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|Contents|||||Balaq and Balaam: Numbers 23 and 24|
It's a great pleasure and privilege to be invited here to speak to you tonight, near the start of this New Year. We're going to be looking at a very vivid Old Testament passage in a while, but before embarking on that I'd like to spend a few minutes introducing myself a little more. Now, you'll have noticed that for tonight's service, I've focused our attention on an Old Testament passage. Throughout my Christian life, the Old Testament has intrigued and fascinated me, at first by being gripped by the writings of the prophets, and more recently by the poetry in it. I've found enormous delight and satisfaction in learning to get to grips with what can seem at first a rather difficult and alien book. The Hebrew language, in which most of the Old Testament was written, excels at suggesting layers of depth and richness in the text, and continually hovers on the edge of breaking into poetry or song. Even in what at first sight appear very plain and straightforward chapters, this built-in bias towards being lyrical is covered over only very thinly and bursts through at the least opportunity. Last autumn, as a natural progression from just being enthusiastic at home, I started doing a research course at Trinity College Bristol, comparing early Old Testament poetry with the writings of other nearby nations.
So, having said that, why look at this particular Old Testament passage, and why connect it with some advice given by the apostle Peter to Christians living in what we now call Turkey? I've entitled this sermon, "Making God's people attractive to the outside world", and I'd like to spend a few minutes setting out what I mean by this. What we'll be looking at together is how God's people impact the world around, for good or bad, as we go about our ordinary daily lives. I'm not talking about evangelism, which is a more systematic attempt to communicate faith to others in word or deed. Rather, I'm talking about a process that happens on a deeper, less conscious level, as we all live, work, play, shop, drive, and so on, in the world. You could, perhaps, have as an alternative title, "The value of the ordinary Christian life".
You see, this passage from the book of Numbers is quite unusual in both Old and New Testaments. Generally speaking, Bible passages are presented from the perspective of God's people - normally Israel in the Old Testament, and the church in the New. We are allowed, as it were, to eavesdrop on activities and conversations within the community of Israel or the church, the internal workings of what it means to be God's people. So we get to listen in on conversations between King David and the prophet Nathan, or between Jesus and his disciples. Alternatively, we are witnesses of something happening on the boundary, as some representative of Israel or the church encounters a representative of the outside world. So we learn, for example, how Joshua made a treaty with the Gibeonites, or how the apostle Paul spoke in the market places of Greek cities.
But here, in Numbers 23 and 24, we have something quite different. Here we have a meeting between a foreign king and a foreign visionary, looking down from an overhanging cliff, overlooking the encampment of Israel spread out in the valley below. So far as we can tell, the Israelites were entirely oblivious of this scrutiny, this attempt to invoke spiritual violence on them. So what we have here is not the ancient equivalent of modern reality TV, in which the participants are most definitely aware of being in the public eye, and are deliberately playing up to it. Instead we have an opportunity to see how artless, unaware Israel conducts itself as a collection of tribes, observed by others but not yet conscious of this. As in so many situations, the outside scrutiny is not neutral or sympathetic - the king concerned is deeply alarmed by the arrival of these wandering people on his doorstep, passing through his land, and, while avoiding direct force, tries to drive them off by invoking divine help.
I want to emphasise here that, quite apart from any other aspect of this account, it is very funny. The various authors of the Old Testament were masters of a whole variety of literary skills, and humour, especially of an ironic nature, is a skill they employ quite often. In this case we have Balaq, the local king, surrounded by an entourage of lesser chiefs and princes. He wants to blight the future of this loose confederation of tribes, homeless former slaves, who have no real military prowess and are still searching for a real identity. To this end, he has hired Balaam, a professional sorcerer and master of curses. He is reputed to be a mighty wizard - a rather dark, mysterious figure perhaps like Merlin in English history - but in this situation he is found to be powerless to call down disaster. Not only that, but this great seer and visionary proves to be incapable of seeing an angel - clearly visible to his own donkey - sent by God to warn him. So the king turns out to be feeble and the seer to be blind unless God personally intervenes.
Now, Balaam is one of those Biblical characters that we also meet outside the pages of the Old Testament. A few years ago, at a place called Deir 'Alla in transJordan, not far from the events described here in Numbers, an archaeological dig unearthed a plaster-coated wall with a lengthy inscription describing Balaam son of Beor. In exactly the same way as the Biblical character, but described by people who believed in different gods, this person received communications from the spirit world by way of dreams and visions, and in this particular account succeeded in averting a terrible calamity by appeasing divine wrath. This plaster dates from rather later than the setting of the book of Numbers, and is a kind of memorial plaque, recalling with gratitude that the disaster was avoided. There is little doubt that the two accounts are referring to the same man.
