Monday of Week 3 of Advent – First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17

Today’s first reading is from the book of Numbers. It is from that part of the Bible (the five books of Pentateuch) which deals with the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Law to Moses, the long trek through the desert for 40 years and the settling in to the Promised Land.

In today’s reading, the Israelites are close to reaching their destination but, understandably, their arrival is not welcomed by those already in possession of these lands. The reading features the strange character of Balaam. He was a prophet or diviner from Pethor, near the River Euphrates in Mesopotamia. He had been asked by Balak, king of the Moabites, to put a curse on the invading Israelites. Babylonia was renowned in those times for divination.

Although he was in Jewish terms, a non-believer, not one of God’s people, Balaam does not seem to be able to carry out his mission, much to the surprise of Balak. Instead, he becomes an instrument of God’s plan. The author of Numbers puts four oracles in the mouth of Balak and we have two of them, the third and fourth, in today’s reading. They are inserted rather artificially into the narrative with which they do not seem to have a direct connection.

Our reading opens by telling us that Balaam sees the Israelites, encamped according to their tribes. He then speaks, but the implication is that the words are not his own, and certainly not what he was expected to say. He describes himself as a man with “far-seeing eyes”, as “one who hears the word of God” and “sees what Shaddai [the Almighty] makes him see”, and that “his eyes are opened”.

Earlier there had been the strange experience with his donkey. On his way to curse the Israelites, the donkey suddenly stopped and refused to go further because the way was blocked by an angel of the Lord. Even though he beat the animal severely, it refused to go forward. Eventually God spoke through the mouth of the donkey, and Balaam’s eyes were suddenly opened to the presence of God before him. The implication is that even Balaam’s donkey could see better than he could.

The words that flow from Balaam’s mouth speak in high praise of Israel and of its prosperous future. “How fair are your tents, O Jacob!…Like valleys that stretch afar, like gardens…like aloes…like cedars beside the waters.” Here is an image of the “land flowing with milk and honey” which Yahweh had promised earlier. The lushness of their new home is reminiscent of the fertility and peace of Eden.

“A hero arises from their stock, he reigns over countless peoples. His king is greater than Agag.” Agag, representing the Amalekite kings, will give way to a greater king from Israel, perhaps indicating Saul, Israel’s first king, whose victory over King Agag is described in the First Book of Samuel (chap 15). Or it may be a reference to Saul’s successor, David. In any case, it leads us on to the second part of today’s reading which contains the fourth oracle of Balaam.

Much of this oracle is a repetition of the previous one. Balaam being now able to see, now able to hear the word of God, is endowed with knowledge passed on to him by God. It is a statement which looks to the future, to a time when Israel will rule over the kingdoms on the east side of the Jordan – Moab and Edom – a prophecy realised under the reign of David. And what Balaam sees is leadership emanating from Israel, a “star from Jacob”, referring clearly to David.

But this oracle also points to the expected Messianic ruler who will be like a star and sceptre in his kingship, and who will bring the ultimate victory over the enemies of God’s people. And in that star, we clearly recognise Jesus, the One truly chosen by God as leader not only of Israel, but of the whole world. This is the star that the Magi followed until they came across the Child in the arms of his Mother.

The oracle shows how God wants to proclaim a wonderful future for his people before the whole world, coming from the mouth of a man who had been specially chosen to bring the curse of the gods on Israel. It is something we too need to consider. In the Gospel, the chief priests and elders found it difficult to hear the voice of God in the words and actions of Jesus. In our lives, too, Jesus can speak to us through very unexpected channels. We need to be constantly ready and make no exceptions.

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