Revelation and Samaritan Joshua: The Plot of Balaam and Balak

We have seen the account of the fall of the Israelites into idolatry in Numbers 25, immediately after the conflict with Balaam and Balak in Numbers 22-24. But Jewish traditions and Samaritan Joshua record additional material either added to the account in Numbers or perhaps Numbers has a truncated account of the story. Here is the Samaritan version of events:

CHAPTER IV.
THE ACCOUNT OF THE STRATAGEM AND ARTIFICE USED BY BILA’AM AGAINST THE CHILDREN OF ISRAIL 

When the kings heard him relate what has preceded, they said to him: “How is the way to accomplish what thou hast mentioned concerning their destruction?”

And he looked up the last resource of infidelity and pollution, and made it known unto them, and said to them: “Select of the most beautiful and fair women as many as ye can, and the king shall be the first to send forth his daughter with them; thereupon give unto each one of them an idol which she may worship, and an ornament which she may look at, and perfume which she may inhale, and food and drink; and the daughter of the king should be in a chariot which is wafted along with the wind, and it should be enjoined upon her that she make it her aim to go to the tabernacle, and pay her respects to no one except to their chief unto whom the crowd show deference, for he is their chief.

And if in this she meets his approval, then she shall say unto him: “ Wilt thou not receive me, or eat of my food and drink of my drink and offer sacrifices unto my god? For after this I will be thine, and with thee will do whatsoever thou desirest.”

For know, O king, that by the chief of this people being polluted, both he and his company will perish, and of them there will not remain a survivor.”

And the kings did what he recommended unto them; and there were collected to them twenty-four thousand girls, and they sent them away on the Sabbath day.

And as they descended opposite the tabernacle, the chief of the tribe of Shim’aun (Simeon) rose up; for he was the chief of fifty-nine thousand men and was in the advance. And the daughter of the king advanced unto him, for she on beholding the great deference shown to him by his companions supposed him to be the prophet Musa- peace be upon him, and he ate of her food and drank of her drink and worshipped the idol which was in her hand, and after this she was submissive to him in his desire.

Thereupon everyone of them- I mean this particular tribe- took one girl for himself; and the Creator became angry at the people, and destroyed of them in the wink of an eye four thousand men together with four thousand girls.

And had not Finahas (Phinehas) the imam- peace be upon him- rushed from the presence of Musa the Prophet- peace be upon him- while he and his assembly were weeping at the door of the tabernacle, and seized in his hand a lance and bursting in upon them thrust through the man and girl- I mean the daughter of the king- and dispatched them, assuredly would the wrath of the Creator have destroyed the whole people; but by this action he removed and warded off the Divine anger from the children of Israil.

And to Finahas- peace be upon him- there resulted from this noble fame and an excellent remembrance, and a covenant to the end of the ages. And praise be to God the Creator without cessation! 

The Jewish accounts are similar, and identical in their attributing the fall of Israel to a trap invented by Balaam and set by Balak. The accounts in Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, Vol. II portray Balaam as advising Pharaoh to kill all the male Israelite children. His characterization is much more negative than in Numbers.

Balaam was the last to speak at the behest of the king, and he said: “From all that the king may devise against the Hebrews, they will be delivered. If thou thinkest to diminish them by the flaming fire, thou wilt not prevail over them, for their God delivered Abraham their father from the furnace in which the Chaldeans cast him. Perhaps thou thinkest to destroy them with a sword, but their father Isaac was delivered from being slaughtered by the sword. And if thou thinkest to reduce them through hard and rigorous labor, thou wilt also not prevail, for their father Jacob served Laban in all manner of hard work, and yet he prospered. If it please the king, let him order all the male children that shall be born in Israel from this day forward to be thrown into the water. Thereby canst thou wipe out their name, for neither any of them nor any of their fathers was tried in this way.

Later on in the same collection we read:

When Moses was in his third year, Pharaoh was dining one day, with the queen Alfar’anit at his right hand, his daughter Bithiah with the infant Moses upon her lap at his left, and Balaam the son of Beor together with his two sons and all the princes of the realm sitting at table in the king’s presence. It happened that the infant took the crown from off the king’s head, and placed it on his own. When the king and the princes saw this, they were terrified, and each one in turn expressed his astonishment. The king said unto the princes, “What speak you, and what say you, O ye princes, on this matter, and what is to be done to this Hebrew boy on account of this act?”

Balaam spoke, saying: “Remember now, O my lord and king, the dream which thou didst dream many days ago, and how thy servant interpreted it unto thee. Now this is a child of the Hebrews in whom is the spirit of God. Let not my lord the king imagine in his heart that being a child he did the thing without knowledge.

