From: Nicole Garcia
When the Israelites encamp in Moab, and their strength and success has become clear to Balaak, the Moabite king, he sets out to secure his kingdom against them: he calls upon Balaam, a non-Israelite diviner, to curse them. Balaam eventually agrees to do what he can, but stresses that his contribution will be determined by what he hears from God.
There are a number of things that struck me about the figure of Balaam in this narrative (e.g., the fact that he is spoken to God in the way that he is without being a member of God’s people), but the following points were most salient: First, Balaam realizes that there is a way to approach God in order to receive a word from him and that doing all that he should do in this regard does not guarantee that he will receive a word from God. (Ach!) Second, Balaam also realizes that if one receives a word from God, that is the only word for one to speak, regardless of how it may be received. This sets Balaam worlds apart from Balak.
Balak wants a result—the demise of Israel—and he tries to exploit Balaam and his practice of divination to secure that result. From his perspective, the success of his interaction with Balaam is a matter of whether or not Balaam ends up cursing the Israelites. Balaam, on the other hand, has integrity as a diviner (the qualification is important given what Balaam ends up doing later on in the narrative…!) and does not tailor his product to the desires of his audience. He will only provide the word that God puts in his mouth. Balak wants to control the divine for his ends. Balaam sees that this is out of the question. He must wait for God to give a word, and God is the sole determiner of its content.
There are undoubtedly significant differences between us and Balaam, and there are undoubtedly significant issues with Balaam at the end of the day. Nevertheless, there are many ways in which I think his example, contrasted with Balak’s, proves helpful for us. For my own part, I find that in many situations, especially those in which it’s very clear that I need wisdom that I do not have, I do not expect to receive word from God for my particular situation, and so in turn fail to intentionally approach God for one. A word would not be guaranteed, to be sure, but the asking is fitting, and when a word seems absent that opens up fruitful internal conversation about what is in fact needful for my situation and how that may be provided for in ways I don’t yet recognize.
Moreover, I find that even when I am aware of my need to ask for a word from God for a particular situation, I still too often proceed to gauge what I should say by how the word might be received—by whether or not it will have a positive reception. This tendency can be generated not only by a concern to be liked or accepted, but also in an incredibly non-trivial way, namely, by a misunderstanding of the way in which God’s word should be beneficial and edifying to its recipients. Either way, it’s easy to become ill-positioned to receive or recognize God’s word as God’s word, and/or become ill-positioned to speak it even if it becomes clear to one. The figure of Balaam and his interactions with Balak in this narrative help show how this might be and how to correct for it.
I am a (perpetually exhausted) full-time doctoral student in philosophy and teacher-in-training, currently residing in Davis Square. Walking trips and ukulele/guitar-playing help keep me sane/help me process life, in addition to being genuine sources of great joy.