July 29 – August 5

Friday, July 29

Numbers 22: The present chapter inaugurates a new section of Numbers, chapters 22-24. Israel's hosts now encamp on “the plains of Moab,” that Moabite territory north of the Arnon (verse 1). This is the site for the rest of Numbers and all of Deuteronomy.

From this position, looking directly west, they have before them a wide and impressive vista. On their immediate right are the brown hills of Bashan, slightly to the left of which the viewers are able to trace the long, serpentine, green valley of the Jordan, on the opposite bank of which, but slightly to the right, stands the city of Jericho.

The same viewers, turning a bit to their left but still looking ahead, gaze on the northern fringe of the Dead Sea, the lowest geological point on the earth. It is at this point that the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea. A few degrees further right, on a clear day, they can behold outlines of Jerusalem. Humanly speaking, everything would seem ready for Israel's crossing of the Jordan, but other trials and an entire book of the Bible—Deuteronomy—will still precede that great event.

The first of these trials comes from the Moabites, whose settled territory sits to Israel's immediate south, exactly ninety degrees to the left of those gazing over the Jordan.

The Moabites, having recently been defeated by the Amorites, are rather impressed by Israel, the newcomer now victorious over those same Amorites (verses 2-3). Balak, the Moabite king, eager for a bit of help from on high, seeks the spiritual assistance of Balaam, evidently a well-known diviner, urging him to come and curse Israel (verse 6). Balaam will be the more notable character in chapters 22-24.

Although it was long supposed that the material in the Balaam stories came to the Bible from without, only since 1967 has this hypothesis been strengthened by concrete evidence. That was the year archeologists discovered a relevant text at Tell Deir ‘Alla (the biblical Sukkoth), on the Jordan’s east bank, near its confluence with the River Jabbok.

The Deir text, painted on (now fragmented) walls plastered with lime, appears to have been composed sometime during the 9th to 8th centuries B.C. It describes how Balaam, Son of Beor, received a nocturnal message from the gods, who expressed their displeasure. On the next morning he delivered that message to the people.

The Deir text demonstrates that: (1) Balaam was known as a prophet in exactly that locale where the Bible places him, and (2) he received a divine message at night and delivered it in the morning. These features bear a striking resemblance to the biblical picture of Balaam.

In the biblical narrative Balak, the Moabite king, must be introduced first, since he is the one who summons Balaam. Recently set free from the dominance of Sihon and the Amorites, Balak is afraid of falling victim to the obviously superior Israel.

Throughout this narrative, we observe two facts about Balak:

First, he recognizes the political value of religion. For Balak, the divine is a politically useful force, and he is prompt to exploit its blessings. He tells Balaam, “I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (verse 6). This is an eerie paraphrase of God’s promise to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you,? and I will curse him who curses you” (Genesis 12:3). In the case of Abraham, this was a promise to be met with faith. Balak, however, is not a man of faith. He makes use of religious forces for political purposes, but he is not the least disposed to follow the obedience of faith.

Second, this political pursuit shows Balak to be uncommonly stubborn; already in the present chapter we see him unwilling to take no for an answer. Throughout this story of Balaam, we will find him extremely persistent, as though imagining reality was malleable to the force of his will. This persistence will prove his undoing.

Balak is obliged to send a considerable distance to summon Balaam, who lived far, far north at Pethor (called Pitru in Assyrian records), a city on the west bank of the Euphrates, some twelve miles south of Carchemish (verse 5).

Divinely instructed to do so, Balaam declines the summons to come and curse Israel (verses 7-14). At this point he seems not to have been a bad man, and it is interesting to observe his knowledge of Israel and even the name of Israel’s God. He recognizes that this God is not one to trifle with. It is unfortunate for him that he does not persevere with that recognition.

Persistent Balak determines to summon Balaam a second time, enhancing the quality of his delegation (verses 15-17). The prophet, by divine instruction, accepts his second summons and prepares to make the journey south to the Plains of Moab.

