Saturday, July 19, 2008

Balaam, Divination, and the Serpent

Attention to detail is key in diving into the depths of the Holy Scriptures. As I study the scriptures, I am constantly struck by how much I missed the previous times I read any certain pericope.

For example, I did not recall, in my previous readings of Balaam and the donkey, that when Balak sends messengers to Balaam, they take with them a "diviner's fee" (Numbers 22:7). This is absolutely integral to the story of Balaam, the donkey, Israel and Moab. To miss this one detail, means that you miss the whole point of the account.

To really appreciate the importance of this, one must even forsake the Greek and go to the Hebrew. The Hebrew for "diviner's fee" is QeSem. It is synonymous with another Hebrew word, NaHaSH. NaHaSH, also meaning, "divination" carries with it something of great import for the story of Balaam and the Donkey. As the story unfolds, Balaam is told by God that he is not to bless Moab and curse Israel. Balaam, as God's prophet, is to bless Israel and curse Moab, the very opposite of Balak's request.

There is much to the story, what with the Angel of the Lord and the donkey, etc. These things are worth pondering and ruminating. For the purposes of this particular musing, however, I want to focus on another detail. Balaam goes with the messengers and Balak takes Balaam up to a couple of high spots to look at the situation between Moab and Israel. Balaam goes to speak to God while Balak makes sacrifice on seven altars. God gives reply and Balaam utters the words of God to Balak. The third time is different, however.

Numbers 24:1 says, "Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go as at other times, to seek to use sorcery, but he set his face toward the wilderness." A careful observation would note that the first two times that Balaam sought a word from God, he used sorcery. In fact, the Hebrew word is NaHaSH. For the first time with Balaam we read that Balaam raised his eyes, and saw Israel camped according to their tribes; and the Spirit of God came upon him."

Indeed, we see a change in Balaam, for he takes up this oracle and says, "The utterance of Balaam the son of Beor, and the utterance of the man whose eyes are opened; the utterance of him who hears the words of God, and has the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the almighty, who falls down with eyes wide open"(Numbers 24:15-16). A change took place with Balaam. We see that Balaam, a prophet of God, in doing God's work for the sake of another, for Israel, Balaam, too, is changed and blessed.

Balaam's shift from seeking answers through divination to the Spirit of God coming upon him, has enormous consequence and cannot be overlooked or treated with superfluousness. What is so revealing about the Hebrew word for "divination," NaHaSH? To understand, we must go back to Genesis 3:1. "Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made." The word for serpent is NaHaSH. The second vowel is different in "serpent" as opposed to "divination," but they are related.

The serpent is deceitful and cunning. This is Satan and He is a liar, a distorter, and a perverter of truth. He is a deceiver. To seek things by "divination" or "sorcery" is on par with Satan and the serpent. This is even more shocking to me, when we are told in the account of Jacob and his father, Laban, that Laban declares to Jacob, "I have learned by 'divination' [NaHaSH] that the Lord has blessed me for your sake"(Genesis 30:27).

Did Jacob not know or realize the fourteen years that he lived with Laban, that his father-in-law was such a pagan? Yet, we see how Jacob's love consumed him and even clouded his faithfulness to Yhwh.

I think that there is something to be learned by Balaam's exchange with Balak and the ensuing "revelation" that Balaam has. God's word is concrete and it is DaBar, it is a word, or a thing: it is something concrete. Prophecy comes from God alone. His word is sure. Balaam told Balak on each of the first two occasions what was going to happen and he pronounced blessing upon Israel and curses upon Moab, as God had directed. But once we are told in Numbers 24:1-2 that Balaam did not use sorcery on the third occasion but the Spirit of God came upon him, then we hear a blessing that goes beyond Israel and unto all the world.

"I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and batter the brow of Moab, and destroy all the sons of tumult"(Numbers 24:17).

Balaam speaks here of Jesus. Beyond the current situation, God blesses His prophet with seeing something that not many prophets were able to see--beholding the Messiah, the Star and Scepter of Israel. What can we learn? Holiness and righteousness comes from God's revelation alone. Brought to the prophets and apostles, we now behold this blessing in their words put down for the church to hear, to know that the Star come out of Jacob is in our midst and ransomed us on the tree as all the sons of tumult have been destroyed, yea, even the serpent with his forked tongue and poisonous bite.

+Fr. Chadius