The What of Balaam
It would seem at first glance that he was a fairly upright fellow, this Balaam. But in fact he was more than that: he was a holy man, and charismatic — flawed, of course, like all the rest of us, and capable of getting himself into a pretty tight jam. And although he could not have been a worshiper of YHWH as revealed to Israel through Moses, Israelite tradition has consistently endorsed him as one who spoke God’s word. As far back as we know there were always plenty of false prophets around, and what was in their minds when they were “in a prophetic state”, who knows? We get a picture of them in the Elijah story “hopping about the altar” and “slashing themselves with swords till they were covered with blood” (I Kg 18:26-29)!
On the other hand, we are created to know the one true God, and it is unthinkable that there should not have been good people who had a sense of the true and at least a confused willingness to be led by it. Diviners were to be found on all points of the spectrum, and among them Balaam had achieved a certain ascendancy. It was even believed that he had the power to lay blessings and curses if he were paid enough of a stipend.
We know the story (Numbers chapters 22 – 24). It is a story richly significant in our own personal experience of ambivalence and self-deceit. Balak, king of Moab, summons Balaam to come and curse Israel, his enemy. Here we get Balaam at his best. For, although he seems a bit hesitant, yet he can testify of himself that he is “the man whose eye is true … who hears what God says and knows what the Most High knows … who sees what the Almighty sees, enraptured and with eyes unveiled” (24:2-4). And so he consults the Lord during the night and the response which he receives is an unequivocal “Do not go. Do not curse this people, for they are blessed” (22:12).
Let us take a moment to assess the situation. In the first place, it was inevitable that the Israelites in their journey to the promised land should step on the toes of the nations through which they passed. With no directly bellicose intention (Dt 2:8,9), they simply wanted to pass through Moab, which was situated across the Jordan River from Jericho. We say “simply”, but we have to recognize that this was not just an over-night stop. It was here that their final preparations for entrance into Canaan had to be made. It entailed a drain on the resources and the patience of the inhabitants of the land, and therefore Israel was seen to be an enemy.
We Christians find ourselves to be in a position similar to that of the Israelites. As we pursue our pilgrimage through time, we pass through heathen lands and inevitably step on the toes of pagan cultures. We are a peaceful people, but in our determination to be true to our identity as the members of Christ, living Truth and speaking it, we find ourselves embroiled in bloody conflict. We are seen as enemy rather than as bearer and sharer of blessing.
Balaam was an “innocent bystander”; he was neither Israelite nor Moabite. Now he finds himself summoned, not to be a non-partisan arbiter but a pro-Moabite force against Israel.
The Moabite king does not accept Balaam’s refusal; he sends messengers again, this time offering him a handsome bonus in addition to the regular divination fee. Prudence begins to waver; and so we find Balaam returning to God to consult him a second time, and this time hearing simply what he wants to hear. So he sets out with Balak’s messengers. And this is the interesting thing: we are so good, aren’t we? at finding or making reasons (excuses) for doing whatever we want to do, that we convince ourselves that God has changed his mind, or that here is an extenuating circumstance. Something we see out of the corner of our eye fascinates and distracts us from our original intention and attention to the word of God. St. Peter in his second letter (2:15), followed by St. Jude (vs 11,12) and the seer of the Book of Revelation (Rev 2:14), comes down heavily on Balaam and does not mince words: the problem was just plain greed. But God does not abandon his prophet, any more than he would abandon his guilty David some centuries later. To his chosen king he would send his messenger, and the shamed response would be a humble admission, “I have sinned”. The divine pardon is so immediate and so complete that, though letting the effects of the sin play out in their due course, yet in the course of that same relationship David would be given a son (Solomon), to whom the Lord himself would give the name Jedidiah, “beloved of the Lord” (II Sm 12:13, 24f). How clearly and how beautifully the Scriptures reveal to us the mind, the heart, the ways of God! If we are wise, we learn.
We are told that God is angry with Balaam. But in his love he sends an angel to deter him from pursuing the course of “this rash journey of yours” (22:32). However, while this extraordinary man who could declare himself to be one who sees what the Almighty sees, enraptured and with eyes unveiled (24:4) is unable to see the angel, his lowly beast does see, and balks at the sight of the vision. At this point the eyes of our protagonist are veiled, until they are again unveiled by the Lord (22:31). Thereupon he sees the angel, and, being rebuked by him, responds with a ready “I have sinned”; and he adds, “Since it has displeased you, I will go back home” (22:34).
But no. This is as it must be: what is done is done. We cannot turn the clock back nor undo the deed. But as we say, “God can write straight with crooked lines”. His plan is never thwarted. The divine Calligrapher can always produce a masterpiece from the crooked lines of our failures. And so Balaam is told to continue the course on which his faux pas has set him, and through it we have been blessed with one of the most powerful and beloved prophesies that we have of the coming of the divine Davidic Messiah. Balaam goes with Balak and, to Balak’s utmost distress, can only utter blessings upon Israel, for he can only say what God has put into his mouth. He begins by affirming God’s blessing upon Jacob (Gen 27:27-29), and reiterating the patriarchal prophecy of Jacob upon Judah (Gen 49:9). And then:
“I see him, though not now,
I behold him, though not near.’
A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israelthat shall smite the brows of Moab and the skulls of all the Shuthites
till Edom is dispossessed, and no fugitive is left in Seir
Israel shall do valiantly, and Jacob shall overcome his foes … “ (Gen 24:17-19).
