Saturday, May 31, 2008

Whose eye sees clearly (part two)

by John D Ramsey

From Kingdom in Context[1] Click here for part one of two.

Balaam was never honest with Balak, the king of Moab. God had told Balaam that Israel was blessed, and not to curse them. However, Balaam tells Balak, “The word that God puts in my mouth, that I shall speak.”[2] Balaam did not inform Balak that God had already revealed his will regarding Israel.

Balaam directed Balak to build seven altars and to sacrifice a bull and a ram on each altar. This is unusual for a prophet of God because in the Old Testament, God prescribed sacrifices for atonement for sin, fellowship, dedication, and freewill. There was no sacrifice by which to receive an omen. Nevertheless, this was a common pagan practice. Balaam had Balak offer sacrifices on the high places, as if he could bribe God. God certainly did not order sacrifices from Balaam or Balak. After the sacrifices, Balaam went off alone. We learn from Numbers 24:1 that Balaam went away by himself to obtain omens or oracles. Scripture does not tell us the particulars of Balaam’s ritual; whatever it was, it was not a God-ordained.

When God appeared to him, Balaam told him, “I have prepared seven altars, and on each altar I have offered a bull and a ram.”[3] Did Balaam think that God would not have known what he had done? God never acknowledged the sacrifices, but he told Balaam to return to Balak and speak the words that God put into Balaam’s mouth.

When he returned to Balak, Balaam began to prophesy. He blessed Israel. Balak was alarmed. He had asked for a curse but instead Balaam delivered a blessing. Twice more Balak takes Balaam to high places where Balaam can see Israel. Twice more Balaam directs Balak to offer sacrifices. Only once more does Balaam seek an omen, the third time Balaam understood that God would bless Israel. The spirit of God came upon him and Balaam prophesied a kingdom for Israel. He did this without practicing his ritual because Balaam realized that his efforts were not affecting God’s will.

When Balak realized that Balaam could not curse Israel, he told Balaam to flee to his home. Balak said to Balaam, “I said I would reward you handsomely, but the LORD has kept you from being rewarded.”[4] Balaam argued with Balak reminding him of the indemnification agreement: Balaam could only speak what God put into his mouth. When it was clear that Balak would not pay him, Balaam took the moral high ground, saying, “What the LORD speaks, that I will speak.”[5]

Balaam then prophesied twice more. He blessed Israel proclaiming that a star would rise from Jacob and a scepter from Israel. He cursed Moab and Edom and Israel’s other enemies. Balaam, speaking by the Holy Spirit, blessed Israel and cursed nearly all the nations he could see from the mountaintop except for Midian.

This omission is particularly interesting because Midian was party to Balak’s original plan to curse Israel. Moab is cursed, but Balaam’s prophesies never mention Midian. Balaam then went home, and Balak went to back to his business of being king. At some time, it occurred to Balaam how to turn God’s anger toward Israel. Balaam returned to Midian. Balaam probably considered it a safe haven for him to launch his scheme because of all the area nations, it was not cursed.

According to Balaam’s plan, the women of Moab and Midian would seduce the men of Israel into worship of the Baal of Peor, the god to whom they sacrificed on the mountain of Peor. Their worship included ritualistic immoral behavior. The bargain was essentially sacrifice for sex. Balaam knew that if God would not permit him to curse whom God had blessed, he also would not tolerate unfaithfulness in those whom he had chosen for his own people.

The seduction of Israel worked as planned; Moab seduced many from Israel. God in his anger sent a plague against his people. God commanded Moses to make an example of all the leaders of the people. English translations are unclear in this context. They say that God told Moses to kill all the leaders of the people. Then they say that Moses told the heads of each household to kill those in his family who had joined themselves to Baal-Peor. The Septuagint is clearer. It says that God commanded Moses to make examples of the leaders by having them kill those of their family who had joined themselves to Baal-Peor. The patriarchs would have to purge their own families of this sin.

Even while people were weeping at the door of the tabernacle, a man led a woman from Midian right passed them. Israelites were dying from a plague because of the sin they had committed with the women of Moab. Now a man named Zimre brings a woman from Midian named Cozbi into the camp. Some people are crying, others are dying, and Zimre prioritizes his own sexual lust over the good of the nation. What was he thinking?

Moses’ first wife was a Midianite. Jethro, Moses’ father-law-law was a priest to God in Midian. Perhaps Zimri saw a distinction between Midian and Moab. Phinehas, the son of the high priest, Eliazar, saw no distinction. He took a spear, followed the Zimri and the Cozbi into the tent, and killed them both. God stopped the plague against Israel. Zimri serves as an example that we avoid the error of self-justification.

Both Moab and Midian were involved in the seduction of Baal-Peor, but God spoke to Moses and said,

Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them, for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they deceived you in the affair of Peor and the affair of Cozbi, the daughter of the leader of Midian, their sister who was slain on the day of the plague because of Peor.[6]

Later in Numbers 31, the day of reckoning comes for Midian. Twelve thousand soldiers from Israel annihilated all the men of Midian. They killed the five kings of Midian, and they killed Balaam. As they were killing Balaam with a sword, perhaps he was remembering the angel standing before him with a drawn sword. Perhaps he finally understood that God could not be gamed. Balaam’s oracles had not cursed Midian. Perhaps this led him to feel safe among the Midianites. Perhaps God concealed the destruction of Midian as a trap for Balaam. Balaam, “who [heard] the words of God, who [had] knowledge from the Most High, who [saw] a vision from the Almighty,” was unaware that he had brought destruction upon himself and upon Midian until it was too late. Ironically, Moab escaped immediate judgment despite their complicity with Baal-Peor. Moab lived at peace with Israel for 300 years.

When Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman at the well, she asked him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”[7] The mountain where the Samaritans worshipped was a high place. We know from Josephus that the temple the Samaritans built to Almighty God, they rededicated the “Temple of Jupiter Hellenius”.[8] They did this voluntarily because Antiochus Epiphane was persecuting Jews in Jerusalem. The Samaritan’s approach to worship was pagan; they worshipped whatever name was convenient. They worshipped on terms that they dictated. They decided how they would define God. They were Universalists of their era, thinking that every name of every God was equivalent. Jesus told the woman at the well,

Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.[9]

To the Samaritans, if worshipping Almighty God led to persecution by Antiochus, they would simply worship another god-name that did not offend Antiochus. Their name for God notwithstanding, their worship was always pagan. Even when they sacrificed to Almighty God, they did so as pagans. They were pagan because it focused upon giving to get. God was a means to an end. Personal peace and prosperity was valued above all. They would not suffer for the name of God.

Likewise, Balaam’s practices were pagan. He offered sacrifices to God with the expectation that he would benefit. God’s will meant nothing to Balaam unless it aligned with Balaam’s will. Balaam sacrificed burnt offerings to bribe God. He did not honestly seek God’s will; rather he tried to change God’s mind.

The sacrifices of the patriarchs of Israel were different. Abraham ordered his servant to kill a fatted calf because the Lord appeared to Abraham at Mamre. Abraham did not to conjure an appearance of God. God appeared to Abraham because he had chosen Abraham. Abraham tithed to Melchizedek because God had prospered Abraham in battle. Abraham did not visit Melchizedek to seek an omen before pursing the kings of Shinar; he praised God with Melchizedek afterwards. Likewise, Gideon sacrificed a kid goat because the Lord appeared to him Ophrah. Elisha sacrificed his oxen after Elijah called him to follow as his servant. Great examples of faith from the Old Testament responded to what God had said or done. Nowhere in the Old Testament Law does it prescribe an offering for conjuring a spirit or seeking an omen. Nevertheless, that is exactly what Balaam did.

Balaam trivialized God even though he “[heard] the words of God . . . [had] knowledge from the Most High, [and saw] a vision from the Almighty.” He thought that God could be out-maneuvered. He gave to God to get from God. When God did not provide what Balaam sought, Balaam contrived a solution, a work-around. Balaam prioritized his own wealth over God’s purpose. He used Moab and Midian to deceive Israel to abandon God in favor of a give-to-get paganism. By serving their innate sensuality in pagan ritual, Israel actually served demons (Deuteronomy 32:17, 1 Corinthians 10:20). Balaam was a pagan evangelist.

Although Balaam was a prophet with knowledge of God, his approach to God was still pagan. Balaam thereby serves as a warning to us. Paganism gives to get. It labors for love. It fondles for favor. It assumes that deity can be cajoled or manipulated. The object of pagan worship is usually a false god, but it might also be a false understanding of God. It does not matter that we get God's name right, if we attribute to him qualities that are false.

In Acts 17, Paul realized that the Athenians worshipped Almighty God in a pagan way. They erected a monument to the “UNKNOWN GOD”. Paul told them not to worship God in that manner. He said, “[God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”[10] Paul preached the truth to the Athenians regarding the God they worshipped in ignorance.

Paul also warned the Galatian believers who were being tempted by a ritualistic approach to God, saying, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.”[11] We cannot approach God on our terms. We cannot worship God as we want him to be. Our worship cannot gratify our flesh. We must worship God in spirit and in truth.

Even though God used Balaam to pronounce blessings on Israel, God did not bless Balaam. Though Balaam knew God, Balaam was faithless. Though Balaam’s eye saw clearly that which God revealed to him, he failed to see the character of God. Balaam was pagan even though he was a prophet of Almighty God. Moreover, Balaam “loved the wages of wickedness” and God destroyed him by the hand of those whom Balaam had tried to destroy.

Looking at Balaam, we should examine our approach to God. Do we give to get? Do we think that we can manipulate God with our piety and for our benefit? Do we presume that God needs us? Do we worship God for what we want him to be instead of who he says he is? These attitudes indicate a pagan approach to God. Let us instead worship God in spirit and in truth. We worship in spirit by laying aside the trappings of religion which are material and ritualistic, and we worship in truth by learning who God really is and acknowledging what he has done. Worshipping in spirit and truth means living in the relationship that we have with God through Christ.

If our confidence is in what we do, or in what we have done, then we are no better off than the Samaritans who worshipped in the high places. They sometimes worshipped the right God-name, but they always worshipped the wrong way. They did not care whether their worship was acceptable to God Almighty, but only whether it was acceptable to men. If we think that our prayers and actions will convince the Almighty to do our bidding, then are we not acting as Balaam did? Is this not putting our confidence in ourselves? If we have confidence in our ability to please God through our efforts, then we are pagans, and our confidence is in vain.

If, on the other hand, our confidence rests wholy upon what God has done for us, if we respond to him because he has already lavished his love upon us, then how can we be shaken? If we love him because he first loved us, then we are blessed.


[1] This discussion is taken from Kingdom in Context, a little weekly Bible study in which I take part.
[2] Numbers 21:38 (NASB)
[3] Numbers 23:4 (NIV)
[4] Numbers 24:10 (NIV)
[5] Numbers 24:13 (NASB)
[6] Numbers 25:17-18 (NASB)
[7] John 4:19, 20 (NIV)
[8] Antiquities of the Jews, Flavius Josephus, Book VII, Chapter 5
[9] John 4:21-24 (NIV)
[10] Acts 17:25 (NIV)
[11] Galatians 6:7 (NASB)

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