Nonetheless, the Lord may already have sensed some inner infidelity in Balaam, because He becomes angry and sends an angel with a sword to convey one last warning message to Balaam (verse 22). At this point Holy Scripture introduces the arguably most interesting character in the whole Balaam story—the donkey, who is able to see reality a great deal better than this professional “seer”!

Between the story of Balaam and his donkey and the account of Balaam and Balak, there are significant parallels; what the donkey is to Balaam, Balaam is to Balak. Balaam’s triple urging of the donkey (verses 23-27) finds its parallel in Balak’s threefold urging of Balaam (verse 41; 23:13,27). In each case there is a movement to a different location, as though such a move would solve the problem. The prophet’s exasperation with the donkey (verse 29) corresponds to Balak’s exasperation with the prophet (24:1-11). The spiritual blindness of Balaam prepares for the spiritual blindness of Balak.

By the time the donkey speaks to Balaam, the latter has become so angry that he apparently fails to notice the incongruity of his being addressed by an animal! As it happens, the donkey is the truly sensible character in the story. She does not explain to Balaam the reasons for her unusual behavior; she simply asks him to consult his experience of her service over many years. Only when he answers the donkey sensibly are the eyes of Balaam open, to see what had been perfectly visible to the donkey all along. And when he sees what the donkey saw, Balaam adopts the donkey’s posture: prostration (verses 27,31).

When he proceeds with his southward journey, Balaam’s encounter with the donkey puts this prophet on guard against deception. It prepares him for the much greater visions he is soon to receive.

Duly chastened by the encounter with the angel, and having acquired a new respect for his donkey, Balaam eventually arrives at Moab and is taken to a height from which he can gaze down on the assembled hosts of Israel.

The initial encounter between Balaam and Balak establishes a contrast between the two. Although the king is eager for the soothsayer to get started speaking sooth, he takes the time to remonstrate with him about delaying his trip to Moab. Balaam, for his part, is still dubious about the whole venture. Although the king of Moab is eager to seek and pay for his services, the soothsayer is not so confident His Majesty will be pleased with the product.

Balaam has all along been of divided mind about putting himself at the service of his host. Indeed, he would never have come to Moab except by divine guidance; his reason certainly did not recommend it. Consequently, at each stage of his dealings with Balak, Balaam feels it necessary to mention his misgivings about the project.

In contrast to Balaam’s caution stands Balak’s enthusiasm. Difficult to discourage, the king pays no attention to the doubts of his seer. He is so confident of the outcome that he refuses to consider the possibility of failure. Balak combines boundless assurance and a fixed idea—a dangerous mixture if not diluted with a heavy dose of objective counsel. In his fixed idea, Balak is like Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick. In the irrationality of his unfounded confidence, he resembles Somerset Maugham’s “Hairless Mexican.”

It is arguable that no man is so dangerous as someone who places irrational confidence in a fixed idea. It is worse if the man is a king. Our Teacher gives a warning in this respect: “Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” (Luke 14:31

In this story of Balaam and Balak, nevertheless, this conflict between reasonable caution and irrational confidence is more than a moral parable. It forms the moral setting for the author’s theological and historical thesis: The true director of this is drama is the Lord, who guides Balaam to accept the summons of Balak. The author is not content with a moral warning. His message asserts, in addition, that the Lord of history uses men like Balak to accomplish His purposes.

Balak becomes, as it were, a new Pharaoh and a new Esau, to whose well-deserved disadvantage the Lord proceeds to manifest His wonders. In the fulfillment of what he plans, God is prepared to take such stumbling blocks as Barak and use them as stepping-stones. Balak becomes what St. Paul calls a vessel of wrath made for destruction (Romans 9:22).

Saturday, July 30

Numbers 23: These next two chapters contain four oracles of Balaam relative to Israel, each of which is set in a liturgical context, complete with the offering of sacrifice. The words of the oracles come from the Lord Himself (verses 5,16).

