Wibble Wednesday: Ten Thousand Spoons (Numbers 22:2–25:9)

Alright, just trying to get back to something vaguely schedulelike and trying to keep honest. I’m still (at least!) one update behind schedule, but, damn, can’t fix everything. Today we have פָּרָשַׁת בלק (“Balak” portion), which has a mildly comic interlude.

The quick snarky summary: The freaked-out king of Moab summons a sorcerer to curse Israel, a plan which comically misfires. Meanwhile, Israel manages to fuck things up just fine without these villains’ help.


So when we left off last week, Israel had overthrown every kingdom that didn’t give them free passage, and was right on the border of Moab. King Balak, of Moab, is justifiably concerned. Surprisingly, he doesn’t take the obvious diplomatic route of offering the Israelites free passage, which is all they really wanted. Nor does he take the military route of forming a coalition with his neighbors, beyond putting his head together with the elders of Midian. Instead, he takes the rather unconventional approach of hiring a magician to curse Israel.

This would be sillier if we weren’t manifestly in a fantastic work, where magic has power and everybody knows it (apparently except the Israelites, who keep annoying and denying a supernatural being). The Israelites have demonstrated supernatural aid, and there’s magic elsewhere in the story too (for instance, Pharaoh back in Egypt had court magicians who could duplicate some of Moses’s party tricks). So in the context of the story’s presumption that magic and the supernatural are real, and known to everyone to be real, it’s not a completely crazy idea to seek out a supernatural aid against your supernaturally-empowered foe.

So, Balak reaches out to a Mesopotamian magician named Balak, sending honored officials to petition him. Balak apparently worships God, or somesuch, since he defers his decision to God. It’s actually a bit strange how everyone in the Torah except the Israelites acknowledges God’s might. Anyways, Balaam asks God’s permission and is denied, which is entirely predictable and which Balaam, if he’s so good at divination, probably should have seen coming.

Balak figures he wasn’t persuasive enough, and sends more envoys and raises his offer. Balaam has another sitdown with God and whines like a sullen kid until God gives in and says, “OK, OK, you can go sleep over at Balak’s house. But you can’t curse Israel with him!”

So Balaam goes off, and God’s annoyed that he does so. I really can’t figure God out. Is he annoyed at Balaam leaving? He gave permission. Is he annoyed that Balaam made such a fuss? Then maybe he should’ve responded to it then. Following up on our frustrated parent motif, God’s now petulant and sulky, and instead of actually communicating with Balaam, he’ll just take it out on him without explaining why.

God’s revenge involves sending an invisible angel to prank Balaam’s donkey. The angel keeps standing in front of the donkey, and the donkey keeps having to go off the road, and Balaam can’t figure out why and assumes his donkey’s defective. OK, it’s not exactly a laugh riot, but, hey, Punk’d wasn’t going to be invented for a couple of millennia, so let’s give God credit for trying. After three rounds of this, God figures the joke’s run its course and has the ass and the angel explain it to Balaam. Giving credit where it’s due: Balaam’s basically conciliatory, and says “If I knew it meant that much to you, I wouldn’t have come out this far. Look, I can go back.” And God says, “No, no, it’s alright.” in that tone of voice you use when it really isn’t.

The rest of the trip continues uneventfully, God having done his passive-aggressive best to stop Balaam. Balaam himself acquires more decency points here, since he puts his disclaimer right up front. Pretty much the first thing he mentions to Balak after dismounting is his concern that he can’t actually do the job he was hired for. Seriously, thus far Balaam’s been uncommonly well-behaved: he gets clearance for everything he does from God, expresses willingness to accede to a late demand of God’s at great personal inconvenience, and squares things with his employer promptly. He’s, like, the most moral villain of a story ever.

Chapters 23 and 24 are an extended blend of hymn and prophecy in, of all things, a humorous setting. Team Bala* is all set to get about working their magic, so they climb a mountain, gaze on the Israelites, and offer sacrifices, and then Balaam opens his mouth to work his magic… and instead of curses, blessings come out! Oops. This happens four times. After the first Balak is bewildered. After the second, he’s angry. After the third he tries (unsuccessfully) to send Balaam home before he does any more damage, and after the fourth Balaam finally leaves, mystifyingly not having been murdered by a boiling-mad Balak.

The blessings are mostly the usual paeans of glory and multitude and prosperity, although a couple of odd notes stand out. First off, Numbers 24:5 an extremely well-known verse of praise which appears extensively in the Jewish liturgy; it’s kind of weird that such a line is drawn from the villain of a Torah study. Second, both the third and fourth invocations begin with an unusually ritualistic prologue, identifying Balaam as a direct hotline to God. That’s unusual first because he doesn’t seem to be terribly favored of God, and second because no such invocation precedes the first two blessings.

But the oddest bit of this text is the fourth blessing, in 24:15-24. This bit of text seems, to me at least, wholly in stylistic variance with most of the Biblical verse. It’s explicitly prophetic, vaguely eschatological, and quasi-messianic. Like other such stylistic shifts (see also: the very weird second half of the Book of Daniel), I suspect this bit was a late addition. I’m not a Biblical scholar, and don’t have access to a verse-by-verse assessment of the authorships according to the Documentary hypothesis, but I shouldn’t be surprised if these verses were tipped in by a later author.

So, anyways, that’s the end of the comic interlude. Again, not super-wacky but it’s the best pratfall we’re likely to get out of this sober and humorless book.

However, astute readers might notice that one of the common themes of Numbers has been missing thus far from this parsha: namely, the motif of the Israelites horribly fucking up their relationship with God. And we’re near the end of the parsha, so we can’t waste the wordcount on Israel’s transgressions liek we usually do, so the story lays it out pretty sparsely in verses 25:1-3. What with Israel being on the border of Moab, well, you know what they say about Moabite women. The Israelites predictably screw around, and incidentally, perhaps in the way of being gentlemanlike, worship the Moabite gods.

Lest we lose sight of this fact, I’d just like to mention that this group of nomads, who have done little since the building of the Tabernacle except moan about the poor living conditions and their lack of faith in God and how unfair the clergy is, and which is now engaging in both extramarital sex and idolatry, neither of which God is terribly keen on, are roundly praised by the rabbinic sources as the most noble, high-minded, and holy generation of Jewry.

Yeah, I don’t get it either.

Unsurprisingly, God tells Moses to kill all the idolworshippers, and Moses passes this order on to his enforcers, who do so. We’re told particularly that his grandnephew Phineas was so enthusiastic that he chased an Israelite who was bringing a Midianite woman home and killed both of them. And then the plague stops. Oh, of course there was a plague. Y’know, that plague that wasn’t actually mentioned anywhere in the first seven verses of this chapter. The one that killed 24,000 people. That plague.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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