Numbers 23-24: Balak’s rather unsuccessful attempts at cursing

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In these chapters, we continue with the comedic repetition structure that seems to mark Balaam’s narrative.

When we last saw Balaam, God had allowed him to respond to Balak, king of the Moabites. At the very end of Numbers 22, Balak takes Balaam to a place that my RSV calls Bamoth-Baal, but that the KJV has as “the high places of Baal” (Num. 22:41). I’m not finding any confirmation that this is significant, but I find it interesting that Balaam seems so intent on hearing from YHWH, yet Balak is leading him to a place that is named after (and presumably has once been consecrated to) Baal. It’s like, disappointed with Balaam’s previous response, Balak is hoping that a different God will get him a different answer.

Once there, Balaam tells Balak to build seven altars and to provide seven bulls and seven rams. Once each altar had been broken in with a bull and ram each, Balaam wanders off to meet with God.

The First Oracle

God put the words right into Balaam’s mouth for him to take back to Balak. The prophecy begins with a retelling of what’s happened so far – of Balak asking Balaam to curse Israel, and Balaam refusing because he would not – or could not -curse anyone independently of God’s power (and, therefore, of God’s will).

The prophecy describes the Israelites as “a people dwelling alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations!” (v.9). I get the whole “chosen people” thing, but this looks an awful lot like nationalism – something I’ve always been very uncomfortable with.

Balaam then prays that he should “die the death of the righteous” so that his “end be like this” (v.10). It seems that he is defining the Israelites as specially blessed, and envisioning that he, too, could be similarly blessed if he dies righteously.

Balak is understandably upset to get this response. There he was, thinking he’d finally won Balaam over and would be getting that fancy new curse he wanted, and yet here’s Balaam blessing the Israelites instead! Talk about a bait and switch!

The Second Oracle

Thinking that a different vantage point might yield different results, Balak takes Balaam to a new spot – the field of Zophim, at the top of Pisgah. There, he once again builds seven altars and sacrifices a bull and a ram at each. Once again, Balaam tells Balak to wait by the altars while he goes off in search of God.

This time, the prophecy addresses Balak directly, calling him to rise and listen. He tells Balak that God is not human, and therefore does not lie or repent. Of course, we’ve seen him change his mind and repent several times. In fact, despite this present claim, we’ve seen a whole lot of God flying into a violent rage and his prophet du jour having to talk him down. Once again, we see a disconnect between the claimed character of God and his demonstrated character. Were this any other book, I’d call unreliable narrator!

The prophecy then goes on to say that God has blessed the Israelites – being that he is so in-capricious, he’s not about to change his mind about that (you know, until they ask him for quail again).

The Israelites are, therefore, protected. God is so strong – as strong as a wild ox, if you like the RSV, or as strong as a unicorn, if you prefer the whimsy of the KJV – that no curse could work against them.

The strength of a unicorn

The strength of a unicorn

A note on the unicorns: Apparently, this is a Septuagint issue. The Greek translation of the Hebrew word re’em was monokeros – one-horned. According to Wikipedia, this interpretation made sense to the KJV translators since unicorns are legendary for the impossibility of their taming.

According to the JewishEncyclopedia, this translation was later revised to “wild ox” given the etymological and contextual similarity to the Assyrian rimu: “which is often used as a metaphor of strength, and is depicted as a powerful, fierce, wild, or mountain bull with large horns.”

The prophecy continues by saying that God has made Israel so powerful that:

As a lioness it rises up
and as a lion it lifts itself;
it does not lie down till it devours the prey,
and drinks the blood of the slain. (Num. 23:24)

The imagery is certainly gruesome, but it’s also quite poetic.

Balak, of course, isn’t happy with this prophecy either. If the first oracle can be interpreted as blessing the Israelites, this one certainly can! But, of course, the schmuck of our little slapstick has to have a third try. Once again, he tells Balaam to come to yet another spot – to the top of Peor – in the hopes that this new place “will please God that you may curse them for me from there” (Num. 23:27).