The first oracle (verses 8-10), called a “parable” (mashal—verse 7), testifies to the futility of defying God, even by religious means, such as blessing and cursing. In mystic vision Balaam see that there is more going on than meets the eye in Israel's sudden appearance in this time and place. There is more happening than human force can control or explain. Even this pagan and unworthy prophet can discern that God's secret purposes are at work, such as only a fool would undertake to resist. Israel, says Balaam, is not like other nations (verse 9).

Needless to say, this is not what Balak had in mind to hear (verse 11), and the Moabite king, evidently of the opinion that a change of view might be helpful to his cause, takes Balaam up to a higher place and asks him to give it a go from a new angle, as it were, a fresher approach to the situation (verse 14).

From Balak's perspective, this new angle is no help at all. Indeed, it simply amplifies the former message, insisting that on the inevitability of God's purpose respecting Israel (verses 18-24).

Completely frustrated, Balak wants to cancel the whole performance (verse 25), but the show must go on, says Balaam (verse 26). It is too late to stop. All right, answers Balak, let's try to find a third angle from which to view the thing. So everyone prepared to go through the whole complicated process once again (verses 27-30).

We behold Balak's bewilderment, as he continues to imagine that the gist of prophecy consists in changing one's perspective and looking at things from a different angle. This frustrating exercise is also part of the Lord's plan, so He permits the charade to continue. This next message will be of a piece with the other two.

Sunday, July 31

Numbers 24: Unlike Balak, Balaam has the situation figured out. He knows that it is hopeless; Israel cannot be cursed. Balaam turns his back, therefore, and stares into the wilderness; he will not look at Israel (verse 1). Even there, however, and apparently in mystic trance (verse 4), he beholds the hosts of the Israelites, and the Holy Spirit of prophecy descends upon him.

This new “parable” (mashal—verse 3), the most solemn hitherto (verses 5-9), invokes the lion symbolism that Jacob had used of Judah (verse 9; Genesis 49:9) and the imagery of the water and trees of Paradise (verse 6; Genesis 2:9-10).

Barak, naturally quite exasperated by now (verse 10), orders Balaam to leave at once (verse 11). The latter, however, after defending himself (verses 12-14), has one more parable “for the road,” as it were, this one not sought by Balak. Indeed, this final prophecy is a multiple parable (mashal—verses 15,20,21,23), a prophecy in parts, in which Balaam announces what Moab and its neighbors may expect of the Israelites in the years to come.

The star rising from Jacob (verse 17) is, of course, the Star of David and refers to the Messianic line of David's sons. Just as it was the pagan prophet Balaam who first saw this star in mystic vision, it was the pagan sages that beheld its coming with their own eyes (Matthew 2:2,7,9,10).

The Christian interpretation of this star was recognized early:


And that He should rise as a star from the see of Abraham, Moses demonstrated ahead of time when he said, 'A star shall arise from Jacob, and a leader from Israel'; and another Scripture says, 'Behold a Man, the East is His name.' Accordingly, when a star arose in heaven at the time of His birth, as is recorded in the memoirs of the Apostles, the Magi from Arabia, recognizing the sign by this, came and adored Him (Justin Martyr, The Dialogue With Trypho 106).


And again:


Therefore there is one and the same God, who was proclaimed by the prophets and announced by the Gospel; and His Son, who was of the fruit of David's body, that is, of the Virgin descended from David, and Emmanuel; whose star Balaam also prophesied, 'A star shall arise out of Jacob, and a leader shall arise in Israel.' But Matthew says that the Magi, coming from the east, exclaimed, 'For we have seen His star in the east and are come to adore Him”; and having been led by the star into the house of Jacob, to Emmanuel, they showed by the gifts that they offered Him just whom they were adoring” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3.9.2).


Monday, August 1

Numbers 25: After the previous three chapters about Balaam, and especially in view of the latter's enthusiastic prophecies regarding Israel's great expectations, we may have anticipated immediate success for the Chosen People.

Alas, however, a serious moral lapse is going to delay even further Israel's entrance into the Promised Land. More sadly this lapse seems to have befallen the younger people, the very ones who were to replace the generation that perished in the wilderness.

