Monday, November 3, 2014

Numbers: Chapter 23

What do you see 

When the earth-eye

 is covered

staring out 
over the waste?. 

The edge

The part 

The whole?

[For full chapter, click here
This chapter continues seamlessly from the last (and indeed, there is no break in the Masoretic text). Structurally, we continue the the fairytale pattern of triples. The three attempts of the she-ass to avoid the angel are here echoed here by Balaam's three attempts to curse the nation.  (the fairtale element is augmented by the addition of series of sevens).
Lexicaly, the sections share the same leitworts: a focus on sight, a focus on speech, the word "to stand" (nitzav) and "get up" (kum), as well as a triple play on k'a'ra (to call) likrat ("coming towards") and kar ("happen upon").
Once again, Balaam plays lip service to obeying God; yet once again, he makes numerous attempts to circumvent God's will by "trying"multiple angles, until he at last he must  admit "God is not a man, that he should lie / nor a human, that He should change his mind".  
If in the previous chapter, Israel is accused of "covering the eye of the land, here the gaze becomes ominous and predatory. Three times, Balak leads Balaam to a different overlook. In each, he hopes that the "height" will offer a view that will allow him to destroy what is looked upon.: "perhaps you may curse them from there." Yet the searching gaze is not successful. Just as Balaam did not "see" the angel blocking his path, he remains the "man of the blocked eye (shetum ha-ayin)." His gaze cannot define what he grasps out, and he must do what is right in "God's eyes." 
Even as the power of the gaze is circumscribed,  humanity's ability to use language is also  undermined. If in the previous chapter, God "opened" the ass' mouth, granting her speech, here He "puts words" into Balaam's mouth, reducing him to a ventriloquist dummy. 
The power of speech, which has been the focus of this book since the spies "evil speech" regarding the Land, here reaches its crescendo--and its boundaries. From report, to complaint, to parley, to song, to curse, we arrive at high poetry, as "Balaam carries his poem" offering blessings that echo Jacob's primal blessings to his children (he even touches on Israel's contact with the primordial power of speech in their encounter with the "serpents" [nahash]]. Yet here also we arrive at the limits of human language: Balaam cannot "curse where God does not curse." Divine language cannot be undone. The primal promise to Abraham remains, maugre Balak's  protests "Do not curse them and do not bless them." 

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