BIBLE STUDY SERIES #383, 384 and 385

28 March, 1999

BLOCKED PASSAGES - PART VI - BALAAM

By Douglas C. Nesbit, B.A.

Our regular sequence of on-going Bible Studies, starting a number of years ago with The Call by The Almighty God to Abram in Genesis 12 has followed his progeny down to the Tribes of Israel who are presently on the border of the Promised Land.

On our last study, we were observing how Israel had marched past the land presently occupied by Moab, and had attacked and taken the land held by Sihon king of the Amorites, whom Israel has just defeated. This ground, so recently held by the Amorites, had actually been, many years before, a part of ancient Moab. The Amorites had in former times pushed out the Moabitish population and wrested the north half of Moab from them.

Today we are starting a sequence which eventually takes up the sensitive issues connected to the prophetic utterances of Balaam, and his advice to the enemies of Israel. We shall be reading Numbers 22:1-41, but before we do that, I think that it might be of assistance if I read The New Bible Commentary introduction to this portion of Scripture. Under the heading "The Balaam Incident", and the secondary heading "XIV. The Summoning of Balaam", this reference states:

"In previous chapters the foe has directly attacked Israel and has been repulsed. Now a new method is attempted and it is one which every Christian individual and every Christian movement is bound to meet at some time or other. The adversary attempts to find someone who really belongs to the people of God and to use him against them. Those who have at one time seemed to be followers of the Lord, and sometimes even very effective witnesses for Him, are most sought after by Satan for this purpose. What a responsibility rests upon everyone who has been known as one of the Lord's people, not to allow his influence ever to be used against an uncompromising witness to the truth. In this instance the attempt failed, but only on account of the supernatural intervention of God. Balaam proved rather weak and ready to succumb, but God stood by him and prevented it, thus making sure in a most marvellous way that nothing should prevent the children of Israel from entering the Promised Land."

1. And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.
2. And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.
3. And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.
4. And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time.
5. He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me:
6. Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land: for I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.
7. And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand; and they came unto Balaam, and spake unto him the words of Balak.

At this point, we might benefit by a further comment from The Commentary. Under the sub-heading "a. Balak, sends messengers to Balaam (xxii. 2-7), we find: "Seeing what the Israelites had done to those who had attacked them directly, the king of Moab sought a more indirect method of destroying them. He began by calling the elders of Midian (4). Evidently Moab and Midian were co-operating at this time. Moab was a settled nation, east of the Dead Sea, just south of where the Israelites were encamped. Midian was a roving people in the Arabian desert. Perhaps Balak, who was king of the Moabites at the time, was himself a Midianite. We have no previous mention of Balaam. It might seem strange that one who was not of Israel should be referred to as a worshipper of the Lord. However, as Peter mentioned to Cornelius in Acts x. 35, God's grace is not restricted to any one nation; wherever a man sincerely endeavours to follow the Lord, God is willing to listen to him. It should be noted that while Balaam sometimes refers to God by the term 'God', which could be applied to any divine being, he also frequently uses the specific proper name of the covenant God of Israel, which is rendered in the AV as LORD. There has been much controversy as to whether Balaam was a true prophet or not, but it rests upon a false understanding of the meaning of the word 'prophet'. In the Bible this word does not indicate a permanent occupation or function, which, when it has once been given to a man, always belongs to him. A prophet is simply one through whom God gives a message. God may use one as such a spokesman for a time, and then lay him aside and use another one. The prophets were not inspired in everything they said. Thus, when David told Nathan, the prophet, that he would like to build a house for the name of the Lord, Nathan said at once: 'Go, do all that is in thine heart; for the Lord is with thee'. (2 Sa. vii. 1-3). The next day, however, Nathan corrected himself, for God gave him a message for David, declaring that David should not build a temple for the Lord, but should leave this for his son to do (2 Sa. vii. 4-16). Nathan was often used of God as a prophet, but when he used his own wisdom, as in telling David that the Lord would bless his plan to build a temple, he was mistaken, and God made him correct his false utterance. Since there can be no doubt that chapters xxiii-xxiv contain messages given by direct revelation of God through Balaam, it is evident that Balaam was God's mouthpiece, and it would be absurd to call him anything but a true prophet. This does not, of course, mean that he was a perfect man. He committed very serious sins (cf. notes on chapter xxiv), but so have other prophets. Balak had a very high idea of Balaam's ability. He said he knew that whoever Balaam blessed would be blessed and whoever Balaam cursed would be cursed (6). It should be noted that the Bible does not say that Balaam had any magical power. It merely shows that Balak thought that Balaam had such power. Balaam himself makes no such claim. He insists that he can bless only those whom the Lord blesses and can curse only those whom the Lord curses."

