21 December 2011

Numbers 24:15b-19

"a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel" (v. 17)


Balaam is a strange figure, whose equally strange story is told in this chapter of Numbers and the two that precede it. He is a non-Israelite diviner - a prophet/magician - asked by King Balak to curse Israel. God tells him not to go, and Balaam obeys. But when Balak's messengers come again, God tells Balaam he can go (22:12-21). In the next verse, however, we are told God is angry that Balaam is going (22:22), and Balaam's donkey sees an angel of the Lord standing the way with a sword, which Balaam cannot see. After Balaam strikes the donkey for not going on, and then strikes it again, and again, the donkey is given the power of speech to complain at its treatment and Balaam is finally given the ability to see the angel (vv. 23-31). Balaam then goes with Balak, with God's approval.

When Balak asks Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam blesses Israel instead (23:11), until Balak just wishes he would keep quiet (23:25), and he hits Balaam when he keeps on saying what God has told him to say (24:10). The words in today's passage are what Balaam says after Balak has told him to go away. He claims to have knowledge of God and to have beheld the Almighty, and foretells that a star and a sceptre shall come from Israel, which will crush the neighbouring peoples and allow Israel to triumph over them.

We are reading this story in Advent because the "star from Jacob" has been interpreted by Christians as a prophecy about the Messiah, the one who would come to save Israel. In this prophecy, it is striking that the Messiah is pictured as a leader who would conquer Israel's enemies. Some Jews in Jesus' time were expecting this kind of Messiah, and for that reason did not think Jesus could be the one they were expecting.

To Ponder

What do you make of God choosing the unlikely figure of Balaam to prophesy to Balak?

How does the baby Jesus, born in a stable and laid in an animal trough, fit with this prophecy of the Messiah?

Bible notes author

David Clough

David Clough is Professor of Theological Ethics in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester. He is a Methodist local preacher, a member of the Joint Advisory Committee on the Ethics of Investment and the Faith and Order Network and drafted recent reports on peacemaking and climate change on behalf of the Methodist Church.