We don’t often read from the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible. As the name of the book suggests, the contents of this book is, for the most part, a census of Israel. It lists all of the tribes of Israel, all of the families in each tribe, and the sons of each of the patriarchs of those families. Those of us who have read the Bible from cover to cover will readily admit that it is not the most interesting writing in the Hebrew Scriptures.
There are a few stories in the Book of Numbers that are important. One such story is that of the prophet Balaam. This story spans three chapters of the Book of Numbers. So the short segment that we read today is the conclusion of that story. The story tells of how King Balak tried to get Balaam the prophet to curse the Israelites who were making their way through Canaan on their way to the Promised Land. God tells Balaam not to curse the people. He resists the temptations offered him by King Balak rather than transgress against God’s will. When he does acquiesce to Balak’s proposal, God sends various impediments which make it impossible for him to curse the Israelites. The segment we read today is the actual oracle that Balaam delivered rather than the curse, an oracle that blesses the people and foretells great things for their future. It is used as one of the Advent readings because of this reference: “A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel” (Numbers 24:17b). These verses are regarded as a Messianic prophecy or oracle and obviously remind us of the Star of Bethlehem.
The importance of the story, however, is not so much the star as is the notion that Balaam is unable to contradict God’s will. Would that this were the case for all of us! Unfortunately, like Balak, many have and do turn against the Lord’s will in favor of their own. Anyone who keeps God’s law and obeys God’s Word could be dismayed by the fact that evil seems to be winning. Darkness is triumphing over light. There is nothing new or out of the ordinary in this. History is filled with stories of those who have challenged God’s authority. The literature of the Bible is littered with such stories. Yet, the story of Balaam teaches us that in spite of the fact that evil seems to be winning the battle, our faith tells us that God will triumph over evil. The vanquished will conquer. The lowly will be made great. The hungry will be fed. Those who mourn will rejoice. Though evil people tried to kill the Messiah, Jesus defeated death. Though Rome tried to kill the Christian faith, the blood of the martyrs fostered its growth. Faith will triumph over doubt. Love will win the battle over hate.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator