Sunday, January 5, 2014

Balaam's Oracle, Magis' Star

The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,
the oracle of the man whose eye is clear…
who sees the vision of the Almighty,
who falls down, but with his eyes uncovered:
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near--
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.
      Numbers 24:15-17  
So here’s the question this Epiphany Sunday: 
How did the Magi, from somewhere east of Jerusalem, know the prophecy about a star heralding a new king in Israel?
 And why, knowing that, did they NOT know the prediction that he’d come from Bethlehem?
 And why did the prophetic experts in Jerusalem share what they knew of Bethlehem, with no interest at all in the star the magi saw?
 And what does all that have to do with Balaam, that strange prophet for hire of the early days of Israel
Balaam on his talking donkey, Basilica di San Zeno
 Maggiore, Verona, Italy, 12th century 
If you think the whole thing is myth, these questions are obviously not worth pursuing.

But if you read it as part of the most intriguing historic narrative ever constructed, then those questions are worth a journey of their own.

Balaam, son of Beor, apparently a free-lance Aramaic seer, was hired by King Balak of Moab to pronounce curses on the people of Israel, sometime in the late Bronze Age, around the 13th century BC.  After some misgivings and dialogue back and forth with Balak, Balaam agreed to travel with the Moabite officials toward the place where the Israelites were camped along the Jordan.

Three times, in narrow passes, Balaam’s donkey refused to move forward, despite abuse and beatings from its owner. Ironically, the donkey was afraid to move past the angel of the Lord blocking its way, while Balaam, the “seer,” was unable to see the angel.
Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
“No,” he said.
Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.
The angel of the Lord asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.”  Numbers 22:28-33
Again – if miracle disqualifies historical account, don’t bother. Just as Balaam couldn’t see the angel without God opening his eyes, those needing verification for anything unusual might as well stop reading now. 

Balaam's inscription, Deir Alla
Although, I confess, that’s part of the marvel of this story. Dismissed as myth, Balaam showed up unannounced in an archeological dig in 1967. Workers on an expedition in Deir Alla, in Jordan, uncovered traces of lettering in fragments of plaster. International scholars who gathered to examine the fragments found that one said, in bold letters, “the prophet, Balaam son of Beor.” Other text detailed a time of coming judgment, in prophetic language that mirrors the oracles of Balaam reported in Numbers. The pieces of writing are dated to somewhere between 6 and 800 BC, with general agreement that they provide a record of prophecy passed orally across centuries.

That’s not the only evidence pointing back to Balaam. The Babylonian Talmud offers discussion of his lineage, his influence, the meaning of his prophecies. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in caves at Khirbet Qumran in the West Bank between 1946 and 1956, discuss Balaam repeatedly, with varying interpretations of his prophecies and their meanings.

And somehow, apparently, his prophecy of a star and scepter was passed down in the regions where he had traveled, resurfacing with the Magi in search of the king they believed the star would signal.

Which leads me back to the questions I began with:
How did the Magi, from somewhere east of Jerusalem, know the prophecy of the star heralding a new king in Israel?
 And why, knowing that, did they NOT know the prediction that he’d come from Bethlehem?
 And why did the prophetic experts in Jerusalem share what they knew of Bethlehem, with no interest at all in the star the magi saw? 
Three Wise Men detail, master of Sant'Apollinare,
Ravenna, Italy ,526 AD
Questions one and two: if Balaam’s oracles were passed on orally, and recorded in writing centuries later, they would have passed into the historic record, at least in the region of Jordan, if not in areas beyond. If the Magi had only those oracles to go on, then they had mention of a star and king, words of blessing for the people of Israel, and warning of disaster for anyone who opposed the God of Israel and those he promised to protect.

Other more overtly messianic prophecies, recorded by Israelites in subsequent centuries, would be unknown to them.

Question three is a little harder: If the magi brought news of a star, why were they the only ones to see if?
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem  and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he  had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.  “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
  for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
      Matthew 2:1-6
Here’s what I’ve concluded, digging back through Jewish writing about Balaam and his star: no one believed him. He wasn’t Jewish, wasn’t a proper prophet, had questionable motives. What he had to say was dismissed. Along with any mention of a star.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906), 
“it is significant that in rabbinical literature the epithet "rasha" (the wicked one) is often attached to the name of Balaam (Ber. l.c.; Ta'anit 20a; Num. R. xx. 14). He is pictured as blind of one eye and lame in one foot.” 
As for the donkey, “The tale of the talking ass must be regarded as a bit of primitive folk-lore, introduced into the narrative as a literary embellishment.” 

I find myself back to the question of what we see and don’t see.

Balaam couldn’t see the angel until his eyes were opened.

The teachers of the law couldn’t see the star, or the meaning of the star, because they discounted Balaam and all he had to say.

And we, looking back: so often we dismiss donkey, prophet, star, Magi, angels, story of Christ’s birth. 

As myth? Primitive folk-lore? Literary embellishment? 

We chuckle at the thought of a talking donkey, argue over the physics involved in the description of the star, miss the greater miracle: that God chose to intervene through the birth of a child whose mission of mercy still rattles prison doors and rebuilds broken lives.

Are we really wiser than those early wise men?

Or are we so intent on going where we choose to go we refuse to see what’s standing right before us?

One last thought I take from this story that spans so many centuries:

Truth will bubble up when we least expect it. The story of the Magi’s star draws breath from a donkey, a mercenary prophet-for-hire, an earnest brigade of journeying wise men, disinterested scholars, ancient fragments of plaster.

On this Epiphany Sunday, I pray for myself, for you, for pilgrims near and far: 
That this may this be a year when the truth becomes clearer. 
That the eternal story, strange and wonderful, will seize our hearts and quiet our doubts. 
That the light of Christ, in all its unexpected forms, will shine ever brighter.
That we will know the joy of true epiphany.
The Journey of the Magi, James Tissot, France, 1902,