In my previous blog posts, God tells Balaam not to meet with Balak, but he does anyway and proceeds to offer three prophecies. Each prophecy is a blessing to God’s people instead of a curse. Let’s read the first prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 23:1-12.
Then Balaam said to Balak, “Build seven altars for me here, and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.”
And Balak did just as Balaam had spoken, and Balak and Balaam offered a bull and a ram on each altar. Then Balaam said to Balak, “Stand by your burnt offering, and I will go; perhaps the Lord will come to meet me, and whatever He shows me I will tell you.” So he went to a desolate height. And God met Balaam, and he said to Him, “I have prepared the seven altars, and I have offered on each altar a bull and a ram.”
Then the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth, and said, “Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.” So he returned to him, and there he was, standing by his burnt offering, he and all the princes of Moab.
And he took up his oracle and said:
“Balak the king of Moab has brought me from Aram,
From the mountains of the east.
‘Come, curse Jacob for me,
And come, denounce Israel!’
“How shall I curse whom God has not cursed?
And how shall I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?
For from the top of the rocks I see him,
And from the hills I behold him;
There! A people dwelling alone,
Not reckoning itself among the nations.
“Who can count the dust of Jacob,
Or number one-fourth of Israel?
Let me die the death of the righteous,
And let my end be like his!”
Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and look, you have blessed them bountifully!”
So he answered and said, “Must I not take heed to speak what the Lord has put in my mouth?”
The number 7, a divine number of great significance, was neither the invention nor the sole province of Israel. It was a commonly held used number in ritual throughout the known world.
Listen to this short excerpt from a clay tablet found from the Old Babylonian era (around Abraham’s time).
“At dawn, in the presence of Ea, Shamash, and Marduk (all Babylonian gods), you must set up seven altars, place seven incense burners of cypress, and pour out the blood of 7 sheep…”
Ibn Ezra points out that the number 7 is often used in the ritual calendar of the Hebrews:
- Seven-day week,
- 7th day Shabbat,
- 7th week (Shavuot),
- Seven years (Sabbatical year),
- 7th month for special Biblical Feasts,
- Seven sprinklings of the blood of the Heifer towards the Tabernacle, and so on and so on.
And, why wouldn’t it be that the number 7, as a cultic number of particular significance, was typical throughout the Middle East: the Lord God set down seven as a great pattern from the time He created the Heavens and the Earth.
That humanity had perverted their worship, adopted false gods, twisted and misused rituals did not mean they forgot everything that had been taught to Noah and then handed down; they just used it as a foundation to fashion their religions.
Therefore, the ritual we find at the beginning of chapter 23 is what would be expected of a Mesopotamian sorcerer like Balaam: 7 bulls and seven rams sacrificed on seven altars, much like we just read from that ancient clay tablet.
After the animals had been slaughtered and their carcasses were burning on the altars, Balaam instructs King Balak to stand beside the altars as he proceeds to have a word with God.
Balaam tells the Lord that he has sacrificed on the seven altars, and naturally the Lord doesn’t reply because He certainly didn’t instruct such a thing to be done. Rather, the Lord ignores Balaam’s attempt of appeasement and tells Balaam what to say to King Balak.
Balaam goes back to the where the King has been standing by the burnt offerings, where the King’s court was standing dutifully alongside him and pronounces what Balak thought he had been waiting for.
In a nutshell, Balaam says that even though King Balak brought him here to curse Israel no man can put a supernatural curse on that which God has blessed. As much as that must have infuriated the King of Moab, Balaam goes on to prophesy a glorious future for Israel. He restates God’s promise to Abraham in that the Hebrews will multiply into uncountable numbers.
But something else is also said that succinctly makes a point that we have discussed on numerous occasions: there is Israel, and then there is everybody else. Or as it says in verse 9,
“…Yes, a people that will dwell alone (or apart), and not be reckoned as among the nations”.
To review: what this says is that an ammim will dwell apart and not be reckoned as among the goyim. Here we see that a significant transition has been made: Israel is henceforth referred to Biblically as God’s “people,” His “ammim”; and all other people on the planet (gentiles) are called “nations,” goyim. Goyim is no longer a word that means just nations in general, it now correctly means gentiles or gentile nations. It no longer includes the Hebrew people or Hebrew nation.
So here is a gentile seer who has been instructed to make it clear to all humanity that Israel is entirely different from everyone else in God’s eyes: not better than gentiles but rather distinct from Gentiles.
Even the standard vocabulary of calling Israel a nation no longer applies. The Lord sees His chosen people separated from the rest of humanity. To cap it all off, Balaam says that it will be a blessing for him (and in essence for all humanity) if they can somehow find righteousness in the eyes of the Hebrew God, and die in that knowledge of blessing.
But this was not quite what Balak expected to hear. And obviously frustrated and flabbergasted he says to Balaam:
“What have you done to me? I brought you here to curse my enemies (Israel), and instead, you have blessed them!!”
“I can only say what God tells me to say; I TOLD you that when I arrived here.”
King Balak of course figures that the clever Balaam is simply once again raising the ante, and says to him, OK let’s try another hill for you to curse Israel. Maybe you can get it right this time.
Due to the length of this story, let’s end here and continue the story in my next blog post.