Feeding, Suffering, Passover, and the Manger

Tonight I was dabbling in Latin and noticed that the word for “feeding” is pasco. This is not remarkable in and of itself, of course, but when we look at the other biblical languages a rather strange event occurs: they all point to Jesus and his death.

When we hear “Away in a Manger” we might as well be hearing “Away in the Fridge” if we have ancient ears. Jesus was laid in a place for food. It was a place for animals to eat from to be sure, but it was literally a “feeder” in Greek, and the verb for eating in French is “manger.” Jesus was stuck in the cupboard, and this is how it should be, since he grew up to claim that he was the food from heaven. But he wasn’t only some kind of heavenly bread (manna) that descended from heaven, he was also the Passover lamb who was sacrificed and whose blood saved his followers (who were the same people who ate him!) from the Angel of Death. This happened on Passover around 30 AD.

This icon of Jesus’s identity is conveyed with the word “Pascha” in the three major languages of the time. He was the Pascha in every conceivable way, and in every major language that a 1st century Jew would recognize. This is remarkable, to say the least.

The title of this post is :

Feeding, Suffering, Passover, and the Manger.

Another way of saying it is:

Pasco, Pascha, Pascha, and Pasco.

The Three Languages

In the 1st century there were three major languages in Palestine: Hebrew/Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. This is reflected in the proclamation posted on Jesus’s cross, written in all 3 languages. We will look at all 3 below, starting with the most ancient.

Hebrew

The term for Passover in Hebrew is pecach (pronounced peh’·sakh). It means what you would think: to pass over. When the writers of the LXX translated the Hebrew scriptures  into Greek they often faced a common linguistic choice: to translate a word literally or aurally. For example, one could translate “Joshua” (“Jehovah is salvation”) as θεός σωτηρία or as Ἰησοῦς. This choice faces the translator most often with proper nouns.

With Passover, it appears the translators chose to translate aurally, using the term πασχα instead of σκεπάσω (to pass over). This choice led to the wordplay which is the subject of this post.

For a Jew, Pascha meant “Passover” but it also meant “to suffer” in Greek. The association was unmissable, even if it was one that was due to translation alone (and therefore a secondary or seemingly random connection). When a Jew who knew Greek (and most did) celebrated the Passover, they could not help but associate it with suffering, since the language of the Roman Empire was Greek.

The Passover got its name from the angel of death “passing over” the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, while visiting all of the Egyptian houses and killing their firstborn. Therefore the feast of Passover/Suffering was when the Israelites were passed over and the Egyptians suffered. The feast was centered around a meal with symbolic foods that called to remembrance the suffering in Egypt and the suffering of the Egyptians that led to the release/salvation of the Israelites. The Israelites were released so that they could go worship God in the desert, receiving the Law from Moses and eating a sacred meal with God.

Greek

It was only with the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that suffering was explicitly (or literally) equated with Passover. But by the 1st century this had been the case for roughly 3-4 centuries. It was not a new association.

Yet this association took on new depth when Jesus died on Passover/Suffering. One could not help but think that the LXX translation was inspired to foretell this event. When Passover/Suffering was celebrated, Jesus suffered and died as the firstborn Son of God. Yet in the original Passover, it was the Egyptians (sinners) who suffered. With Jesus, he paradoxically is the only innocent one yet is condemned to die. He, as the scapegoat of Yom Kippur, takes the place of the sinners and is punished in their stead. By this, as in Yom Kippur, the punishment that was due to Israel is passed over to another. Jesus dies as the firstborn of sinners even though he is the firstborn of God. This injustice is reversed with his resurrection, celebrated as the feast of Pascha by Christians (later changed to “Easter” in the West).

In other words, the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus was called Pascha by early Christians, denoting both the Passover and Suffering of Jesus. How was it remembered? By a ritual meal, insitituted by Jesus just prior to his pascha on the feast of Pascha during the Paschal meal, the Last Supper.

Latin

The significance of pasco for the Bible is this: eating is sacred. The instances of sacred meals in the OT are too numerous to recount here. Beyond this, Jesus invites people to consume him as food, calling himself “the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). He goes on to say in verse 51:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Since we are in the Nativity (Christmas) season, it is worth noting that Jesus was born in a “manger.” While we take this as a simple fact that he was born in a trough, the deeper meaning is that he was (in English) born in a receptacle whose name derives from the French term for “eating.” It is, after all, a feeding trough. The Greek term used for manger in the NT, φάτνη, is used only by Luke, and refers only to the place where Jesus is placed after his birth (with the one exception being 13:15). His birth a manger in is in a sense an impromptu accommodation, and in another sense a foreshadowing of his identity as the One Who Is To Be Eaten.

