Tagged: Talking donkey

The Angel of the Lord and a Talking Donkey

The background in the previous post helps us better understand the encounter between Balaam and the angel of the Lord. At the beginning of Numbers 22, the Israelites are camped on the plains of Moab near the Jordan River, across from Jericho. They have just defeated the Amorites, and the Moabite king Balak fears the Israelites plan to overthrow him. So, he sends a diplomatic envoy to Balaam of Pethor in upper Mesopotamia, a distance of some four hundred and twenty miles, which requires roughly twenty-five days of travel in each direction. 

Seers of the gods in ancient times are called upon to place or remove curses, pronounce blessings, and provide counsel. Their techniques include divination, incantation, animal sacrifice, and the reading of omens. They are skilled at manipulating deities to bring about the result for which they are paid handsomely.

Balaam’s reputation is well known. An inscription in a temple at Deir ‘Alla, Jordan, discovered during a 1967 excavation, recalls that Balaam, son of Beor, a “seer of the gods,” has a frightening night vision that foretells a period of drought and darkness, of mourning and death, in which the natural order of the world is reversed. Balaam implores the goddesses Ashtar and Sheger to bring light, rain, and fertility to the land. Evidently, the goddesses deliver, for the structure at Deir ‘Alla and its wall inscriptions may have been built to honor them, and to acknowledge Balaam’s successful mediation. In any case, Balak sees a potential ally in Balaam, to whom the king says, “I know that those you bless are blessed and those you curse are cursed” (Num. 22:6). 

The king is counting on Balaam. Ancient Near Eastern texts record the power of priests and prophets to discern, intervene, and even manipulate the will of the gods through means of augury (the interpretation of omens), special sacrificial rituals, and verbal pronouncements of blessing or cursing. Surely, this renowned prophet, who has called successfully on Ashtar and Sheger, is able to manipulate the will of the Israelite God.

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