Any clichéd TV sit-com, especially one that centers on a husband and wife, invariably trots out this tired plot line: the husband—the poor lug—can’t please his wife, no matter how hard he tries, in part because she keeps changing her mind and yelling at him for doing something she suggested was perfectly fine earlier in the episode. This lovable, caring individual, who is out to please his wife, follows directions. This sets up the cliché: when she contradicts herself (they’re probably in the kitchen or on the stairs), the husband’s face and body—awkwardly contorted, no less—freeze, allowing the real or imagined audience to laugh with him and at her. Oh, how much easier life would be if women would just make up their mind, right?
In Numbers, God exhibits seemingly similar instances of being unable to make up his mind. We’re told that “God is not a man…that he should change his mind” (23:19). Okay, but he sure forgets what he said in the first place.
To address the Israelites thirst issues, he instructs Moses and Aaron to get water from a rock. When they do, he gets pissed. The details are shaky (or simply missing) but apparently his two top priests didn’t wave their hands correctly or strike the rock… whatever. This mistake gets Moses a tongue lashing and Aaron death—he gets carted up to a mountain, de-robed, and left to die (20:28). Harsh penalty, especially for such a faithful servant; when it’s unclear what he did wrong, it’s anything but funny.
We’re also told that God ONLY speaks to Moses (12:6-8). God may reveal himself through dreams to others but only Moses has a direct line, basically. This fact enables Moses (in part) to quell the mob against him, the one that demands new leadership.
And then we meet Balaam.
As we’ve been reading, the Israelites were not popular with other people—though why they are so hated is really unclear. One of these people is a ruler named Balak, and since he hates the Israelites, he seeks out Balaam (some kind of priest), who apparently has a connection with God, a connection that will enable God to curse the Israelites if asked nicely. Ignorant of whom the Israelites are, Balaam requests such a curse on Balak’s behalf. Then God fills him in on how important the Israelites are. Balaam is smart enough to rescind the request.
I thought Moses was the only person who could speak to God. How is it that Balaam has zero difficulty gaining an audience with the lord? Can’t the lord make up his mind about who is exclusive channel?
God is consistent about one thing: Balaam encounters the same issue as Moses and Aaron. Pissed that his curse request has been denied, Balak demands that Balaam continue to ask God. Finally God tells Balaam to return home with Balak. In theory this will appease Balak and dilute his hatred for the Israelites, thus getting him off God’s back. Balaam honors this request (22:20). This turns out to be the WRONG thing to do. Silly Balaam.
While traveling on his donkey, Balaam encounters one of God’s angels, who obstructs Balaam’s way (22:22). (God was apparently angry that Balaam was traveling with Balak.) On three separate occasions, Balaam beat his donkey to keep it moving. Apparently, though, had the donkey not turned from the angel, Balaam would have been killed (22:33). Seems like a stiff penalty for following the lord’s directions.
What’s a guy to do? It’s one thing to make a mistake and go against what someone says; it’s another thing to be held accountable when you follow directions and then have the directions changed without being told. I’m guessing this isn’t the sort of thing that played for laughs in the old days. Depicted this way, God said one thing only to change his mind. When he’s in charge and creates all the rules, how is one to know what to follow?