To sum up: in the NT Jesus is born in a “feeder” and to feed in Latin is pasco. This is where Jesus was placed as a newborn, and where he was to be found by the shepherds. They were told that they could identify the child as the one who is in the feeder.

We can add to this that pasco is not a very commonly used word in the Latin NT, but it used after the Resurrection by Jesus in his words to Peter (over a meal!):

So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. (pasce agnos meos)

He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. (pasce oves meas)

He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. (pasce oves meas)

-John 21:15-17

It is actually the case that pasco denotes feeding and shepherding, not merely eating. It is the providing of food, something that Jesus claimed he could do and what he commanded Peter to do. The Greek text of John has the verb ποιμαίνω (to shepherd). Again we have a strange coincidence, in that Jesus was called the Good Shepherd, killed as the Passover lamb, identified as the Lamb of God and the Firstborn of God, born in a feeding trough for sheep, and identified as the food for his own flock. As we can see in the Latin translation above, the word for feed/shepherd is pasce, which is virtually identical in sound to Pascha! (the only difference being in the ending vowel)

Tying the Threads

The feast of Pascha (Passover/Resurrection) follows immediately after Pasco (the Last Supper) and Pascha (the Passover), and is followed by Jesus telling Peter to shepherd/feed (Pasco) his sheep.

The feast of Passover, where the passing over of Israel by the Angel of Death is commemorated, is the feast of Pascha (suffering), the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus who suffered on Passover (Pascha), which is also the feast of Pasco (feeding/eating), the commemoration of the Last Supper where Jesus offered bread and wine to his Apostles in anticipation of his Pascha (suffering) which occurred on Pascha (Passover).

Passover is celebrated by eating symbolic food, and Jesus instituted the Eucharist at a Passover meal, suffering the next day during Passover.

Jesus takes the place of the sinners (the Egyptians) and is killed by the Angel of Death so that Israel may be freed. Israel (Jesus’s followers) is passed over (they are not crucified), and yet this does them no good until they accept his salvation by eating with him after the Resurrection, and thereafter celebrating the Eucharist with others as the symbol of who Jesus and who they now are. Israel, after being passed over, went into the wilderness to commune with God and eat with him, as we see in Exodus 10:8-10, 18:10-12, and 24:3-12 below:

And Moses and Aaron were brought again unto Pharaoh: and he said unto them, Go, serve the LORD your God: but who are they that shall go?

And Moses said, We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds will we go; for we must hold a feast unto the LORD.

And he said unto them, Let the LORD be so with you, as I will let you go, and your little ones: look to it; for evil is before you.

 

And Jethro said, Blessed be the LORD, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.

Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.

And Jethro, Moses’ father in law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God: and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father in law before God.

 

And Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the LORD hath said will we do.

And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel.

And he sent young men of the children of Israel, which offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the LORD.

And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar.

And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient.

And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words.

Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel:

And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.

And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink.

And the LORD said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them.

Back to the Manger

This all explains why Jesus was laid in a manger (φάτνη, feeder) after being born. It was not merely because there was nowhere else to stash him: it was because he was born to be eaten (manger). He was the Pascha, the One who would make the Angel of Death pass over Israel, the one who would suffer, and the one who would tell his disciples to eat (manger) him in remembrance of his Passover/Pascha, and to shepherd/feed (pasco) his sheep/lambs just as he had.

One last note is in order. The Hebrew term for “manger” or “crib” is ebuwc (“to feed, to fatten”). It is used only 3 times in the OT, the last being Isaiah 1:3

The ox knows its owner
And the donkey its master’s crib; (ὄνος τὴν φάτνην τοῦ κυρίου αὐτοῦ)
But Israel does not know,
My people do not consider.”

This chapter of Isaiah was cited widely by early Christians (see Romans 9:29 for a NT example, and note that Justin Martyr, Ireneaus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian all cite 1:3 in particular), and as the opening chapter of one of their favorite books it was very important.

One cannot help but see the new significance that the second clause takes on in light of Luke’s nativity story: the donkey (the lowly Gentiles and faithful remnant of verse 9 as opposed to unfaithful Israel) now knows the crib/manger of the Lord (note that κυρίου was the Greek rendering of Yahweh (see v.2 as well as meaning “master”). It is the manger of Jesus, the Passover lamb who was to suffer and be eaten. We can even add to this that the Passover lambs were literally put on crosses to support their carcasses, as Justin Martyr points out. Jews were used to seeing Passover lambs sacrificed and cooked on wooden crosses every year! These were to be taken home and eaten for the sacred Passover meal.