If the Church in her Easter Exultet can sing of our great good fortune which has come to us through the sin of Adam, well may we too find great joy in the Balaam story. This man was a man of hope, of trust, — enraptured – a man in love.
The Birth of Repentance
When and where was repentance born? We would like to think that it was born in Eden three seconds after the first sin was committed; it didn’t happen. Rather, the creation story as given to us in the Book of Genesis, chapter 3, draws a quite different picture. In answer to God’s reproachful question, “Who has told you that you were naked? You have eaten, then, of the tree….”, Adam responds by blaming his wife. Eve then in turn gets her question: “Why did you do such a thing?” and her response is to blame the serpent (Gen 3:11-13). At least we can say to their credit that their evasions did evince a certain modicum of shame. Not so with their first-born son. God’s question to Cain after he had slain his brother is a subtle invitation to embarrassment and repentance: ”Where is your brother Abel?” But Cain’s response is brash and shameless: “I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9).
The Book of Genesis is a long series of very fascinating stories: love stories, stories of intrigue, stories of sin and stories of holiness, stories of faith and trust, stories of wisdom and stories of foolishness. It is the story of Israel’s ancestry; it is salvation history. But to our point: the Book closes its great narrative with the account of the death of Jacob in Egypt and the grand repentance of his sons, who had sold their brother Joseph into slavery. But was this repentance? Rather must we not say that it was simply an expedient, more like the squeal of a trapped raccoon than like any heart-broken expression of genuine sorrow. Now that their father had died the brothers feared that Joseph would at last take his revenge; they feared for their own skins.
What shall we say of Moses – the (future) great Moses, friend of God, liberator and leader of Israel? When confronted with the accusing question, “Who has appointed you as ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing us as you killed the Egyptian?” his response was fear and flight (Ex 2:14f). His brother Aaron, the first great high priest, did no better: he had molded a calf of gold for the people to worship. When Moses demanded, “What did this people ever do to you, that you should lead them into so grave a sin?!”, his ludicrous reply was, “… they gave me their gold jewelry, I threw it into the fire and this calf came out” (Ex 32:21-24). Of the whole People the Lord himself attests. “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not know my ways” (Ps 95:10).
No. Repentance was not born in Israel. From what we can glean from the pages of the Torah, a true and perfect repentance first saw the light of day in a little heathen diviner, son of Beor of the land of the Anawites on the Euphrates, whose name was Balaam. As we have seen, Balaam had made a faulty move. Perhaps we could say that he had culpably “tempted God” by consulting him a second time although he had been told emphatically not to go with the messengers of Balak. Tempting God: maybe that is what it amounts to when we dally with an originally God-inspired decision or resolve. But let us look at his response when he is rebuked by the angel of the Lord. It is the first time that an act of perfect contrition (as we would call it) had ever graced the pages of the Holy Writ. Firstly he frankly and humbly acknowledges, “I have sinned”. But that is not enough. Balaam is ready for metanoia, ready to turn his life around. He admits his lack of comprehension, and we see him standing pathetically before the Lord. And if at the outset of the story we thought we saw him at his best, here we see that “best” purified as gold in the furnace. For it is not in fear of personal misfortune that he is contrite, not in dread of a wrathful God, but simply and purely, “…since it has displeased you, I will go back home”. Since it has displeased you, I will go back home. An act of perfect contrition. Here is a man enraptured. Here is a soul in love.
Stella Maris and Broken Heads
Who was this Moab, and who was its king? Are they not, in this context, representative of the hostile elements which try to impede the People of God from reaching their promised land of Canaan, of heaven? Is not Balak, with his “offspring” the very tempter of Eden who lies in wait for the heel of the Christ, waits for the Woman who with her Offspring will crush his own head and that of his “offspring” (Gen 3:5)? Our prophet is indicating as much:
“A star shall advance from Jacob and a staff shall rise from Israel
that shall smite the brows of Moab and the skulls of all the Shuthitestill Edom is dispossessed and there be no fugitive left in Seir.” (Num 24:17)
And the talking ass? She is perhaps the most evocative of all. In the first place it has to be noted that Scriptural imagery is archetypal. Studies have been made and books written on the subject. The mount on which the psyche rides is considered to be the inferior function (the simple-minded, naïve, maybe even bungling and stupid function). Interestingly enough, in archetypal lore it is often precisely this function which saves the day for the hero. In our Balaam story this turns out to be the case. The ass has insight, perhaps we can say an intuition, which at the crucial moment even the hero does not have. Sometimes this eventuates in interior conflict; and so we find our protagonist beating his poor faithful mount, even willing to kill her. But when his eyes are finally unveiled, he sees the angel of the Lord and learns how close he had come to personal disaster. But as we continue reading the account we see that Balaam remains God’s chosen friend and prophet, for God’s elections are without regret (II Cor 1-18). As we noted above in the case of King David, God is not put off by human weakness, by the “crooked lines” of our failure, as long as he sees us walking the path of humility
Perhaps Balaam is one of the greatest saints in our Judeo-Christian tradition. He sums up in a line or two what it would take a Teresa of Avila a book or two to describe of mystical experience, and perhaps even more than hers, melts our hearts and wins us a friend, a companion in our human foibles, and a powerful intercessor on our journey to the Promised Land for which we yearn.
Thank you, Balaam, my friend. Rest in peace!