8. And he said unto them, Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the LORD shall speak unto me: and the princes of Moab abode with Balaam.
9. And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee?
10. And Balaam said unto God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent unto me, saying,
11. Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt, which covereth the face of the earth: come now, curse me them; peradventure I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out.
12. And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.
13. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land: for the LORD refuseth to give me leave to go with you.
14. And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us.

Under the sub-heading "b. Balaam's first answer (xxii. 8-14)", The Commentary here state: "Balaam at this point appears wiser than Nathan in the incident mentioned above. Even though he saw the rewards that were brought by the elders of Midian, he told them that he would have to inquire of the Lord before giving them any answer." Of the words "What men are these? (9)", the note continues: This does not imply that God did not already know who they were. God wants us, in praying to Him, not only to have wonderful communion with Him, but also to clarify our own ideas and spiritual understanding. Sometimes a problem almost solves itself, once it is expressed clearly."

There will be more to tell of the story of Balaam but we shall have to leave such further insights until the next Bible Study. For the present, perhaps we can find something of value for our own lives in the fact that an enemy, who was prepared to give great rewards to the prophet who could successfully bring down God's curse upon his opposition was thwarted by the divine intervention of the True God of Israel. However, this rested upon the requirements being met by the people because it is when His Own people break His Laws that the curse clauses of Deuteronomy 28 begin to take effect.

In view of that fact, I wonder how many of the natural disasters which have afflicted our peoples in the last few years are just that, - natural, and how many are the directed curse for disobedience. Do we realize that about one hundred percent are related to our own responses to the LORD? He has made such a pronouncement, for He has given His word that blessings will flow when we are repentant and turn to Him. II Chronicles 7:14 shows this, and it is a verse so often quoted that it scarcely needs repeating. If you wonder what it is, you might wish to look it up!

4 April, 1999

AN EASTER MESSAGE

By Douglas C. Nesbit, B.A.

Our normal course of studies would have brought us today to a further consideration of the words, and also the influence, of Balaam the prophet, upon the course of Israelitish history. However, as this particular programme today is designed to be played on or about Easter day, we will diverge somewhat from our ongoing story which follows the Old Testament account of the history of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel), to give our thoughts over to a more topical matter. However this does not mean that we have not some pertinent things to say today which tie in to that general ongoing theme, for we shall have in view, along the way, the distortions which Canaan gave to the instructions which The Almighty imparted to Adamic man.

These days, we are probably all familiar with the multitudes of cards which are printed by the million in the more affluent western world to accord with various special days in the life of an individual, or of some culture group within the generality of the populace.

There are those cards, some laced with humour, others with beautiful calligraphy, which are designed to assure the recipient that we are thinking of them on a special occasion in their lives. Some will be sympathy cards, perhaps on being hospitalized, or on the recent departure of a loved one, others are designed to be bought for those marking a birthday of a child, or perhaps one of mature or even more probably, of advanced years. Cards are sent with gift packages, or to mark the time of graduation from some academic institution, a move into retirement, or even simply to maintain that contact which forms a reminder of a friendship which has, for too long, needed to be refreshed. There are many such occasions of an individual nature to be noted, but also there are those of a corporate type. We receive cards containing invitations, and some which give legal notice of some event to which we must give attention. Perhaps the most artificial are those which treat of a day which has become bloated with distorted trash, and cultivated commercially for the profit of the manufacturers of trinkets, items of spiced foods, chocolates and the like. We might think of Christmas cards, or those in Irish green for Saint Patrick's Day, for Hallowe'en, Mothers' Day, Fathers' Day, or for any other excuse which the imagination of the trade can envision. Cards are pushed upon us as a means of making money for the graphic artists, the printers and distributors, and the vendors of such highly-transient colour and glitter of a moment.

Cards are, in many cases, a sort of artificial extension of oneself, often demanded by the pride of the sender. They may be a convenience to avoid the need to set one's thoughts on paper, and to expedite the formalities which might otherwise demand some extended expenditure of time. But time, spent in such a manner might, indeed, have been a true gift which the receiver would cherish more than a stack of stiff artificial notes, however well crafted by the professionals. Bereft of the intimate hand-written personal pages conveying the words of a loved one, we have been reduced to valuing our cards more by the time spent in a quick dash to the store to purchase something which might accord with our intent.

The passing months have now brought us to the occasion known as "Easter." The very name is of pagan origin, and most people realise that the commercial world has not entirely created the festival. It arose with the ancient agrarian societies millennia ago and among people given to placating distortions of deities with sexual license by temple prostitutes or savage rituals and superstitious commitment of their substance and even their children in the flames of idol worship, in a misguided belief that the products of fertility must be yielded up to placate a tyrant god or goddess lest calamity befall the people. Commerce has only taken its leading for the increase of profits from remnant memories of such ritual within society, now mellowed to frivolous traces of the past, and hence benign in the multicult context of the hour.