 

Advertisements

WordPlay: Roman Power (Ῥώμη Ῥώμη), Part 2

In part 1 we explored the connection between power and Rome on the basic level of linguistics. In part 2 we will look at the Greek usage of ρώμη in the Bible.

Greek Evidence

How often was ρώμη used by ancient Greek authors? You can see for yourself here. While  ρώμη was not the most common word for “power” or “strength,” it was used by many authors. It was not a little known or idiosyncratic word.

LXX Evidence

Ῥώμη never occurs in the most widely accepted books of the OT. However, the Greek Bible (LXX) contains a number of writings that were not included in the Masoretic Hebrew canon. Do any of these books use the term ρώμη to indicate “strength”?

It turns out that they do, but it is very unusual. 1 Maccabees has the term 12 times, all of them denoting the city of Rome, while 2 and 3 Maccabees include the word as denoting “strength,” as does Proverbs 6:8.

Here is Proverbs 6:6-8 according to the LXX (the MT is missing most of v.8):

6 Go to the ant, O sluggard; and see, and emulate his ways, and become wiser than he.

7 For whereas he has no husbandry, nor any one to compel him, and is under no master,

8 he prepares food for himself in the summer, and lays by abundant store in harvest. Or go to the bee, and learn how diligent she is, and how earnestly she is engaged in her work; whose labours kings and private men use for health, and she is desired and respected by all:

though weak in body (τῇ ρώμῃ ἀσθενής),

she is advanced by honouring wisdom (τὴν σοφίαν τιμήσασα).

The juxtaposition of weakness (or sickness) of the “(strength of the) body” (ρώμῃ), is a key Pauline idea, as we will see, as well as the preeminence of wisdom over physical strength.

2 Maccabees 3:26 has ρώμῃ, and below is the fuller context of the passage (3:7-30):

7 Now when Apollonius came to the king, and had shewed him of the money whereof he was told, the king chose out Heliodorus his treasurer, and sent him with a commandment to bring him the foresaid money.

8 So forthwith Heliodorus took his journey; under a colour of visiting the cities of Celosyria and Phenice, but indeed to fulfil the king’s purpose.

9 And when he was come to Jerusalem, and had been courteously received of the high priest of the city, he told him what intelligence was given of the money, and declared wherefore he came, and asked if these things were so indeed.

10 Then the high priest told him that there was such money laid up for the relief of widows and fatherless children:

11 And that some of it belonged to Hircanus son of Tobias, a man of great dignity, and not as that wicked Simon had misinformed: the sum whereof in all was four hundred talents of silver, and two hundred of gold:

12 And that it was altogether impossible that such wrongs should be done unto them, that had committed it to the holiness of the place, and to the majesty and inviolable sanctity of the temple, honoured over all the world.

13 But Heliodorus, because of the king’s commandment given him, said, That in any wise it must be brought into the king’s treasury.

14 So at the day which he appointed he entered in to order this matter: wherefore there was no small agony throughout the whole city.

15 But the priests, prostrating themselves before the altar in their priests’ vestments, called unto heaven upon him that made a law concerning things given to he kept, that they should safely be preserved for such as had committed them to be kept.

16 Then whoso had looked the high priest in the face, it would have wounded his heart: for his countenance and the changing of his colour declared the inward agony of his mind.

17 For the man was so compassed with fear and horror of the body, that it was manifest to them that looked upon him, what sorrow he had now in his heart.

18 Others ran flocking out of their houses to the general supplication, because the place was like to come into contempt.

19 And the women, girt with sackcloth under their breasts, abounded in the streets, and the virgins that were kept in ran, some to the gates, and some to the walls, and others looked out of the windows.

20 And all, holding their hands toward heaven, made supplication.

21 Then it would have pitied a man to see the falling down of the multitude of all sorts, and the fear of the high priest being in such an agony.

 22 They then called upon the Almighty Lord to keep the things committed of trust safe and sure for those that had committed them.

23 Nevertheless Heliodorus executed that which was decreed.

24 Now as he was there present himself with his guard about the treasury, the Lord of spirits, and the Prince of all power, caused a great apparition, so that all that presumed to come in with him were astonished at the power of God (τοῦ Θεοῦ δύναμιν), and fainted, and were sore afraid.

25 For there appeared unto them an horse with a terrible rider upon him, and adorned with a very fair covering, and he ran fiercely, and smote at Heliodorus with his forefeet, and it seemed that he that sat upon the horse had complete harness of gold.

26 Moreover two other young men appeared before him, notable in strength (τῇ ρώμῃ), excellent in beauty, and comely in apparel, who stood by him on either side; and scourged him continually, and gave him many sore stripes.

