Friday, May 17, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: Numbers 22 and Origen's De Principiis: Preface 5-6

Numbers 22 - The Israelites camp on the plains of Moab, across the Dead Sea from Jericho.  Balak, son of Zippor (a name very like Moses’ wife, Zipporah), is the king of Moab. He is afraid of the Israelites and sends elders from Moab and Midian to Balaam of Pethor on the Euphrates. 

Balaam is a pagan prophet known for his occult powers. He is asked by Balak to come and curse the intruders.  Now God Himself comes to Balaam (at night so perhaps in a dream) and warns him not to interfere with these people for they are blessed. The next day Balaam tells the messengers from Balak that he cannot return with them.  King Balak does not give up, however.  He sends more important messengers to offer a great reward to Balaam if he comes.  This time God tells him he may go but only if he does just as God directs.  In the next paragraph we are told that God becomes angry with Balaam but it is not clear why.  The traditional interpretation is that Balaam did not follow the Lord’s direction but succumbed to the temptation to take the riches in return for his powers. [In the letters of Jude and 2 Pet, this is the reason they give for God’s displeasure at Balaam]

On the road, Balaam’s ass sees the angel of the Lord with a sword drawn, and leaves the path--Balaam beats her.  This happens three times each time the path becomes narrower and the movement off less noticeable.  Then the Lord allows the ass to speak to her master and she asks him why he is beating her.  Then his “eyes are opened” and he too sees the angel in the middle of the road armed with a sword.  So he finally gets on course again and arrives in Moab where Balak is annoyed he took so long.  Balaam tells him he can only say what the Lord puts in his mouth. 

This story is interesting for a number of reasons, the main one being that here again we see example of a non-Jewish king with a powerful connection to the Lord.  He is generally obedient and responsive to the correction of the Lord when he is tempted by riches to leave the path.  So he represents the capacity of those who are outside the promise to understand at least that God favors these gathered people and they should be allowed to follow the Lord.  Presumably for the entire stretch of history before Christ there were people of all nations who could in some measure see and respect the presence of God and the working of God around them even though the work did not directly relate to them.  As God gathered the Jews he is patiently building a redemptive possibility through historical events that will ultimately be opened to all men.

Origen (185-254 AD)
De Principiis (First Principles)
5 – On the soul, the apostolic teaching is “that the soul, having a substance and life of its own, shall, after its departure from the world be rewarded according to its deserts being destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness if its actions shall have procured this for it or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this: and also that there is to be a time of resurrection from the dead, when this body which now ‘is sown in corruption shall rise in incorruption,’ . . . “

This also is clearly defined in the teaching of the Church, that every rational soul is possessed of free-will and volition; that it has a struggle to maintain with the devil and his angels and opposing influences because they strive to burden it with sins; but if we live rightly and wisely we should endeavor to shake ourselves free of a burden of that kind.” We do not believe that we are “subject to necessity so as to be compelled . . . even against our will, to do either good or evil.” There may indeed be things that “influence” us to do one or the other, but our will is not bound by those influences.

He goes on to deny that the “stars” are any “cause of human actions.” And there are details about the nature of the soul that are NOT subjects, which the Church claims clarity on.

6 – Regarding the devil and the angels with him, the Church does say that “these beings exist. . . but what they are, or how they exist, it has not explained with sufficient clearness.” The opinion most Christians have, however, is that the devil, having become “apostate” (rebellious), did “induce” other angels to fall away with him, and these beings are still called angels.

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