Another textual indicator that the Balaam pericope derives from a different source than its surrounding material is its radically contrary depiction of Yahweh (or El) towards Israel and of Israel itself.
In Balak’s second attempt to extract from Balaam a divine curse against Israel, Balaam comes back with these words from Yahweh, or El (see forthcoming).
He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob,
and neither has he seen any evil in Israel.
Yahweh, his god, is with him, and the shout of a king is among them. (Num 23:21)
This depiction of Yahweh who finds no fault, no wrongdoing, no iniquity in the people contradicts what came immediately before and what is to immediately follow. In other words, the divine rationale here is that Yahweh won’t curse his people because he finds no wickedness or iniquity in them. But this portrait of Yahweh and of Israel are negated by the surrounding material.
In Num 21:5-9—remember according to the now imposed Priestly chronology all these “events” happen in the last half (at most) of the 40th year (See Intro to Num 21)—we were informed that the people (all 600,000 of them?) rebelled against Yahweh—“We’ve sinned because we spoke against Yahweh”—to which Yahweh responded by sending fiery serpents against the people, “and many people from Israel died.” This certainly contradicts Yahweh’s own words in Num 23:21, where “no iniquity” was to be found in Israel.
Similarly in Numbers 25, immediately following the Balaam story, the Israelites sin again by associating themselves with Baal of Peor. “And Yahweh’s anger flared at Israel.” In order to arrest Yahweh’s wrath (or in one version his plague), Yahweh instructs Moses to hang Israel’s leaders upon the wall!
Both of these passages’ portrait of both Yahweh and of a sinful Israel speak against the portrait of Yahweh and the sinless Israel of the Balaam pericope. It is obvious that the Balaam story did not originally belong to the wilderness traditions, where the Israelites are usually depicted as rebellious and sinful.
The real historical context of the Balaam pericope is most likely to be found in the first half of the 9th century BCE. The unmistakable message of the story is that Israel is too powerful to be removed from Transjordan and that they occupy a large Transjordanian settlement in northern Moab—theologically presented as due to Yahweh’s divine providence and protection. This best reflects the first half of the 9th century when northern Israel held this territory under Omri. Notice too the anachronistic reference to kingship; the king most likely referred to here is Omri or his son Ahab, or perhaps Yahweh. This story might have even served a propagandist agenda in explaining why Assyria did not conquer Transjordan and northern Israel under Ahab’s, Omri’s son’s, rule—because Ahab became a tribute paying vassal. This in turn could have been retold to Ahab’s benefit as a story about Yahweh protecting Israelite settlements in Transjordan.
Compare what Hezekiah’s scribe wrote on Hezekiah’s behalf when he “saved” Jerusalem from being sacked by the Assyrians in 702 BCE by paying a hefty tribute—gold, silver, jewels, ivory, elephant-hides, servants, musicians, and even his daughters! His scribe turned Israel’s resubmission to Assyrian vassal-ship into a political and theological triumph for Hezekiah:
“For he shall not come into this city” says Yahweh. “For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” That very night the angel of Yahweh set out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies. (2 Kings 18:33-35)
Yea, the Assyrians were not there because they received a huge tributary payment that protected Jerusalem from Sennacherib’s massive army, which already had laid waste to the land of Judah. In this account, however, there is no mention of Sennacherib’s victory of every other town of Judah, no mention of Hezekiah’s resubmission to the Assyrian king as his vassal, and no mention of the gold, silver, and other costly gifts he sent to the king of Assyria as tribute (although see 2 Kings 18:14-16) in order to spare Jerusalem from destruction. Instead, Hezekiah’s scribes have created a narrative wherein Hezekiah, on account of his loyalty to Yahweh, is victorious!
The biblical account is a prime example of how and why royal scribes created political propaganda. This account not only details the benefits and blessings from Yahweh to those monarchs who submit to, not foreign rule, but to Yahweh alone, but it also works to ignite and gain further support for Hezekiah’s religious reforms. The propagandist and theologically oriented presentation of this historical event is clear: Hezekiah, through Yahweh, was victorious because he had placed his faith in Yahweh. This is a prime example of how ancient scribes reaccentuated and reinterpreted historical events and why they created political propaganda. Under their plume, history now displayed Yahweh’s loyal monarch as victorious.
I believe it was Churchill who said “the victors write history.” He couldn’t have been further from the truth! The Bible is a sublime (!) example of how the defeated rewrite history and caste themselves as the victors! And thus far, to use Finkelstein’s pet-phrase, their propaganda has worked its magic on all of us!