27 And Heliodorus fell suddenly unto the ground, and was compassed with great darkness: but they that were with him took him up, and put him into a litter.

28 Thus him, that lately came with a great train and with all his guard into the said treasury, they carried out, being unable to help himself with his weapons: and manifestly they acknowledged the power of God.

29 For he by the hand of God was cast down, and lay speechless without all hope of life.

30 But they praised the Lord, that had miraculously honoured his own place: for the temple; which a little afore was full of fear and trouble, when the Almighty Lord appeared, was filled with joy and gladness.

 31 Then straightways certain of Heliodorus’ friends prayed Onias, that he would call upon the most High to grant him his life, who lay ready to give up the ghost.

32 So the high priest, suspecting lest the king should misconceive that some treachery had been done to Heliodorus by the Jews, offered a sacrifice for the health of the man.

33 Now as the high priest was making an atonement, the same young men in the same clothing appeared and stood beside Heliodorus, saying, Give Onias the high priest great thanks, insomuch as for his sake the Lord hath granted thee life:

34 And seeing that thou hast been scourged from heaven, declare unto all men the mighty power of God. And when they had spoken these words, they appeared no more.

35 So Heliodorus, after he had offered sacrifice unto the Lord, and made great vows unto him that had saved his life, and saluted Onias, returned with his host to the king.

Here again we have a juxtaposition of human power and hubris (Rome as represented by Heliodorus) and divine power (ρώμῃ as the two angels). Irony is added by the play off of Heliodorus’s name, which means “gift of the sun”: he is cast to the ground and surrounded by “great darkness.” The representative of the sun beaten and cast into darkness, showing that he is not truly ρώμῃ. He even is at the point of death and is saved only by the priest sacrificing to God on his behalf.

(note: this episode is quite similar in some aspects to the Damascus Road experience of Paul)

3 Maccabees 2:4 has the last instance of ρώμῃ. The book begins with the attempt of Antiochus to enter the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem (similar to the actions of Heliodorus above). The was a profanation of the Temple and greatly distressed the Jews. Chapter 2 reads:

1 Now was it that the high priest Simon bowed his knees over against the holy place, and spread out his hands in reverent form, and uttered the following supplication:

2 O Lord, Lord, King of the heavens, and Ruler of the whole creation, Holy among the holy, sole Governor, Almighty, give ear to us who are oppressed by a wicked and profane one, who exulteth in his confidence and strength.

3 It is thou, the Creator of all, the Lord of the universe, who art a righteous Governor, and judgest all who act with pride and insolence.

4 It was thou who didst destroy the former workers of unrighteousness, among whom were the giants, who trusted in their strength (ῥώμῃ) and hardihood, by covering them with a measureless flood.

5 It was thou who didst make the Sodomites, those workers of exceeding iniquity, men notorious for their vices, an example to after generations, when thou didst cover them with fire and brimstone.

6 Thou didst make known thy power when thou causedst the bold Pharaoh, the enslaver of thy people, to pass through the ordeal of many and diverse inflictions.

7 And thou rolledst the depths of the sea over him, when he made pursuit with chariots, and with a multitude of followers, and gavest a safe passage to those who put their trust in thee, the Lord of the whole creation.

8 These saw and felt the works of thine hands, and praised thee the Almighty.

9 Thou, O King, when thou createdst the illimitable and measureless earth, didst choose out this city: thou didst make this place sacred to thy name, albeit thou needest nothing: thou didst glorify it with thine illustrious presence, after constructing it to the glory of thy great and honourable name.

10 And thou didst promise, out of love to the people of Israel, that should we fall away from thee, and become afflicted, and then come to this house and pray, thou wouldest hear our prayer.

11 Verily thou art faithful and true.

12 And when thou didst often aid our fathers when hard pressed, and in low estate, and deliveredst them out of great dangers,

13 see now, holy King, how through our many and great sins we are borne down, and made subject to our enemies, and are become weak and powerless.

14 We being in this low condition, this bold and profane man seeks to dishonour this thine holy place, consecrated out of the earth to the name of thy Majesty.

15 Thy dwelling place, the heaven of heavens, is indeed unapproachable to men.

Again we have the contrast between earthly power and the power of God. In all 3 instances kings and/or representatives of kings are contrasted with the weak in body who are strong in wisdom. Human power is therefore set up as the antithesis of divine wisdom, which is the ultimate power of God.