The incident in this chapter took place at Shittim, the Hebrew for “acacia groves,” a wooded area east of the Jordan. It was from there that Joshua would in due time send the spies to investigate the Holy Land (Joshua 2:1).

This moral lapse, following so suddenly on the oracles of Balaam and narrated immediately after his departure, is not related to Balaam in this text, but Balaam is certainly blamed for it a few chapters later: “Look, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord” (21:16). This moral depravity of Balaam is really the only context in which he is remembered in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:5; Revelation 2:14).

Israel's failing in the present circumstance began as fornication with Moabite women and proceeded to idolatry with Moabite gods (verses 1-2). Indeed, in popular religion in this part of the world, the two were sometimes hard to keep separate. The Lord's reaction, to the surprise of no one who had been reflecting on recent events, was not favorable (Verse 3). Since the idol worship and sexual immorality of the Moabites were typical of the atmosphere into which Israel would soon be immersed, it was important that the problem be dealt with decisively.

“Decisively,” in fact, is exactly the adverb we want here. Coming from the Latin de-cido, meaning “to cut off,” the word generally refers to the cutting off of discussion.

Sometimes, nonetheless, cutting off discussion is more rapidly reached by cutting off the heads of those who continue the discussion. This was the approach adopted in the present instance (verses 4-5).

The pursuit of righteousness in this matter was exemplified by Phineas, the son of Elieazar and grandson of Aaron. He was certainly a decisive sort of priest, with a pronounced tendency to executive decisions (a word also derived from de-cido, meaning “to cut off” (verses 7-8). Phineas reacted in response the sinful activity of a particularly flagrant nature (verse 6), undertaken by a couple who evidently thought that, because their families were well placed and well connected, they were exempt from the common discipline, the universal moral law, and the authority of the priesthood. Phineas “decided” (also from de-cido, “to cut off”) to clarify the situation for them (verses 14-15).

This reasonable and highly commendable action of Phineas determined that Israel's priestly succession would pass to and through his own sons (verses 10-13); 1 Chronicles 5:30-34); Psalms 106 [105]:30; Sirach 45:23-26; 1 Maccabees 2:26,54).

Tuesday, August 2

Numbers 26: The census at the beginning of this book was taken forty years earlier, the counting of a population that by now is truly gone. An entire generation has died in the wilderness, replaced by its children, and these already have children, and, doubtless, even grandchildren, of their own. Therefore, it is time for a new census before Israel moves again, this time across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Thus, the narrative of the Book of Numbers lies between two demographic lists.

Moreover, the direct purpose of the present census is to determine the demographic figures necessary for the coming distribution of the Promised Land. It is no accident, therefore, that the census in this chapter is followed by an outline of inheritance laws in the next chapter. Israel is exactly at the point when its existence will soon pass from migratory to sedentary, and it is the proper context for matching needs with resources. This census will indicate the territorial needs of each tribe.

The census complete, the distribution of the Promised Land is to be done by a double method of casting lots and maintaining equity in the distribution. Since there is great disproportion in the size of the inheriting tribes, this process is bound to be both complicated and difficult (verses 52-56).

Comparing the figures in this census with the earlier one in Numbers, we observe that some of the tribes have declined slightly, a thing not surprising in view of the extreme rigors of the desert. For instance, respecting the tribe of Reuben, one may compare the figure in verse 7 with Numbers 1:21. The tribe of Simeon, we note, has diminished by more than half (verse 14; 1:23), a circumstance that may explain why Judah eventually absorbed this tribe. Other tribes have declined as well: Zebulon (verse 27; 1:31), Ephraim (verse 37; 1:33), Naphtali (50:1:43).

Other tribes have actually grown. For instance, the tribe of Judah, eventually the royal tribe and of which we have already discerned an increasing prominence, has grown slightly (verse 22; 1:27), as have Dan (verse 43; 1:39), Issachar (verse 25; 1:29), and Asher (verse 47; 1:41). Even more pronounced is the growth of Benjamin (verse 41; 1:37). Manasseh has almost doubled in size (verse 34; 1:35), a fact that will explain why half of this tribe will settle on the east side of the Jordan.