Why should we think of this at Easter? Why, indeed? The fact is that we tend to destroy appreciation of the most love-filled act of all history, when we pass over the experiences which ought to be termed "Passover" or "Pesach" and the events of the hours of Christian Hope embodied in the Death, Burial, Resurrection, and eventual Ascension of Our LORD Jesus Christ, and replace these with the commercialized substitutes. We are left, at best, with what might be termed an amalgam of that spiritually devotional commemoration of the fulcrum and focal point of all history with the "Easter" derived from worship of the pagan goddess. It seems to have become just another commercial flurry along the way to a busy life. Chocolate bunnies and eggs speak to an age-old service before that pagan goddess, Astarte or Ashtoreth, whose time-distorted name we place on the calendar about this season of the year. Rabbits are associated proverbially with fecundity, while eggs represent new birth in this pagan substitute for Christ. Even the beautiful flowers, fresh sprung from the earth, may in part be likewise construed.

The New Bible Dictionary tells us, in the first section of the item, that "Ashtoreth was a mother goddess with aspects as goddess of fertility, love, and war, known to the Israelites through the Canaanites (1 Ki. xi. 5). The name was common in one form or another, among many of the Semitic-speaking peoples of antiquity. In Mesopotamia Istar was identified with the Sumerian mother goddess Inanna. The name occurs in the form 'ttrt in the Ugaritic texts, and as 'strt in the (later) Phoenician inscriptions, transcribed in the Greek script as Astarte. It has been suggested that the Hebrew 'astoret is an artificial form created from 'strt, by analogy with the vowel pattern of boset 'shame', to show a fitting attitude among the Israelites to the goddess, whose cult as practiced by the Canaanites was depraved in the extreme. 'Astarot is the plural form of the name. The Israelites turned to the worship of Ashtoreth soon after arriving in the land (Jdg. ii. 13, x. 6); it was rife in the time of Samuel (1 Sa. vii. 3, 4, xii. 10) and was given royal sanction by Solomon (1 Ki. xi. 5; 2 Ki. xxiii. 13). After Saul had been killed by the Philistines, his armour was placed in the temple of Ashtaroth at Beth-shan (1 Sa. xxxi. 10), and the excavators of this site have suggested that the northern temple in level v there ... may have been the one in question, though this remains an inference. Numerous clay plaques depicting naked female images have been discovered in Palestinian sites of the Bronze and Iron Ages, and it is probable that some of these are representations of the goddess Ashtoreth-Astarte."

Long ago there lived a succession of men from Adam and Eve, among whom were those called of The Almighty God of all the earth to give prophecies proclaiming a quite different message. It was also of new life, but of life in an exalted state. The motivating power was God's Spirit, and the people who relayed God's word in response to their calling were God's prophets. It is quite possible that a corruption of the theme began as generation followed generation, to eventuate in the idolatry of Ashtoreth.

The message which was imparted and recorded by these prophets down through all the long history of Israel was one whereby man could be relieved of the penalty imposed for the breaking of God's Law through the divine provision of a substitute kinsman-Redeemer, Who is pictured symbolically in Revelation 13:8 as "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world", and animals were for centuries the symbolic sacrificial portrayal of this Lamb. That Law itself had been imparted as a most necessary kindness to mankind. It was, and still is and shall continue to be; a loving guidebook and map to the most beneficial manner of life within the natural universe. It was designed, in essence, to keep mankind from blunders which would eventually take his life. The potent forces of nature within which life must be lived and decisions taken is an essential part of the provision for rational choices involving love to occur, but a veritable minefield for the uninitiated human traveller along the course of life. Natural Laws of cause and effect were required, in order to provide a rational setting for the emergence of a loving response by Mankind to that love which God had held for His Creatures.

We have, in some recent studies in the last few months, explained how logical the whole pattern actually is, when we stop to examine it. For the present, let us pause to consider how grand, how magnificent, how marvellous it is that a man named Jesus Christ, in Whom, as we read in Colossians 2:9, "dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily", so long ago went in our place to a terrible death, so that we might have peace with our Maker.

Let us give our attention at this time to Him, and show our full appreciation to Him for that gift which meant His life must pass into the grave, from which He arose to become our doorway of escape from the penalty of our Sins. We must submit our bodies, in response, as a living sacrifice, as Paul puts it in Romans 12:1. In closing let us use that famous verse as our theme for meditation this week:

1. I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

11 April, 1999

BLOCKED PASSAGES - PART VII - BALAAM

By Douglas C. Nesbit, B.A.

