Saturday, November 1, 2014

Numbers: Chapter 22

When roads seem open
What stands in the way?

A fence here 

A fence there 
A sword in the middle

What do you do?

[For full chapter, click here
Though there is a distinct change of ambiance, this chapter continues many of the previous chapter's themes. We continue the recreation of the Exodus, with Balak echoing the Egyptian's "disgust" (va-yakutz) with the "multitudes" (rav) of Israel; and a return to seeing the nation as sub-human, animal like. On a deeper level, we continue the focus on narrative. From parley, poetry and dirge, we now come words as warfare. Balak hires Balaam to "curse me this people... that I might smite them." The focus on curse and blessing returns is to the  primal roots of the children of Israel: the promise to  Abraham that "I will bless you...and you will be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you; and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 12 2-3). 
Indeed, this  almost fairytale like-story, with its talking animals and pattern of threes, has profound resonances. Balaam seems to recreate, in simple, comic, form, the story of the fall of Moses. Moses was condemned to death after a a puzzling scene, in which he "hit" (va-yach) the rock twice rather than speaking to it. 
Here, Balaam is called by Balak. God tells him not to follow the Moabites: : 'You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people; for they are blessed.'Yet Balaam hopes that God will perhaps be persuaded, telling the messengers to again "stay the night." After the second visit, God indeed seems to give in: "If they have come to call you, go with these men:." Yet at the same time, Balaam s warned: "only the word which I speak to you will  you do."
Balaam jumps at the opening, and follows the men. God sends an angel to block his path. Balaam is oblivious to the angel, yet his ass repeatedly stops, in an attempt to avoid the outstretched sword. In response, Balaam "hits" (va-yach) the ass twice--the second time "with his stick" in a virtual recreation of Moses' "hitting the rock" with his staff.
Balaam, with his repeated "turns" (ve-yet), his repeated attempts to hear something different from God's mouth, his refusal to understand the presence of the angel, exemplifies the desire to force things. His oblivious "hitting" of the ass exemplifies force-in-action.
Balaam, the great magician who is to curse an entire nation, is unable to control his ass with words: "if I had a sword, I would kill you," he says, in profound irony, as an angel with a sword stands right before him. Here, he is exposed as a fool: more blind than his ass, trying to force his way through the world--and God--going "contrary" to the angel, ignoring God's "flaming anger" while getting "flaming angry" at the animal that is trying to save his life.
Moses, in hitting the rock rather than trusting that it would respond to God's command, demonstrated the same failing, if on a more subtle level. He remained in a mode of warfare, trying to force his will on the world. Like the nation he leads, he has not managed to completely free himself from Egypt. Hes till acts as he did when he functioned as the redeemer who "smote" (vayach) the waters, rather than as the "faithful" ones who speaks "mouth  to mouth" with God.]

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