NT Evidence

In the NT ρώμη always means Rome. While the OT literature was read in the Roman context in the 1st century, it preceded the rise of Roman power. But in the NT Rome was always in control. The play on words was therefore implicit. When Paul says that he “must also see Rome” (Acts 19:21) the reader also heard that he “must also see power.” Paul, whose “bodily presence is weak” (2 Cor. 10:10) is the antithesis of ρώμη both in terms of Rome and bodily strength. Jesus himself was made to look weak by the powerful Rome, yet just as we saw in Maccabees this weakness was overturned by the power of God and Roman power was put to shame but the risen Christ. Jesus and Paul both carry names that denote victory through weakness when coupled with their personal stories: Jesus (“YHWH saves”) is killed by Rome but saved by God, while Paul (“small one”) was formerly the powerful persecutor Saul (“desired one”) who became weak for the sake of the Gospel.

 

Conclusion

The idea that Rome was the world power and for all intents and purposes would remain so until it was conquered by God himself was reinforced in 1st century minds by the meaning of the term for Rome itself: it literally meant “power.” This power was human and fundamentally at odds with the power of God, who sided with the oppressed and powerless. The Davidic empire in the minds of readers was just that: it was only in their minds and their texts. It was tale told about the distant past, and one that fostered the hope that their current lack of power would somehow be reversed and a Davidic ruler would again emerge to vindicate Israel and their God.

This reversal, the readers were told, would be accomplished by God and would be a result of both God’s mercy and the turning of Israel to God. It was the apostasy and sin of Israel that had resulted in their current powerlessness, and their return to God that would usher in the Messianic age and the conquering of the power of men (Rome).

For the followers of Jesus, this teaching became reinterpreted after the Resurrection. Rome had conquered Jesus, and yet Jesus had emerged victorious days later by the power of God. The intervention of God in raising Jesus was exactly what the hope of Israel should have been, in retrospect. Not a military conquest, but a victory over death itself and the power of man to inflict death. The humble and powerless Jesus on the cross had been shown by God to be the exalted and powerful Christ at the right hand of God. The hope of Israel had been transferred to another plane and register. The very idea of power had been transformed, and this transformation had been exploited by Paul, who, like Jesus, made weakness a sign of power. Not just any weakness, mind you, but weakness in bodily strength (ρώμη) coupled with power in wisdom and humility. It was the ultimate rejection of Rome and all that Rome stood for. Rather than seeking a ρώμη Israel, Jesus and Paul taught by example that weakness (non-ρώμη) was more powerful than Rome (ρώμη). Rather than living and dying by the sword, they were to live and die by the sword of God, the Scriptures. The Messiah was to return and slay the enemies of God with “the sword of his mouth” (Rev. 19:15), and in the meantime it was the words from the mouth of God (Jesus) that the followers of God were to use to bring about his kingdom.

It was, therefore, no longer a problem that Rome appeared to be in control. Their power was superficial, given that God had demonstrated his ultimate power in raising Jesus from the dead. Let the ρώμη have their ρώμη, since believers in Jesus knew that YHWH saves, not Rome. David’s kingdom fell, Rome will fall, but the kingdom of God and his Christ had been instituted and would be fully realized in the future. It was only a matter of time until Rome saw the Divine Rome (ρώμη) coming on the clouds with great power to invest the faithful with the ρώμη of God and the age of peace, the true and eternal Pax Romana.

The Samaritan Book of Jesus, the Apocalypse of John, and the Book of Numbers

The Samaritan Chronicle/Book of Joshua has a number of interesting features, one of which we will explore here. There is a problem with the mention of a certain “Balak” (spelled in most English translations as “Balac”) in Revelation 21:14.

But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.

What was this “stumblingblock”?

Our journey begins in the desert of Numbers 22-24, where Balak is first introduced and the traditional account is given. We will then look at the Jewish and Samaritan traditions associated with the story, concluding that Revelation 21 references a tradition not found in the canonical text of the Bible, but in extra-canonical Jewish traditions.

The Account in the Numbers

Numbers 22

1 And the children of Israel departed, and encamped on the west of Moab by Jordan toward Jericho.

2 And when Balac son of Sepphor saw all that Israel did to the Amorite,

3 then Moab feared the people exceedingly because they were many; and Moab was grieved before the face of the children of Israel.

4 And Moab said to the elders of Madiam, Now shall this assembly lick up all that are round about us, as a calf would lick up the green [herbs] of the field:– and Balac son of Sepphor was king of Moab at that time.

5 And he sent ambassadors to Balaam the son of Beor, to Phathura, which is on a river of the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, a people is come out of Egypt, and behold it has covered the face of the earth, and it has encamped close to me.

6 And now come, curse me this people, for it is stronger than we; if we may be able to smite some of them, and I will cast them out of the land: for I know that whomsoever thou dost bless, they are blessed, and whomsoever thou dost curse, they are cursed. 

