Scripture: Numbers 22:2-12
This story from the wilderness begins, once again, with fear.
This time it’s not the fear of the Israelite people wandering in the wilderness. Rather, I mean, it is not their fear – it is fear of them. The same God who last week was deploying the poisonous snakes has recently granted the Israelites some military victories against the nearby nations who threaten their progress through the wilderness. Moab, the nation just across the Jordan River from the Promised Land, is next on the list. Moab’s king, Balak, has heard what has happened to the other nations that have tried to thwart the Israelites’ journey. And he is afraid. There is fear from many sides, in the wilderness.
Mostly, in stories from the Hebrew Bible, it’s natural for us to identify with the Israelite people. But today I’m going to ask us to imagine ourselves in Balak’s place.
Balak sends some royal messengers to a local diviner named Balaam. “Please come and curse this people for me,” he says, because that’s what fear does so much of the time, it makes you look for people to curse.
Balaam says he’ll confer with God overnight and let them know. It’s interesting to note that Balaam is not himself an Israelite, but he talks to God – to YHWH, specifically, the Israelites’ god. That night YHWH speaks to him and says don’t go. “You shall not curse the people,” YHWH says, “for they are blessed.”
Balak isn’t satisfied with that, so he sends some more important messengers, who promise to make it worth Balaam’s while if he will only come with them and curse the Israelites. Even if Balaam could be bought, however, it wouldn’t change God’s answer.
I confess that when I put this story in the lineup for this series, the only thing I remembered about it was that there was a talking donkey – the donkey comes later. Charming and amusing, right? A break from all of the more serious stuff we’ve been talking about lately. But as I went back and read the passage, it was God’s words that stuck in my mind: You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.
Fast several thousand years or so to modern day America. Here we are, still in the thick of a global pandemic. You’d think that a pandemic would have the power to bring us together. Instead, especially as the country begins to reopen, it seems to just be one more reason to hate each other: the people who think it’s all just a hoax, the people who want to sacrifice the grandparents to the economy, the people who want to throw away our freedoms…I could go on.
Instead of coming together, it seems, we’ve only found more reasons to curse one another.
And these sermons are always so hard to preach because I hate cheap calls for unity, which always seem to paper over the concerns of the most vulnerable and marginalized people. I know that literal lives are at stake here. I know the structural injustice at play. I don’t mean the economy is more important than lives – although it affects real lives, too. I don’t mean that it’s OK to carry a gun around because you don’t want to wear a mask. I don’t mean to defend mealy-mouthed leadership that has put us so far behind other countries in addressing this virus.
What I know is that I see and hear people calling each other idiots, hoping that karma does its thing, making caricatures of each other.
Now, as always, we need to hold strong to our values that protect the vulnerable and the marginalized first – including those who don’t have a choice about whether to go back to work or what conditions they’ll find there. The name-calling, though, the making of straw men, the lack of capacity for nuance – that doesn’t really seem to be what Jesus calls us to. Jesus, of course, says “Bless those who curse you.”
Or, in older words with a similar echo: “Don’t curse the people, because they are blessed.”
What if the people God loves and blesses are the ones we see as our enemies? [PAUSE]
Let’s see what happens when Balaam does decide to go with Balak’s messengers.
[Read: Numbers 22:22-35]
Has God ever just stood in front of you like that?
Well, probably not exactly like that. But maybe there are some times that God has needed to kind of get in your face, and say hey, this isn’t the road I want you to go down, here.
I have a group of friends from college who I’ve been doing weekly Zoom hangouts with. Last week we started to talk about reopening and some of the decisions being made in different places and how people were responding and whether Americans were or were not, in fact, capable of nuance. I launched confidently into my own thoughts on the matter, and then one of my friends stopped me and said, “I don’t think that’s true.” And it turns out we disagreed on some of these topics: how responsible leadership is being, how long we can do all this staying inside stuff, how well we can actually trust people to follow the rules.
I bristled at first, because that’s what my bubble has conditioned me to do when I encounter someone outside of it; but then it was this moment for me of, oh, right, not everyone who has a different perspective from me here is an idiot or a gun-toting conspiracy theorist; it’s possible for smart, compassionate people to have nuanced conversations about this without everyone retreating to their sides; it’s possible that we don’t have to be enemies.
Do I still think she’s wrong? Yeah. Do I worry about the implications? Some. Do I think what she wants for herself and for her neighbors is right-hearted? Yeah. I do.
So the next time I’m tempted to curse someone who disagrees with me, I’ll think of her, for whom I want nothing but good.
I think sometimes God works like that.
In the end, God tells Balaam to continue with his journey. Say only what I tell you, God tells Balaam. Not what Balak wants to hear. Not what they’re paying you for. Not even what you might think yourself – but what I tell you.
And when Balaam speaks, those who were supposed to be cursed will find themselves blessed instead.