Lesson 16: “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord” #BCCSundaySchool2018

 

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Rembrandt’s visualization of Balaam, his ass, and the angel- Mbzt, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23551459

This is the one with the talking donkey. Everybody likes talking animals. Buckle up, folks, this one starts off fun but it goes very dark very quickly at the end.

 

 

Background: Israelite expansion destabilizes southwestern Mesopotamia.

So in the last lesson we left off with Israel having been attacked by the Lord with flying poisonous hell-snakes, and then saved by Moses putting a metal hell-snake on a pole for them to look at. After that, they wandered around a while (Numbers 21:10-15), dug a well and sang a song about it (Numbers 21:16-18), wandered around some more (Numbers 21:18-20), and asked the king of the Amorites if they could pass through his land (Numbers 21:21:21-22). When he said no and gathered his armies at his border, they had a battle in which the Israelites conquered a bunch of Amorite cities and then moved in (Numbers 21:23-31). Then they sent out scouts and took the rest of the Amorites’ land (Numbers 21:32).

This expansion into the Amorite lands caused the king of Bashan to gather his armies on his border, which led to another battle and the Israelites taking Bashan as well, not leaving a single person alive (Numbers 21:33-35). So the Israelites are basically conquering everything in their path and the locals get kind of freaked out.

1. Balak Summons Balaam (Numbers 22:1–21).

Israel camps in the plains of Moab. Balak, king of the Moabites, sees what they have done to the Amorites and to Bashan and is terrified of them. Balak holds a council with the elders of Moab conference with the elders of Midian.

ELDERS OF MOAB AND MIDIAN: These people from Egypt leave nothing in their wake; they’re going to consume all of us like an ox eats grass in the field.

BALAK (to the elders of Moab and of Midian): What about Balaam? You know, Balaam. He’s like a seer or something. Worships some weird god that’s apparently really good with curses.

ELDERS OF MOAB AND MIDIAN: You think it’ll work?

BALAK: Do you have a better idea?

ELDERS OF MOAB AND MIDIAN: Okay, let’s get him.

The elders of Moab go to Balaam.

ELDERS OF MOAB AND MIDIAN: Balaam, we’ve got a message from Balak, king of the Moabites. We’re in serious trouble. The thing is, this monstrously huge nation of people from Egypt are raging across the plains of Moab conquering everyone in their path. Now they’re coming for us and we’re absolutely no match for them. But you, Balaam, you’ve got a reputation as guy whose curses have some real mojo. Maybe if you curse these people from Egypt we’ll have a chance of keeping our land. So come and curse them for us. Help us, Balaam, you’re our only hope!

BALAAM: Okay, dudes. Stay the night. I’ll ask the LORD, and get back to you in the morning.

Later that night. The elders are asleep and God visits Balaam.

GOD: Balaam, who are these dudes with you?

BALAAM: LORD, these guys are the elders of Moab and Midian. Balak sent them, and they say there’s this huge nation of fierce fighting people from Egypt that are covering the whole earth and destroying everything in their path and they’re coming for Moab. So Balak wants me to curse them for him so he can get rid of them. Can I go?

GOD: Uh, no. Don’t go and don’t curse them. I have blessed them.

In the morning.

BALAAM: Sorry, dudes. The LORD says no.

The elders go back to Balak and tell him Balaam wouldn’t come. Balak sends high-ranking princes, bigger wigs than the elders that came the first time.

PRINCES OF MOAB: Listen, Balaam, Balak really wants you to come. He’ll give you all kinds of honor and praise. He’ll do whatever you want! Just please come curse this people for us.

BALAAM: This is a really nice offer, amigos, and I’d totally love to accept it, but it’s not really about the money or the praise. See, even if it were an even better offer, I still couldn’t accept unless the Lord let me. But let’s not give up yet. Maybe he’ll change his mind. Stay the night, and I’ll talk to the LORD again.

Later that night. God comes to Balaam.

BALAAM: So, LORD, where we at on the whole go to Moab thing? Is that still a no, or is it cool if I go?

GOD (sighs): Fine. If they ask you to go, go. But only do what I tell you to.

  • I admit it, I feel for Balak. If you had 600,000 warriors on your doorstep that had just completely annihilated your neighbors, you’d be nervous, too. I’m not sure whether the narrator wants us sympathize with Balak.
  • So the Lord says no, but then apparently changes his mind and gives Balaam permission. The lesson notes that Joseph Smith’s biblical revision softens this by adding “if thou wilt” before the Lord gives Balaam permission to go. Essentially, the JST says that the Lord didn’t say “yes,” but basically said “if you insist, but I forbid it”. Can we compare this story of the Lord changing his mind to the story of the quail or the story of Joseph Smith repeatedly asking for permission for Martin Harris to take the Book of Mormon manuscript pages? Again, Jesus says “ask and ye shall receive,” but is this a blessing or is it a curse?
  • How do the Israelites even know this story that all takes place exclusively between non-Israelites?
  • It’s kind of interesting that this book, which is so set on emphasizing Israel’s chosen status, is willing to acknowledge the existence of a non-Israelite prophet. What does it say about the Lord that he keeps prophets outside of his chosen people? This 1978 First Presidency Statement celebrates divine inspiration and callings outside the church. Along the same lines, consider the following statement by Apostle Orson F. Whitney 50 years earlier. Elder Whitney asked why good men outside the church are unable to recognize the truth of the restoration and mused that “[p]erhaps the Lord needs such men on the outside of this church, to help it along. They are among it’s auxiliaries, and can do more good for the cause where the Lord has placed them, than anywhere else.” He then explained: “God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of his great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous, for any one people.” Conference Report, April 1928, at 58-59. Do we sometimes fail to recognize the Lord’s servants outside of our own church today? What are some examples of non-Mormon prophets in our day?