Here we read that Balaam (whose name means “not of the people”) is summoned from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan by the King of Moab, Balak (whose name means “destroyer”).

He is summoned because Israel has crossed the Jordan River after fleeing Egypt and they have destroyed the Amorites, leaving his people in a state of terror. Would the murderous Israelites claim Moab as their next victims?

Instead of waiting for the carnage, King Balak decides to hire the famous sorcerer/prophet/soothsayer Balaam to use his supernatural abilities to defeat Israel. Balaam had a proven reputation for doing such things successfully. King Balak resorts to this plan as a last ditch effort to avoid complete annihilation.

Below is an excerpt from the message from Balak to Balaam as found in the Samaritan Chronicle, chapter 3.

Perchance now, our condition will be improved through thy agency, and thou wilt curse this people, and wilt prevail over them and effect a change in present circumstances through thy renown which is spread abroad, and the dignity of thy authority in consequence of thy circumstances, riches and servants;

and there will be glory to us and to thee among all kings, in addition to what reward will be added unto this, in consideration for thy grand beneficence toward a people whom no country can obtain, and whose numbers are countless and beyond reckoning;

for thou wilt have prevented a multitude from being murdered by fire.

For the character and manner of this army is, that it is not restrained by a feeling of shame from an old man, nor does it accord protection to a woman, or have pity on a child, or show compassion toward an animal; for they do nothing else but murder with the sword, and stone to death with stones, and crucify, and burn with fire: yea, this is its custom, and it does not allow any mercy to be shown, or protection to be granted, unto any and it spares not even a leafless palm branch in its annihilating and destroying.

By God, O our master, hasten unto us, bringing with thee whatever is necessary, and be not wanting unto us in this matter which involves the preservation of life, and we will reward a good deed with its like, and an evil deed with its like. And now, peace.

The reader is conflicted on the issue of the killings. The Israelites are portrayed as murderous destroyers who will not have mercy even on the elderly and children. The crucify and burn people, and even treat animals in the same manner. They seem to fit the definition of Balak, “the destroyer.”

But they are also understood by the reader to be holy, or at least obedient to the orders of God. Balak’s offer of money and fame to be given to Balaam in return for his cursing of the Israelites is repugnant, but his plea “thou wilt have prevented a multitude from being murdered by fire” is hard to ignore. This man was desperate to prevent his people’s extermination, or so the story goes.

Another shocking aspect is that King Balak writes of “God, our master.” Is this the same God of the Israelites? It appears to be so, and the implication is that the Moabites, Midianites, and other Canaanites were not simply “ignorant pagans” but were people that should have known better than to serve idols. In some sense they knew God, although not to the extent of the Israelites.

This fits in with the reasons for the Canaanite conquest and slaughter: it was punishment on the Canaanites for their sins, not a reward to the Israelites for their virtues. The Israelites were told that if they worshipped idols they would be killed and expelled from the Land just as they killed and expelled the Canaanites. The land belonged to God, not the Canaanites or Israelites.

On the other hand, “God our master” is probably a translation of “El our Baal” rather than “El our Yahweh.” In either case, both “God” and “Master” are terms used for the Jewish God and the god/s of the Canaanites. The words are the same, but the references differ.

Balaam’s Response

I will treat with due respect your rights, and the rights of those who urge you on in this message;

but my action is controlled by the One whom I serve, if He gives me permission to go with you, I would accomplish your desire and the desire of those who urge you on in the message, and I would accomplish their (the children of Israil’s) destruction, and in the end complete their annihilation, and would leave unto you a memory, for which you would praise me to the end of the ages.

And now decide to lodge with me this night, and I will hear what shall be addressed unto me, and we will wholly act in accordance therewith, whether it be of good or evil. (Sam. Chron. 3)

Balaam is a difficult character to figure out. He is obviously evil, in that he is willing to curse Israel for money and (primarily) fame. He is already famous for cursing and blessing people, as well as interpreting dreams. His technique seems to have been to offer sacrifices and praise to God, and then await a message during his sleep. This smacks of idolatry, but it works! He claims that his actions are controlled by God, “the One whom I serve.”

For some reason God speaks to Balaam and Balaam repeats what the Lord has told him. He does not change the message or manufacture it himself, as false prophets do. He seems both righteous and unprincipled at the same time. One thing is for certain, and that is that God does indeed speak to Balaam.

