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William Shepard

The Prophet Balaam

The Israelites journeyed on, and came to the land of the Moabites. The king of that country was named Balak, and when he saw how great the Israelites were grown, he was afraid for himself and for his kingdom. He did not know that the Israelites would not meddle with any other country, but were to be contented with the possession of the land of Canaan, God having forbidden them to go any farther. So he determined to make an attempt upon them. But he did not judge it prudent to fight them after they had met with such great successes, and he sent ambassadors to the neighboring country of the Midianites to consult with them what he should do. Now these Midianites, knowing that there was a great prophet of the name of Balaam, who lived on the Euphrates River, sent some of their princes along with the ambassadors of Balak, to entreat the prophet to come and curse the Israelites. For they believed that the curse of Balaam would bring down the wrath of God upon the Israelites. Balaam received the ambassadors very kindly, and told them that he was willing to comply with their request, but that God was opposed to his wishes, for that this army which they entreated him to come and curse was in the favor of God. And he advised them to go home again, and not to persist in their enmity against the Israelites; and when he had given this answer he dismissed the ambassadors.

But the Midianites, at the earnest entreaty of Balak, sent other ambassadors to Balaam, and at last he consented to go against the Israelites. He saddled his ass and started on his journey. But a divine angel met him on the way, when he was in a narrow passage and hedged in with a wall on both sides. Balaam could not see the angel, but the ass did, and backed against one of the walls, without regard to the stripes which Balaam, when he was hurt by the wall, gave her. But when the angel continued to distress the ass, and Balaam redoubled his stripes, it fell down upon the ground, and by the will of God made use of the voice of a man, and complained of Balaam's injustice in whipping it when she was hindered in going on by God Himself. And when he was disturbed by reason of the voice of the ass, the angel became visible to him, and blamed him for his cruelty, and told him the brute creature was not in fault,—for he himself had come to oppose his journey by the command of God. Upon which Balaam was afraid, and would have turned back again, but the angel told him to go on, but that he should speak nothing save what the Lord should suggest to his mind.

Balak received the prophet joyfully, and when he had entertained him in a magnificent manner, he desired him to go to one of the mountains to take a view of the state of the camp of the Israelites. And Balak and his attendants went up the mountain with him. When they had all reached the top, Balaam desired the king to build him seven altars, and to bring him as many bulls and rams. And the king did so, and Balaam slew the sacrifices and offered them as burnt-offerings, and began to prophesy. But though Balaam would gladly have pleased the king by cursing the Israelites, the Lord took possession of him, so that he could only prophesy good things concerning them. He said that the Israelites were a happy people, because the Lord was with them, and that they should excel all nations in virtue and fill the earth with their glory. And they should take possession of the land which God had appointed for them, and they should be sufficiently numerous to supply the world and every region of it with inhabitants out of their stock. Many more things he said in praise of them.

Now Balak was displeased with this, and said Balaam had broken his contract with him, and that he would give him none of the great presents he had promised, because instead of cursing his enemies he had praised them. But Balaam answered that he could not help it, for the Lord put such words as He pleased in the mouths of the prophets when they prophesied, and the Lord's words were always true.

"But now," he continued, "since it is my desire to oblige thee as well as the Midianites, let us rear other altars, and offer the like sacrifices again, that I may see whether I can persuade God to permit me to bind these men with curses."

When Balak had agreed to this, God again prevented Balaam from cursing the Israelites. Then Balaam fell on his face and foretold a number of calamities that would befall the great cities of the earth. And what Balaam said came true afterwards. Balak was very angry, and sent the prophet away without any of the presents he had promised him. But before Balaam went home he told Balak and the Midianites of a plan by which they might obtain the destruction of the Israelites, which was to endeavor to make them forsake the true God and worship the false idols of the Midianites. In order to do this he advised that the Midianite maidens should seek to make the young men of the Israelites fall in love with them and marry them, and then they would bring their husbands with them to the feasts which were held to the idols. And many of the Midianite maidens did marry with the Israelites, and persuaded them to come and eat at their feasts and bow down to their idols. Then the Lord was angry, and sent a great plague, which destroyed many thousands of these men, and the rest repented of their wickedness.

But because of what the Midianites had done Moses sent an army against their land. And the Midianites were defeated in a great battle, in which their five kings were slain, and the army of the Israelites returned rejoicing, with a great number of oxen and sheep and asses which they had captured, as well as quantities of gold and silver and other precious things.

About this time two of the tribes of Israel, the tribes of Gad and of Reuben, came to Moses and asked him that he would give them the land of Gilead, which had been captured from the Amorites, in order that they might live there. Moses at first was angry, believing that they wanted to stay there because they were afraid of fighting against the Canaanites. He said to them, "Shall you rest here while your brethren go to war?" But they answered that when they had built cities wherein they might leave their wives and children and possessions, they would go along with the rest of the army and fight against the Canaanites. Moses was pleased with what they said. So he called for Eleazar the high-priest, and for Joshua and the heads of the other tribes, and it was agreed by all of them that the land of Gilead should be given to these two tribes upon condition that they should join in all the wars until the Israelites were settled in the land of Canaan. And half of the tribe of Manasseh also asked and received permission to remain in Gilead.