Sunday, May 4, 2014

Old Testament Lesson 16: I Cannot Go Beyond the Word of the Lord

This week's lesson is really all about perspective.

Others' perspective!

Our perspective!

Most of us go through life seeing things through the lens of just our own eyes. Some see things through the eyes of others affording them an opposite view. Our calling is to rise above our own view and see through the Lord's lens.

Historical Context to this week's lesson:
The children of Israel have been wondering in the wilderness for 40 years. The older generation have just about all passed away and a new younger generation is being readied to inherit the lands they were promised. As the Lord himself, tells them through Moses,
"ye have dwelt long enough in this mount: Turn you, and take your journey...behold I have set the land before you: go in and posses the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers..." Deut 1:6-8
I want to pause here for a moment. Have you ever felt like no matter what you do, your life is going in circles? Do you feel like you are just not getting anywhere? Sure you are surviving, you are existing but life is not progressing how you would like it to. Consider the Israelites. They were smart enough to know they were going in circles in the wilderness for 40 years. Is it any wonder they found themselves complaining about their lot in life and feeling their was no point to their existence other than being led into the wilderness to die. Here on the ground it is hard to see past the mountains. What is different about the Lord's perspective?
Why should we always seek the Lord's perspective?
How do we seek the Lord's perspective?
The children of Israel spent 40 years trying to force the Lord to see things their way. Can't He see we are hungry? Can't He see we are thirsty? Can't He see we can't go on like this? Can't He see we were better off in Egypt as slaves? Who knows how much shorter their journey in the wilderness may have been if they had elevated their sight and raised their perspective into alignment with the Lord's perspective, sooner.

Balak and Balaam (Numbers 22:1-21)
And so as they progress northwards towards their lands (promised to them over the many generations from Adam down to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob), they have encountered the Amorites and defeated them in battle and moved on as instructed by the Lord through the lands of Edom (descendants of Jacob's brother Edom) and Moab (descendants of Lot, Abraham's nephew). Now the Moabites were ruled at that time by a king called Balak. And as he saw this vast people (around 1-2 million people) move towards his borders and through hi lands, and as he hears of the tales of the destruction of the Amorites, you can imagine Balak is worried about Moab being destroyed like the Amorites. In those days, the solution was either to fight and defend your lands or turn to your religious deities to protect you or both. Balak knew that neither his armies nor his gods were powerful enough to protect his people and his lands from this powerful nation. Instead Balak turned to Balaam. Why did he turn to Balaam?
Numbers 22:2-3, 5-6 
Numbers 24:17
Balaam seems to have gained a reputation as a man with divine authority and power. Undoubtedly from the texts he was "called of God" and as Numbers tells us, Balak knew that whomever Balaam blessed or cursed, so it was. We also know from Numbers 24 that Balaam was capable of true prophecy.
As a result, Balak feels his best chance is to turn to Balaam and ask him to curse Israel so that they cannot defeat the Moabites.
But verse 7 is a little worrying because Balak's messengers "departed with the rewards of divination in their hand". It would seem this priesthood authority had a reputation of being bought and Balak meant to buy it.
So what happens? v.12
"And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed."
If we are to compare our status in the latter days with those of the children of Israel, how does the Lord view us?

Balak is used to getting what he wants. What is his response to being rejected? v.16-17 How does Balak represent the world we live in today?
On the surface, Balaam's reply seems proper and appropriate for one called of God, but dig a little deeper and we start to see some worrying signs. Compare Balaam's answer in v.18 to a similar call from Joshua in Joshua 24:15
You see the real question is whether Balaam characteristically "will not" or just dutifully and a little reluctantly "cannot". Surely, when you "will not", there is no need to go back to the Lord to check to see if He might change His mind?
Balaam seems like he really really knows that he shouldn't but really really wants all the things Balak has offered him. He is torn between two masters. Balaam represents the natural man. Feeling and experiencing the things of God but tempted and lusting after the things of the world. And in this instance Balaam tries to tiptoe on the edges of his principles, acting the man of God, all the while flirting with money and prestige.

v.20-22 what are the two reasons God gets angry? This time it is disobedience. I know he gave permission in verse 20 but refer back to verse 12. Thou shalt not go with them is about as direct a commandment as they come. So how do we align the original commandment in verse 12 with the apparent change of heart in verse 20 and then his reaction in verse 22? 
It seems to me this is one of the times where the Lord is telling you what is best for you. His perspective sees all and he knows what is over that mountain and for your good he commands you not to go there. But we, with our low-lying mortal perspective who always think we see better, plead and plead for those things we really really want. And eventually if we are stubbornly refusing to listen to him and only want what we want, then at some point I think He just says, and I am of course paraphrasing, "listen I'm not going to strive with you or argue with you. I know whats best for you but if you have your eyes fixed on that, I can't stop you. Go for it. But be warned. I do not want you to go there."
Why does the Lord allow us to follow paths that He knows can lead toward danger?
When I asked my wife's father for permission to marry her we had never met. In fact this conversation was my very first conversation with her father. When I asked for his permission, he said something that I have never forgotten, "Well," he said, "what Marjolaine wants, Marjolaine usually gets." I took that as a "yes". He was probably very concerned not knowing who I was and never having met me, yet he still allowed her to make her own choice.
I wonder if the Lord regards us in a similar way, he loves us and will try to protect us from the dangers of the world, but if you want it bad enough, he is not going to stand in your way.
Why do you think the Lord was so upset with Balaam? cf Doctrine and Covenants 82:3
The Lord expects better choices of those whom he has called.