2. Balaam’s temporarily talking donkey saves him from the killer angel (Numbers 22:22–35).

The next morning. Balaam gets up, gets his donkey ready, and goes with the princes of Moab.

But God is angry, and the angel of the LORD stands in the road to oppose Balaam. The donkey sees the angel with his drawn sword and she is not having it, so she turns to the side. Balaam beats her to get her back on the road. But the angel is there again in a place where the road goes between two walls. And the donkey tries to turn again, crushing Balaam’s foot against the wall and he beats her again. The angel goes up further up where there is nowhere to turn so when the donkey gets close she just falls down, sending Balaam to the ground. Balaam beats her again. The LORD gives speech to the donkey.

DONKEY: Balaam, what the hell, man?

BALAAM (not noticing anything unusual about the fact that his donkey is talking): This is the third time, Donkey. I’ve had it. If I had a sword I’d kill you, you disobedient ass!

DONKEY: Dude. I’m your ass. You ride me every day. I think you owe me a little more respect. When have I ever acted like this? Maybe if I’m doing this I have a good reason for it.

BALAAM: Yeah, like what?

The LORD opens Balaam’s eyes and he see the angel with the sword, and bows.

ANGEL OF THE LORD: Balaam! Listen up! I came out against you because you’re riding against me. This donkey of yours saw me and saved you: if she hadn’t turned to the side, I’d have killed you already.

BALAAM: Whoa, really? My bad. Look, I didn’t realize you had a problem with this. If you don’t want me to go, I’ll go back…

ANGEL OF THE LORD (sighing): No, it’s fine. You can go. But only say what I tell you to say.

So Balaam goes to Moab.

  • This story is hilarious. Talking animals are almost always funny. Other than the talking snake, I think this is the only talking animal in the bible. And the snake is different because that was Satan. This is just a regular old donkey. If nothing else, it’s memorable–Peter quotes it in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:16).
  • What does “angel of the LORD” here mean? Is it an angel from Jehovah, or is the spirit of Jehovah himself appearing? I’m inclined to read it as the latter. The angel speaks in the first person as though it is the Lord himself. You could rationalize that with a “divine investiture of authority” argument if you wanted to, but that strikes me as imposing on the text, not reading it. (Note that I’m not asking whether God himself actually appeared to Balaam or whether he sent an angel, I’m asking what the text says. What the text says and what happened might be two different things.)
  • The text portrays the Lord as pretty fickle. First he tells Balaam no (Numbers 22:12). Then he says go ahead (Numbers 22:20), but then sends an angel to try to kill him for doing what he gave him permission to do (Numbers 22:22). But then the angel changes his mind and decides not to kill him after all (Numbers 22:35). Why did the Lord give Balaam permission to go in the first place if he was going to send an angel to kill him for going? And why did he send an angel to threaten to kill him, not kill him, and then just tell him the same thing he had already told him? The JST revision partially resolves this, but it still doesn’t explain why the Lord apparently changed his mind again and decided not to kill Balaam after all and told him to go ahead. (Side note: I don’t see a JST footnote to Numbers 22:20, and it’s not in the JST appendix either. Did the correlation scour the Inspired Version published by the Community of Christ for this? It seems like a lot of effort for only a partial resolution).

3. Curses foiled again (Numbers 22:36–24:25).

In Moab.

BALAK: Balaam, my man! What did I tell you? I knew you’d come around.

BALAAM: Listen, homie, I don’t know if I can do anything for you yet. I can only do what the LORD tells me to do. So don’t get your hopes up.

They go together to the City of Streets. Balak makes a sacrifice of oxen and sheep and then in the morning he takes Balaam to the Baal Highlands, where they have a view of the end of Israel’s camp.

BALAAM: Okay, friend, if we’re gonna have any hope of getting the LORD to let me curse these people, we’re gonna have to butter him up. The one thing I know he loves is SACRIFICES. On altars. He eats that stuff up. It’s totally his jam. Especially if you can work in the number seven somehow. He loves that stuff. So here’s what we’re gonna do: build seven altars, and get me seven bull oxen and seven rams.

They build the altars. Balaam makes a sacrifice of a bull and a ram on each altar.

