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3.47 Numbers -- the Third and Fourth Oracles

Balaam's third oracle emphasizes the beauty and strength of Israel:

          "How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!... Their kingdom will be exalted.  God brought them out of Egypt; they have the strength of a wild ox. They devour hostile nations and break their bones in pieces; with their arrows they pierce them.  Like a lion they crouch and lie down, like a lioness--who dares to rouse them?  May those who bless you be blessed and those who curse you be cursed!"  (Num 24:5-9)


The depiction of Israel’s future contrasts greatly with its current status as a rootless wanderer:  it will be planted by the Lord and fruitful. Then the vision becomes pretty graphic -- devouring nations, breaking bones, lying in wait like a lion.  And last of all, a repetition of the promise to Abraham (Gen 12:3).


Balak dismissed Balaam without payment, but Balaam was on a roll and kept prophesying.  This was the fourth oracle:
          "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.  Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong" (Num 24:17-18).


Here is a new element, the messianic hope, pointing to David, and later to Christ.  This is the King spoken of earlier (Num 23:21).  And what vengeance he will wreak on Israel's enemies!  The prophetic tradition in the Bible often uses graphic images that repel the modern reader, whose religion draws more heavily on the abstractions of Greek idealism than the earthy metaphors of Israelite faith (wild ox, lion, star).  This oracle is not an exception, it is one of the classic Old Testament themes of racial relationships:  the violent vindication of Israel over its enemies.  There is no grace note of reconciliation, of inclusion of outsiders.  Rather, it is a message of God's uncompromising judgment which, though deferred (“I see him, but not now...”), is nevertheless inevitable.

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