The readings are from the catholic lectionary for daily mass while the headline is meant to keep my thinking real:
SYDNEY RESIDENTS USE TWITTER TO PROTECT MUSLIMS FROM RACIST REACTIONS TO SIEGE
27 Balak said to Balaam, “Come on, let’s try another place. Maybe God will let you curse Israel from there.” 28 So he took Balaam to Mount Peor overlooking the desert north of the Dead Sea.
29 Balaam said, “Build seven altars here, then bring me seven bulls and seven rams.”
30 After Balak had done what Balaam asked, he sacrificed a bull and a ram on each altar.
24 Balaam was sure that the Lord would tell him to bless Israel again. So he did not use any magic to find out what the Lord wanted him to do, as he had the first two times. Instead, he looked out toward the desert 2 and saw the tribes of Israel camped below. Just then, God’s Spirit took control of him, 3 and Balaam said:
“I am the son of Beor,
and my words are true,[a]
so listen to my message!
It comes from the Lord,
the God All-Powerful.
I bowed down to him
and saw a vision of Israel.
“People of Israel,
your camp is lovely.
It’s like a grove of palm trees[b]
or a garden beside a river.
You are like tall aloe trees
that the Lord has planted,
or like cedars
growing near water.
You and your descendants
like an orchard
beside a stream.
Your king will rule with power
and be a greater king
than Agag the Amalekite.[c]
With the strength of a wild ox,
God led you out of Egypt.
You will defeat your enemies,
shooting them with arrows[d]
and crushing their bones.
Like a lion you lie down,
resting after an attack.
Who would dare disturb you?
“Anyone who blesses you
will be blessed;
anyone who curses you
will be cursed.”
10 When Balak heard this, he was so furious that he pounded his fist against his hand and said, “I called you here to place a curse on my enemies, and you’ve blessed them three times. 11 Leave now and go home! I told you I would pay you well, but since the Lord didn’t let you do what I asked, you won’t be paid.”
The presence of this passage in the lectionary reminds me how long it is since I read the book of Numbers. It’s not easy reading, but does contain many good stories and much genuinely ancient material. The story of Balaam, who is known in non-Israelite material from the 8th century BCE, is told in two different ways. Both start with King Balak of Moab summoning the prophet Balaam to put a curse on the people of Israel who were infiltrating his terriitory. In one version Balaam sets out quite happily to do this but is prevented by an angel who bars his way but is visible only to his donkey, who eventually speaks to Balaam and warns him of the angel’s presence. The angel tells Balaam to say only what God tells him. The other version misses out this piece of pantomime and shows Balaam as unwilling from the start to curse Israel. The king gives Balaam four chances to curse Israel and each time he blesses them.The passage above is the third blessing, which like the first two prophesies a fruitful future for Israel.
For the writers of Numbers this incident served to show that israel’s success in taking over the land of Canaan was announced even by the famous heathen prophet, Balaam-with the satirical subtext that even a donkey could see that God was watching over Israel. Today we can only recognise how deeply embedded in the biblical tradition is Israel’s conviction that the “land of promise” rightly belongs to them and not to its original inhabitants who are disposable. Modern scholars have seen the story of the Exodus as a myth of liberation: God acts for the oppressed. But for the biblical tradition it is never just a story of liberation but also one of conquest, settlement and the oppression of Canaanites, backed by God.
1. We need to call things by name even when they are in the bible: this is a racist story which like large chunks of the Hebrew bible makes God into a racist God. There is another, smaller part of the Hebrew bible which is opposed to this racism and tries to tell the story of Israel in a different way,but readers should not overlook what is actually written. I remember being told in Sunday School that God punished Israel because its army did not slaughter all the men, women, children and animals of a conquered city. Would my gentle teachers get done today as hate preachers? Or do we see hate language only in the Qur’an?
2. We need to study the bible according to the best scholarly information available and by the best methods available, so that we expose the history of the text and behind the texts. This often means dismantling them in a way that fundamentalists will denounce.
3.We need to study the bible in the light of Christ, that is, by using the New Testament as a lens through which we can view the old. For example we have to read the story of God’s “choice” of Israel through the lens of the story of the multiracial, multinational assemblies of Jesus Messiah. St Paul in particular does so, without abandoning the story of a chosen people but seeing it afresh in the light of the Jewish rejection of Jesus.
4. We should be aware how a racist reading of the bible assisted and continues to assist Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.
Matthew 21:23-27 ©
Jesus had gone into the Temple and was teaching, when the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him and
said, ‘What authority have you for acting like this? And who gave you this authority?’ ‘And I’ replied Jesus ‘will ask you a question, only one; if you tell me the answer to it, I will then tell you my authority for acting like this. John’s baptism: where did it come from: heaven or man?’ And they argued it out this way among themselves, ‘If we say from heaven, he will retort, “Then why did you refuse to believe him?”; but if we say from man, we have the people to fear, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’ So their reply to Jesus was, ‘We do not know.’ And he retorted, ‘Nor will I tell you my authority for acting like this.’
The Pharisees refused to speak the name of God in connection with John, because they disliked the truth he announced. Jesus refused to speak the name of God in connection with his own words and actions, so that they would also have to judge his truth. He meant that theological dispute is not the point. Are the words true, are the actions just? Those are the questions. In our multifaith society this is helpful. We are not to judge the utterances of religious leaders by their supposed credentials (whether Archbishop, Evangelist, Iman or Ayatollah), but by their truth and justice.