BALAAM: Alright, playa, stay here, I’ll go up and maybe the LORD will come talk with me.

Balaam goes up on top of a mountain. God comes down to Balaam.

BALAAM: Hey, LORD, check out the sacrifice! Not bad, eh? Seven altars, each one with a bull and a ram. Pretty great, right?”

GOD (sighing): Go back to Balak and say the words I’ll give you.

Balaam goes back down to Balak, who was standing there by the altars with all the princes of Moab.

BALAAM: BEHOLD! Balak the king of Moab has brought me here from the mountains in the east and asked me to curse Israel. But how can I curse whom the LORD has not cursed? I stand on the highlands and I see Israel—Israel who will live apart from all other nations! Israel who will be their own independent people! Nobody can count the descendants of Israel! They’re like the sands of the desert and nobody can number even a quarter of them! Oh that I could die a righteous man, and be like Israel!

BALAK: WHAT THE HELL, BALAAM?! I brought you here to curse them, and you’re here blessing them? Dude, that’s the exact opposite of what I brought you here for!

BALAAM: Hey, don’t blame me, broseph. It’s the LORD’s fault. I told you I could only do what he tells me to do.

BALAK: Fine. Let’s go to another spot. Maybe with a different view you’ll be able to curse them.

They go to the top of Mt. Pisgah. They do the same thing with the seven altars and the sacrifices. Balaam goes to speak with the Lord and comes back.

BALAK: Okay, what’d he say this time?

BALAAM: Rise, Balak, son of Zippor and hear me! God is not a man that lies, he is not a man that changes his mind. What he says he’ll do, he does.

BALAK: Oh, great, here we go again.

BALAAM: Look, if he commands me to bless, it’s because he’s blessed and I can’t change it. The LORD sees no evil in Israel. He is with Israel like praise is with a king. God brought Israel out of Egypt with a rhinoceros’s strength. There’s no spell or incantation that can do anything against them. The whole world will see what Israel becomes and will say ‘Look at what God did!” Israel will rise up as a strong lion that will not rest until it eats its prey and drinks the blood of the dead.

BALAK: Fine, Balaam, don’t curse them, but CAN YOU AT LEAST STOP BLESSING THEM?!

BALAAM: Listen, hombre, I warned you that I have to do what the LORD tells me to do.

BALAK: Fine, lets try another spot. Maybe there God will let you curse them for me.

They go to the top of Mount Peor. Same story with the altars and the sacrifice. But this time, Balaam sees that the LORD wanted him to bless Israel, so he doesn’t go meet with the LORD to try to get permission to curse. Instead, he looks out and sees Israel’s camp with their tents all lined up by tribe, and the spirit of God falls on him and he speaks:

BALAAM: Balaam, Beor’s Son, has heard the words of God and seen the Almighty’s vision as a waking trance. Balaam the Seer has this to say: How rich and stately are your tents, Israel! They are spread out like green valleys, like riverside gardens, like aloe plants planted by God, like cedar trees growing by the water! Israel will pour out his water over the earth. His seed will disperse in many waters. His king will by greater than Agag. His kingdom will be the highest kingdom. God brought Israel out of Egypt. Israel has a rhinoceros’s strength. Israel will eat up its enemies’ nations, break their bones, and pierce them with arrows. Israel has lain down like a huge lion that nobody dares to disturb. All that bless Israel are blessed and all that cursed Israel are cursed!

BALAK (with his palms on his temples): I can’t even with this guy. Balaam, that’s enough! I brought you here to curse my enemies and instead you’ve blessed them three times! I was ready to give you all kinds of good stuff, but the LORD has kept you from it. Get out of here!

BALAAM: Listen, didn’t I warn you, pardner? Didn’t I tell your messengers that no matter what you offered me, I could only do what the LORD let me do? Yes, I’ll go back to my own land. But come, and I’ll tell you what Israel will do to your people: Balaam, Beor’s son has heard the word’s of God and seen the Almighty’s vision as a waking trance. Balaam the Seer has this to say: I will see him, but not yet: a Star and a Sceptre will rise out of Israel, lay siege to Moab and destroy all the people of Sheth. Israel will fight bravely and will possess Edom and Seir. A leader out of Israel will dominate and destroy all that remain.

He looks toward the nation of Amalek

BALAAM: Amalek was the first nation, but it will perish forever.

He looks toward the people of the Kenites

BALAAM: You’re strong, Kenites, and your land is a fortress. But you’ll be destroyed too, and Asshur will take the survivors as captives. Who can survive when God does this! Ships will come from Chittim, and will attack Asshur and Eber, and they will perish forever.

Balaam goes home. And so does Balak.

