Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Weird Stuff In The Bible #3 – Balaam And His Talking Donkey

Hey everybody! Welcome to the one story that’s been giving me quite the conniption for the past few weeks. What I thought would be a funny little OT talking animal story devolved into a true hornet’s nest of Why Did God Do That! And, hilariously, that question was NOT sparked by God giving a donkey the momentary gift of speech.


Balak, who’s the King of Moab; Balaam, a prophet/diviner/shady guy (Balak? Balaam? again with this infernal name alliteration! What the hell? Does God seriously NOT want me to keep names straight around here?); and Balaam's donkey. Donkey, ass, whatever. 


Numbers 22: 21-35.


Remember those crazy whiny Israelites? The ones that the Lord delivered out of Egypt and away from Pharaoh, and then they spent 40 years wandering in the desert trying to find the Promised Land and whining about it every step of the way? So Balaam's Talking Donkey is near the end of that time period.

It appears that Israel can whine a bunch AND fight a bunch of nations whose land they're passing through at the same time. As they're trying to find the Promised Land, they go through various territories. And though they ask permission to go through Heshbon, the land of the Amorites, the Amorites decide they're going to try and destroy them instead of letting them pass. Whiny Israel stops their complaining of "Where the hell IS this Promised Land anyway?" long enough to beat the pants off of the Amorites, and destroys them and their King Sihon. Then they sing a song about it, and maybe it went something like this:

I haaaaaaaaaaaate the desert, 
I haaaaaaaaaaaate the desert, 
I haaaaaaaaaaaate the desert, 
And the Lord doesn’t love us…. 

(Hey! Bad guys are coming! Draw your weapons!)

I kill you! I kill you! I kill you all! 
I kill you! I kill you! I kill you all! 
I kill you! I kill you! I kill you all! 

(Bad guys are dead. Take a breath)

I haaaaaaaaaaaate the desert, 
I haaaaaaaaaaaate the desert, 
I haaaaaaaaaaaate the desert, 
And the Lord doesn’t love us…. 

The Israelites continue their whining and their rampaging, destroying the land of King Og and King Og’s people as well. Now the Israelites are continuing their chant of "Are you SURE there's a Promised Land that we're supposed to get to?" through the land of Moab (fun linked fact! Moab is where Ruth is from!) This upsets the Moab king, King Balak, who's heard about Israel destroying King Sihon and King Og, and is rightly worried that he might be next.


So King Balak sends his messengers and a bunch of money to Balaam, asking him to travel to Moab and curse the Israelites. Apparently, Balaam can curse and bless as directed by The Lord. So he's high in demand. And Balak’s bribe is to make sure Balak’s request gets to the front of the line.

The way that The Lord speaks to Balaam is in dreams, so after Balaam hears Balak’s request, Balaam goes beddy bye and waits to hear what The Lord says.

And The Lord says, "Nope, you're not putting a curse on those Israelites, those are my FAAAVVVVOOORITE people ever (i.e. they're already blessed by Me, even though they whine a bunch.)”

So in the morning, Balaam tells Balak's messengers, sorry but no, and sends them away. King Balak ups the game by arranging a SECOND visit, sending more money and "more distinguished" guests, so I'm guessing it's the OT version of, like, George Clooney or something.

Balaam says, "Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God." (Numbers 22:18)

BUT! Balaam also says, "Now spend the night here so that I can find out what else the Lord will tell me.” (Numbers 22:19) And that night, The Lord tells him, "Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” (Numbers 22:20)

So in the morning. Balaam gets up and goes with the Distinguished Guests back to Moab. But The Lord gets angry.


 Welcome to the giant hornet’s nest that’s consumed me for two weeks! And we haven’t even gotten to the donkey! Gaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!

Okay, if you want the bland vanilla Happy Chipper Christian answer, it’s that The Lord allowed x to happen so He could display his awesome power by doing y (see last week’s Cursing The Fig Tree story).

I’m never happy with that answer, so I researched and researched and my eyes crossed, and crossed again and I got an unrelated sinus infection that has nothing to do with this, but sure is making me ornery, and finally went to one of the Smartest People I Know – Stella, she of the lovely baby Mirabella and very awesome hubby Wella.

We went through a few emails about Hebrew translations, because some Bibles have Numbers 22:20 as saying "SINCE these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” whereas other Bibles say, "IF these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”

Regardless if it’s IF or SINCE, it doesn’t really matter because the OT version of George Clooney is already at Balaam’s place, and he HAS asked (Numbers 22: 16-17).