Balaam and the Ass (Numbers 22:22-35)
Not a picture of Balaam and his Ass
In today's world a talking donkey isn't such a big deal anymore I guess, but this was not a normal event in Balaam's world.
The whole point of this story though is to show how misaligned Balaam is with the Lord's view.
Consider this:
What characterisitic are asses and donkeys most generally associated with?
And yet was it Balaam or his ass that stubbornly persisted against the angel of the Lord and the Lord's will?
A creature as stubborn and dumb as an ass tries to avoid the angel, but he still sees it. Balaam does not even see the angel. This is astounding. This purported man of God, called of God is so spiritually misaligned, his donkey sees more spiritually than he does.
Notice also how the Lord attempts to stop the donkey going where there is danger. At first the donkey's path is as wide as the countryside but then as he stubbornly persists and veers away from the Lord and his angels, the Lord narrows the pathway with a walled vineyard giving the donkey less ability to veer away. As the donkey continues to try to veer away from the Lord, he is finally given no wiggle room. With no way to turn, the donkey must address that which is directly in front of him or back out willfully. Rather than outright rebellion the donkey chooses submission and falls to the ground in apparent recognition of that which is of God.
In comparison, see how Balaam tries to steer the donkey - with force ( "he smote the ass with a staff"). This is not the way of the Lord. He tries to persist without even seeing the Lord's will. It's right in front of him but he can't even see it.
Many of us need to be guided like the donkey, until we are in line with the Lord. That's ok. But when we are not aligned with the Lord and seeking, his will, like Balaam we will be unable to feel the Lord's guidance in our lives.
Notice verse 34 also. "if it displease thee..." ?????  Do you think Balaam gets it? I mean at this point, after the talking donkeys and the angel and the broken foot, is it that hard to figure out that the Lord would prefer you to go home rather than persistently following after your own vision of wealth and honour.

Sacrifice vs. Obedience - The Lord's Perspective (Numbers 23)
So Balaam meets Balak and says the right things - "I can only say what the Lord tells me to say"
v.1 Balaam instructs Balak to make the greatest and most perfect sacrifice there is. 7 altars is a symbol of perfect sacrifice. The ram and the ox were considered the highest type of sacrificial offering, being the most expensive. Essentially Balaam is saying if you plead hard enough and sacrifice enough the Lord may change His mind. Balaam may have done well to heed the words of a future prophet of Israel - Samuel cf 1 Samuel 15:22 Samuel's words are so reflective of Balaam that one wonders if he might have taken the text of that sermon to Saul from the life of Balaam.
What is the lesson that Samuel teaches that Balaam never learned? From the Lord's perspective all these offerings and sacrifices mean nothing without obedience and purity of heart.

v.11 this verse seems to imply there was a business relationship. The verb "took" implies ownership and suggests that Balaam had indeed sold his authority for use with Balak. Of course the power of the priesthood cannot be sold and it cannot or ought not to be maintained only upon the principles of righteousness.

v.19 Balaam continues to say the right thing
v.20-30 Balaam continues to try to find a way to please God and to please Balak. How will that work out for him? cf Matthew 6:24
Balaam at this time is focused on what he wants and what Balak wants - he has not aligned himself with what the Lord wants.

The Wilderness - The Lord's Perspective (Numbers 24)(Numbers 31)
I find this chapter both beautiful and hauntingly tragic. As we have studied him so far it has been hard to see why he was a prophet of God. His perspective has up until now been mostly his own, focused on the honors of man. This chapter we get a glimpse of what might have been, his potential.
v.1-2 Balaam finally aligns with what the Lord wants. He sees the Lord's perspective and we are told he "set his face toward the wilderness and...lifted up his eyes...and the Spirit of God came upon him"
What can we learn from this about aligning our own perspectives with the Lord? What significance does the wilderness have? The wilderness is symbolic of the world, our trials and hardships. Here for Balaam, his trial was this people of Israel that he wanted to curse for money's sake but knew that he couldn't. He tried to find every way he could to avoid the Lord's perspective but when he finally faced the issue and looked to heaven the Spirit of God came upon him and his eyes were opened.

Oh if only that was the end of the story! Alas it is not. See Numbers 31:7-8. Why was Balaam killed after what seemed like a lesson learned? 2 Peter 2:15-16, Jude 1:11, Revelations 2:14.

Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived around or just after the time of Christ wrote this extra record of the story of Balaam. Though not considered scripture, it may well explain what Balaam was thinking and why ultimately the Lord had him destroyed.
"But Balak being very angry that the Israelites were not cursed, sent away Balaam without thinking him worthy of any honor. Whereupon, when he [Balaam] was just upon his journey, in order to pass the Euphrates, he sent for Balak, and for the princes of the Midianites, and spake thus to them:-"O Balak, and you Midianites that are here present, (for I am obliged even without the will of God to gratify you,) it is true no entire destruction can seize upon the nation of the Hebrews, neither by war, nor by plague, nor by scarcity of the fruits of the earth, nor can any other unexpected accident be their entire ruin; for the providence of God is concerned to preserve them from such a misfortune; nor will it permit any such calamity to come upon them whereby they may all perish; but some small misfortunes, and those for a short time, whereby they may appear to be brought low, may still befall them; but after that they will flourish again, to the terror of those that brought those mischiefs upon them. So that if you have a mind to gain a victory over them for a short space of time, you will obtain it by following my directions:-Do you therefore set out the handsomest of such of your daughters as are most eminent for beauty, and proper to force and conquer the modesty of those that behold them, and these decked and trimmed to the highest degree able. Then do you send them to be near camp, and give them in charge, that the young men of the Hebrews desire their allow it them; and when they see they are enamored of them, let them take leaves; and if they entreat them to stay, let give their consent till they have persuaded leave off their obedience to their own laws, the worship of that God who established them to worship the gods of the Midianites and for by this means God will be angry at them. Accordingly, when Balaam had suggested counsel to them, he went his way.
So when the Midianites had sent their daughters, as Balaam had exhorted them, the Hebrew men were allured by their beauty, and came with them, and besought them not to grudge them the enjoyment of their beauty, nor to deny them their conversation. These daughters of Midianites received their words gladly, and consented to it, and staid with them; but when they brought them to be enamored of them, and their inclinations to them were grown to ripeness, they began to think of departing from them: then it was that these men became greatly disconsolate at the women's departure, and they were urgent with them not to leave them, but begged they would continue there, and become their wives; and they promised them they should be owned as mistresses all they had. This they said with an oath, and called God for the arbitrator of what they promised; and this with tears in their eyes, and all such marks of concern, as might shew how miserable they thought themselves without them, and so might move their compassion for them. So the women, as soon as they perceived they had made their slaves, and had caught them with their conservation began to speak thus to them:-
"O you illustrious young men! we have of our own at home, and great plenty of good things there, together with the natural, affectionate parents and friends; nor is it out of our want of any such things that we came to discourse with you; nor did we admit of your invitation with design to prostitute the beauty of our bodies for gain; but taking you for brave and worthy men, we agreed to your request, that we might treat you with such honors as hospitality required: and now seeing you say that you have a great affection for us, and are troubled when you think we are departing, we are not averse to your entreaties; and if we may receive such assurance of your good-will as we think can be alone sufficient, we will be glad to lead our lives with you as your wives; but we are afraid that you will in time be weary of our company, and will then abuse us, and send us back to our parents, after an ignominious manner." And they desired that they would excuse them in their guarding against that danger. But the young men professed they would give them any assurance they should desire; nor did they at all contradict what they requested, so great was the passion they had for them. "If then," said they, "this be your resolution, since you make use of such customs and conduct of life as are entirely different from all other men, insomuch that your kinds of food are peculiar to yourselves, and your kinds of drink not common to others, it will be absolutely necessary, if you would have us for your wives, that you do withal worship our gods. Nor can there be any other demonstration of the kindness which you say you already have, and promise to have hereafter to us, than this, that you worship the same gods that we do. For has any one reason to complain, that now you are come into this country, you should worship the proper gods of the same country? especially while our gods are common to all men, and yours such as belong to nobody else but yourselves." So they said they must either come into such methods of divine worship as all others came into, or else they must look out for another world, wherein they may live by themselves, according to their own laws.
Now the young men were induced by the fondness they had for these women to think they spake very well; so they gave themselves up to what they persuaded them, and transgressed their own laws, and supposing there were many gods, and resolving that they would sacrifice to them according to the laws of that country which ordained them, they both were delighted with their strange food, and went on to do every thing that the women would have them do, though in contradiction to their own laws; so far indeed that this transgression was already gone through the whole army of the young men, and they fell into a sedition that was much worse than the former, and into danger of the entire abolition of their own institutions; for when once the youth had tasted of these strange customs, they went with insatiable inclinations into them; and even where some of the principal men were illustrious on account of the virtues of their fathers, they also were corrupted together with the rest." (Antiquities of the Jews, Book I, 6:6-9, italics added)
When I consider the story of Balaam I cannot help but reflect on the counsel of Doctrine and Covenants 88: 62-68
The Lord wants us to draw near to him and to ask him for that which we need but when we ask for that which we dont need it can turn to us for our condemnation, just as it did with Balaam. If our eye be single to the glory of God, if we share his perspective, all will be understood. And how do we gain the Lord's perspective? v.68 we must sanctify ourselves, cleanse ourselves of all other desires, purify our hearts from the other temptations the world throws at us and then we will see Him, "in his own time in his own way and according to his own will".

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