  • The nation of Israel are the clear Good Guys in this story, and God is very much on their side, while other nations are not on God’s side. Balaam’s blessings reinforce that. But on the other hand we have this whole entire sequence taking place between people that aren’t part of Israel, with God speaking to at least one of them like he speaks with Moses.
  • Are the three times that Balaam asks the Lord for permission to God supposed to parallel the three times that Balak asks Balaam to curse Israel?
  • God doesn’t seem all that impressed with Balak and Balaam’s sacrifices. Do we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that we can change God’s mind and get a desired answer to a prayer through a display of religious devotion? How can we avoid letting fasting become the same kind of mistake? Perhaps when we fast and pray and wrestle with God in prayer, the goal ought to be to have God give us what we should pray for, not give us what we want.

4. Interlude: don’t get on Phineas’s bad side (Numbers 25-Numbers 30).

We skip ahead several chapters. Here’s what we skip over: Israel hangs out in Shittim, the Israelite men start getting frisky with Moabite women, and start attending sacrifices and feasts worshipping the Moabite god of Peor (Numbers 25:1-2). This pisses off the LORD, which means, of course, another plague (Numbers 25:3). The LORD tells Moses to behead those that worshipped the god of Peor and hang their heads up outside the camp to appease the LORD’s anger (Numbers 25:4). So Moses gives the command to the judges to whack every Israelite that joined in worship of the god of Peor (Numbers 25:5). So while this is going on, one guy brings a Midianite princess named Cozbi into camp. She goes into a tent and starts getting frisky with an Isrealite dude named Zimri (Numbers 25:6). This really pisses off Phineas, Aaron’s grandson, so he takes a spear into the tent and makes a shish kebab of both Cozbi and Zimri (Numbers 25:7-8).

This greatly pleases the LORD, so he does two things: (1) he stops the plague (24,000 people have died) and (2) he rewards Phineas by giving him a covenant of peace and him and his descendants after him the covenant of the everlasting priesthood (Numbers 25:8-13).

Then the LORD tells Moses to go drop the hammer on the Midianites (Numbers 25:16-18). But first they have another census (Numbers 26). They still number a little over 600,000 men, but all that are left from Sinai are Moses, Caleb, and Joshua, thus fulfilling the LORD’s promise that all those from Sinai would die in the wilderness (Numbers 26:51, 64-65). Also, part of the census was to figure out how much land the different tribes would inherit (Numbers 26:52-56). They would inherit by male heads of households (Numbers 25:55). This causes a problem:

Then the daughters of a dead Israelite whose name was Zelophehad come to Moses and explain that they’re not going to get any inheritance under the census because their father is dead, and that they think that’s totally unfair (Numbers 27:4). So Moses brings their case to the LORD and the LORD tells him that the daughters of Zelophehad are right and they whenever a man dies with no sons, his daughters should get the inheritance, and then he gives more rules of inheritance (Numbers 5-11).

Then the LORD takes Moses up a mountain and shows him the promised land, but says he can’t enter it because he rebelled against the LORD—something to do with water or something (Numbers 27:12-14). It’s not all that clear. He also tells Moses to make Joshua his successor, which he does (Numbers 27:16-23).

Then the LORD gives a whole bunch of detailed rules about sacrifices. They have to do them every morning, every night, on the Sabbath day, on the first day of the month, at Passover, at the feast of unleavened bread, at the feast of the firstfruits, during the seventh month, at the feast of the trumpets and at the feast of the tabernacles (Numbers 28-29). He also gives rules about vows: basically, you have to keep any vows you make, unless you’re a woman and your husband or father says differently (Numbers 30).

  • We don’t seem very clear on the distinction between Moabites and Midianites. They’re sort of lumped together. Are they the same?
  • And anyway, when did the Midianites become the bad guys? Back in Exodus Moses goes to Midian after he murders an Egyptian and is on the lam. Jethro, a priest of Midian, harbors him, and he marries Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter (Exodus 2:15-21). Jethro is portrayed as not only friendly to Moses, but as a priest of Jehovah, rather than one of the local Moabite gods. (The 1832 revelation on the priesthood goes even further and says that Jethro held the Holy Priesthood, and conferred it upon Moses (D&C 84:6).) And even after the Exodus Moses is in contact with Jethro, who gives him advice about delegation. So what gives? Is Jethro just some outlier among the Midianites? Or is he representative of them? And if he is representative, when did the Midianites stop being Jehovah-worshipping good guys and start being wicked idolaters lumped in with the Moabites? I have a hunch that it might have something to do with the documentary hypothesis, but somebody smarter than me will have to connect the dots on that.
  • Okay, this Phineas guy sounds bonkers. I’m imagining a wild-eyed scraggly beard guy not unlike all those paintings of John Brown. I get that idolatry and adultery are serious sins, but to have the priest (the priest!) rush in and impale them seem, well, rash, to say the least. At least the Pharisees had the decency to drag the woman caught in adultery out and ask Jesus if she should be stoned instead of just stabbing her on the spot (John 8:3-11). On the other hand, at least Phineas didn’t discriminate like the Pharisees did by bringing the woman to Jesus but not the man. Phineas was an equal-opportunity crazy-eyes stabber.
  • And if that’s not bad enough, the story has God not just tolerating Phineas’ violence, but rewarding it with a promise that he and his descendants get the priesthood forever. This might be a good time to note that the priesthood as it is portrayed in the old testament is very different from the Aaronic priesthood in the church today, notwithstanding the revelations that connect it back to Aaron (D&C 84:30). Phineas was not really into persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness and love unfeigned, but I guess he had a lock on reproving with sharpness (cf. D&C 121:42-43). Let’s just say that I’m glad that the modern revelations on the Aaronic priesthood say that it holds the keys of the gospel of repentant and baptism (D&C 13), not the keys of impaling sinners on javelins.
  • But as dark as it is with Phineas, it’s about to get even darker.
  • (One bright spot is the story of Zelophehad’s daughters. It’s a pretty positive “ask and it shall be given” story. Moses needs direction, the Lord gives it to him, and it gives s tiny bit of rights to women (they can inherit their father’s property, but only if he has no living sons). Moses is willing to listen to women. Nobody gets burned by divine fire, bitten by flying snakes, killed by a divine plague, or afflicted with divine leprosy or shunned. It seems almost out of place here in numbers.)