But what Stella drew out is that Balaam’s doing a wink wink nudge nudge to the OT version of George Clooney in verse 19. The Lord’s already told Balaam no, you can’t go. Why would Balaam ask again? Why would Balaam think The Lord would change his mind? Because Balaam’s a shady guy and he basically wants the money that King Balak is offering.

So that’s pissed The Lord off, and his response in verse 20, "Since (or If, depending on your translation) these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you” is easier to understand if you read it as eye rolling sarcasm on The Lord’s part.

As Stella helpfully put it: “In a nutshell, I'd say this comes down to God saying, "Well, okay then. I created free will, so I understand that you need to do what you need to do. And by the way...SO DO I."


So now Balaam, his donkey, and the OT version of George Clooney are on the road back to Moab. The Lord sends an Angel of The Lord with a sword to stand in all sorts of places to get Balaam to turn back. On the road, in the vineyards, and finally blocking the entire path.

Balaam keeps beating his donkey to get back on the path, because nobody can see this Angel With The Sword except Balaam's donkey. The donkey, rightfully being scared, finally gives up and lies down on the path, refusing to go farther.

Balaam's beating the donkey, and would probably have done so until the donkey died, "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?” "(Numbers 22:28)

That's right. The Lord loves beaten donkeys so much He'll suddenly give them the gift of speech so they can quite politely inquire as to why their masters are beating them mercilessly.   Such a polite donkey! Now suddenly able to speak, the first thing is not "YO, MORON! STOP BEATING ME! CAN'T YOU SEE THE ANGEL IN THE ROAD WITH THE SWORD, YOU IDIOT! WE'RE GONNA DIE IF WE KEEP GOING FORWARD!"

Balaam immediately replies, "When the hell did you learn to talk?" NO! He says, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” (Numbers 22:29)


Because Balaam's a moron? I mean, this is a guy who's defying The Lord. The smart odds are not in his favor.

But basically, I think The Lord was trying to get Balaam’s attention via the only thing He thought Balaam would pay attention to – a talking ass.

I mean, you have a direct conversation with the Almighty in which He’s told you not to go, you asked again and couldn’t detect the eye rolling somewhat passive aggressive response from The Lord of “Sure, GO AHEAD and Go!” and you went anyway. What’s it gonna take to get through to you, Balaam? Huh?

Anyhow, THEN the Lord “opens Balaam’s eyes” (Numbers 22:31) and Balaam sees the Angel With The Sword (regrettably, nothing is said about what the OT version of George Clooney sees during all of this.)

Angel With The Sword and Balaam have a conversation about how Balaam is stupid (my paraphrase) but the Lord wants Balaam to go ahead and go to Balak anyway, because the Lord is gonna do a nifty cool trick on everyone.

So Balaam gets to King Balak, takes his money, King Balak wants Balaam to curse the Israelites, but every time Balaam opens his mouth, he blesses them instead (hiding behind “Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?” (Numbers 22:12), because The Lord’s power is coming through Balaam, embarrassing him and infuriating King Balak, who sends him away.

Later on (Numbers 31), Balaam’s an evil weasel who advises the kings of Midianites on how to get the Israelites to curse themselves (so Balaam never had to do it), and he’s finally killed by the Israelites.

But I wonder what happened to Balaam’s poor donkey. His poor beaten donkey, who had the gift of speech for two verses in Number 22. Did she never get to talk again? Did she think, “Finally! I get to say what I always wanted!” only to be silenced once the narrative shifts off of her in verse 36 and beyond?

Reminds me of what the fish must’ve thought during the 40 days and nights of rain when the earth was flooded. Do you wonder if they were thinking, YES! THE WORLD IS OURS AND WE WILL RULE IT ALL! Only to have the rug pulled out from under them on day 41 when land showed up again?

It’s weird, all right.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Weird Stuff In The Bible #2– Jesus Hates Figs. FIGS!

I said he hates FIGS!  Not what you may have THOUGHT you read!  ha ha ha.
Jesus is not a fig person.  Did you know this?  Don't go offering him any flavor of Fig Newton.  KIDDING.

But he cursed a fig tree.  That part is true.  In fact, it's considered one of his MIRACLES!  Let's check it out.


Jesus, his disciples, and one unlucky out-of-season fig tree.


Matthew 21:18-22 ; Mark 11:12-14 and 11:20-25


Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.  Jesus knows that he's going to be betrayed, crucified, and brought back to life, and even though he's trying to warn the disciples about it (Mark 10:32-34), the disciples aren't getting it. 


