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.

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The Curious Samaritan Book of Joshua

When looking back at ancient literature, at times it is best to forget what we know and take a fresh look at things. This, however, often seems impossible. We read and hear the same old things, and even if the texts are different our ears form them into the same old stories.

I recently read this book:

The Samaritan Chronicle, Or The Book of Joshua, the son of Nun.

Translated from the Arabic, with notes by Oliver Turnbull Crane, M.A.

John B. Alden, Publisher, New York, 1890

It is a book written by Samaritans that corresponds in genre to the “historical” books of the Old Testament (Chronicles, Kings) as well as Joshua (reckoned as a prophetic book by ancient Jews). It was translated from Arabic and is based on manuscripts that are less than 500 years old. However, much of the content could reach back into the Hellenistic era (3rd c. BCE) or even later. We can be sure that the final form is much later, as the history does not stop where the Biblical history does, but continues into the 5th century CE.

Contents

The contents and style of the book are hard to describe. It reads as Islamic in some sense, in that the phrases “Peace be upon him” and a few other epithets are employed regularly. But the theology is very much in line with the Old Testament, with a few exceptions. The storyline stretches from Exodus to the Byzantine period. To give an indication of what the book is like, I’ll quote the first chapter:

CHAPTER I. 

IN THE NAME OF GOD, THE COMPASSIONATE.

This is the book narrating the chronicles of the children of Israil, from the time that our master Musa (Moses), the prophet- peace be upon him- the son of ‘Amran, invested Yush’a (Joshua) the son of Nun with the Kalifate over his people.

All of this is translated from the Hebrew language into the Arabic language, after the manner of a rapid translation by word of mouth, and giving only the statement of the narrative, and nothing more: even what God- Powerful and Glorious- showed forth of signs and miracles and wonders, which man is too weak to adequately specify and describe; such as, what happened at the Urdun (Jordan), and also at the time when the giants were humbled, and with what victory and power and might and authority God came to his (Joshua’s) assistance; also what they (the children of Israel) witnessed at the time of their entering the land, besides what they witnessed in Wady el-Mujib, and on mount Sina (Sinai) and its vast wilderness, with the essential incidents of this event which God made manifest, even the quaking of its mountains, together with what there was of thunders and lightnings connected with this, and joining the fires to the very heaven, and their hearing the code of their laws from the divine and eternal voice, from whom shone forth flashes of light, representing the form of its writer, even the Creator.

Afterwards what happened to them at the greater Sea, not to mention what their adversaries witnessed in Greater Misr (Egypt), and what calamities overtook their enemies, such as Fir’aun (Pharaoh) and his army, and ‘Amlaq (the Amalekites) and its host, and Sihun (Sihon) and his kingdom, and ‘Uj (Og) the father of ‘Anaq with his sorcery, and kings of Mab (Moab) with their greatness.

Also what happened unto Qarun (Korah) the son of the uncle of Harun (Aaron) and to the company who were with him, namely that some of them the earth opened its mouth and swallowed, and they went down alive to the deepest depths, while as to others of them the divine fire came forth and consumed their bodies.

And also what happened to the people while they were in the wilderness forty years, suffering want, without a guide and with no provisions or clothing, and barely living and existing; whom the cloud overshadowed by day and the pillar of fire protected from cold by night, and whose food was the manna from heaven; and when there was need of water, our master Musa- peace be upon him- the son of ‘Amran, brought it forth for them from the rock and from the parched ground and stone, until they themselves had drank, and all that were in the company both living souls and animals.

And it shall come to pass, that when they who are possessed of intelligence, but are yet unbelieving, shall have heard of what God did bountifully bestow upon them (the children of Israel), and with what happiness He did surround them, and how He lifted off of them all calamities, whether heavenly or earthly, and also what new things He revealed unto them, then they will know that, there is no Lord but their (the children of Israel) Lord and no prophet, but their prophet, and no book but their Book, and no true religion but their religion; and (they shall also understand) the excellency of the perfect creed, and the certainly of its validity, and that it is greatest in rendering praise to the Creator- Mighty and Glorious- the One who is omnipotent to do whatever He pleaseth.

And when one shall hear of the decline of the kingdom of the children of Israil, and what calamities and misfortunes and exiles and dispersions overtook them by reason of their disobedient doings and their rebellious actions, his fear will be increased for Him from Whom nothing escapes and of Whose kingdom nothing is destroyed- Blessed be he and exalted! And now of Him do we implore complete right-guidance and all-embracing favor in His mercy. Verily He is a hearer and answerer (of prayer).”

I highly recommend reading this book for a fresh perspective on the Old Testament. The text is of little use for those wanting to reconstruct history with any kind of certainty. The stories in the book could be ancient or modern, and the transmission of the text is very much unknown.

Yet one of the valuable things about reading the text is that it references magic and miracles, heroes, and villains. It is clearly a “fantastic” work. Yet it is strikingly similar to the Old Testament, leading us to ask ourselves whether the Old Testament is a totally different ballgame or whether we simply are more familiar with the OT narratives and don’t see their fantastic narratives as actual fantasies. We believe them and accept them as authoritative.

The Samaritan Chronicle challenges the idea that we can take these ancient narratives at face value. For example, Joshua is crowned king by Moses, and a series of kings follow him. This is not found in the Old Testament, where instead no real successor to Joshua is named and a series of Judges rule “Israel” for a period of centuries. This period is marked by strife and a lack of unity, but in the Samaritan version it is marked by good kings and peace.

In the OT the book of Judges serves to show that Israel needed a king. They had Moses, then Joshua, then various judges. But the judges were less than satisfactory, and the end of the book of Judges has terrible crimes taking place in Israel precisely because they had no king. This problem is solved in the book of 1 Samuel, where the people ask for a king and God allows it. The entire search for a king in 1 Samuel is seen as a rejection of God’s rule, while in the Samaritan tradition God had been ruling through kings for centuries.

The Prophets

Samaritans do not accept as Scripture any books other than the Penteteuch, or any prophet other than Moses. This should be tempered with the realization that these statements are largely rhetorical: Moses is the greatest among the prophets, to the extent that none are like him (except the coming Messiah which he predicted). The Penteteuch is on a different level than other writings, but Samaritans did not cease to write other books (e.g. The Samaritan Chronicle) even though they were not considered Scriptural or canonical.

In other words, the Prophets (as literature) are not accepted by Samaritans. They don’t care what Isaiah said, nor what Jeremiah said. Most shockingly of all, they portray Elisha the prophet as evil!

In the next few days I will be posting some reflections on particular aspects of the story that are surprising and/or interesting.