5. Moses, one last thing before you die (Numbers 31:1–16).

Remember how the LORD told Moses to drop the hammer on the Midianites back in chapter 22? Well the hammer is about to drop.

GOD (to Moses): Moses, go attack the Midanites. Then you’ll die.

MOSES (to the people of Israel): Alright, guys, it’s time. Take 1,000 from each tribe and arm them. We’re going to send them out to avenge the LORD against the Midianites.

The people arm 12,000 warriors and send them against the Midianites. Phineas goes with them (no surprise there). They kill every man, including all the kings and including Balaam the Seer. They leave the women and children alive and take them with the rest of the spoils of war. They burn all their cities and fortresses.

They bring all the prisoners and spoils to Moses. Moses is pissed.

MOSES: What?! You left the women alive? These were the ones that caused the whole problem with the local god in Peor! (Oh, and by the way, it was Balaam that told them to do it. I don’t know if I mentioned that before). Therefore, here’s what we’re gonna do: kill every boy and kill every woman and kill every girl that’s not a virgin. Keep the virgins for yourselves.

  • Okay, this is absolutely horrifying. As if God-sanctioned impaling of one adulterous couple isn’t bad enough, now we get prophet-commanded mass slaughter of non-combatant women and children prisoners, and strongly implied child rape. There’s absolutely no rationalizing or justifying any of this. If a class member starts down that path shut it down fast. And don’t come at me with some “presentism is bad” nonsense: we should understand these stories in their own context, not our own, but that doesn’t prevent us from making moral judgments based on what we know to be good and evil.
  • The lesson uses Moses’s sort of off-hand comment that Balaam was the one that instigated the heresy of Peor (Numbers 31:16) as an indication that Balaam had apparently wanted Balak’s rewards so badly, that he decided to try to get them by counseling the Midianites to tempt Israel to rebel against God so they would lose his favor. The idea seems to be to turn Balaam’s story into a simple morality tale: Balaam was killed because he obeyed only the letter of the law and not the spirit. I think obeying the spirit of the law and not just the letter is a great message, but I think it makes too tidy work of this story. It’s also a bit inconsistent to spend the first 80% of the lesson praising Balaam for his unwillingness to “go beyond the word of the Lord” only to turn around and shake our heads and click our tongues at his inferred willingness to tempt Israel.
  • But how does Moses know who instigated the Midianites? The text gives us nothing to support Moses’ statement. Is Moses just trying to justify the fact that the Israelites killed someone that was apparently recognized as a prophet of their God? Also, even if we assume that Moses is right that Balaam instigated the temptations as Peor, the text tells us nothing about his motivation. Besides, the way Balak left it with him leaves me wondering whether it would even make sense to think that he could get the rewards. More likely he’d want to just stay far away from Balak. I don’t think we can say based on the text that Balaam instigated the heresy of Peor out of greed.
  • Has Moses given up? Has God’s constant mercurialness just exhausted him and worn him out to the point that his instinct is always going to be to mete out death for any hint of idolatry or foreignness? Is he despairing and bitter because God has told him that he’s not getting into the promised land, and that his only task left is to attack the Midianites and then die. I feel for Moses a little. Moses is a hero, and rather than going out with a bang, he just sort of gets worn out being a leader until he dies. It’s kind of a let down.

Conclusion

If I were teaching this lesson, I’d be tempted to just stop after Balaam goes home. I think Balaam’s story raises interesting questions about what constitutes a prophet, the possibility of prophets that don’t look like what we think of as prophets, and the dual nature of blessings and curses. And a talking donkey is always a crowd-pleaser.

But maybe that’s a cop-out. What do we do with the horrific stories of Phineas and the near-total slaughter of the Midanite women and children (and strongly implied rape of the survivor girls)? I don’t have a satisfying answer, but I’m sure that the answer is not to say that it was okay because the Midianites were wicked, or invent some other rationalization.

