What Do You Do When You Face an Existential Threat?
At a pastoral retreat a number of years ago a group of pastors discussed what it would take to spark a broad revival of Christian faith. One pastor answered “an enduring catastrophe”. We all agreed.
As pastors we note that people come into a church looking for God when they have decided they have insufficient resources to face an existential threat. It may be illness, the loss of a loved one, a financial collapse, the loss of a relationship. This is the logic behind the old aphorism “no atheists in foxholes”.
The reason is clear to most of us. If life is rumbling along pretty well, and things are shaping up more or less as we wish or expect we feel ourselves sufficient to meet daily challenges. When something arises that we attempt to address but cannot, we start looking for help. Even in our skeptical age where we may have doubts that God could “come through” for us, a prayer, a chat with a pastor or a visit to a church seems like a small price to pay for a potential way out of our distress.
Most church folks don’t think highly of this dynamic. They know that sustained strength usually requires a sustained commitment and a network of relationships that are built over years. Even in the lives of the every week Christians, however, we too know that our prayers get more fervent and our discipleship more intense when we enter into a time of testing.
This is an enduring aspect of the human condition. In today’s text in Numbers 22 through 24 we see it in the story of the pagan king of Moab and the non-Israelite prophet Balaam.
On the Verge of the Promised Land
When the LORD first lead Israel out of Egypt he decided to not take them to the land of rest where he promised to resettle them by way of the sea. He knew that that path was populated by significant civilizations that were more developed and more powerful than Israel so he took them into the wilderness.
Even without the testing of the coastal peoples in the wilderness the people would rebel and respond to God’s rescue with doubt and rebellion. For that reason in the book of Numbers God would have the children of Israel linger in the desert for forty years until the old generation would die off and a new generation would emerge. They would enter the promised land.
The path into the promised land would be from the south and to the east. Their path would go through the lands of their “cousins”. It is hard for modern Americans to quite “get” how the first 5 books of the Bible work, but a big part of the old stories of Genesis, of Jacob and Esau, and the sons/grandsons of Lot, Moab and Ben-Ammi (Ammonites) were designed to set the nations around Israel within a familial context.
The children of Israel were “late born” in the extended family. They were the cousins who had gotten off to a bad start.
In the aftermath of so much racial violence the Washington Post’s Wonkblog did a study on race and wealth in American. While people wonder why it takes so long for the children of American slavery to “climb out” of poverty they fail to recognize that this population doesn’t as a group the kind of accumulated wealth with which to leverage for their children/grandchildren.
In the same way we look at Edom and Moab and Ammon, the “cousins” of Israel and find them already established in their own lands. Israel now wishes to enter into their own inheritance but these cousins aren’t so sure they really want this new kid around.
Israel first asks Edom for passage through their land. Edom won’t have it so Israel has to take the long way around. More wilderness time.
Israel then asks Ammon for passage through their land but the Ammonite kings muster their armies to attack Israel. God then acts as Israel’s defended, as he did before and as he promised and the Ammonites are defeated. Per the tradition of the land Israel then took many of Ammon’s cities and settled in them herself.
Moab has been nervously watching this happen. Numbers records the stories of previous scuffles between Ammon and Moab, both brothers/grandsons of Lot, and Ammon was the more powerful. Moab seeing that Israel beat Ammon she begins to worry for her own survival, even though Israel hasn’t done anything to threaten her. Moab now faces an existential threat, one that she believes she is militarily unable to face, so she turns to religion.
Story Outside the People of Faith
What follows is one of the most interesting stories in the Old Testament. Most of the Bible focuses on what is happening inside of Israel, but this story while all about Israel focuses on Moab’s king Balak and the prophet Balaam.
Balaam is in interesting figure. He was a very famous prophet in the region but not of Israel. Takes on Balaam by subsequent writers in and out of the Bible were mixed. Some were ready to embrace him, others ready to denounce him.
