In March, I posted the story about Balaam’s talking donkey. What supposedly happened next is much less known and just as bizarre. This is the follow up story.
Hang On A Minute Moment 34
Seven Altars, Seven Oxen and Seven Rams – Times Three.
This HOAM moment simply begs to begin with: “If you believe this, you will believe anything.” It will soon become clear as to why. This is the story of Balaam; not the part you may be familiar with, where he has a conversation with his donkey (see Chapter 17, ‘God’s Talking Animals’); but what happened after Balaam continued on his journey. We are in Numbers 22-24.
Balak (king of the Moabites) had sent for Balaam in order to have him curse Israel. When Balaam finally showed up, Balak took Balaam “into the high places of Baal” (22:41), from where they could see the Israelites. Balaam instructed Balak to build seven altars and prepare seven oxen and seven rams for sacrifice. Presumably, the sacrifices were to be made to Baal. Balak was not of Israel and Balaam was there to curse the people of the very God he supposedly worshiped. Would Balak have offered sacrifices to Balaam’s God?
Equally, would Balaam sacrifice to Balak’s chosen deity? Sacrifices make no sense here, unless Balaam felt they were needed to get God to actually speak to him; in which case, would Balak really go along with such an idea? They both then offer a bullock and a ram on each altar, so who knows? Balaam tells Balak to stand by the burnt offerings while he goes off to talk to God. Whatever God shows him, he will relay to Balak.
Balaam duly meets with God in a “high place” and tells him all about the sacrifices (which God should already have been aware of – as he is God). The Lord “put a word in Balaam’s mouth” (v.5). Balaam goes back to Balak and all the princes of Moab who are patiently waiting for him. Balaam’s message from God is in v.8: “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the Lord hath not defied?” Balaam realises he is dicing with death and appears to want to die at this point. Balak asks what Balaam has done to him; he had invited him to curse the Israelites and yet it appears he has blessed them. Balaam pleads that he is only relaying what God told him.
If you think this is an unbelievable story – there is more to come. Balak persuades Balaam to go with him to another high place (the top of Pisgah) to curse the Israelites from there. They build another seven altars and sacrifice a further seven bullocks and seven rams.
Once again, Balaam instructs Balak to wait by the burning offerings while he goes off to talk with God. Once again, God puts a word in Balaam’s mouth. Once again, Balak and all the princes are waiting to hear what Balaam has to say. Balaam has received a commandment to bless rather than curse Israel; which he has done; and there is nothing more he can do about it. He tries to explain, in effect, that they are the Lord’s chosen people and cannot be cursed.
Balak doesn’t seem to take any of it in. Perhaps he suffered from cognitive dissonance? Not that any of this is real. In the Bible, many stories have two, or even three, repeats of the same plotline. This one is no exception. Believe it or not, the Bible claims Balak made a third attempt to get Balaam to curse Israel; he was nothing if not persistent.
Off they go, to yet another high place (Peor); they build yet another seven altars and burn yet another seven bullocks and rams on Balaam’s instruction. During Balaam’s visit with God, this time there is a lengthy description of how wonderful Israel looks from the mountain and how God is with them. Balaam relays all this to Balak who is beside himself with anger. He complains that he had sent for Balaam to curse Israel and yet he has blessed them three times. He tells Balaam to go away.
Before he leaves, Balaam explains Israel will “smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth… Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly… Amalek was the first of the nations; but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever… the Kenite shall be wasted, until Asshur shall carry thee away captive… ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish for ever.” (24:16-24).
Believe it or not, after all that, “Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place: and Balak also went his way.” (v.25). You would have thought that Balak would have throttled Balaam rather than just let him go.
Still, in a bizarre twist of fate, when God later commands the Israelites go to war against the Midianites, they kill every single one of the men – and they also kill Balaam. “Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.” (Numbers 31:8). Balaam had apparently encouraged Israelite men to bed Midianite women and God was more than unhappy about that.