Balaam’s Seven Oracles

Narrative and Utterances from Numbers 22:0; 24:0

1. The King of Moab Hires Balaam the Soothsayer to Curse Israel (Numbers 22:2-40)

Israel, camped on the borders of Moab on the eastern banks of Jordan across from Jericho, had geared themselves up for conquest west of the Jordan. In fact, they had no plans to attack Balak’s kingdom, but he was terrified by their numbers and their recent victories.

This mob will devour all they see,
as a herd of oxen eats up grass.

Knowing that no military might would withstand Israel, King Barak thought of using powerful divination against them. So he sent for Balaam, a soothsayer of international renown – in fact another of his oracles has been found in an Aramaic text in the Jordan valley, a copy dating from 700 BC.

The Israelite narrator distances himself from Balaam’s confused spirituality by referring to the deity who speaks to Balaam as God rather than YHWH whom Balaam claims as ‘my God’ (eg Numbers 22:8, 18).

Since Israel had inherited YHWH’s blessing through God’s covenant with Abraham their forefather, how could Balaam ever hope to curse them?

Balak pleads with Balaam to curse Israel using two powerful incentives:
(1) the lure of money – an open cheque
(2) the grandeur of officials as ambassadors
increasing both on hearing of Balaam’s initial refusal to cooperate.

Clearly, Balaam’s heart was swayed by the promise of reward, though he never received it in the end – nor did his life end in the honoured death he hoped for (Numbers 23:10b; 31:8b).

The Donkey Debacle

How often does ‘Shank’s Pony’ (colloquialism for our body) react in warning ways when we are out of the will of God! And how often like Balaam we ignore the signs and beat up our beast of burden even more! Balaam’s ass kept seeing the Angel of YHWH just ahead of them with a drawn sword (God the Son, no less!), yet three times Balaam beat the brute: when it bolted into a field, when it crushed his foot against a wall in a narrow pass, and finally when it stopped and crouched down. It finally protested verbally – presumably by the Angel’s powers of ventriloquism. Then, and only then, were the seer’s eyes opened to perceive the spiritual realms which his donkey had seen repeatedly. Balaam was so crazed with frustration that he made an ass of himself by answering the ass! Yet, through its hee-haws, he heard it plead its loyal service that merited better treatment than those three floggings.

God makes crystal clear through the narrative that:
[] he is using a mercenary psychic –
[] one heartless enough to beat his loyal beast of burden
[] and to curse Israel for his own reward –
[] to testify to and prophesy of Israel’s blessing
In fact, they are God’s pride and joy, and this young generation, inheritors of his covenantal promise will succeed in the coming conquest of their Land of Promise.

PS: Balaam’s ‘if I had a sword I would kill you, you stubborn beast’ was countered by the Angel’s protective spiritual sword!

2. Hapless Balaam, Frustrated Balak

Balaam receives seven ‘oracles’ (Hebrew mashal means ‘proverb’) – see Numbers 22:41 – 24:25.
At first he receives them in the context of animal divination (contrast his final messages in Numbers 24:0).

First Oracle (Numbers 23:7-10)

Balak summoned me to come from Aram;
Moab’s king brought me from eastern hills.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘curse Jacob for me!
Come and announce Israel’s doom’

But how can I curse those God has not cursed?
how condemn those that the Lord condemns not?
I view them from here at the top of the cliffs,
I watch them from here on the summit of hills.
I see a people who live alone,
who think of themselves from the nations apart.
Who can count Jacob, as thick as the dust,
even a quarter of God’s kingdom people?

Oh, let me die like one of the righteous,
let my life’s end be just like theirs.

Balak, feeling frustrated, suggest a place to view only a portion of the Israelite encampment – maybe the soothsayer will feel less daunted next time. But his next mashal is even more positively a blessing on them!

Second Oracle (Numbers 23:18-24)

Rise up, Balak, and listen!
Hear me, O son of Zippor.

God’s not human, needing to lie,
He’s not a man, changing his mind.
Has he ever spoken and then failed to act?
or made a promise he’s not carried out?
I have received a command to bless them,
He has blessed, I cannot reverse it!
No misfortune’s in prospect for Jacob
(God has not looked on his past offences);
there is no trouble in store for Israel
(no wrongs are found, the nation’s been purged).

YHWH their covenant God is with them;
his triumph shout will resound in their midst.
God brought them out of Egypt victoriously;
he’s like a strong ox on their behalf still.
Therefore no curse can alight upon Jacob,
no divination succeed against Israel,
for now it will be recorded of Jacob,
‘What wonders God has accomplished for Israel!’
These people rise up to strike like a lioness;
rouse themselves like a rampart lion
that rests not till he devours his prey
and drinks the blood of the victims he’s mauled.

Third Oracle (Numbers 24:3-9)

This is the message of Balaam ben Beor,
oracle of him whose eye clearly sees,
of one who hears the words that God utters;
insider-knowledge of the Most High has he,
who sees a vision from El Shaddai,
who falls under his power with eyes open wide.

How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob,
how lovely your dwellings, God’s kingdom people.
They spread before me like groves of palms,
like gardens of fruit alongside the river,
like aloes planted by YHWH’s hand,
like cedars beside the waters that flourish –
waters that gush to fill your containers –
their offspring provided with all they will need.

Their King will be greater than Agag of Amelek;
their kingdom is destined to be promoted
by God who brought them up out of Egypt
with all the strength of a champion ox.

Jacob devours every nation opposing,
breaking their bones into fragmented pieces,
piercing them through with his awesome arrows.
Like a lion they crouch, and regally lie
like a lioness – who dare arouse them?

May those who bless you also be blessed,
And cursed be everyone whom you would curse.

At this climax of Balaam’s main oracle Barak responds in rage, clapping his hands and shouting: ‘I called you to curse my enemies, three times you have blessed them! Now, get out of my sight! Back home! No fee!’

‘Very well!’ replies Balaam. ‘I did just as I promised. But first let me tell you what Israel will do to your people and allies in the future. You have cursed them, so prepare for the divine consequences: your curse will rebound onto you.’

Fourth Oracle (Numbers 24:15-19)

This is the message of Balaam ben Beor,
oracle of him whose eye clearly sees,
of one who hears the words that God utters;
insider-knowledge of the Most High has he,
who sees a vision from El Shaddai,
who falls under his power with eyes open wide.
I see him, but not in this present time,
I perceive him, but off in the future afar.
A Star will one day arise out of Jacob,
A sceptre emerges from Israel’s stock:
he will crush the foreheads of Moab,
crack the skulls of the people of Sheth.
Edom too will one day be conquered,
Seir, his foe, be overcome,
while Israel continues from triumph to triumph.
A Ruler will surely come out of Jacob,
to destroy any survivors of Ir.

Fifth Oracle (Numbers 24:20)

Amalek was the greatest of nations,
however, its destiny now is destruction.

Sixth Oracle (Numbers 24:21-22)

Your dwelling place now is secure;
your nest [Hebrew qen] is set in the rock of defence,
yet you nestling Kenites [Hebrew qeni] will be destroyed
when the Assyrians take you captive.

Seventh Oracle (Numbers 24:23-24)

Alas! Who can survive when God does this?
Ships will come from the shores of Cyprus;
they will subdue both Assyria and Eber,
but they in turn will be utterly destroyed.

At this Balak and Balaam spilt and slunk off to their respective homes, and the rest, as they say, is history (ending with the Roman invaders setting forth from Cyprus).
(Adapted by Hugh Thompson)

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