KADESH-BARNEA: Numbers 13-14; The Turning Point

The majority report of the twelve spies (Numbers 13) sets off a panic and a revolt among the Israelites, from which their generation never recovered. Some scholars assert that, had they believed the minority report of Joshua and Caleb and continued marching into Canaan, not only would they have cut 38 years off their wilderness wanderings (the first two were necessary for installing the rites, laws and institutions that would keep them from becoming Egypt-point-two), they might have avoided much of the bloodshed they suffered and committed in the invasion by the next generation. For “the fear of the Lord” was still upon Egypt’s buffer and vassal states in the region. Many of them might have fled, or sought peace with Israel, maybe even assimilating into Israel’s faith and governance. By the time the faithless generation had died off (except for Joshua and Caleb), the tribes and states in the land were united, ready and resistant to Israel.


What did he do to forfeit his right to enter the Promised Land? In Numbers 20, we read about another community plague of panic, this time over water, or the lack thereof. God instructed Moses to speak to a certain rock, and it will bring forth water (A biblical parable about prayer to God, The Rock?) Moses seems to have had a temper tantrum instead, speaking harshly to the people, and striking the rock twice with his rod. Small, minor details, it seems, but they may indicate a bigger picture of the state of Moses and a persistent flaw in his leadership, as great as it otherwise was. The Bible interprets itself in Psalm 106 :33: “rash words came from Moses’ lips.” Such weakness would handicap the people upon their entry into Canaan. Here again we see a striking difference between the Bible and other religious literature that took shape among Israel’s pagan neighbors at the time. In the latter category, the founding/leading religious and political figures are usually one-dimensionally perfect, all-knowing, all-sufficient, all-conquering, divine or semi-divine figures. All of Israel and her leaders and servants are, by contrast, flawed and fallible human beings whom God uses, almost in spite of themselves.


Compare the story of Numbers 21: 4-9 with with how the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth interpreted the story in John 3: 14-15: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Then II Cor. 5: 21 for Rabbi Saul of Tarsus’ take: “God made him [Christ] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

There was something about facing the symbol of their affliction that overcame this affliction. Likewise, God’s incarnation and identification with us mortal sinners through the human Christ is our healing from death and sin.

Numbers 22-24: PROPHET VS. PROPHET, Balaam vs. Moses

Before we consider the stark contrasts of pagan magic and divination with Israel, her law and prophets, the reader must determine why the angel of God is ready to kill Balaam when he is obeying God’s directive to go with the royal emissaries of Balaak. When the angel tells Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you,” (italics mine) it may indicate that Balaam had first gone with a greedy spirit, thinking or hoping he had divine permission to curse Israel for hire. In the Bible’s self-interpretation, this seems to be the case, as Peter points out in his “Second Letter, chapter 2, verse 15: “They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness.” Balaam shows up in other, later Bible passages as a symbol of spiritual power for hire, against the purposes of God. Though Balaam was unable to curse Israel, he helped engineer the curse of sacralized, idolatrous temptation in Moab’s pagan shrines, to entice Israel into the conjoined twin sins of idolatry and fornication (Numbers 25), thus dispelling (temporarily) God’s favor and protection. When Israel went to war with Moab, on the way into the Promised Land, Balaam was listed among the kings and priests killed. Balaam and Moses then become studies, by comparison and contrast, in prophecy and prophetic ministry, that of Israel and her God, versus that of Egypt’s imperial vassal and buffer states and their local gods.

But the story, stretching over chapters 22-24, raises several other questions:

  1. Why would anyone think that a priest or prophet could engineer an effective curse against anyone, let alone a nation?
  2. Why would anyone think that changing the location of the ritual might change the results?
  3. Why would God even show up and talk to a pagan priest, prophet and diviner like Balaam?

The third question first: This story is one clue, among many others in the Pentateuch, that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was already well-known among Israel’s neighbors, considered perhaps as one god among many, or a supreme One above all the others, but not as one friendly to the gods of war, empire, commerce, magic and fertility, nor to the divinized human beings at the pinnacle of political and military power (i.e., kings and queens) who demanded worship, sacrifice and obedience as gods. So YHWH, God of Israel, may have already been a familiar (but feared?) figure to a shaman, priest, sorcerer and soothsayer like Balaam. Balaam may have been like one of the spiritually gifted people I have met who, though not disciples of Jesus, whatever their religion, are more sensitive to and aware of spiritual forces and realities around and within themselves than is the average bloke, even the average Christian. Most of the time, it is a blessing that we are in the dark about the unseen spiritual forces and beings around us, as long as we are clinging to God and under his authority. While this heightened spiritual sensitivity is a gift (which I don’t have), it can also be a curse, if it is sought and developed for reasons of pride and power over others. Come to think of it, this same temptation afflicts Christians and their leaders. With this gift, one might have special insight into the workings and presence of God, as well as of other spiritual entities, forces and movements. For Christians, such gifts are called “discernment” and “prophecy.” But their employment is for entirely different reasons than those of Balaam, who sought wealth, prestige, power and distinction over and against others.

As for the first question, Why would anyone think that a priest or prophet could engineer an effective curse against anyone, let alone a nation? we have to place ourselves into the pagan, pantheistic, primal mindset. In that worldview, the line between the Creator and Creation is not solid; indeed, nature and divinity are one and the same. Thus its not unreasonable, in this worldview, to think that certain human beings, or all human beings with the right rituals, tools and words, would have divine power to curse and to bless, because they themselves are divine, or semi-divine. As Christians we should take seriously our God-given mandate to bless others, not because we are God or gods, but because God dwells with and within us.

Which leads to the second question: How would moving from one shrine or mountain-top to another change the blessing or curse coming from Balaam’s mouth, as Balaak seemed to hope? In the primal, pagan worldview, if all people are divine, and some more divine than others, then the same is true of places. All places are infused with divine presence and power, some more so than others. And some places are infused with the powers of some deities and spirits, while others are the shrines and abodes of others. Like a caller wandering around to get better cell phone reception, Balaak and Balaam hoped they might get a more favorable spiritual event from a different spiritual location. Though YHWH God chose to make the Jerusalem Temple his (temporary) footstool, it was already revolutionary enough, in the time of the Exodus, for him to dwell with a people on the move, in a portable Tabernacle. Then, with the giving of God’s Holy Spirit, God is enshrined in his people everywhere throughout the earth, where they live, love and worship.


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