Unlike the earlier census (1:49), this one does count the Levites, but care is still taken to keep their census separate from that of the other tribes (verse 62; cf. 1:47).

Eventually there will be some discussion about female inheritance in families that produced no male heirs. For this reason, two cases are mentioned in the present chapter (verses 33,46).

Wednesday, August 3

Numbers 27: This chapter is divided between two subjects, the ordinances governing inheritances in the Promised Land (verses 1-11) and the choice of a successor to replace Moses and lead God's People to the west side of the Jordan (verses 12-23). Each section begins with a short story.

In the story introducing the first topic, five sisters, the only offspring of a man who had died a natural death in the wilderness, approach Moses and to complain that, if the current laws, limiting the inheritance of real estate, were to obtain, their own father's memory would be obliterated from Israel's history (verses 3-4).

The resolution of this problem, by which these five women may obtain the inheritance of their dead father, was not prompted by an impulse to treat men and women equally in the inheritance laws. Had this been the case, their own treatment would not be regarded as an exception. On the contrary, the sole interest governing this decision was the preservation of the memory of these sisters' father, not a concern for the women themselves. It would be widely off the mark, therefore, to interpret this account as some sort of early version of “women's rights.”

The resolution of this individual case also provided the context for further legal determinations respecting the inheritance of property. In every instance considered here, the governing principle of inheritance was proximity in consanguinity (verses 8-11). The goal sought in this legislation was to maintain real estate attached to the family. That is to say, the major preoccupation in these rules was to guarantee that a family's inheritance really meant something concrete. It meant solid, indestructible, landed property.

With regard to the five young ladies that presented the problem in the first place, we know from Joshua 17:3-6 that they really did inherit, in the name of their father, land west of the Jordan. At least two of these women left their names to cities in the Holy Land.

In this chapter's second story the Lord tells Moses to climb the Abarim Mountains, in order to see the land that he will never enter. These heights, which Mount Nebo, rise on the western slopes of the plateau of Moab (verses 12-14).

In response Moses seeks from the Lord someone to succeed himself (verses 16-17). In implementing the Lord's choice of Joshua, we may especially observe its reliance on the priesthood of Aaron's family (verses 19,21,22). Like many successions in the bible, it is transmitted by the laying-on of hands (verses 18,23). Still, this succession is not hereditary but charismatic (verse 20).

Even the successor of Moses, Joshua did not receive the former's full authority, much less his historical role. Strictly speaking, Moses was irreplaceable.

Thursday, August 4

Numbers 28: Outside of any logical sequence that we can recognize, there follow two chapters of regulations on the sanctification of time: the day, the week, the month, and the year.

The first rule has to do with the two daily offerings of yearling lambs, one in the morning and the other at evening (verses 3-8; Exodus 29:38-42). These two daily sacrifices, the one to consecrate the passage of light into darkness, and the other to dedicate the passage of darkness into light, were Israel's minimum requirement of daily sacrificial worship. These times of daily sacrifice became, for all Jews everywhere, special times of prayer each day, known as “the hours of prayer” (cf. Acts 3:1; 10:2-3,30). In this way each day was to be sanctified.

This discipline and custom, detached from the temple sacrifices, passed over into the Christian Church as daily Vespers in the evening and daily Matins (Orthros) in the morning. These set times, handed down since the time of the Apostles, have remained as the two daily Canonical Hours in traditional churches of both East and West: Matins and Vespers.

The same discipline was also approved by the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. Martin Luther, for example, provided for daily services in church (a full hour in length for each!), complete with two daily sermons on the Bible, while in England Thomas Cranmer provided the format and content of both services—Morning Prayer and Evensong—in The Book of Common Prayer.

After the two daily sacrifices, the Sacred Text turns next to the sanctification of the week through the observance of the Sabbath (verses 9-10). The details of the daily sacrifice are repeated for this weekly sacrifice, indicating that on the Sabbath the daily sacrifice was simply doubled.

