“And they possessed the land.”
This message of hope about the conquest of a sliver of Wilderness brings chapter 21 to a close and forms a pivot on which the book of Numbers turns. The slave generation had lamented that they would “die in the wilderness,” and the LORD had granted their wish. Those who had lived as adult slaves in Egypt, and so often longed to return there, would fall one generation short of the Promised Land. However, chapter 21 is a bit of a watershed as years pass in a blink, and Israel is victorious over their enemies.
There’s another change in tone that you might catch here. Did you notice yesterday that when Israel and Edom met they were each referred to as “he?” It was as if the author was highlighting that after hundreds of years, these two brothers – once known as Jacob and Esau – still couldn’t get along. That same language emerges again in chapter 21, as “Israel” is often used as a proper noun. Perhaps this is an indication of the nation finally fighting as one man, which would be a welcome change.
The children of Israel sweep southward – which causes some grumbling – but then sweep up toward the Dead Sea and approach the land of Moab. Chapter 22 begins an almost lighthearted episode as King Balak of Moab sends to northern Syria to recruit the help of Balaam because “I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” You may recognize that language from the call to Abram in Genesis 12 – and I think we’re supposed to.
The plot of the story is that Balak wants Balaam to come and pronounce a curse on Israel so Balak and Moab can defeat them. Balaam, the great prophet-merchandizer, initially refuses when the LORD tells him not to go. Balak sends even more important princes and offers of greater wealth if Balaam would just come. The LORD comes again to Balaam at night and curiously changes His mind – though Balaam is only allowed to “do what I tell you.” So Balaam goes, only to be challenged by a talking donkey. Yes, you heard that right. And at the end of this, I promise it will make total sense.
The lightheartedness is intertwined with a deadly seriousness and masterful bit of storytelling. Notice how many things happen in threes. Question why – or whether – the LORD changes His mind. Ask whether Balaam is righteous or purely mercenary. Smirk not when Balaam’s animal speaks, but when Balaam responds as though nothing extraordinary has happened. And wonder whether the LORD will allow him to complete his assigned mission.
Our verse for this week is 1 Corinthians 10:4: “And all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
Numbers chapters 21 and 22. Now let’s read it!
and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.