The first reading comes from the conclusion of a somewhat funny story in the Book of Numbers, which was the third book in the Bible. Sixty thousand Israelites had come out of Egypt, and had wandered about in the Sinai desert for forty years. They finally made their move toward the Promised Land. Moving north, they conquered the Amorites under King Sihon, going on then to vanquish the Canaanites under King Arad.
King Balak of Moab, knowing he lacked the forces to stop the Israelites, sent for Balaam, a holy man on the Euphrates. He offered him a big stipend for coming over to put a curse on the Israelites.
Balaam consulted the Lord, and being told by God not to block the Israelites, he turned down the stipend. However, when Balak sent to him again, the Lord told Balaam to go, but to follow instructions. So, mounting his she ass, Balaam began his journey toward Moab.
At one place the ass dug in, refusing to go forward. With much beating Balaam was able to get the ass to move. But, at a narrow place she halted again, and it took a great beating to get her moving again.
When the ass stopped a third time between narrow walls where she bruised Balaam’s leg, he had again taken to beating her severely when an angel with a sword appeared, and the ass opened her mouth to say, she had to stop for the angel.
Today’s reading came after Balaam had uttered three divine oracles. In his fourth and fifth oracles Balaam spoke with amazing clarity.
“The utterance of Balaam, son of Beor,
the utterance of the man whose eye is true,
The utterance of one who hears what God says,
and knows what the Most High knows,
Of one who sees what the Almighty sees,
enraptured, and with eyes unveiled.
I see him, though not now;
I behold him, though not near:
A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a staff shall rise from Israel.”