Then comes the sanctification of the month, at the beginning of each new moon. This is time's next larger unit, and the sacrifice is much larger and more elaborate (verses 11-15).

Next the Sacred Text turns to the sacrifices associated with special feast days, through which the year itself is sanctified through the observance of the annual calendar. The first chief feasts in this cycle are Passover and Unleavened Bread (verses 16-25) and Pentecost (verses 26-31).

In this chapter, then, we observe the original outline of the daily, weekly, and annual services of worship that the Christian calendar inherited from Judaism. We observe that the component not taken over by the Christian Church was the special observance of services for each month. Was this a reluctance born of Colossians 2:16?

The solar month, after all, is the most artificial and unnatural division of time, while the lunar month, being more closely tied to biological cycles, is the most open to nature worship, especially the fertility cults. The lunar cycle is literally a “menstrual” cycle (from mensis, the Latin for “month”). For instance, we observe this association in the ancient statuary of the Ephesian Diana with her twenty-eight breasts, one for each day of the lunar month.

Friday, August 5

Numbers 29: This chapter, continuing the theme of the sanctification of time, moves from spring to autumn.

In Israel's ancient calendar, as reflected in this and the previous chapter, we observe a concentration of focus on the spring and the autumn, the two “transitional” seasons, moving from cold to warm and from warm to cold, from darkness to light and from light to darkness. These seasons, then, serve as the annual representations of each day's morning and evening. The sundry feasts associated with these two seasons become a kind of annual Matins and Vespers.

The autumnal “seventh month” (Tishri) is the exact correspondent to our own word “September” (from the Latin septem, meaning “seven.”) In fact, the ancient month Tishri overlaps September and October.

As the “seventh” month, Tishri is the most important and sacred month. As we see in the present chapter, there are three feasts associated with it:

The first is the feast of the trumpet, which heralds the month itself (verse 1). In later days, this trumpet announced the new year; the day was then called Rosh Hashanah, “the head of the year”—that is, New Year’s Day. In addition to the daily, weekly, and monthly sacrifices, there are special sacrifices associated with this feast itself (verses 2-6).

It is worth remarking that the Orthodox Church still begins the liturgical year on the first day of the seventh month—September—and calls it “the crown of the year.” Obviously, neither Jews nor Christians see a discrepancy with beginning the new year in the seventh month!

The prescribed blowing of the trumpet is reminiscent of the blowing of the trumpet associated with Joshua’s storming of Jericho, to begin the conquest of the Holy Land. It is passing curious that the Orthodox Church also celebrates Joshua’s feast on September 1.

Because this beginning of autumn falls on the first day of the seventh month (verse 1), its prescriptions specify that the appointed sacrifices be done in addition to the regular sacrifices designated for each month (verse 6).

The autumnal season goes on to include Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (verses 7-11), which always falls on the tenth day of Tishri (cf. Acts 27:9 – If, as we are justified in suspecting, this was the year A.D. 59, then the Day of Atonement was October 5.) Requiring an extra day of rest, this feast has a Sabbath quality.

Finally comes the Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkoth (verses 12-40), which lasts an entire week and requires more detailed instructions. This feast, always occurring in the seventh month, also has about it a kind of Sabbath character, in the sense that it involves a time of rest (verses 12,35).

During the course of the weeklong Feast of Tabernacles, there is a gradual diminishing of the number of bullocks sacrificed on each day. There are thirteen on the first day (verse 13), twelve on the second day (verse 17), eleven on the third day (verse 20), and so on (verses 23,26,29,32), finishing with only one bullock on the eighth day (verse 36). That is to say, this feast has about it a quality of “winding down,” as it were.

The Sacred Text specifies that these “set feasts” (verse 39) do not exhaust the potential for Israel's piety as represented in the appointed sacrifices. There could and should be further “freewill offering” as the fervor of the people would dictate.

Nor does this list of the feast days preclude the addition of others at later times, such as Purim during the Persian era and Hanukah during the Greek period.