Prophets for hire, either by kings or the public were supposed to be spiritual guns for hire. They would be paid a fee to deliver on bringing spiritual forces to bear in service of personal or national agendas. It would be like going to a fortune teller or a witch doctor or even a pastor to get prayers or some sort of spiritual work done to help solve a problem you’re having difficulty with. Balaam, in this story, however, has some scruples.
Prophet for Profit
The king sends an entourage to Balaam with payments to have Balaam curse Israel. What his armies couldn’t do he feared perhaps God would be willing to could accomplish through Balaam.
What is behind the story is of course another common aphorism that everyone has their price. Balaam must certainly have his, and the gods or Yhwh have theirs. Moab isn’t just coming out of the desert, surely they can outspend any prophets in Israel for favor with the gods.
Balaam, however, rebuffs them. Balaam tells them that the system really isn’t as crass as Balak imagines, that he can only say what the LORD permits him to say.
Balak understands this as a negotiation tactic and ups the ante. Surely Balaam, and maybe God, are holding out for more money so he sends greater wealth, better princes and even more lavish promises.
What we begin to see here, however, is that Balaam doesn’t have God on a leash, but God has Balaam on one and so for reasons undisclosed God gives Balaam a little more slack, like a skilled angler playing a large fish, giving him a bit more line to run with. God then engineers a show down with Balaam that Balaam will never forget.
What follows is one of the most entertaining stories in the Bible. Balaam and his servants are making their way to meet with Balak who wants Israel cursed. Three times the LORD sends and angel with a sword to block his path. Each time the ass sees the angel, at first he goes into a field, the next time he crushes up against a wall hurting Balaam, and the third time he sits down in the middle of the road. Each time Balaam is furious and beats his donkey. The third time the LORD “opens the mouth” of the ass and the two have a conversation. The ass expresses himself as the faithful servant of Balaam and what he has received for his faithful service is abuse. Balaam, as if this is not unusual at all simply responds to his donkey. Balaam suggests that if he had had a sword in his hand he would have killed his donkey for this treatment. At that moment the LORD, who opened the mouth of the ass opens the eyes of the prophet to see the angel with the sword. At once the entire story is illuminated. Balaam is the ass and Balak is the master trying to get his way. Balaam is a “faithful servant” of Balak in a way but he is constrained by the LORD, the point that Balaam, and the LORD had been making all along.
Balak Looking for A Way
The rest of the story is comical in a way because it is the working out of the ass story. Balak keeps trying to get Balaam to curse Israel by trying sacrifices, moving different places, and each time Balaam heaps greater and greater blessings on Israel much to Balak’s enormous frustration. Balaam eventually utters and oracle that a leader will arise out of Israel who will dominate Moab and the surrounding nations.
Hebrew Comment on the World of the Spiritual and Religious
I mentioned earlier that a key element of this passage is that all of its active characters are outside of the circle of God’s revelation from Abraham through Moses. Balak and Balaam are religious and spiritual, trying to make things work.
The first thing to note is that even though they are outside of the focused target of divine revelation God has been working through Moses God is fully present in these undertakings. We don’t have a story of Balak, Balaam and Chemosh the national deity of Moab, Yhwh is at work in Balak’s court and in Balaam’s mouth. Now there are lots of layers to this. This story is obviously found in Hebrew scriptures, but this is clearly the assertion of the Hebrews with respect to their God. He is sovereign, He is Lord. He dictates what will happen.
As the talking ass story illustrates even though Yhwh is working through these events Balak and Balaam are for the most part working in the dark. Balaam has more of a clue as to what is going on but here you have the great irony. The more enlightened Balaam is by the grace of God to reveal himself to Balaam the more angry and abusive Balak will become towards Balaam, just like Balaam became to his ass.
This fact reveals the larger assertion of the rebellion of humanity, not just Israel. The book of Numbers is all about Israel’s rebellion against God. The repeated rebellions by Israel which caused a generation to die in the wilderness. Rebellions by Miriam, Aaron and Moses which had them too die in the wilderness. Rebellion is not, however, merely contained to Israel, we find it to be the general condition of humanity. Outside of the circle of God’s special attention to the Hebrews, however, it takes religious and spiritual form of the expectation that the gods are like us. They can be bought, manipulated, coerced, fooled, bent to our own will. Human spiritual and religious activity most natural to us will always take this form. We find it in every religion of the world. We find it in every spirituality of the world. This habit reflects the deep recesses of our heart. This is who we are.