Our regular sequence of on-going Bible Studies, starting a number of years ago with The Call by The Almighty God to Abram in Genesis 12 has followed his progeny down to the Tribes of Israel who are presently on the border of the Promised Land.

On our last study in the sequence, two weeks ago, we were observing how Israel had marched past the land presently occupied by Moab, and had attacked and taken the land held by Sihon king of the Amorites, whom Israel has just defeated. This ground, so recently held by the Amorites, had actually been, many years before, a part of ancient Moab. The Amorites had in former times pushed out the Moabitish population and wrested the north half of Moab from them.

We had seen that in previous chapters the Amorite foe has directly attacked Israel and has been repulsed. Now a new method is attempted. Perhaps we might quickly review the Scriptures which were read previously to gain a sense of the activities in progress. Balak, the son of Zippor, who was king of the Moabites saw what Israel had done to his neighbours, and his people, Moab, were afraid of Israel. Having seen what Israel's fighting men were capable of doing in a military confrontation, he decided to seek out some other method or stratagem, which might work to defeat this threatening people who were now on his borders. We are taking the Scriptures from Numbers 22, beginning at verse 5:

5. He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me:
6. Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land: for I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.
7. And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand; and they came unto Balaam, and spake unto him the words of Balak.

We saw how the prophet Balaam had answered these elders, inviting them to stay for the night, so that he might have some indication of the direction which might be granted him by God. Continuing at verse 9:

9. And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee?
10. And Balaam said unto God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent unto me, saying,
11. Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt, which covereth the face of the earth: come now, curse me them; peradventure I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out.
12. And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.
13. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land: for the LORD refuseth to give me leave to go with you.
14. And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us.

Now we must pick up our story as we listen in, so to speak, starting at verse 15, at the dwelling of Balak the king of Moab:

15. And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honourable than they.
16. And they came to Balaam, and said to him, Thus saith Balak the son of Zippor, Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me:
17. For I will promote thee unto very great honour, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me: come therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people.
18. And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the LORD my God, to do less or more.
19. Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the LORD will say unto me more.
20. And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do.
21. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.

Under the sub-heading "The second embassy to Balaam (xxii. 15-21)", The New Bible Commentary gives us this statement: "When Balak heard that Balaam refused to come, he immediately concluded, as a worldly man would, that what was needed was a more tempting offer. When Balaam did come he naturally concluded that this inference had been correct. The situation, when the new messengers reached Balaam, was quite changed. The first ones had come to him with a new proposal, and he did right to seek the Lord's will before replying. Now the Lord's will was already known to him. He should have immediately repeated his previous refusal, since there was no new fact which could possibly warrant a reopening of the question. However, instead of following the known will of God, Balaam declared that he would again seek to learn God's will in the matter. This was in itself an act of disloyalty to God. Once God's will is clear, it is not honouring to Him to seek further light: what He now desires is immediate and unquestioning obedience. Balaam's new request for knowledge of God's will was due only to his greed for the rich gifts that the men had brought. How careful we need to be that we do not let our judgment as to God's will be swayed by ulterior considerations. 'He gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul' (Ps. cvi. 15). Instead of repeating what Balaam already knew, God apparently granted Balaam's desire. He said 'if the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do' (20). This is the determination of many a Christian who allows himself to be inveigled into compromising associations. He does what he knows to be contrary to God's will, intending, in the course of it, to remain true to God. Such intentions usually fail. God is not satisfied with partial obedience. In this case, Balaam did carry out his intention, but only the supernatural power of God enabled him to do so. Since he said only what God desired, the expected profits did not materialize. He would have been better off if he had stayed at home." We continue at verse 22:

22. And God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.
23. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.
24. But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side.
25. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall: and he smote her again.
26. And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
27. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
28. And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?
29. And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.
30. And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.
31. Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.
32. And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:
33. And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.
34. And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.
35. And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.

Under the sub-heading "The incident of the speaking donkey (xxii. 22-35)", we find these notes: "We have noticed that the divine word which Balaam received at the second inquiry was not the whole story, but simply a response to Balaam's failure to obey what was already known to be God's will. If this inference seemed unwarranted before, verse 22 proves it to be true: God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary against him. God wanted to drive home to Balaam's mind the necessity of standing by his determination to speak only the message that God desired. Since his going was contrary to God's clearly revealed will, such a result was hardly likely. Many a man has started with a similar intention, and ended by becoming a useful tool in Satan's hand. This time God miraculously intervened to strengthen his erring prophet, since it was necessary to God's plan of redemption that the Israelites should settle in Canaan, and the weakness of a prophet must not be allowed to injure this vital part of the divine programme. Therefore an incident followed which stands alone in the Bible."

We shall have to pick up these comments on the next Study in the series.

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