Dostoyevsky famously says in The Brothers Karamazov that if there is no God, everything is permitted, meaning that a belief in God is necessary to restrain human action to that which is moral. But I wonder if stories like this actually demonstrate the opposite extreme: when a person believes unwaveringly that they are God’s chosen and that God blesses them and curses their enemies, there’s no violence or evil against those enemies that they can’t justify. There are any number of horrific examples we could look to, from the persecution of heretics and the crusades in the medieval church to the justification of slavery in the colonial period, to the mountain meadows massacre in our own history. Dostoyevsky’s quip that without God everything is permitted stands refuted by a dark, sardonic reading of the angel Gabriel’s statement: “with God, nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). The irony is that both extremes lead to a variety of moral relativism. Both Dostoyevsky’s immoral atheist and the fundamentalist theist are unconstrained by the notions of good and evil that constrain the rest of us.

Perhaps what stories like this illustrate is our tendency to create God in our image rather than to try to discern his image within us and within our neighbors. It’s a good impulse to want to thank God for the good things we receive, but it’s a bad impulse to want to attribute all success in life, whether economic, military, or otherwise, to special favor from God that sits as proof that we’re better than others. Success and luck become proof of divine favor, which in turn becomes proof of righteousness, and can serve as justification of any kind of evil that we imagine God has commanded or permitted his special favored people to commit.

I don’t meant to suggest therefore that we’re better off not believing in God, or that we’re better off believing him to be a distant, untroubled God that cares little for us. I mean, instead, that a belief in God is alone no guarantee of moral behavior. Belief in God is saving and sustaining and grounding and comforting, but it is also dangerous and challenging and risky. Discipleship is a narrow path. Maybe as narrow as a knife-edge, from which you can easily slip and fall off one side into a despairing cynicism that denies the distinction between good and evil, or off the other into fundamentalism that does the same thing by believing in a God that alchemically turns evil into good by fiat. It’s a path that takes endurance, sure–we like to quote the “endure to the end” passages–but it takes more than just endurance. It takes judgment, discernment, and way-finding. Above all, it requires that we learn what God’s character is through our own experience with the Holy Ghost, not just reading about what ancient people wrote about him.

The Old Testament is fascinating and if we wrestle with it, we can learn much, but I do not believe that God wants us to take everything in it uncritically.

From the archives:

  1. Of visions, angels and swords.
  2. When prophets of God enslave women.
  3. The E Source, Ephraimite Lineage, and the 8th Article of Faith

Comments

  1. Bro. Jones says:

    Amazing. Thanks for posting this.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    I’m starting to believe that the internet was invented for this series.

  3. Eric Facer says:

    “Okay, this is absolutely horrifying. As if God-sanctioned impaling of one adulterous couple isn’t bad enough, now we get prophet-commanded mass slaughter of non-combatant women and children prisoners, and strongly implied child rape. There’s absolutely no rationalizing or justifying any of this.”

    Peter Enns, in his book “The Bible Tells Me So,” carefully analyzes passages such as these from the Old Testament, considering alternative explanations for seemingly aberrant behavior attributed to God and/or his prophets. He persuasively argues that God did not sanction, either directly or indirectly, the mass execution of women, children or animals. Rather, these accounts are representative of tribal cultures in a polytheistic society who employed God, after the fact, to justify their actions. In this, they personified the mindset of the people of their time: “If we win, then it’s because our God wanted us to; if we lose, then it’s because we either incurred the displeasure of our deity or yours was simply more powerful.”

    This explanation neither excuses nor mitigates the behavior of those who perpetrated these atrocities, but at least it removes God from the equation.

  4. Great job, JKC. I’m almost excited to attend, but still apprehensive about what some teachers will do with the reading.

    Throughout I keep thinking “these are the justification stories the Israelites told themselves—I’m not persuaded—I wonder if they were, or if they felt a little queasy about their origins as an occupying army?”

  5. Eric: Yes. That’s exactly my point. I think the real value of reading passages like this is in asking ourselves if, how, and when we do the same thing, and what we can do to stop. Maybe it’s just me, but I find myself thinking about prosperity-gospel-type-thinking when I ask those questions—and not just Creflo Dollar, seed-money types, either, but any theology that fails to recognize that God send his blessings on the just and the unjust alike, including some of our own iterations of what we call the pride cycle.

    Here’s an old post I wrote on that once. https://bycommonconsent.com/2016/08/15/the-pride-cycle-the-prosperity-gospel-and-grace/

  6. Eric Facer says:

    JKC, I would probably modify your approach by asserting that God doesn’t send his blessings to the just and unjust; rather, Fate does. And by Fate, I mean chance, luck—both good and bad. In other words, randomness.

    The fact that God has “his hand in all things,” is not the same thing as God “causes all things to happen.” I read “he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the god” alike to mean that he has facilitated the creation of a world where, for reasons that have no bearing on our actions, we are sometimes on the receiving end of both good fortune and bad. Some days you’re the windshield; others, you’re the bug. But in either scenario, God isn’t the one driving the car.

