donkey’s been for refusing the follow the road properly.

Just then, God’s angel reveals himself and tells Balaam that he shouldn’t be hitting his ass. You see, explains the angel, if the ass had not turned aside, he would have killed Balaam.

This is an interesting commentary on the nature of sin. As we saw in Leviticus 4, sin does not mean here what it’s come to mean these days. As Balaam puts it: “I have sinned, for I did not know that thou didst stand in the road against me” (v.34). His sin, therefore, is in not knowing that he was doing anything wrong.

The angel repeats (or says for the first time, if you’re playing the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game properly) the instruction to do exactly as God says when Balaam gets to his meeting with Balak.

Meeting Balak

Having heard of Balaam’s arrival, Balak goes out to meet him. He asks Balaam why he didn’t come (I’m assuming that he means the first time), and Balaam basically just says “I’m here now, aren’t I?”

But Balaam repeats that he can do nothing other than what is instructed of him by God. “The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak” (v.38).

The two men go to Kiriath Huzoth together, where Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep. It’s unclear whether these sacrifices were made to the Hebrew God (whom Balaam is clearly soliciting) or to another (which I would assume Balak would prefer).

I’ll stop here, even though there’s a verse left. Verse 41 more properly belongs to Numbers 23, so I’ll cover it next time.

Who was Balaam?

Which gets us to the interesting question of just who, exactly, is Balaam. We know from the text that he was living in Pethor when Balak sought him out. We don’t know where Pethor might have been, by the way, though Wikipedia thinks that it might be the same place as Pitru, mentioned in ancient Assyrian records. Regardless, it seems to have been in Babylonia, and Babylonia was, according to my Study Bible, famed for its divination (p.193). In fact, according to J.R. Porter in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, Balaam is shown as a “typical Mesopotamian seer-priest, the kind known as baru” (p.61).

Balaam may have actually been a real person. His existence is corroborated by an inscription discovered in 1967 at Tell Deir’Alla (or, simply, Deir Alla) dating from the 8th century B.C.E. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.82).

The prophecies described in the Deir Alla text bear no resemblance to the ones we’re about to read in Numbers. Instead, they merely recount Balaam’s vision of a disaster that befalls his city. However, this revelation is said to have been received from an assembly of divine beings described as Shaddin, “which recalls the title Shaddai, ‘Almighty,’ an archaic name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name Shaddai occurs more than once in the biblical story of Balaam, for example in Numbers 24.4″ (Porter, The New Illustrated Companion, p.61).