Balaam’s Refusal

At first Balaam is told by God to refuse to go with the elders of Moab and Midian, because their request is against Israel (Num. 22:9-12). God is in the business of blessing Israel (at least at the moment). A second delegation is then sent to Balaam, and his response is this:

If Balac would give me his house full of silver and gold, I shall not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord God, to make it little or great in my mind. (Num. 22:8)

This is the stand of a true prophet. Again this is shocking since Balaam was not an Israelite, he lived in Mesopotamia, and he was associated with cursing for monetary gain. He is the one who is “not of the people,” and in this story it seems that he is both not of the Israelites and not of the Canaanites (Moab and Midian). He is from where Abraham’s original country, a land of both Eden and idolatry.

Balaam is a contradiction, and it is worth noting that “Baalim” and “Balaam” are very close phonetically, with Baalim being the plural of “Baal” (Lord) a deity worshipped by the Israelites which they inherited from the Canaanites. This idolatry leads to the split of the Kingdom of Israel, and the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, followed by the destruction of the Southern Kingdom and the Temple. This is the same idolatry that is foreshadowed in Numbers 25, directly following the Balaam/Balak story.

Israel and Judah then see their people deported to precisely where Balaam is from (Mesopotamia); their conquest of Canaan was all for nothing because they turned to idolatry. They followed the Baalim rather than Balaam. The Babylonians came just like Balaam, to do the will of God (destroying Israel and Judah, Samaria and Jerusalem, Bethel and the Temple). They Babylonians  cursed Israel and destroyed it, showing Israel to be no better than the Canaanites, but rather they were two peas in a pod, so to speak.

Balaam Accepts

After the arrival of the second delegation, Balaam receives this message from God:

20 And God came to Balaam by night, and said to him, If these men are come to call thee, rise and follow them; nevertheless the word which I shall speak to thee, it shalt thou do.

21 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.

22 And God was very angry because he went; and the angel of the Lord rose up to withstand him. Now he had mounted his ass, and his two servants were with him.

23 And when the ass saw the angel of God standing opposite in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand, then the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and [Balaam] smote the ass with his staff to direct her in the way. (Num. 22-20-23)

This is the famous story of “Balaam’s Ass,” where eventually Balaam’s donkey speaks. We won’t delve into this aspect of the story, since we are looking at other considerations. It seems unusual that Balaam is told to go with the delegation, and then God is very angry with him for doing so.

He arrives in Canaan and goes with Balak to survey the Israelites from a mountain overlooking the plain. Balaam goes through his process of conjuring, but the result is that the Holy Spirit speaks to him parable that Israel will be blessed rather than cursed.

Again the reader’s expectations are challenged, in that the sacrifice and praise are from a Gentile sorcerer, and yet God honors the actions by speaking to him. This would be scandalous to a pious Jewish reader in antiquity, since even the High Priest of Israel could only enter the Holy of Holies once a year. The Holy of Holies was entered not just to smear the blood of the Yom Kippur sacrifice on the altar, but to be in the presence of the Dabar, the place that God spoke from.

The Dabar was another name for the Holy of Holies, and shows the function of the cultic space: to receive an oracle from God (dabar is approximately the same in meaning as “word,” or more specifically λογος). To hear from God was so unusual and holy that the most holy in Israel (the High Priest) could only enter once a year and he did so under fear of death. Balaam, on the other hand, has no qualms or fears about conjuring God with the intention of cursing Israel by their own God. To say that Balaam has chutzpah would be an understatement. He is remarkably comfortable with God, and is on speaking terms even though he isn’t (it appears) one of God’s “Chosen People.” Instead he is “chosen” by Balak, but God then chooses to use Balaam for his own ends. In this sense Balaam is doubly chosen, while remaining a pagan magus.

Balak then tells Balaam to move to a different spot and repeat the process. The altars are built, animals sacrificed, and again God speaks to Balaam a blessing on Israel rather than a curse. The following is an important part of the blessing:

For there is no divination in Jacob, nor enchantment in Israel; in season it shall be told to Jacob and Israel what God shall perform. (Num. 23:23)

The practices spoken against seem to describe what Balaam does, and it foreshadows the downfall of the Israelites in Numbers 25. But at this point in the story the Israelites are not idolaters, and so they are blessed. Balaam is also blessed, in that he has conversation with God yet again, and he survives.

King Balak is understandably upset at the messages given by Balaam, who in turn protests that he can only say what is told to him by God. King Balak suggests moving to a different location, and Balaam agrees. The sacrifices are made again, and again a propitious blessing is pronounced on Israel. This continues until the messages from God turn to curses on the Canaanites as well as messianic prophecies. All in all, four sets of prophecies/parables were given, all in favor of Israel and against the Cannanites.

Resignation

The only thing left for King Balak to do is complain and send Balaam home, which is exactly what he does. The story ends there. The situation has been decided, and Balak’s plan was foiled. He has only to await death for him and his people now.

