Today’s reading begins with Balaam’s third oracle and concludes with another census of the fighting men of Israel.
After Balaam pronounced blessing on Israel two times, it seems that most people would assume that it was unlikely for Balaam to pronounce a curse upon Israel. I’m not certain that Balak’s insistence on attempting to lure Balaam into pronouncing a curse on Israel was a move of stupidity so much as it was an act of desperation. Israel had begun to establish itself as a fierce group of fighters and in my mind the only reason for Balak’s persistence was that he was desperately trying to convince himself and his people that the Israelites could be defeated.
Nevertheless, after Balaam’s second oracle, Balak insisted that Balaam ‘try again’ and try to pronounce a curse on Israel for a third time. This attempt failed as well with Balaam heaping compliments and blessings upon the people of Israel. Balak’s angered was kindled, but again Balaam tries to explain that when he was hired by the elders of Moab that he could speak nothing other than God’s true intent towards Israel.
As if the third blessing on Israel wasn’t enough, Balaam insists on giving Balak the ‘most’ for his money, but this time, Balaam wanted to prophesy to Balak about the future of the people groups in the area. All of them would fall at the hands of God and the Israelites. None of them would survive because God had decided that their time was over.
Despite God’s continual blessing of the Israelites, the people chose to rebel against God. In this instance, the men of Israel had begun taking wives from among the Moabites and the Midianites; and had begun worshiping and sacrificing to the Baal of Peor. God instructed Moses to take all of the chiefs of the tribes of the people and execute them for their disobedience. In the time leading up to the execution of these men, a man of Israel brought a Midianite woman into the camp and before Moses and all of the people of Israel took her with him into his tent to have sexual intercourse with her. Phinehas the son of Aaron was so enraged by this blatant act of disobedience that he grabbed a spear, ran to the tent of this man, Zimri, and thrust the spear through him and her while they were in the midst of intercourse. Phinehas because of his zeal had stayed the hand of the LORD which had gone out into the people of Israel and begun to kill them by a plague. In spite of this zealous action by Phinehas, God slew 24,000 of the people of Israel.
The reading for today concludes with another tribe by tribe census of the fighting men of Israel. In total there were 601,730 men of fighting age among the Israelites. Of the numbers of people counted in this census, only two of them remained who were from the original group of fighting men to leave Israel: Joshua and Caleb. God had caused the people of Israel to wander in the desert for 40 years until all of the men present during the time at Sinai had perished. A high price for all to pay for disobedience to the LORD.