For the Love of God, Volume 1/May 14
From Gospel Translations
Numbers 23; Psalms 64—65; Isaiah 13; 1 Peter 1
BALAAM RECOGNIZES THAT he cannot control the oracles he receives (Num. 23). He cannot even be sure that an oracle will be given him: “Perhaps the LORD will come to meet with me,” he explains (23:3).
“The LORD put a message in Balaam’s mouth” (23:5), and this message is reported in the oracle of vv. 7-10. (1) Cast in poetic form, it stakes out the independence of the true prophet. Although Balak is the one who summoned him, Balaam asks, “How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced?” (23:8). (2) The last part of this first oracle reflects on the Israelites themselves. They consider themselves different from the other nations—after all, they are the covenant people of God— and therefore they will not be assimilated (23:9). Not only will their numbers vastly increase (“Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel?”), but they are declared to be righteous, the kind of people who ultimately meet a glorious end (23:10).
Balak does not give up easily, and in due course the Lord gives Balaam a second oracle (23:18-24). Here the same themes are repeated and strengthened.
(1) Balaam can pronounce only blessing on Israel. After all, God is not going to change his mind just because Balak wants Balaam to take another shot at it. “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind” (23:19). In any case, not only has Balaam “received a command to bless,” but even if Balaam disobeyed the command, he frankly admits, God “has blessed, and I cannot change it” (23:20). “There is no sorcery against Jacob, no divination against Israel” (23:23). (2) As for Israel, no misfortune or misery is observed there, for “the LORD their God is with them” (23:21). Since the God of the Exodus is their God, they have the strength of a wild ox, and will triumph over their enemies (23:22, 24).
Two observations: (1) Balak represents the kind of approach to religion cherished by superstitious people. For them, religion serves to crank up blessings and call down curses. The gods serve me, and I am angry and frustrated if they can’t be tamed. (2) After the succession of reports of the dreary rebellions of the Israelites, it is astonishing to hear them praised so highly. But the reason, of course, is because it is God who sustains and strengthens them. If God blesses his people, no curse against them can stand. And since God is the source of this oracle, this is God’s view of things—and our great ground of confidence and hope.