On defining a prophet : atheological-ethical study of the Balaam narratives of Numbers 22-24

Ward, Herbert D., Jr. (2009-03)

Thesis (DTh (Old and New Testament))--University of Stellenbosch, 2009.


The Balaam narratives of Numbers 22-24 have long proven to be a source of fascination for readers of the Old Testament. The narratives present Balaam as a faithful ‘word-of-Yahweh’ prophet. However, the Tale of the Donkey (22:22-35) portrays him as an ‘unseeing’ prophet intent on personal gain. How does one explain the conflicting views of Balaam within the narratives of Numbers 22-24? Socio-rhetorical criticism was employed as a methodology to examine the development of these conflicting views of Balaam. An analysis of the Inner Texture revealed that the repeated themes 'seeing’, ‘blessing’, and ‘cursing’ are central to the narratives, and serve to connect Balaam with the paradigmatic prophet Moses of Exodus 3 and Deuteronomy 18. The study of the narratives’ Intertexture revealed numerous inner-biblical allusions, and considered the possible relevance of the Deir ‘Alla texts to the narratives. The Social-cultural and Ideological textures of the narratives suggest that a process of prophetic redefinition took place during either the late pre-exilic or exilic periods, which resulted in the exclusion of divination from Israel’s prophetic tradition. Prophets entered into an alliance with the priests in order to centralise religious authority and place the focus of ‘prophecy’ on the exposition and application of Torah. A consideration of the theological texture of the narratives suggested that this process of prophetic redefinition continued into the early post-exilic period, and ultimately led to a re-evaluation of Balaam. Wide-spread xenophobia within early Yehud contributed to Balaam’s final demise, as later reception history within the Old Testament portrays Balaam as responsible for inciting Israel’s apostasy in Numbers 25. The Tale of the Donkey is integrated into the narratives of Numbers 22-24 by priestly writers in order to distance Balaam from Israel’s prophetic tradition. The result is a dynamic theological synthesis that recalls both an earlier period in which divination was accepted as part of Israel’s prophetic tradition, and a new perspective focused on the exposition and application of Torah. The Balaam narratives of Numbers 22-24 serve as the theological ‘hinge’ or ‘fulcrum’ of the book of Numbers, recalling both the old generation of rebellion, and the new generation of hope that will re-enter the land of promise. The Balaam narratives of Numbers 22-24 serve to powerfully proclaim that Yahweh’s purpose to bless his people will not be thwarted by the intrigues of Israel’s enemies, or Israel’s past disobedience.

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