The Complete Book of Numbers

Plagues. Food Poisoning. Earthquakes. Now Snakes! What Will God Think of Next?
What's really in the Good Book.
Aug. 3 2006 3:38 PM

The Complete Book of Numbers

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Read Blogging the Bible Entries about Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, or Numbers.

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David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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Chapter 21
The Israelites are back to bellyaching again, this time about the manna. ("We have come to loathe this miserable food.") The Lord responds as usual to their complaints—with fury. This time He unleashes a plague of poisonous vipers against the Israelites ( Snakes on a Plain?). The terrified Israelites apologize to Moses. At God's advice, Moses fashions a serpent out of copper and attaches it to a flagpole. Any bite victim who looks at the snake statue is immediately healed.

I don't know about you, but I'm pretty impressed by the variety of God's afflictions. He's a very creative punisher. So far, the Lord has inflicted upon the wandering Israelites: skin diseases, food poisoning (from the quail), sundry plagues, several fires, an earthquake, and now snakes. It's like the second season of Survivor out there.

The Israelites have grown into a fearsome army. They smash the king of Arad. The king of the Amorites refuses to let them pass, so the Israelites quickly conquer him, too. Immediately afterward, they defeat King Og of Bashan and take his land as well. By my reading, they seem to have conquered all the land west of the Jordan river (that is, the Israelites hold the West Bank, and their enemies hold what is now Israel—a reversal of today). How do we reconcile their military prowess with their incessant whimpering? If they're so spineless, how do they rout their enemies so easily?

Chapter 22 to Chapter 24
A long and seriously bizarre episode about Moabite King Balak and the seer Balaam. The story goes like this: Balak, fearing the Israelite army, sends messengers to Balaam, asking him to curse the Israelites. Balaam consults with God, who orders him not to help Balak: "You must not curse that people, for they are blessed." So, Balaam refuses Balak. But the king won't take no for an answer. Balaam consults God again, who tells him to go to Balak but to obey the Lord's orders.

At this point, the story is interrupted by perhaps the most inexplicable incident in the Bible so far. God is apparently irked at Balaam for accepting Balak's invitation—even though God Himself told him to accept it—and blocks Balaam's way with an invisible angel. Balaam keeps urging his ass forward, but the angel won't let the animal pass. Balaam beats the ass, who proceeds to open her mouth and protest, "What have I done to you that you have beaten me?" The Lord reveals the angel to Balaam, who apologizes (though not to the ass).

Say what you will about the Bible's reliability, about its improbable events and unbelievable miracles, but the Good Book does not—unlike Greek and Roman mythology, our own fairy tales, and most religions—have talking animals. Balaam's ass and the snake in the Garden of Eden are the only exceptions I can think of. I have no clever explanation for the Bible's absence of chatty camels and sassy roosters, but it certainly makes it a more persuasive book. Nor do I understand why the Bible suspends its dumb-beast rule for Balaam's ass, except that it's an effective way to teach us about the invisible powers of God. Balaam can't see the angel and assumes it isn't there. He can't imagine an ass could speak, and so beats it cruelly. The ass's voice and the revelation of the angel remind him of the endless and impossible powers of God—that even as Balaam goes to visit the Israelites' enemy Balak, God will be watching him.

The angel orders Balaam to say only to Balak what the Lord tells him. So, when he meets the king, Balaam ignores Balak's demand that he curse the Israelites. Instead—inspired by God—Balaam sings a song of praise to them. Balak tries again to have Balaam issue an imprecation, but again Balaam recites a hymn to the enemy: "Lo, a people that rises like a lion, leaps up like the king of beasts," etc. Balak gets understandably frustrated that his seer won't curse the Israelites. A third time Balaam extols Israel: "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! … They shall devour enemy nations, crush their bones." Balak is now absolutely enraged that his hired gun won't do his bidding (Imagine Balak as Richard Nixon and Balaam as Archibald Cox). Balaam won't heed the Moabite king, this time promising that Israel will smash "the brow of Moab." Balaam goes home, leaving a very disconsolate King Balak behind him.

A few things are intriguing about Balaam and Balak. This is the first time God talks to a non-Israelite. (I'm counting Adam, Eve, etc., as proto-Israelites.) Balaam is not from the tribes and does not even seem to be a follower of God. He has mystical powers, but not because he is on Moses' team. In other words, this is the first time the Bible explicitly recognizes that the Israelites don't have a monopoly on God's attention.

Second—a related point—this is the only story in the Bible told from the point of view of Israel's enemies. Since the Garden of Eden, we have only heard from our side—from Isaac, not Ishmael; from Jacob, not Esau; from the Israelites, not the Egyptians; from Moses, not Korah. History is written by the victors, and it's also narrated by the victors. (Imagine the story of Exodus if it were told by Pharaoh. In fact, don't imagine it, write it as a novel. And give me a 10 percent royalty for the idea.) But this episode is seen through the eyes of Balak, who's an enemy of Israel, and Balaam, who, while not exactly an enemy, is not a friend. The result, oddly, is a story that makes God look much better than He does when He's among the Israelites. With the Chosen People, God is bullying, capricious, and cruel. He doesn't listen. He's impatient. With Balaam, God shelves the whole Almighty Avenger shtick. Instead, He persuades and cajoles and wins over the skeptical Balaam to the Israelites' side. It is here, away from His Chosen People, that God is the subtle, wise, and convincing deity whom we know and love.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com . E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Update, Aug. 3, 5:00 p.m.: Reader Jeremy Senderowicz reminds me that the Balaam episode is not the first time God talks to a non-Israelite. Back in Genesis, Chapter 20, God appears to King Abimelech in a dream and warns him not to seduce Sarah, because she is married to Abraham. Embarrassingly, I wrote about the Abimelech-God parley in May but forgot about it. The Abimelech episode also confirms the thesis that God is more appealing when He's away from His Chosen People. The Lord is quite forgiving toward Abimelech and gives the king a chance to avoid making the terrible mistake of sleeping with Sarah.

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