The Third Oracle

The song and dance of the seven altars and the seven sacrifices of bulls and rams has to be performed in the new spot. But this time, Balaam doesn’t bother to head off in search of omens, God makes a house-call.

As Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, points out, this change has literary significance:

In comedy there is a rule of threes. 1. An event is told. 2. The event is repeated, establishing a pattern. 3. The pattern is broken, to comic effect. The pattern being broken can also serve a dramatic effect. In the case of Balaam the third iteration turns a comic tale serious.

This time, God addresses Balaam rather than using him as a mouthpiece. He calls to him, as he called to Balak in the second oracle. There’s a listing of name, ties, and status. In the midst of this, God hints at the prophetic process, describing Balaam’s experience of visions as a “falling down, but having his eyes uncovered” (Num. 24:4). This seems to suggest a sort of ecstatic trance.

During this, Balaam is described as one “who sees the vision of the Almighty” (Num. 24:4). According to J.R. Porter in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, this may be significant:

Fragmentary Aramaic texts of the ninth century BCE from Deir Alla refer to a Balaam who, as in the Hebrew Scriptures, was the son of Beor. He is said to have a vision of a disaster that befalls his city, at which he weeps. This revelation is 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. (p.61)

Then we get some lovely compliments about how nice the Israelite tents are, and there’s a bunch of flowery comparisons. In the middle of all of that, we are told that the Israelite king “shall be higher than Agag” (Num. 24:7). Agag is the name of the Amalekite king featured in 1 Samuel 15:33. This leads to three possibilities that I can see/find:

  1. There are two different kings by the same name.
  2. The text, written long after the events it purports to describe, contains an anachronism.
  3. “Agag” is not the name of a king but, rather, a standing title among Amalekite rulers.

Then we get a bunch of fluff about God being super strong (like a unicorn!), and how he can crush people’s bones and nom on nations, yadda yadda.

To close the prophecy, God says that all who bless Israel will also be blessed, and all who curse it shall likewise be cursed.

This, of course, needles at Balak’s nerves, so much so that “he struck his hands together” (Num.24:10). According to my Study Bible, clapping was “a gesture of anger and reproach” (p.196). Keep that in mind the next time you enjoy (or don’t enjoy) a live performance.

Balak tells Balaam that he had promised to “honor” Balaam for his services, “but the Lord has held you back from honor” (Num. 24:11). That’s quite an interesting perspective. He then tells Balaam to leave.

The Fourth Oracle

Rather than leave, Balaam launches straight into his fourth oracle, introducing it by saying to Balak: “Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days” (Num. 24:14).

Notice that the pattern is broken again here. For his fourth oracle, Balaam no longer requires altars and sacrifices. This one, as they say, is on the house.

It begins, again, with a listing of Balaam’s ties and titles, using language that’s nearly identical to the opening of the third oracle. Then it gets a little kooky.

The language is a little purple, but the essence of it is that, at some time in the future, “a star shall come forth out of Jacob [Israel]” (Num. 24:17) – it’s given a royal slant when the line is repeated but with sceptre in place of star. This star will crush, kill, destroy the following groups/places:

  • Moabites
  • The sons of Sheth
  • Edomites
  • Seir – which, given the text, seems to be an enemy of Edom, yet my Study Bible claims that these are just two names for the same group (p.197)
  • Amalekites
  • Kenites

There’s a weird verse asking how long Asshur would take Kain captive, and another saying that ships will come from Kittim to afflict Asshur and Eber. My Study Bible is entirely useless here, making excuses about how “the meaning of these verses is obscure, owing to the uncertainty of the names” (p.197).

Having finished with the curse, Balak packs up his toys and heads home.