But impending death has a way of motivating people. Did Balak really give up and go home at this point?

Numbers 25

Although the episode with Balak and Balaam seems to have ended in Numbers 25 with the return of both men to their respective homes, this reading is challenged by the following verses in Numbers 25.

1 And Israel sojourned in Sattin, and the people profaned itself by going a-whoring after the daughters of Moab.

2 And they called them to the sacrifices of their idols; and the people ate of their sacrifices, and worshiped their idols. 3 And Israel consecrated themselves to Beel-phegor; and the Lord was very angry with Israel.

The reader expects that when Balak goes home Moses and the Israelites will attack him. Instead we see that the statement in Numbers 24 that Israel did not practice divination is shown to now be false. The people have broken the essence of their covenant with God and have become like the Canaanites and Egyptians, worshipping idols. The story has taken a terrible turn.

4 And the Lord said to Moses, Take all the princes of the people, and make them examples [of judgment] for the Lord in the face of the sun, and the anger of the Lord shall be turned away from Israel.

5 And Moses said to the tribes of Israel, Slay ye every one his friend that is consecrated to Beel-phegor.

God tells Moses to basically crucify the leaders of the people, presumably as a punishment and a way of atoning for sin. Moses changes the message to that of killing all who worshipped the idols (although perhaps it amounts to the same thing). The deity they are said to have worshipped is “Beel-phegor,” or “Baalpeor” in the KJV. The name means “Baal (Lord) of Peor (the gap).” Here again we have the play on words between Balaam and Baal:

Balaam of Peor blesses Israel, and Israel blesses Baal of Peor.

The Gentile sorceror is righteous and listens to exactly what God tells him, while the circumcised and chosen Israelites do not listen to God and worship idols. The Israelites cannot be defeated by men or curses, unless such men or curses are from God. Their one strength is obedience to God, and their one weakness if infidelity towards God. Balaam, on the other hand, is obedient to God in spite of his character being associated with idolatry.

The account continues:

6 And, behold, a man of the children of Israel came and brought his brother to a Madianitish woman before Moses, and before all the congregation of the children of Israel; and they were weeping at the door of the tabernacle of witness.

7 And Phinees the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, and rose out of the midst of the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand,

8 and went in after the Israelitish man into the chamber, and pierced them both through, both the Israelitish man, and the woman through her womb; and the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.

9 And those that died in the plague were four and twenty thousand.

The actions of Phineas are ironic, in that the first wife of Moses, Zipporah, was the daughter of Midian’s priest. Moses left Midian to free Israel from Egypt, and now he returns to Midian to destroy it. We can add to this that King Balak is initially identified as “the son of Zippor.” The names are the same, and it is strange that Moses marries a foreign woman who is named after a foreign king. Not to mention that she is the daughter of the “priest of Midian,” who must have been a priest of Baalim (or so it would seem). Moses not only marries his daughter, but lives in Midian and shepherds his flock. Jethro (the priestly father-in-law) also seems to support the mission of Moses. He might be a priest outside of the Israelites, but he respects God nonetheless. He is ambiguous in this respect, like Balaam. Both are “pagan” religious leaders, at least in some sense.

Jethro, in fact, is shown in Exodus 18 to rejoice that the Israelites were led out of Egypt, and he even sacrifices to God. The Israelites eat from his sacrifice to God.

And Jethro the father-in-law of Moses took whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices for God, for Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moses before God. (Ex. 18:12)

It also casts the marriage of Moses to a Midianite woman Zipporah in a negative light, in that the context of this story associates idol worship with consorting with foreign women (a dominant theme in the OT). But Moses picked his bride and followed God alone, while the Israelites here were seduced by the women and so worshipped their gods. The deciding factor is fidelity to God, not ethnic heritage or tribal affiliation.

Finally, the 24,000 who died are said to have been killed by a plague, in contradiction to both the instructions of God (to crucify the leaders) and Moses (to have the tribes kill their brothers). The incident is a recapitulation of the Golden Calf incident, when Israel worshipped an idol while God was speaking to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The result was Moses telling the Levites to go through the camp killing people, and God struck the people with a plague (see Dt. 9). In Numbers 25 we have the same idolatry followed by almost indiscriminate killing by the command of Moses, followed by a plague by God.

Conclusion

Our introduction to the traditional account in the book of Numbers has come to an end. What remains is to explain why the author of Revelation wrote what he did.

But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.

He obviously is referencing the actions in Numbers 25, but he is attributing them to Balaam and Balak, who are nowhere to be found in Numbers 25. How can this be explained? We will answer this question in a post to follow.