So Balaam was an important man in the part of the ancient world that the Israelites were passing through. Balaq, the king, had sent several groups of emissaries to persuade him to come, and at length the reluctant magician arrives. Balaq is clearly in awe of this man when he arrives, and in the early parts of their meeting carries out without question the various orders Balaam issues. "Build me seven altars, and sacrifice for me seven bullocks and seven rams" commands Balaam, and Balaq meekly obeys several times over. Part of what we see here is that the things the world does to attract God's attention are often just mechanical repetition - over and over again the same futile sacrifices, expensive but not effective. In contrast, when Balaam does receive a word from God it is expressed in rhythm and poetry, each time different, each time striking. Our God does not reveal himself in simple, mechanical, predictable ways, but with creative beauty and variety, each person different. As the account unfolds - and our reading was from the later parts of the account - Balaq loses both confidence in and respect for this foreign sorcerer. Before our eyes as the scenes unfold, we trace the deteriorating relationship between the two men. At first, Balaq is simply astonished that the curse he had purchased turns into blessing, but he moves from surprise through protest to fury, and the two men face each other angrily over the animal carcases and stone altars used in sacrifice. At last, the king dismisses the foreigner in scathing terms, withholding payment for what we would call breach of contract, while Balaam, striving to retain his dignity (and he speaks throughout in a long-winded, pompous way) gathers up his robes and departs - but not without one last verbal shot in which he predicts doom for Balaq's nation.
Focusing on the passage we read, we have reached a turning point in the narrative. Balaam has twice used some form of divination to discover God's will for Israel - we don't know how he did this, but we do know that various kinds of ritual to try to predict or control the future were practiced in the ancient near east. This time, however, is different. Balaam has come to realise that God does not intend to curse Israel, so abandons the apparatus of magical prediction, and simply turns his face to the wilderness to hear what God has to say. Wilderness places, desert places, are frequently where God is found, and those amongst you who are passing through your own personal deserts and barren lands may well find that the God of glory is no stranger there. This book, which we call Numbers, is in the Hebrew called b'midbar - in the wilderness. Looking up, Balaam sees the tribes of Israel settling down, presumably in the evening after another day's march towards their promised land. The spirit of God - the breath, if you like, of God's intimacy - is described as living on him, and in one of those delightfully ambiguous Biblical phrases we don't know if this means that the Spirit is resting upon Balaam in order to enlighten him (as some translations choose) or dwelling over Israel to mark him out from the other nations (as I prefer).
What is it here that makes this assorted collection of people, families and tribes, so impacting and so appealing to Balaam? Why does he exclaim,
“How pleasing are your tents, Jacob
your settlements, Israel”?
Well, I think that this particular oracle helps us not only to understand that question, but also to grasp lessons for life today in this local community. Israel was at this stage a group of tribes, held together by shared experience, shared faith, and a deep sense of historical community. Sometimes they helped one another, but at other times they were indifferent or hostile to each other's problems. They had no fixed property, no capital city, no political leader they all acknowledged, and of all the diverse cultures described in the Old Testament it is this tribal confederation that I believe is closest to the life of the church today. We meet in our denominations, our own tribal groupings, and we feel affinity for our brothers and sisters in other tribes, connected to them by shared articles of faith and a common point of origin 2000 years ago. At times we are able to selflessly support each other and act together for the common good - but much of the time we are shockingly ignorant or indifferent to one another, and from time to time quite hostile. And of course, we're all waiting for the public enthronement of the true king, the one of whom King David was a forerunner. Now, I happen to think - though others may well disagree - that the fact we all belong to different tribes, different church traditions, enriches Christendom rather than the reverse, and enables the church as a whole - across the globe, and through history - to have access and credibility into parts of society that would be impossible if we all worshipped and conducted ourselves in the same way. However, the inherited human bias towards disinterest and a failure to act in love is always present, weakening our collective action, and when this prevails then the world sees only discord rather than diversity.
