college travels

Friday, August 29, 2008

Sabbatical with Balaam #4

Warning: contains plot spoilers!

It will come as no surprise that since my last entry I’ve been thinking about Balaam. I’ve been exploring a feature of the text that I noticed a while ago but have not known what to do with. The story begins with a character Balak who summons someone from far away. This someone is Balaam.

Sometimes in Biblical narrative it is important to take note of the names. Nabal is a classic example. He appears in 1 Samuel 25. His name simply means ‘fool’ and anyone reading the OT in its original language would hear the word ‘fool’ every time the guy’s name is mentioned. It affects how we think of him as a character and what we understand he contributes both to the plot of 1 Samuel and to the Kingdom of God.

Balak’s name means Devastator. Nasty piece of work you might think – especially if you had sympathies with the Israelites in Numbers. But here’s the point - Balaam’s name means Destroyer. Weird isn’t it! There are two central characters in the story, one is called Devastator, the other Destroyer. It got me thinking about another destroyer figure, but not Alien or Predator. It got me thinking about the Terminator and thisis where the plot spoilers come in – but don’t worry, not for soon-to-be-released Terminator 4, only for 1 and 2.

In the movie Arnie’s character is the Terminator. He comes from far away - well it might as well be far away. He comes from the future and that’s not any place we can get on an aeroplane and fly to. He comes from far away and is sent to destroy a character from whom will come the one person who can save the human race. Is it too much to think of Balaam in Numbers 22? He comes from far away, from Pethor which is presumably near the river Euphrates and not a place your average Israelite is ever going to get a chance to visit. He is summoned to terminate the Israelites who are the people from whom will come the Saviour of the world.

And then in Terminator 2 Arnie is back. He’s in much the same gear, the same attitude, the same accent. The twist is that his role is now to protect the One. More than that, he has to do so against the wishes and despite the efforts of a second destroyer cyborg. In Numbers 23-24 Balaam blesses Israel and, in a way, secures both their present protection and so guarantees their future and the line of descent to Jesus, and all this against the background of Balak’s becoming increasingly angry and hostile towards him.

Weird isn’t it? C.S. Lewis used to say that the Bible story, from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation, is the story of salvation, the only story of salvation which can fully satisfy our hearts and which our inner-selves long to be a part of. He’s kind of following Augustine here. But he then goes on to suggest that any other story of salvation or redemption, whether it is Snow White or Clueless, Terminator or his own Narnia Chronicles, triggers something in us that resonates with a faint memory of the true story, the Bible story.

It is this, as much as anything, that we are enjoying when we sit and watch a good redemptive movie, like the Shawshank Redemption or read a redemptive novel, like Atonement.

I wonder if he is right.

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