Numbers 22-24 details an incredible story during the Trans-Jordanian wanderings of Moses and the Israelites: Balak, king of Moab, and the leaders of Midian tribes hear of the Israelites’ numbers and past military victories and are terrified. Balak comes up with a scheme to hire Balaam, a famous diviner, to seek the will of their gods and curse the Israelite horde.
It is well-attested through material culture that Ancient Middle Eastern civilizations used different forms of divination to discern the will of their gods. Pagan priests and diviners went through years of education to learn how to properly “read” the will of the gods through these various methods. One of the most common forms of divination was the art of extispicy. Middle Eastern excavations have unveiled numerous tablet “cheat sheets” of how to read livers of sacrificed animals properly. This is also found multiple times in the narrative portions of the Bible – three times specifically in Numbers 22-24. For example, Numbers 23:1-3:
Bil‘am said to Balak, “Build me seven altars here, and prepare me seven bulls and seven rams here.” Balak did as Bil‘am said; then Balak and Bil‘am offered a bull and a ram on each altar. Bil‘am said to Balak, “Stand by your burnt offering while I go off; maybe Adonai will come and meet me; and whatever he shows me I will tell you.”
This is a typical example of an extispicy narrative. Interestingly enough, not only do we have the above biblical narrative, but we have extra-biblical evidence of Balaam, the famous diviner, in the same area where Numbers 22-24 takes place. A tablet found during excavations in 1967 at Tell Deir ‘Alla (biblical Sukkot in modern-day Jordan) mentions Balaam, son of Beor, as a well-known pagan diviner. Exactly as we read in Numbers 22-24, the writings found at Tell Deir ‘Alla describe Balaam son of Beor as one who was paid well by kings from Ancient Middle Eastern kingdoms to discern the wills of their gods in any important situation.
This famous diviner was hired to divine the will of the gods and curse the enemies of Moab and Midian. Instead, he meets Yahweh, the Living God of Israel, and receives His word. Balaam refuses to go against it. He tells the kings who hired him in Numbers 23:21,23:
No one has seen guilt in Jacob,
or perceived perversity in Israel;
Adonai their God is with them
and acclaimed as king among them.
For there is no enchantment in Jacob,
no divination in Israel;
now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel,
‘What has God done!’
In these phrases, we can understand much about God and the way he functioned in and through his people.
There is no divination or enchantment in Israel.
This fledgling nation, a people of slaves, is the first in history to have a reigning, eternal king who is literally their God; their God alone directly speaks to them and decides the way of the nation. Unlike every other nation, they alone have no need for incantations or divination – they do not have to guess at his will – no magic, no tricks necessary: he gives his will plainly to them.
Beloved, our God is one who makes his will plainly known to us (Ephesians 1:9). Before the new covenant was received through Messiah Jesus, God made his will known through his prophets. He spoke directly to them, that they might make his will known.
I have been studying the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (=OT) lately and it surprised me to learn that the gift of prophecy (prophet) and the official role of prophet in the HB are completely different. As we read through the narrative of the HB, we find that the role of prophet was an official office within the Israelite government. As mentioned in Numbers 23:21 above, God himself was considered the king of Israel. We see the “kings of Israel” described in the text, but they were earthly kings, thought of as figureheads and examples to lead in the way the True King directed them to go. The prophet was the mouthpiece of the True King to his earthly figurehead and the people he lead.
The time of the Judges narrates the Israelite people being lead by their heavenly King, through the prophets called “judges,” without the figurehead of the earthly king. This model failed miserably, as the people continually failed to uphold their King’s Torah and assimilated with the Canaanites around them.
Later, the Israelites asked the last judge, Samuel, for an earthly king so they could be like the Canaanites. Their True King acquiesced and gave the people what they wanted. 1 Samuel 10 details the prophet (and last of the judges), Samuel, anointing Saul as the first king of Israel at God’s behest. Later, in 1 Samuel 15, God rejected Saul as king because Saul rejected God’s instruction; Samuel was responsible for enacting Saul’s downfall at God’s instruction. This pattern – God anoints through a prophet, God rejects through a prophet – is repeated over and over again in the HB. The prophet, as the True King of Israel’s mouthpiece, had full authority to give kings their kingdoms and then to rip them away. Israel’s prophets had more authority than did her kings.
As the earthly king was chosen by God through by way of the prophet, so the king was to act as God designated. He was given a set of rules by which he was to abide (Dt. 17:14-20). It was his job to enact the will of the True King, as spoken by the King’s mouthpiece (prophet).
Does this sound familiar?
As I was pondering this triune of power, it occurred to me that God has always enacted his will in the same manner:
- God the Father is the braintrust: he divines the plan
- There is a mouthpiece who discerns and communicates the will of the Father
- There is a physical presence who sets the example and enacts the will of the Father.
Again, does this sound familiar?
In the New Covenant, in our Christian understanding, this sounds much like our understanding of the Trinity:
- God the Father plans
- the Holy Spirit guides
- the earthly King, Savior, Redeemer who sets the example and enacts the will of the Father
Love, our God is unchanging. He has always worked the same way. He has always made his will known to his children. He has always given us an example and a leader to help us know how to live and how to act. Jesus, our example and shepherd leader, came to be the King Israel should have always had – one who followed God’s will for his life – to show them and us how to live according to the will of God.
Through his sacrifice, we are able to have the voice of God within us, speaking to us God’s will, teaching us God’s statues, revealing God’s immense love and grace, transforming us into Jesus’ image, empowering us to do God’s will, and helping and comforting us in every situation.
While our King is now reigning from heaven, we, his disciples, have the responsibility of being the earthly hands and feet of God. It is now our job to be the example and enact the will of our King and Savior to the rest of the world – that they, too, might find a King who speaks to them, who loves them enough to die for them, who helps and comforts them, who guides them and transforms them.
Shalom and Amen.