Jesus and the disciples leave Bethany and are heading to Jerusalem for the day and Jesus, perhaps annoyed and agitated at knowing his death is near and nobody believes him, sees a fig tree.  He's hungry, so he goes to check it out, and OOPS, no figs on the fig tree. "Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it." (Mark 11:14)

Jesus and his possible bad mood continue on to Jerusalem, where he overturns the money changers' table in the temple.  He says "“Is it not written: “‘My house will be called
 a house of prayer for all nations’?  But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:17).  Jesus is upset because the moneychangers have essentially monetized and created commerce out of religion (moneychangers are there to exchange money from people needing to purchase animals for sacrificial temple offerings) but I personally think it's because he's still pissed at the lying fig tree and still possibly hungry.  KIDDING.

Jesus and company return to Bethany for the evening, and the next day, travel to Jerusalem again (it’s kinda like visiting a theme park on a vacation, you sleep somewhere else, and keep traveling back for the day).

Eagle Eyed Peter the disciple, sees the very same fig tree that Jesus cursed 24 hours ago.  It’s now withered and dead.  Jesus then says the famous line that has blown up little elementary school brains in Sunday School class, “22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him.” (Mark 11:22-23)


There’s a few things at work here.

Jesus was pissed at the fig tree, because it was giving the appearance as having figs on it, even though figs weren’t in season.  Jesus was hungry, got fooled by a anti-producing fig tree, and cursed it.

This could mean that this particular fig tree was of the DEVIL HIMSELF!  AND THE DEVIL USES FIGS FOR HIS OWN PURPOSES, SO NO, I DON’T HAVE TO EAT THAT FIG NEWTON!

(Can you tell I’m not a fan of Fig Newtons?)

The fig tree is supposed to represent a certain kind of believer in the nation of Israel – one who looks right on the outside and says all the right things (Hi!  I’m an out of season fig tree that looks like I might have figs for you to eat!), but inside is rotten and bears no metaphorical fruit (Gotcha!  I got no figs on me!  Sucker!)  Jesus is not a fan of this type of person.  Neither is God, and the withered fig tree is symbolic of what will happen to God’s chosen people should they be similarly hypocritical.

Cursing the fig tree is supposed to represent God’s power at work through Jesus.  It’s as if God is saying  Hmmmm?  You want this fig tree cursed because it looked like it had figs on it and it didn’t?  No problem, here’s a dose of My power for ya to amaze your family and friends with.

Finally, it’s about faith, hence that “Hey, Mountain!  Go throw yourself into the sea!” verse 22 and 23.  Ooooooooh, never a good idea to tell a Sunday School class of eight-year-olds that.  Then they run around ordering mountains, trees, bushes, squirrels etc, to do things that will never happen, and then get all upset that they just must not have enough faith.  Or did that only happen to me?  JJJ

Myself, I just get tickled over the fact that here we see Jesus being a normal human being.  He can get tricked like anybody else.  You would think that since he’s Jesus, and has a direct line to God, he would have known that fig tree didn’t have any fruit on it.  And if you wanna get all Happy Chipper Annoying Christian about it, you can always blab the safe theory of he DID know, but wanted to use this as an opportunity for another miracle, to display God’s awesome power!  Yawn.

I like the idea of Jesus getting mad.  The one two punch of cursing the fig tree and clearing the moneychangers out of the temple reassures me that yes, Jesus got angry, just like regular people.  He’s not always a safe Teddy Bear Jesus Loves The Little Childreeeeeeeeen kind of guy.  He was human.  He was real.

So yeah, dooming an out of place fig tree seems weird, but upon further examination, is kinda cool.

And I did eat a bacon-wrapped fig once.  It was alright.  

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Weird Stuff In The Bible #1 - The Witch Of Endor

So this starts a new series about Weird Stuff That's Actually In the Bible.  I'm doing this series because I like researching and getting to know the Bible more.  Because when you really get into the nuts and bolts of the thing, you'll find some really interesting and some really weird stuff.  Like what kicks off our series - The Witch Of Endor.

First things first - Nobody calls her "the witch of Endor" in the Bible.  She's not a witch, she's a medium, meaning she can summon, talk to, and communicate with spirits who are already dead.  The underworld in Old Testament times was called Sheol, and it acted much like Hades did for the Greek - a place where people who die go to spend eternity, or eternity as it was understood back then. 


It's Samuel and Saul, the delightful alliterative names that totally tripped me up when I was a kid.  Hard to keep them apart when they both start with the same letter.  And the witch, who we’ll call the Medium here.


