One extra thought about the last chapter that I had in the evening. The donkey’s response to Balaam beating him is to bring up how loyal and good he’s been to Balaam over the years, and to question why Balaam would assume that the donkey is the problem. That’s very good advice. We frequently just see “bad behavior” (usually behavior that’s troublesome to us) and assume punishment is the only course of action. But if a person is generally on good behavior, doesn’t it make more sense to assume that something outside of them is causing the change in behavior? For the donkey, it was the angel, from whom he was trying to protect Balaam. For a child it might be a sickness or trouble in their family. For a worker, it might be that a schedule change has been too taxing on them.

Back to this chapter. You would think that King Balak would have been expecting what was coming with Balaam’s “curse.” The prophet had initially turned him down, saying that the LORD wouldn’t let him. Maybe Balak really believed he’d successfully bribed Balaam into changing his mind. Maybe Balak didn’t believe in Balaam’s power, just that having someone respected curse Israel would give him a morale advantage.

Or maybe, as a polytheist, Balak thought he just had to shop around. From what I’ve read, scholars think that this chapter is a compilation of different versions of Balaam’s blessings, or different blessings being attributed to Balaam. But the repeated switching of places and new sacrifices makes sense if Balak was trying multiple gods and each of their holy places. If this deity won’t curse them, we try the next.

This would also reenforce the idea of YHWH’s supremacy for the editors of the Bible. Either he’s more powerful than the other deities and can barge in on their turf (henotheism) or he’s the only deity, and it doesn’t matter where you go, he’s the one who provides prophecies (monotheism).

I agree that the second blessing is probably much later than the others, because it has the odd line of “God is not (…) a mortal, that he should change his mind” (v 19), but we’ve actually seen God change his mind quite a lot so far in the story. God as unchanging and unchangeable is a later idea, and maybe it’s a valid one, but it’s clearly not how the earliest Israelites saw it. God, for them, was learning and adapting to his new situation of having a People.

The Bible is full of contradictions like that, and I think it helps build to the idea that we only ever have a partial understanding of God, and it’s always changing, and that’s not a bad thing.

The Japanese: takusen “oracle,” noberu “to state,” nonoshiru “to curse, to insult” (v 7), chuujitsu ni “obediently” (v 12), miharashi “view, overlook” (v 14), itsuwaru “to disguise, to pretend,” kuiru “to regret, to repent,” jouju suru “to accomplish” (v 19), mitomeru “to allow,” tataeru “to praise, to acclaim” (v 21), yokotaeru “to lay down, to recline” (v 24), arehateta “wild, desolate” (v 28).

One of the interesting differences in translation is in verse 19, where the NRSV says that God doesn’t “change his mind.” The NCT says that God doesn’t “regret.” I’m not familiar with Hebrew to know which is more accurate, but even there it somewhat contradicts God earlier saying he’ll wipe out the current Israelites and come up with a new group for Moses. Unless, I suppose, you believe that God was either (a) testing Moses to see his reaction as a leader, or (b) just speaking out of anger and doesn’t really mean it. Can God blow off steam? Does God have a “temper”? Is that level of anthropomorphism unacceptable, or is a necessary symbol for us to try to comprehend the incomprehensible?

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