“God brings them out of Egypt and is for them like the horns of the wild ox. For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, ‘What has God wrought!’ Behold, a people! As a lioness it rises up and as a lion it lifts itself; it does not lie down until it has devoured the prey and drunk the blood of the slain.” – Numbers 23:22-24
The books of the Torah must have been written at a time when the Hebrew people were in a position of strength relative to other cultures if this passage is any indication of how they saw themselves. When the author or authors of this passage looked back on the chosen people’s history and told the story of their arrival in the promised land, the simile that was most apt was a lioness or lion on the hunt. The nascent nation of Israel had succeeded, it seemed, because it had been powerful in aggression. It had also been like a wild ox, and the power of its god had been the ox’s horns. Such was once a writer’s description of Moses’s followers.
If the story this passage tells is true, such was the description that a pious non-Hebrew named Balaam gave to a fellow non-Hebrew named Balak about Moses’s approaching army of ex-slaves. At this point the Hebrews had already overrun several local kingdoms and Balak feared he was next in line. He sent for Balaam in the belief that Balaam had the power to communicate with God and issue a holy curse on the oncoming host. Balaam could indeed speak to God, but what God told him to say was not what Balak wanted to hear.
God first gives Balaam a display of power by sending an angel to frighten his donkey, but the text gives no indication that such a display was necessary. From the beginning Balaam seems unimpeachably devout and committed to conveying God’s messages. This he does when Balak asks him to curse the people of Israel. Balaam speaks with God and then tells Balak, in essence, that resistance is futile.
Balak asks again, and Balaam gives a similar answer. Israel is like a hungry lion, Balaam says to Balak, and you’re the prey. Israel is a wild ox, so prepare to be gored. Balak demands a third opinion, but Balaam sticks to his story. The fourth iteration, the “final oracle,” leaves just as little room for doubt as the first three. Chapter 24 concludes with Balaam and Balak each going their way. Chapter 25 is not about them, so I guess we’ll hear no more from them.
The story of Balaam and Balak provides a welcome shift of narrative perspective. Suddenly in the midst of Numbers, in the middle of the story that began two books ago in Exodus, we leave Moses and the Israelites and see their progress through the eyes of their victims. I did not expect that. One could argue that this is a refreshing, creative example of subjectivism that breaks the monotonous and sometimes xenophobic (murders of non-Hebrews have taken place) contents of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Or one could argue that this story, despite a temporary change of cast, is still objectivist and nationalistic because it is the Hebrew god who speaks to Balaam and it is the Israeli army that has God on its side. Both interpretations are correct. I prefer the former, but in any case I enjoyed these passages greatly. Like the spy story I wrote about in my previous blog entry, Balaam’s tale was a welcome change of pace and an engaging narrative. Unfortunately, it lacks closure, as I have not yet read anything about Balaam’s fate. Does God protect him from the Israelites, and do the Israelites treat him well? They seem to worship the same God. Then again, we all know how much that counts for in the Holy Land.