07/02/2014 04:12 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

The Perils of Trusting the Trustworthy


Once upon a time the U.S.A. was divided, but everyone trusted Walter Cronkite. Today the U.S.A. is again riven, but no single information source is trusted by everyone. Instead, different people trust different sources, and these sources bitterly criticize each other.

A seldom-mentioned effect of the contemporary conflict among information sources is increased pressure to trust one's own sources unwaveringly. To doubt one's own sources is to agree with the opposition. To express skepticism about one's own sources is to lend aid and comfort to the enemy. Nowadays anything less than total trust of one's sources is disloyal, even traitorous.

But that is not a problem if one's sources are trustworthy, right?

The Bible often warns against trusting the wrong sources (e.g., false prophets). But in the story of Balaam, the Bible warns against placing too much trust in the right sources -- in this case Moses. The Bible's warning is particularly pertinent to us, since we are particularly prone to the error of excessively trusting our sources.

Moses' Accusations Against Balaam

In the book of Numbers, Balaam is hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to place a curse on the Israelites. Instead, Balaam blesses them. Yet Moses criticizes Balaam:

"At the bidding of Balaam, [the Midianite women] induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord..." (Numbers 31:16).

There is no textual evidence to ground Moses' claim that Balaam urged the Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men into idol worship. Indeed, this seems farfetched. Can you imagine the men of Midian sending their womenfolk out to have sexual relations with an army of strangers? Can you imagine these women offering sex in exchange for idol worship without the blessing of their menfolk? Like other blame-the-women explanations, this one sounds plausible only when coupled with a totally ludicrous picture of gender roles.

Upon reflection, even Moses realizes that his original accusation against Balaam is absurd. In his speech to the Israelites 40 years later, Moses offers a completely different accusation:

"They hired Balaam ... to curse you. But the Lord your God refused to heed Balaam; instead, the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you" (Deuteronomy 23:5-6).

Moses' second accusation is also obviously false. It is directly contradicted by the text of Numbers. Balaam never tries to curse the Israelites. Indeed, Balaam blesses the Israelites despite both bribes and threats (Numbers 22-24). He is portrayed not as a foiled curser but as God's obedient servant and Israel's friend. Again and again Balaam repeats some version of the following refrain:

"Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God" (Numbers 22:18).

Both the sex-plot accusation and the attempted-cursing explanation are just misguided speculation on the part of Moses.

Why Does Moses Go Wrong?

Moses makes his first accusation right after Balaam is killed in battle:

"[The Israelites] took the field against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and slew every male. ... They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword" (Numbers 31:7-8).

By listing him separately, this passage indicates that Balaam is a non-Midianite, presumably a bystander. Nowadays we recognize that noncombatants are often killed accidentally; they are merely "collateral damage." But Moses takes every major setback (or success) as a punishment (or reward). He believes that there are no random, meaningless events. Everything that happens happens because God wants it to happen. And since God is just, no one suffers unjustly.

(This is the traditional Jewish view of suffering that Job and God reject in the book of Job. But that would be another essay.)

So Moses probably says to himself, "If Balaam got killed, he must have deserved it. I wonder what sin he committed." His belief that major gains and losses are rewards and punishments pushes Moses to seek blame-the-victim explanations for Balaam's death.

Three Lessons on Trust for the Modern World

Why does the Bible paint Balaam in a positive, even heroic light and then attribute unjustified accusations against Balaam to Moses?

First, the fact that Moses feels the need to blame Balaam should warn us that the common human tendency to jump to conclusions can be aggravated by a worldview that assigns moral meaning to every event. We should be wary of the temptation (exploited by conspiracy theorists and sophists) to ignore or distort the facts for the sake of making everything fit together. Some good things are not rewards; some bad things are not punishments. Not everything is part of God's Grand Plan. Sometimes shit just happens.

Second, Moses' unjust accusations against Balaam should remind us that those who seem to be our enemies may actually be well-intentioned friends. Some of us have been so wounded or persecuted that, quite understandably, we come to believe that everyone is against us. Some of us, at least, should be less suspicious and more trusting.

Third, the Bible is addressing our current predicament: Competing information sources push us to trust our own sources unquestioningly. By presenting Moses' unjustified accusations, the Bible is reminding us that even brilliant, scrupulous, divinely inspired leaders like Moses sometimes make mistakes. It is easy to assume that what a truthful person says is always true. (Indeed, many commentators have missed the point of the Balaam episode by uncritically trusting Moses.) But truthful people can be wrong. Even while we credit our sources with the best intentions and practices, we should not trust them without reservation.

Of course, the Bible is not urging cynicism. Few books take trust/faith to be more desirable. Rather, the message of Moses' unjustified accusations is that we should deploy our critical-thinking skills along with our trust -- as a check on our trust.

To summarize, we shouldn't completely refuse to trust anyone, as if everyone were a CIA agent, but we shouldn't let our guard down either, even with respect to the sources we most trust. Total skepticism and blind faith are both vices. As Ronald Regan said (quoting a Russian proverb) in a very different context, "Trust but verify."