In 1200 BCE, mass media works like this: A famous person, a person of stature, speaks. Witnesses listen. Faithfully, accurately, they report what they heard. Person after person hears and repeats.
Do you have a political enemy? Want to discredit them? Fill the airwaves with defamation? Start at the top. Get your esteemed authority to trash them.
That’s what King Balak of Midian does (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9). He fears the Israelites. But he chooses not to reach out to them. Not to ally or negotiate. Instead, he calls them beasts, parasites on his kingdom. So, he hires Balaam, a popular regional prophet, to denounce them. Or tries to, anyway.
But Balaam dreams of God. And God says, “No, Balaam. Do not accept this assignment. Do not join Balak’s team.”
So King Balak tries again. He offers a bigger stipend. Again, Balaam dreams of God. This time God says, “Go with the team. But pay attention! Say only what I tell you to say.”
Balaam goes on assignment. He gets close to the Israelite camp. From a hilltop, he looks down. He opens his mouth and projects his voice. But he does not defame. Instead he says, “You’re good! And you’re powerful! Your star is rising!”
Balak’s team is furious. But they can’t undo Balaam’s voice. So, they part ways. Everyone simply goes home.
But eventually Balaam pays the price for his activism. Israelites know him as the man hired to curse. Midianites know him as the man who refused to curse. So, when Israel battles Midian, no one protects Balaam. In the chaos, he is killed.
It’s a story for our times. At least, in the USA. Political discourse is vicious. Many of us speak badly of our enemies. Not just of their deeds, but of their character. We defame them, curse them. Sometimes we tell lies – accidentally or on purpose. Faithfully, we repeat what we hear. We fill the airwaves with defamation.
Some of us try not to defame. Instead, we share facts. Look for patterns. Engage critical thinking. Medieval philosophers might say we listen for the voice of God. And we speak only as that voice directs us. (Yes, medieval philosophers thought logic was a divine gift.)
But this careful speech has its costs. In today’s USA, almost everyone is an extremist. Today, we praise our heroes, curse our enemies. Who we reject is as important as who we embrace. If we withhold judgment just long enough to think, everyone suspects us.
Action is important. Required! We must resist evil. But what is evil? Who is doing it? How do we know? Sometimes we don’t. Defamation has filled the airwaves. King Balak’s agents are everywhere, sowing discord. Like Balaam, we will need to find out what’s true.
It’s not a safe path. No side protects you. But it’s an important path. Someone has to walk it. If you choose it, don’t let others discourage you. Because you are powerful. And I want to believe that your star is rising.
Photo credit: Elvert Barnes. Please note: this photo was taken at a political protest rally, not a defamation event!