Numbers 21-24: Genocide, talking donkey, blessings

The king of Arad attacks the Israelites, after which the LORD commands Israel to utterly destroy them and their cities.  The Israelites do so.  After being punished with snakes for complaining against Moses, they defeat the Amorites and occupy their territory.  After another victory against King Og of Bashan, they come upon the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.

Balak, king of Moses, commands the non-Israelite prophet Balam to curse the Israelites.  Balaam consults with God and refuses to go.  After Balak sends for him again, he consults the God again, who allows him to go.  After he sets off, God becomes angry and sends an angel to block his path.  Three times his donkey sees the angel but he does not.  His donkey then talks to him, after which he sees the angel as well.  Finally, God allows him to meet Balak.  Three times Balak asks him to curse Israel; three times Balaam consults with God and blesses Israel instead.  Finally, Balaam predicts the victory of Israel over the Moabites, the destruction of the Amalekites, the conquest of the Kenites by Asshur, and the subjection of Asshur by Kittim.

Commentary:

  • The Balaam story, ch 22-24, is probably of different authorship than the rest of Numbers.  The story is itself taken from at least two contradictory sources.  This can be seen most strikingly by comparing 22:20 and 22:22.  22:20 reads “That night God came to Balaam and said to him, ‘If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them.  But whatever I command you, that you shall do.'”  22:22 reads “But God was incensed at his going; so an angel of the LORD placed himself in his way as an adversary.”  Assuming the LORD did not change his mind suddenly and for no reason, 22:22 is probably the beginning of a different account, one that is less favorable to Balaam than the first.
  • The LORD places the cities of the king of Arad under herem (21:1-3).  Herem is the complete obliteration of a people and their possessions, leaving nobody alive and depositing all booty in the Sanctuary.  It is more complete than genocide, which is only the killing of people.
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