For he is a Hebrew boy, and wisdom and understanding are with him, although he is yet a child, and with wisdom has he done this, and chosen unto himself the kingdom of Egypt. For this is the manner of all the Hebrews, to deceive kings and their magnates, to do all things cunningly in order to make the kings of the earth and their men to stumble.

“Surely thou knowest that Abraham their father acted thus, who made the armies of Nimrod king of Babel and of Abimelech king of Gerar to stumble, and he possessed himself of the land of the children of Heth and the whole realm of Canaan. Their father Abraham went down into Egypt, and said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister, in order to make Egypt and its king to stumble.

“His son Isaac did likewise when he went to Gerar, and he dwelt there, and his strength prevailed over the army of Abimelech, and he intended to make the kingdom of the Philistines to stumble, by saying that Rebekah his wife was his sister.

“Jacob also dealt treacherously with his brother, and took his birthright and his blessing from him. Then he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban, his mother’s brother, and he obtained his daughters from him cunningly, and also his cattle and all his belongings, and he fled away and returned to the land of Canaan, to his father.

“His sons sold their brother Joseph, and he went down into Egypt and became a slave, and he was put into prison for twelve years, until the former Pharaoh delivered him from the prison, and magnified him above all the princes of Egypt on account of his interpreting the king’s dreams.

When God caused a famine to descend upon the whole world, Joseph sent for his father, and he brought him down into Egypt his father, his brethren, and all his father’s household, and he supplied them with food without pay or reward, while he acquired Egypt, and made slaves of all its inhabitants.

“Now, therefore, my lord king, behold, this child has risen up in their stead in Egypt, to do according to their deeds and make sport of every man, be he king, prince, or judge. If it please the king, let us now spill his blood upon the ground, lest he grow up and snatch the government from thine hand, and the hope of Egypt be cut off after he reigns. Let us, moreover, call for all the judges and the wise men of Egypt, that we may know whether the judgment of death be due to this child, as I have said, and then we will slay him.

Again we read of Balaam’s treachery:

He took counsel with his three advisers, Balaam, Jethro, and Job, how he might be healed of the awful malady that had seized upon him.

Balaam spoke, saying, “Thou canst regain thy health only if thou wilt slaughter Israelitish children and bathe in their blood.”

Jethro, averse from having a share in such an atrocity, left the king and fled to Midian. Job, on the other hand, though he also disapproved of Balaam’s counsel, kept silence, and in no wise protested against it, wherefor God punished him with a year’s suffering. But afterward He loaded him down with all the felicities of this life, and granted him many years, so that this pious Gentile might be rewarded in this world for his good deeds and not have the right to urge a claim upon the beatitude of the future life.

Here we have Jethro, the father-inlaw of Moses and priest of Midian, advising the Pharaoh. He cannot in good conscience approve of the plan, and earlier he counseled Pharaoh to solve the Israelite problem by letting them leave. Yet later on he throws Moses into a pit to die. He is a mixed character, but certainly not simply an idolatrous priest.

Even Job here gets a blot on his name for not standing against Pharaoh.

Revelation 21

We finally arrive at our explanation: the author of Revelation is not referencing Numbers 25 or 24, but the fuller story as found in the Samaritan Chronicle and Rabbinic writings. John’s reference is the earliest evidence of this fuller story by a Christian author, and possibly the earliest by a Jewish author.

Relevance

The fallout from this is that we cannot understand what John writes in Revelation without an understanding of the extra-canonical Biblical stories. The same rule applies to Paul in I Corinthians 10:4,

And did all drink the same spiritual drink:

for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them:

and that Rock was Christ.

What on earth is Paul babbling about? Is he waxing eloquent or using a metaphor? The reader familiar with Jewish teachings outside of the canonical writings would know exactly what Paul was talkling about. The rabbis taught that the rock in the desert that was struck and produced water followed the Israelites through the desert, almost like a miraculous portable well. Paul asserts that this rock was Christ. The assertion makes no sense without knowing the traditions of Jews found outside of the Bible. This means that the Bible itself is unintelligible at points without outside information from sources that are not officially thought to be Scripture.

John writes that Balak learned from Balaam to throw a “stumblingblock” (mikshowl/σκάνδαλον) in front of Israel. But the account in Numbers 25 never mentions a stumblingblock. The rabbinic traditions, however, make a big deal of this term in the story (e.g. Balaam characterizes the Israelites as people who make kings and nations stumble). John could not have plausibly called the idolatry of Numbers 25 a mikshowl/σκάνδαλον without reason, nor could he have derived the term from the account in Numbers. John had recourse to accounts outside fo the Bible, which he used in writing his section of the Bible.

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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.