According to Collins in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, this final oracle has been imbued with some messianic significance:

In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, this oracle was taken as a messianic prediction. The leader of the last Jewish revolt against Rome, in 132-135 C.E., Simon Bar Kosiba, was hailed by Rabbi Akiba as the messiah foretold in this oracle. Because of this, he is known in Jewish tradition as Bar Kokhba (literally, “son of the star”). (p.82)

Assuming, for the sake of funsies, that this is a retroactive prophecy – set in the past, yet “foretelling” current/recent events – it sounds a whole lot like political propaganda. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that a king wanted to solidify his claim to the throne, so he commissioned the writing of some prophetic historical fiction to “predict” himself, thereby legitimizing his rule. The author chose Balaam, a seer that people were clearly talking about – given the Deir Alla inscription – in the same way that people today will often write predictions and ascribe them to Nostradamus.

Numbers 14: The people are revolting!

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When we finished up last time, the scouts (minus Caleb) were making an “evil report” about all the nasty stuff awaiting the Israelites in Canaan.

Frightened, the people start to question Moses and Aaron’s leadership. Believing that they have no future ahead of them, they regret that they will be dying in the wilderness rather than in their own homes back in Egypt – an understandable concern given the realities of burial and remembrance for the dead in nomadic societies, combined with the emphasis on ancestors and genealogies that we’ve seen so far in our story.

Of course, the point of this story is that the people aren’t trusting God, they’ve lost confidence that he’ll be able to pull off the whole Canaan thing. From a Small Gods perspective, it makes total sense that God would be really upset by this lack of faith since it would, literally, diminish his power (and himself!). It also makes sense in a cultural context where gods are worthy of worship based on their displays of power, which makes “we’re just not sure you can pull this off” mean effectively the same thing as “I’m planning to cheat on you, Barbara.”

Over and over again, we’ve seen that the narrative’s emphasis is on God’s power, not his goodness, love, or any other trait. This only makes sense in a henotheistic context. Also, from a relationship standpoint, it seems that God is putting his eggs in the wrong basket. A relationship that is based on one party always outperforming the competition is on inherently shaky ground. I think that it might have been better for God if it had focused instead on developing a relationship of mutual respect and understanding. Just as an example, anticipating that his people – as mortals – would need to eat and not waiting until they beg him for food to provide it. Another example would be to then not slaughter a whole bunch of them when they ask for some variety in their diet. Obviously, it’s not ideal to base a relationship solely on material gifts, but that would certainly have been a better start than simply reminding the people on a regular basis of how easily he can make their heads go squishy.

But David Plotz points out that the focus on God’s experience of the events may be missing the point for the humans:

But can you blame them? One of the lessons of the Iraq occupation is that people who’ve been oppressed for generations are not immediately ready for tolerant, rational self-government. They have habits of violence and intolerance and suspicion of authority that can’t be shrugged off in a moment. The Israelites were in bondage for 400 years, enslaved to brutal dictators: It’s unreasonable to expect them to immediately govern themselves and trust in God. God abandoned them for 20 generations, and He expects them to count on Him after a few months. I understand the Israelites’ fears—they needed, perhaps, a gentler God.

In any case, they decide to choose a new leader and return to Egypt.

Of course, Moses and Aaron come to God’s defence – and this time they are joined by Joshua, son of Nun, and Caleb, son of Jephunneh. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces while Caleb and Joshua take up clothes-rending duty and tell the people that the land they had spied out really is quite lovely.

Gone off the deep end a little, the people respond by agreeing to “stone them with stones” (v.10), which seems rather more dignified than being stoned with, say, aubergines, but nonetheless rather unpleasant.

God has a say

God’s not about to let a bunch of hooligans harm his BFF, so his “glory” swoops down to the tent of meeting.