We went as a family to midnight mass at Winchester Cathedral this year, unusually as in previous years we've just attended the local village church. Now, Christians have worshipped at the cathedral site for about 1300 years, and the present building has been used as a centre of faith for much of that time. A few years ago my wife and I went to the Sinai desert and visited St Catherine's monastery, some parts of which date back about 1700 years. Both of those centres of Christianity have seen good times and terrible times, and have outlived many apparently mighty political and religious movements and leaders. Now, those are extraordinary places, great testimonies to the staying power of the Christian faith. But the church building I currently worship at, like this one, is only a few years old. It's not especially beautiful or memorable, and I don't suppose for a moment that it will survive in its present form for a thousand years! People don't travel great distances simply to admire it and soak up its ambience. They don't make pilgrimage journeys to see it. It's a temporary settlement for the Christian faith, a tent in the desert, if you will, for short-term use only. What Balaam was struck by, what caused him to exclaim in wonder, was not the great achievements that the Israelite nation was to accomplish in future times, not the kingdom or the Temple, but their settlements in the desert, their transient way stations, their refugee camps and soup kitchens.
What else does this foreign magician see when he looks at Israel? He sees - and here I'm using a personal translation - the people
“spread out like rushing torrents,
like orchards beside a stream,
like cardamoms planted by the Lord,
like cedars beside the waters”.
What is it that he is trying to capture with these words? Well, firstly that Israel is bursting with vitality. River torrents in spring, filled up with living water falling from the skies and with snow melting from a frozen winter, cannot be kept within narrow channels, but burst the banks that habit and convention have built for them and overflow into the surrounding lands. This is especially in a desert region, where rain and melt-water can turn a dry wadi into a rushing torrent in a very short time indeed. Now, right now I'm guessing that most of us as individuals do not feel that we're brimming with vitality, at this part of the year with its activities and fatigue, but as churches, part of our image-bearing is to be involved like rushing torrents in the life of our communities. Now, to this end I don't think it matters whether the activities are specifically church-based or not. The question is, are we getting involved? Are we as churches involved with life-enriching activities? Are we meeting with the sick or the suffering? Are we offering hope to the lonely or broken-hearted? Are we in the vanguard of charitable activities? Are we challenging unjust or oppressive structures in society, in business, in government? Are we active in the arts, in drama, in poetry, music and literature, in childcare and education? Are we building stronger, more vital communities? Are we life-giving water in a dry and thirsty land? What Balaam saw was a people who would make the desert bloom.
So he sees involvement, which moves on to fruitfulness. "Orchards beside a stream" is how Balaam described this, but the idea of fruitfulness as a necessary part of living for God appears many times in both Old and New Testaments. The word fruit carries us back to Eden, where originally it was the visible sign of God's superabundant provision. Now, human choice turned this same item into a symbol of death and perennial disappointment, but ever after through the pages of the Bible we find fruit used to indicate the good result of godly or human endeavour. Fruit is not simply sustaining or nourishing - we have bread for that - it is delightful and stimulating. Some of us in this room have literal fruit - sons and daughters - but Biblical fruit is not limited just to offspring, but embraces all those lasting and enduring things that we produce, all those things that are results of our divinely-imitating creativity. It includes attitudes and traits of character as well as tangible items. According to Jesus, there is no real Christian life without fruitfulness of one kind or another, a kind unique to each person, unique to you, and you… Fruit does not just provide continuity from generation to generation, but it appeals to the outside world, it draws others in to partake and participate. In Balaam's vision, Israel was not a single fruit-tree, but an orchard, a broad, lavish cluster of fruit-trees, a rich feast for both householder and visitor.
Cardamoms, or aloes as in our reading earlier, are fragrant spices whose scent spreads over a wide area. Fruit is delightful to eat, but you have to be able to reach it and touch it in order to enjoy it. Scent, on the other hand, acts upon the traveller from a distance. Back in Winchester Cathedral on Christmas Eve, at certain parts of the service one of the officials, called the thurifer, dispersed incense through the vastness of the building. Now personally I don't much like the smell of incense, and at the time it aroused some of my Baptist prejudices about ceremony and such like, but afterwards I was reflecting on it a bit more. As a symbol on the one hand of the scent of God permeating the vastness of the world, and on the other of the devotions of mankind rising upward towards God, it is indeed very apt. Imagine for a moment the scene - the procession of the minister, the choir and the other attendants going up the aisle, the incense-holder being swung by the thurifer, and gradually the rich scent penetrating the entire building, up into the vaulted roof where none of the congregation sits, out to the farthest edges to those who cannot see the procession from where they sit.
