April 30: Numbers 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:6ff

Numbers 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:6ff

In the previous note of this series on Old Testament passages involving the Spirit [j^Wr] of God, I discussed the fundamental association of the Spirit with prophecy. In particular, it is the special gifting by the spirit/breath [j^Wr] of YHWH that enables a person to fill the role of ayb!n`—a spokesperson who speaks and acts on God’s behalf, communicating His word and will to the people. From the standpoint of Old Testament tradition, prophecy in Israel begins with Moses; he was the ultimate ayb!n`, though, as we saw in Numbers 11:10-30, this role was not limited to him even at the time.

Various forms of prophecy had, of course, long been practiced in the ancient Near East. I previously mentioned the evidence from the city-state of Mari, where at least two different kinds of prophets are attested—one (the ¹pilum) apparently functioning in an official capacity (at the royal court, etc), while the other (the mu——ûm) operating at a more popular level, was marked especially by ecstatic experience (cf. below).

Numbers 24:2

As it happens, the Old Testament Scriptures refer to at least one such non-Israelite prophet, the famous (and rather enigmatic) figure of Balaam (Bil±¹m, <u*l=B!). He is featured in the narratives of Numbers 22-24, including four distinct oracles attributed to him; his role in the Baal-Peor incident (chap. 25), itself a complex tradition as recorded in the text, is more problematic (cf. Num 31:8, 16). It is the latter association, especially, that colored Balaam as a negative, evil figure-type in later Jewish and Christian tradition.

The historicity of Balaam, and the general authenticity of the Pentateuch traditions (in Num 22-24), would seem to be confirmed by the extra-biblical evidence of the Deir ±All¹ inscription from Jordan (c. 800 B.C.). For a translation of this inscription, along with photographs, see the treatment online at livius.org.

The entirety of the matrix of traditions in chaps. 22-24—but especially the oracles in 23-24—make clear that Balaam was a prophet, primarily in the sense of being a seer (ha#r)), a visionary clairvoyant, one who could discern the course of future events. Despite the lampooning episode of 22:22-35, and his subsequent negative caricature, there is no evidence in the text that he is in any way a false prophet, or that his visions do not genuinely come from God (El-Yahweh). Indeed, in the narrative he repeatedly receives communication from God (22:9ff, 20, etc). This is an extraordinary datum, and serves as an objective confirmation of the authenticity of the oracle-traditions.

As previously mentioned, Balaam would best be characterized as a seer (ha#r), from the root har), and the text several times mentions his eyes being “opened” (by God); indeed, this is stated at the beginning of the third and fourth oracles (24:3-4, 15-16), indicating that such revelatory experience was a regular occurrence for Balaam. Moreover, in accordance with the ancient understanding that all such prophetic experience was the result of divine inspiration (from the spirit of God), this is stated of the non-Israelite Balaam as well:

“And Bil’am lifted his eyes, and he saw [vb ha*r*] Yisrael residing (according) to its staffs [i.e. by tribe], and (the) spirit [j^Wr] of (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] came upon him” (24:2)

It is possible that this detail was emphasized as a way of legitimizing the oracles of a non-Israelite (Canaanite) prophet, affirming (for an Israelite audience) that they are genuine and true prophecies. Much more likely, however, this simply reflects the basic understanding of how prophecy worked in the ancient Near East. Any distinct prophetic experience was the result of a divine presence (spirit) working in or upon the person—its source was the spirit/breath [j^Wr] of a deity, whether El-Yahweh or another.

1 Samuel 10:6ff

In the previous note, we saw the distinctive use of the denominative verb ab*n`, which essentially means to “act or function as a ayb!n`” . This verb occurs either in the passive Niphal stem or the reflexive Hithpael stem—both of which imply the idea of a person being under the influence or control of a prophetic “spirit”. Outside of Num 11:25-27 (discussed in the previous note), the verb ab*n` (in both passive and reflexive stems) occurs a number of times in Samuel-Kings, where it unquestionably reflects old/authentic historical tradition. The very oddity and unorthodox character of some of the details in these narratives would tend to confirm, on objective grounds, the authenticity of the traditions.

A particular early reference occurs in 1 Samuel 10:1-13, where the young Saul is directed by Samuel that, on his journey, he will encounter a group of <ya!yb!n+ in front of the hill-site city of Gibeah, or Gibeath-Elohim (“hill of God”), vv. 5-6. Both the name, and the presence of these prophets, suggests that it was a sacred site (or “high place”); at the moment, it also was marked by a Philistine garrison. The prophets Saul will encounter will be coming as a procession from the city, playing musical instruments as they “act as ayb!n`” . As most commentators recognize, this involves a specific mode of ecstatic prophetic experience, of a kind frequently aided (or induced) through music. That it is a dramatic and aggressive (even violent) sort of experience is indicated by the wording in verse 6, stating that the spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH would rush (vb jl^x*) upon Saul and overtake him, so that he would “act as a ayb!n` ” with all the others. So dramatic would this experience be that it is said Saul would be “turned over” (i.e. changed/transformed) into “another man”.

This prediction by Samuel is fulfilled in verse 10, and the state of prophetic ecstasy indeed results in such unusual behavior that everyone who knows Saul has to take note and wonder at it: “What (is) this (that) has come to be [i.e. happened] to the son of Qîš?” (v. 11). A similar kind of evil spirit comes upon Saul in a later narrative (18:10ff), resulting in the same sort of unusual manic/ecstatic behavior, only in a more destructively violent manner. The same verb ab*n` is used here, even though it has nothing to do with “prophecy” in the typical sense. This is most informative, as it demonstrates rather clearly that, in the context of prophecy, the emphasis is squarely on the divine presence/spirit that influences and overcomes the person. In 18:10, though it is an “evil” spirit, it still comes from God, utilizing the common expression “spirit of the Mightiest” (<yh!ýa$ j^Wr). While this certainly created (and still creates) theological problems for subsequent readers, it is fully in accord with the ancient way of thinking (cp. the episode in 1 Kings 22:19-23).

We should point out that the prophetic ecstasy that came over Saul in 10:10 was repeated in a separate tradition (19:20-24). There, at another sacred “high place” site (Ramah), there is a group of ecstatic prophets (<ya!yb!n+), only this time Samuel himself is present with them. The frenzied character of this experience, marked by unusual or aberrant behavior, is indicated especially by the detail of Saul tearing off his clothes, and laying naked in that place all day and night (v. 24). Again, this will no doubt seem troubling to our modern sensibilities, in terms of our conceptions regarding the nature of prophecy, etc, but it very much reflects aspects of traditional prophetic experience worldwide, both in ancient and later times.

The verb ab*n` (in the passive/reflexive) also occurs in 1 Kings 18:29 and 22:8-12 (note the group of prophets, v. 10), 18 par. Interestingly, while the verb is frequent in the later Prophetic writings (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah) it is quite rare in the earlier books (only Amos [6 times] and Joel [once]). This suggests that the earlier usage—indicated by the underlying historical traditions in Exodus–Kings—was abandoned for a time, only to be picked up again in the Exilic/Post-exilic period.

In the next note, we will touch further on the idea of the violent effects of the Spirit’s influence, as recorded in the Old Testament.

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