Moses and the Messengers from Canaan, by Giovanni Lanfranco, 1621-1624

Moses and the Messengers from Canaan, by Giovanni Lanfranco, 1621-1624

“How long will this people despise me?” (v.11), he asks Moses. It’s a bit needy, isn’t it? I mean, putting it into human terms, this question really isn’t very flattering. The guy has just spend pages upon pages giving the people a huge set of rules, many of which seem to have no purpose other than making sure that the Israelites can’t have any non-Israelite friends. Then, nearly every time the people ask him for anything or disobey any of this huge number of commandments (including ones they don’t even know about yet), he slaughters them in rather horrible ways. With the exception of manna, the only thing he’s done for them in return so far is promise that things will be different once they get to his house. And yet, the people who’ve seen his house say that it’s a death trap. Is it really unreasonable for the people to start having some doubts? Maybe, instead of whining to Moses that he isn’t being loved on enough, God could, I don’t know, maybe send the people a box of chocolates? Preferably not ones infected with a “very great plague” (Num. 11:33).

True to form, God proceeds quickly to threats: “I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they” (v.12).

So yeah, why don’t the people trust God? Because he sees people as utterly disposable and his go-to reaction to not getting everything his way is to massacre everyone and start over with a new family.

Moses’ counter-argument

Moses comes back with a response that says a whole lot about the dynamic – and characters – at play:

  1. If you kill them now, everyone is going to assume that you killed them off because you weren’t able to make good on your promises.
  2. You keep telling us that you are “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (v.18) – quoting God’s own words from Exodus 34:5-8 – so how about acting like it?

Right, so God is terribly concerned about keeping up appearances, and even Moses can see that there’s a disjoint between God’s displayed character and the way he describes himself.

This whole speech makes me wonder if we humans are allowed to hold God accountable, or if this is a patriarch-only thing. One of the common arguments against atheists speaking about the immorality of the Bible (or of whatever Religious Person X claims that God thinks) is that God is the Judge, not subject to the judgement of mere humans.

I mean, sure, Moses is appointed by God to his position – as have been all the other patriarchs who have argued with him (such as Abraham). So are we to see Moses as a model for emulation, or does he have a special ball-buster dispensation? Frankly, given the brouhaha we had recently over Moses’ right to marry outside his ethnic group, I’m inclined to think that this is a special case. Still, though, I could see an argument being made.

The 40-year plan

It works, and God is convinced, but he’s not about to let the slight go unpunished. So he decrees that “none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs which I wrought in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the proof these ten times and have not hearkened to my voice, shall see the land which I swore to give to their fathers” (v.22-23).

He then singles Caleb out – “because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully” (v.24) – to survive the wilderness and make it into Canaan. It’s an interesting little aside for two reasons:

He names Caleb but not Joshua, who is later said to be Moses’ successor as the leader of the Israelites. The sparing of Joshua doesn’t come up until much later (verse 30), where he is named alongside a repeat of Caleb. This suggests to me that the Caleb tradition was originally separate from the Joshua tradition, and that the two stories were later melded together.

He doesn’t name either Moses or Aaron. Were they, too, included among those who put God “to the proof”? I’m guessing that it’s more likely that the authors already knew that they wouldn’t make it into Canaan, but reading the Bible as a straight narrative, this would be a really great “bwuh??” moment for the two of them.

But who is Caleb, anyway? For all the favour he’s getting in Numbers 13-14, I don’t recall hearing his name anywhere else in the narrative, nor do I remember his name from Sunday School. So what happened to the tradition that included such lavish praise from God?

But back to the decree, it may have some logic behind it. Continuing David Plotz’s point from above that the Israelites are just coming out of an oppressive situation and therefore will have “have habits of violence and intolerance and suspicion of authority that can’t be shrugged off in a moment”:

But for the same reason, it’s very hard to argue with God’s 40-year plan. Just as it took a generation for Korea and Germany to shake off their war trauma, and as it will certainly take a generation (or more) for Iraq to trust democracy, so the Israelites needed a generation. The freed slaves would never have been able to conquer the Promised Land—they were too timid and unstable. The testing of the desert journey—the self-sufficiency it required of the young Israelites—hardened them for conquest. God is cruel but practical, ruthless for a purpose.

The “evil report”

As I noted at the very end of Numbers 13, it’s not quite clear from the text (or, at least, my translation) whether the “evil report” refers to a lie or just to bad news. If it’s a lie, there’s no motivation provided since, surely, the scouts would benefit from settlement. If it’s just bad news, then the next passage becomes rather troubling.