This entire story is a sermon about the pointlessness of all of this religiosity and spirituality. Yhwh stands above it all working his own plan. What our religiosity and spirituality turns us into is angry Balaam beating his ass threatening its life, when the degree to which the ass was in touch with the spiritual reality that existed, it was in fact acting like a faithful servant, denying Balaam what he believed the relationship with his ass was for.
The Coming of the Star
Most scholars will interpret the prophesied coming of the star from Israel to militarily and politically subjugate its neighbors as a prophesy of the coming kingdoms of David and Solomon. Christians have for a very long time also seen it as a prophesy of Christ. Certainly the followers and even enemies of Jesus expected to see Jesus in the light of David’s political and military kingdom.
What is interesting, however, is that Jesus becomes like Balaam’s ass. The clearer Jesus sees our path, the more he responds to our desire according to our best interest, not our will, the more we beat him, threaten him, and wish to put him to the sword. This is of course the story of Jesus.
Our Love of Unreal Religiosity and Spirituality
In our skeptical, consumer culture the religious and spiritual vendors that best satisfy their patrons will win the largest market-share. We are culturally disposed to imagine that whether truth is ontological or simply market-based crowd-sourcing is the way to divine the hidden spiritual world if such a thing exists.
This story throws upon us the other ugly truth about ourselves, bias. We are biased to believe what we want to believe, what makes us feel better about our circumstances or ourselves. We therefore go on the hunt to either make up a spirituality for ourselves or search out a religious vendor who can provide for us the best value and the best outcomes.
What happens when we actually discover the genuine article, or scarier yet, when it discovers us?
Men are reluctant to pass over from the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. Here lies the deepest tap-root of Pantheism and of the objection to traditional imagery. It was hated not, at bottom, because it pictured Him as a man but because it pictured Him as king, or even as warrior. The Pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at His glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images-of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be cleansed.
It is with a shock that we discover them to be indispensable. You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters –when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes beside you in the darkness. So here; the shock comes at the precise moment when the thrill of life is communicated to us along the clue we have been following. It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. “Look out! ” we cry, “it’s alive.” And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back–I would have done so myself if I could–and proceed no further with Christianity. An “impersonal God” -well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads –better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap –best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband-that is quite another matter.
There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God”!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?
CS Lewis: Miracles
Misery: The Strangest Passage of this Story
You might have noticed that Yhwh seems terribly unfair in this story. First he holds Balaam back and says “you can’t go and curse Israel”, then he says “OK, you can go.” Then he stops him, threatens him with a sword bearing angel all to set up a talking ass. What kind of cruel game is Yhwh playing?
What we see, however, is that God is showing us himself, but when he sends his son, his son isn’t just beaten by us who demand that God refashion the spiritual world to our liking, he allows his son to fall under our sword.
The story of Jesus and us is both inside and outside the revelatory circle of God’s work through Moses. God’s people were furious enough with Jesus because of what he saw and told them about. The Gentiles were the ones who finally put Jesus to death. This is our story with God.
It does not end our story with God, because in response to our killing Jesus God raises him from the dead and uses his death to buy us pardon.
What we have from Jesus is more light, but there is still plenty of doubt, skepticism and darkness. We like Balak might try multiplying the number of sacrifices, and moving altars to different high places, and doing everything possible to turn God to our will, all in futility.
What Jesus asks is that our religious and spiritual lives focus on grateful obedience according to the light he has given us. Will we get it all right? History suggests we won’t. Our doctrine even assumes we won’t. In the end we must learn to trust that God has both sent the angel and sent the sacrifice on our behalf and that if he can illuminate Balaam through an ass he can illuminate us through his son. The obedience that follows is based on gratitude, not manipulation. We can live freely and joyfully in this because the God that was illuminated is on our side, even when he is not subject to our will.