Samuel is a prophet, and leads the people of Israel until they demand a king, because if there's one thing that can be gleaned from the people of Israel, one common theme that you can count on to be hit repeatedly over and over - they're NOT THAT BRIGHT.  And God still loves them anyway, despite their stubbornness and stupidity.

Because the people of Israel are not supposed to ask for a King, they're supposed to rely on God.  But, because they're stupid (okay, okay, maybe stupid is too much, how about "really misguided”), and demand proof when they should be relying on faith, they demand Samuel, who is their current God's Mouthpiece, to give them a King.  Someone they can see, someone that other people can see, a leader who will protect and lead them on.

Because God loves us all, even the really misguided ones, He grants their request, and gives them Saul, a warrior king if there ever was one.

Saul and Samuel repeatedly butt heads during the course of Saul's reign, from Saul offering sacrifices that Samuel is supposed to offer before battle, to keeping prisoners of war alive when Samuel as God’s Mouthpiece explicitly tells him to kill them, all the way to messing up Samuel’s clothes by tearing Samuel’s robe.  It’s because of all this that God tells Samuel He’s giving them a new king, a guy named David who’s going to be just as flawed as Samuel is.  But that’s another story.


Samuel dies (from old age, I think) and now Saul's in a pickle.  The bad guys, the Philistines, are itching for a fight, and before, Saul could just consult Samuel, God's mouthpiece, and figure out what to do, or what the outcome was most likely going to be.  now his mouthpiece is gone.  What to do?

Saul actually does the right thing, which is ask God what to do. 1 Samuel, Ch. 28 V6 “He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.”  Yep, God’s response is a big fat empty vat of silence.  And if you’re me and thinking, “Um, not really fair,” it’s important to remember that Saul decides to do the right thing after years and years and years of misbehaving and ignoring Samuel’s (and therefore God’s) advice when Samuel was alive.  And if you’re me and thinking, “Um, God consistently forgives Israel even though they spent years and years and years of misbehaving,” then, well, um…. Welcome to Old Testament God.  He’s particular and outside of our realm of understanding.  That’s a story for another time.

Saul doesn’t respond well to non-answers, and decides to consult Samuel.  Um, Samuel’s dead?  Yes, but there is a way he can still ask him.  Just use a Medium!

That's right!  When you see signs on the road advertising one, or late night commercials hawking the services of one, or watch movies where Whoopi Goldberg wins an Oscar for playing one, know this - THEY EXISTED IN THE BIBLE!  

Now Saul's in a double pickle because back when he was a reasonably good King,  he outlawed anyone who had anything to do with communicating with the dead.

But like any good politician, Saul can be a hypocrite when it suits his purposes, so he disguises himself as a commoner and goes to Endor, where Ewoks and prohibition Mediums live.  They find one, and say the password, which is “As surely as the Lord lives, you will not be punished for this,” (1 Samuel 28:10) and ask her to call up Samuel.

The Medium then recognizes Saul so either his disguise is really bad, or God tells the Medium it’s Saul, or maybe Samuel The Ghost tells her it’s Saul when she calls him up, “Not THIS bum.”

Regardless, here’sssssssss Samuel!  And Samuel’s all “Why are you bugging me, Bozo.” (1 Samuel 28:15 “Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up.’)  Saul asks for help, and Samuel essentially says “You turned your back on God a long time ago and NOW you want His help?”  (1 Samuel 28:16 – “Samuel said ‘Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has turned away from you and become your enemy?’)  Then Samuel finally does what Saul wants and tells him what’s gonna happen in the battle – Saul and his sons will be killed, and the nation of Israel will fall to the Philistines.  Thanks for playing!

Lo and behold, the ghost of Samuel is correct, and Saul and his sons die in battle (Saul by his own hand, after being wounded).

There’s a second theory that scholars like to bat around, that the Medium was perhaps inadvertently calling up an evil spirit masquerading as Samuel, which would justify why there’s never any other ghosts or Mediums mentioned in the Bible again.  I dunno, I’m kinda more interested in the theory of why God would continually forgive the Israelites and not Saul, or a couple of other folks in the Bible (like Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened by the Lord (Exodus 9:12) )  You can always fall back on the whole “They Sinned So Much That God Eventually Gave Them Over To The Consequence Of Their Own Choices,” or perhaps, “That’s Just How They Did Things In The Old Testament.”

Because the Old Testament is full of weird stuff.


Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Still Running Behind...

But I'm starting a new blog series next week!  Yes, these things are in the Bible!  It's gonna be awesome!  I promise!