The spies are blamed for making the people “murmur against [Moses]” when they “brought up an evil report against the land” (v.36-37). Moses isn’t even pretending that it’s about lacking faith in God here. It’s just, straight up, he wants to be the leader and the spies’ report threatened his position. And it still isn’t clear whether their crime was lying or simply bringing back bad news.

And the fact that the Moses leads the people in a retreat “since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys” (v.25) suggests that maybe the report really was accurate, and that Caleb’s gung-ho attitude in Num. 13:30 could have gotten the Israelites killed.

But it doesn’t matter. They said something that Moses didn’t like so, of course, they all die from a plague. Except for Joshua and Caleb, who are spared.

Why is Joshua spared? Only Caleb is named as having contradicted the “evil report,” yet not only is Joshua also spared when all the others are killed, he will even go on to become Moses’ successor.

Well, the people are told about the whole 40 years in the wilderness thing, so they decide to backpedal and take Caleb’s advice. They head out to the hill country, ready to start conquering Canaan. But Moses tells them that it’s too late now, they aren’t going with God (or the ark), and therefore will be killed. Sure enough, the Amalekites and Canaanites attack, defeating them, and pursuing them all the way to Hormah.

So, to recap, the spies told everyone that the people living in Canaan are too strong to defeat, and they are killed for doing so. But then the people try to enter Canaan and they find that the people living there are too strong to defeat. Sounds about right?

Numbers 13: Return of the Nephilim

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Being now so close to Canaan, Moses can’t help but take a little peek. So he chooses 12 scouts – one from each tribe minus Levi because the Levites apparently don’t have to do anything related to the mundane world. The people chosen to be scouts are “all of them men who were heads of the people of Israel” (v.3), though the list doesn’t match the list of leaders presented in Numbers 1.

  • Of the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur;
  •  Of the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori;
  • Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh;
  • Of the tribe of Issachar, Igal the son of Joseph;
  • Of the tribe of Joseph – Ephraim branch, Oshea the son of Nun;
  • Of the tribe of Joseph – Manasseh branch, Gaddi the son of Susi;
  • Of the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of Raphu;
  • Of the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi;
  • Of the tribe of Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalli;
  • Of the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael;
  • Of the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi;
  • Of the tribe of Gad, Geuel the son of Machi.

He then specifically calls “Oshea the son of Nun Jehoshua” (or, as my Study Bible has it, “Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua”). I would have assumed that this would be the same person as Oshea the son of Nun, but then why is be being called again separately? There’s no indication that he’s to be the leader of the scouts, or that he’s being singled out for any particular purpose. The name is merely repeated (with the alteration to the father’s name). Is he a thirteenth scout? Or does the text just really want to highlight that Joshua is one of the dudes going?

The Scouting

Possible scouting path

Possible scouting path

The 12 scouts head out and seem to make a good tour, visiting such sites as the wilderness of Zin, Rehob, Hamath, the Negeb, Hebron, and the valley of Eshcol.. I found this neat map on the Generation World ministry website that illustrates the path the scouts may have followed.

As a little archeological side note, the text claims that Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt. According to my Study Bible: “Zoan or Tanis [was] rebuilt as the Hyksos capital around 1700 B.C.” (p.180).

If we accept the date of the exodus as somewhere around 1450 B.C., that would put Hebron at between 200-300 years old at this point in the narrative.

Numbers 13 - Abraham Schloss bis ZionAnyways, so the scouts find lots of nice things, including a single cluster of grapes so great that they had to carry it “on a pole between two of them” (v.23), as well as pomegranates and figs. They also encounter descendants of Anak: Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai. Though I’m not sure how they know their names unless they approached them, and it seems implausible that they approached them given that they are set up as hostiles.