The last image that Balaam uses to describe his vision of God's people is that of cedars, routinely used in the Bible to indicate stately grandeur, majesty, deep certainty and confidence. "Cedars of Lebanon" is a phrase used inside the Bible and elsewhere to indicate something impressive, monumental. Indeed, outside the Bible we find them described in almost godlike terms. So here is Balaam, looking down from his high vantage point, and here are these people, weary from the day's march, dusty, hungry. In human terms they were most likely in need of resting, cleaning themselves, attending to the needs of their children and their elderly, caring for their livestock - quite unpolished in fact - but the eye of vision sees under this rough surface to the dignity placed in these people by being chosen of God. He sees them not in their human state of needing rest and sustenance, but in their stature of having been chosen by God. I think it is most revealing here that Israel is in the valley and Balaam on a cliff looking down on them. G.K. Chesterton wrote of a character in one of this Father Brown stories,
“Heights were made to be looked at, not looked from...
one sees great things from the valley, only small things from the peak”.
and goes on to describe the spiritual peril of looking down on people from high above them. He might have been describing Balaam with these words, who was evidently used to this posture of being positioned above other people. But here, overlooking the tents of Israel, he is brought to the realisation that the very people he is looking down on are bearers of a dignity and grandeur he does not have.
With all this, little wonder that Balaam proclaims that these people will sow seed in mighty waters, before turning his gaze onto the God who had chosen them.
Turning finally to Peter's letter, I want to highlight how the apostle picks out many of the same themes. The start of the letter tells us he is writing to "God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout [list of places]…" - the same image Balaam uses, of God's people as simply passing through this world. We have no permanent home here in the world as it is, though at the start of the passage from Peter we learn that we are in fact - all of us, the whole church through space and time - being built up into a permanent home - "you also… are being built into a spiritual house…" This, to Peter, is the goal of our earthly wanderings, preparation during the seasons of our lives for participation in God's praises. Balaam, the pagan magician, was aware that God had chosen this nation Israel, called them out of Egypt and nurtured them along the desert road for a purpose. Peter, the apostle of Jesus, sees the same air of chosen-ness about the church: "you are a chosen people… a people belonging to God… who called you out of darkness… once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God". He concludes the section we read together by urging them to live good lives in order that the world outside might glorify God. Again, this is not talking about any formal process of evangelism, but rather the informal, natural, everyday business of living, carried out under the observation of other people. This letter of Peter is full of lifestyle advice - proper conduct in the workplace, in the community, and in the family, mutual support and compassion, service to others, faithful exercise of gifts and talents placed within us. As Jesus indicates towards the end of John's gospel, the quality of our shared life as God's people will be the yardstick that the world will use to judge Christianity.
Peter's own life, as portrayed to us in the gospels and the start of the book of Acts, shows something of how this can be practically put to work. Peter was not, of course, a perfect illustration of ideal discipleship. He made mistakes within the group of Jesus' followers, he was known to speak and act contrary to Jesus' intentions; he could be impetuous and act inappropriately in the world at large. Well after Jesus' death, when an important leader of the young church, he was rebuked by Paul for allowing the desire to please others to overcome his conviction of what was right. However, there is a genuineness about Peter that endears him to us. Most people who read about Peter in the gospel accounts feel a sense of kinship with him as he tries, over a period of many years, to put into practice what he has learned - imperfectly, to be sure, but acknowledging his mistakes and trying to get back on track each time. One feels that here was a man who would have credibility both within the church and outside it, who other people would listen to, whose life would make Christianity appealing to others. So when in his letter he talks about these things, we feel inclined to take heed, since we feel that he has grappled with them personally.
So, in summary, what are we going to go home with tonight? These two passages, Old and New, are speaking about how the outside world sees the church. Words to do with seeing and vision are laced through the account of Balaq and Balaam like a recurring pattern in a mosaic or tapestry, and indeed both our passages tonight are exploring matters of vision. What does the outside world see when it looks at us as individuals, or at our churches? Does it see settlements that are attractive, people that are chosen? Does it see creativity and an affirmation of life? Does it see people who are lively in their families, communities and workplaces? Does it see fruit that entices, fragrance that invites? Does it see good lives to which accusations of wrongdoing do not stick? Is the world led to glorify God because of what we do?
It is often said that when we talk to other people, our actual words convey only a small part of the message as a whole. I've read several different figures - 5%, 10%, 20% - but everyone agrees that our specific words are in the minority. Other aspects of the meeting - our tone of voice, our level of interest or boredom, the care and attention we pay to the other person, indeed the whole context within which we are speaking - carry much more weight than the particular words we choose. The same is true when as churches we try to speak into situations in the outside world, whether these be in our village, our nation, or our world. If our daily lives speak well of the church, and of Jesus who is the Lord of the church, then when we go out with particular things to say then our voice will most likely be listened to. The quality of our everyday lives is what gives us the right to speak into individual situations. That is what I would like us to take home tonight from Peter's letter, and from the oracles of Balaam - the value of the everyday Christian life.