    Our failure to understand this causes us to misinterpret both the scriptures and the events that transpire in our own lives. And such failure, as you pointed out in your other post, can lead to the “pride cycle” or cause you to erroneously concluded that you have fallen out of favor with the Lord.

  7. I think we’re basically saying the same thing.

  8. It’s never sit well with me Jesus’ statement that the way into heaven is narrow—that doesn’t seem to mesh with the merciful God who makes as much room as possible for children to return to heaven. I really like your interpretation: “Discipleship is a narrow path. Maybe as narrow as a knife-edge, from which you can easily slip and fall off one side into a despairing cynicism that denies the distinction between good and evil, or off the other into fundamentalism that does the same thing by believing in a God that alchemically turns evil into good by fiat.” Staying on Jesus’ path without veering into one extreme or the other is indeed a narrow and difficult way of progressing through life.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    That is some world-class foreshadowing that the text would associate someone named “Cozbi” with sexual malfeasance! The scriptures were truly intended for our day… (Another great post!)

  10. Oh, man, I have been tearing my hair over this lesson since Sunday night, for all the reasons you mentioned, especially Chapter 31. I could have written a long rant here about it, except you’ve alread written it all, and more! With increasing frustration, I’ve Googled commentary after commentary, Jewish and Christian, and found nothing that made me feel good about any of this except the actual oracles themselves. I did find a source that suggested the oracles of Balaam were taken from an older source, and that the story of Balaam and Balak was constructed as a framework around them, solely to showcase them. That sounded plausible to me. It’s also possible that one of the redactors of the Torah wrote the oracles himself. There are many allusions to expressions used in Genesis. In the end, after much hair-tearing and praying for inspiration as to how to teach something that was so obviously wrong, I decided I will teach my class a little bit about Hebrey poetry and use the oracles as examples. We’ll see how that goes on Sunday!

  11. The funniest part of this lesson is having some old boy struggling not read “Ass” out loud, as it is too dirty.

  12. In the previous lesson you mentioned how the Lord was ready to kill off the Israelites, but Moses talked him out of it. Is it possible that Balaam was plan B? That the Israelites would be like the Jaredites, and the Balaam-ites would be like the Nephites; who would use the example of the previous people as a warning?

  13. Wondering says:

    There are no reported witnesses to the Baalam and his ass story other than the angel, Baalam and the ass. I wonder who wrote it? And why? And how much was distorted from Baalam’s possible originally oral report? Could the story be prophetic of the donkey (Eddie Murphy) in Shreck? (Compare some NT uses of OT references.) Maybe it was written by someone wanting to get across the point that even a dumb ass (not the same thing as a dumbass) could get revelation when the prophet initially couldn’t. Could it be worth thinking about why that prophet initially couldn’t? Is it worth distinguishing the ways the OT uses “prophet” from the ways the LDS Church uses “prophet”?
    There are lots of ways to interest the class in this lesson. Mostly I prefer just reading the JKC Inspired Version.

  14. Aussie Mormon says:

    Balaam could have easily told Balak, or anyone else he dealt with, about the ass incident. It’s not actually that much different to things being reported about King Noah’s throne room after Alma bugged out.
    Considering some Moabite women came into the camp, they could have told what they had heard (if the story spread).

  15. Tobia: That’s a fascinating take on these chapters. I hope the lesson goes well.

    Jader3rd: The way I read the Lord’s threat back in Numbers 14 is that Moses was the plan B—that the Lord would basically make Moses the new Jacob. There don’t appear to be any “Balaam-ites,” that is, Balaam seems more like an itinerant shaman than the kind of prophet-leader Moses is portrayed as. But it’s an interesting speculation.

  16. Wondering and Aussie: Well, there may be other witnesses: the story says that Balaam went with two servants. But either way, how did the Israelites learn it? I find it fascinating when the scriptures contain accounts of events that must be second or third hand at best. Abinadi’s death is another example. One possibility is that the writers filled in the gaps with their own invention of what must have happened. That’s how I’m inclined to read Moses blaming Balaam for the heresy of Peor. Another possibility is that story just got around. But even then you have issues of unreliable reporting. Either way, I don’t think we’re supposed to read such accounts uncritically.

  17. Paul Ritchey says:

    Do we believe the Ass’s speech to have been a historical event? If not, why do we treat the dark parts as historical events? If this is myth rather than history, it seems easier to reinterpret God’s involvement in the bad stuff as a fable that should make us queasy and cautious, rather than as some faith-destroying fact of history that we must somehow explain.

  18. Paul: I’m not entirely sure who the “we” is in your comment, but it’s my sense that most church members assume that everything is historical, including the ass’s speech, but that those that have really studied these chapters are not so sure about it. There’s a number of different approaches to the “dark parts.” For example, here are a few:

    1. this is not historically accurate; this atrocity didn’t really happen.
    2. this is not historically accurate; this atrocity happened, but God didn’t command or sanction it.
    3. this is historically accurate; God commanded or sanctioned atrocities at that time, but doesn’t do so today.
    4. this is historically accurate; God sanctioned or commanded these atrocities because the victims had it coming or because it was justified for some other reason.
    5. this is historically accurate; we should be ready to commit atrocities when God commands it and God will justify us.
    6. this is historically accurate; God is a monster.