The whole trip takes 40 days (of course it does). When they return, they can’t stop gushing about how awesome Canaan is. They describe it as “flow[ing] with milk and honey” (v.27), a turn of phrase first used in Exodus 3:8, where God promises to bring  the Israelites out of Egypt and “unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.”

But it’s not all positive. The scouts also report that the people there are strong, and that their cities are large and fortified. Plus, the descendants of Anak are there and, well, you know how they are.

Speaking of the current inhabitants, the scouts report that:

  • The Amalekites are in the Negeb.
  • The Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites are in the hill country.
  • The Canaanites are by the sea and along the Jordan river.

You will remember the Amalekites from their subduing in the battles of Genesis 14, and from their chronologically confused battle with Joshua in Exodus 17.

Getting Antsy

But then Caleb, Judah’s scouting representative, steps in and calls for the Israelites to “go up at once, and occupy it [Canaan]; for we are well able to overcome it” (v.30).

Numbers 13 - Nephilim Skeleton

Note: This was an entry in an image editing contest. No Nephilim skeletons have yet been found.

The other scouts disagree, and they bring “and evil report of the land which they had spied out” (v.32). David Plotz adds the detail that Joshua did not join them, but I’m not seeing anything like that in my text.

The “evil report” is that the land “devours its inhabitants” (v.32), and the people living there (the ones being devoured?) are giants. These giants are Nephilim – the ones we saw way back in Genesis 6:4 and who are now being called the sons of Anak, “who came from the Nephilim” (v.33). In the hyperbole we’re accustomed to seeing in the Bible, these Nephilim are described as so tall that “we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (v.33).

Now, the Nephilim in Genesis had been given as an example of the corruption that ran rampant in the antediluvian period, and were one of the reasons why God decided to kill everyone except for Noah and his family. So what are they doing still around?

One blogger read this appearance back into Genesis 6:4 – “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward” (emphasis mine). According to that person, the “also afterward” refers to the period after the flood. It still doesn’t explain how they survived the flood that killed “everything that is on the earth” (Gen. 6:17), but it does seem to suggest that, at least at some point, someone involved in the production of the Bible may have had the same concerns.

Though the whole discussion may not matter. When the text says that the other scouts gave an “evil report,” does that mean that the report was bad news, or does it mean that they are lying? Are they exaggerating the dangers presented by the inhabitants of Canaan as an argument against Caleb’s gung-ho enthusiasm, or are they merely reminding Caleb of how bloody tall the current occupants of the land are? And if they are lying, what is their motivation?

Exodus 17: Drawing water from a stone

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The Hebrews continue on their way and make camp in Rephidim. Unfortunately, there’s no water and, in customary fashion, the Hebrews start to whine. Moses the Middle Manager takes their complaints to God. God tells Moses to march in front of the Israelites smugly, making sure all the elders are watching, and strike a rock with his magic rod.

This causes the rock to split open and water to come out, satisfying the Hebrews for the time being. My study bible points out that “water lies below the limestone surface in the region of Sinai.” So we see another attempt to find a naturalistic explanation for a literal reading.

Battle with the Amalekites

The Jews defeating Amalek's army by Adolf Fedyes, 1915

The Jews defeating Amalek’s army by Adolf Fedyes, 1915

There are Amalekites in them thar hills and Moses has a mind to exterminate. He sends Joshua in to fight them while he works his magic. The last time we saw the Amalekites, they were being conquered by the warring factions in Genesis 14.

While Joshua is on the ground fighting, Moses climbs a hill with Aaron and some guy named Hur. As long as he keeps his arms in the air, the Israelites are winning the battle; but if he lowers them, the Amalekites start to win. Predictably, he starts to get tired, so he takes a seat and Aaron and Hur hold his arms up for him until the Amalekites are defeated.

There’s no indication why Moses has to do this. If it was a test of his dedication, why should it continue to work if his friends are holding his hands up for him? Isn’t that cheating? It seems like God just decided to make Moses do a funny chicken dance for his own amusement.

Finally, “Joshua mowed down Am’alek and his people with the edge of the sword” (Exod. 17:13). Not that despite this violent imagery, the authors neglected to record the reasons for the battle.

Well, regardless, God tells Moses that he will “utterly blot out the remembrance of Am’alek from under heaven” (Exod. 17:14), which evidently hasn’t happened yet since, well, you’re reading all about them right now. Moses even anticipates this failure when he says that “the Lord will have war with Am’alek from generation to generation” (Exod. 17:16).

Not that I’m complaining. Genocide is a rather ugly thing and I’d really rather it not happen. But I do still think that follow-through is a desirable character trait in a deity.

 

Genesis 14: The Rescue of Lot

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In this chapter, we get the first of the Old Testament’s many wars. It reads like a list of names (which it is), so it manages to be both terribly confusing and terribly boring. I had to read it over a couple names before I could make any sense of what was going on.

The Battle

The attackers:

  • Amraphel, king of Shinar
  • Arioch, king of Ellasar
  • Chedorlaomer, king of Elam
  • Tidal, king of Goi’im (the King James Version identifies him instead as the “king of nations”)

The attackees:

  • Bera, king of Sodom
  • Birsha, king of Gomorrah
  • Shinab, king of Admah
  • Shemeber, king of Zeboi’im
  • The king of Bela (also called Zoar)

For twelve years, the attackees served Chedorlaomer, but they rebelled in the thirteenth year. I would have assumed that this refers to some sort of tribute paying arrangement, and that the rebel cities banded together and refused to pay. My study bible, however, says that “the object of the invasion may have been to secure the trade routes to Egypt and southern Arabia.” A Christian source I found online says that it has to do with the people of Sodom being the descendants of Canaan, and therefore condemned to slavery. The rebellion therefore has to do with them attempting “to shake of the yoke.”

Another year passes, and then Chedorlaomer and his allies “came and subdued” (Gen. 14:5) the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim (or Emin, as they are called in the KJV) in Shaveh Kiriathaim, and the Horites in Mount Seir. Once they were done with this subduing, they turned around and “came to Enmishpat (that is, Kadesh)” (Gen. 14:7) and set to work subduing the Amalekites and the Amorites.

This is when our rebel kings head out to fight Chedorlaomer and his allies. They meet in the Valley of Siddim and promptly lose. The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, so the enemy took their stuff. They also captured Lot, “and his goods” (Gen. 14:12). It’s important that we keep track of Lot’s goods, apparently.

Rescuing Lot

Someone escapes from the battlefield and tells Abram about Lot’s capture. Abram gets his allies, Mamre the Amorite and his brothers, Eshcol and Aner. We’re told that Abram only had 318 men, which is very small for an army. This would make their win very impressive, except that it doesn’t say how many men Abram’s allies had.

“Then he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his kinsman Lot” (Gen. 14:16). Rescue the goods first, then your kinsmen. Awesome.

Priest of God Most High

Melchizedek and Abram by Caspar Luiken 1712

Melchizedek and Abram by Caspar Luiken 1712

When Abram returns with his spoils of war, he’s met by the king of Sodom and Melchizedek, king of Salem (or Jerusalem) and priest of God Most High. Melchizedek serves bread and wine, and then blesses Abram. As a reward, Abram gives him “a tenth of everything” (Gen. 14:20). What’s “everything,” exactly? The stuff that had been plundered by the invaders? Is that really Abram’s to give away?

The king of Sodom tells Abram that he only wants his people back, and Abram can keep all their possessions. This is rather uncharacteristic for “wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Gen. 13:13). But Abram refuses, saying that he’s “sworn to the Lord God Most High, maker of of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich'” (Gen. 14:22-23). Bit rude, honestly.

He does let Mamre, Aner, and Eshcol take their share of Sodom’s stuff.

Incidentally, I found some rather interesting stuff on Melchizedek while I was looking up this chapter. Apparently, there’s a whole lot of Christians out there who think that he’s a pre-incarnation of Jesus!

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