    I guess everyone has to decide for themselves how to deal with it. For my part, I place a higher priority of the loving nature of God that I know through my own experience and modern revelation than I do on the complete historical accuracy of the Old Testament. So if those two seem to be in conflict, I assume that God is good, and that the story must be wrong or incomplete, rather than assume that the story is 100% historically accurate and that God is a monster or that he justifies evil committed in his name. But even if the story is not 100% accurate, we still have to deal with the fact that this is the story that God’s chosen people chose to tell about themselves, and that they found plausible enough to keep telling. I guess what I mean is that even if we ultimately conclude that these stories are some kind of fable or myth, I think we have to take them seriously and not just dismiss them.

  19. Paul Ritchey says:

    Thanks for your thorough response, JKC. I do think we should take the stories seriously, but not literally. My point was that the “talking donkey” part is, for anyone with a reasonable grasp of critical thought, incredible. So why not the other part? I find it funny that people grapple with the “God did WHAT?” part, but nobody bats an eye at the donkey, that’s all.

  20. Great recap. I’ve been struggling with how to teach this lesson, after the obvious allusion to Shrek (“I’m making waffles in the morning.”)

    I was planning on covering Zelophehad‘s daughters. But didn’t know what else to cover. Killing adulterers with spears is definitely going to make the cut.

  21. *palms to temples* I can’t even with this lesson.

    I’ve been teaching GD for 7 years, and I had this lesson 4 years ago! Teaching the OT last time around is what started my earnest questioning of the origins of the Bible, and this time around, I just can’t even. I’m leaning heavily toward the idea of it all being [sacred, mostly meaningful] oral tradition, heavily borrowed from earlier societies, but it’s still not helping me find resonance, peace and context.

    Thank you for making my study more entertaining and validating. Literally laughed through the whole thing. Those of you who have taught already, how did it go?

  22. The JST of Numbers 22:20 does come from the Inspired Version of the Bible, and is available online http://www.centerplace.org/hs/iv/iv-num.htm#v22.1 hmm

  23. Ryan Mullen says:

    So I ordered “The Bible with Sources Revealed” by Richard Elliot Friedman. It color-codes the text by hypothesized source document (JEPD and redactor R). I read it years ago and recalled that it explained much of what’s going on here, but I couldn’t remember the details.

    In the OP, you ask:

    “We don’t seem very clear on the distinction between Moabites and Midianites. They’re sort of lumped together. Are they the same?”
    “And anyway, when did the Midianites become the bad guys? … I have a hunch that it might have something to do with the documentary hypothesis”

    And you are right. Here’s a footnote Friedman attaches to Numbers 22:4

    “Midian was not originally in this story. R added references to Midian (vv. 4 and 7) to reconcile a confusion in the texts that will arise later, where the J story of Baal Peor will be merged with the P story of Peor (see the note on Num 25:1). The J story is about Moab while the P story is about Midian. And later still, the P story of the Israelite defeat of Midian will refer to the death of Balaam among the Midianites.”

    And the footnote to Numbers 25:1

    “The women who have sexual unions with the Israelites are Moabite in Num 25:1 (J); but they are Midianite in 25:6; 31:1-16 (P). This change is consistent with other cases of polemic in P against the Mushite priesthood. Denigrating Midianite women is a denigration of Moses’ wife, who is Midianite.”

  24. Deep Think says:

    I’m teaching this tomorrow. As with all GD lessons that, like Sally says, “I can’t even”, I am choosing to approach this as inquiry into the heart of man. The good intentions of Balaam juxtaposed to the unexamined part of his heart that allowed him to keep trying to have one foot in and one foot out, which invites a call to examine our own hearts for the part that isn’t all-in on discipleship. Whether the text is historical, God is a monster, etc, seems much less relevant to me than how an inquiry into human nature can inspire us to be a little more honest with ourselves. In other words, how am I like Balaam?

  25. Deep Think and Ryan Mullen, thanks for your comments. Ryan, I’m going to look for Friedman’s book. I have a feeling that it would help me make more sense of Bokovoy’s Authoring the Old Testament if I had a more solid understanding of JEPD. And Deep Think, I kind of went there when I taught, the tendency of humanity to be basically good, but experience temptations that can often derail us. Your phrasing is more eloquent.

    We had one good chuckle when I taught. I asked if people would rather be like Balaam, who beat the donkey without seeking to understand her behavior, or like the donkey, who tried her best to mind the presence of the angel while not harming Balaam if possible, and of course they said, “like the donkey.” “Never thought I’d say ‘I’d rather be the ass.'” said a former stake presidency counselor.

    ( I am both Sally and salllbug2014 above)