Today’s podcast is a retelling a meditation on Numbers 22-25:1-3, Numbers 31:16, 2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Revelation 2:14
What an incredible illustration of the power of words! This Old Testament Seer, who was not even one of the Israelites, nevertheless was sought by princes and kings to bless and curse their enemies—and he was paid handsomely for it. Was there anything special about Balaam’s words versus anyone else’s? I don’t think so—stories of blessings and cursings abound in Genesis especially (consider the power of Isaac’s blessing stolen by Jacob to set
off a twenty year feud). Names also seemed to hold the power of prophecy (consider the power of Abraham’s and Sarah’s new names to foretell their destinies, and of Jacob’s “heel grabber” later turned to “Israel”). Solomon later had much to say about the power of words to shape a life (Proverbs 12:14, 13:2, 13:3, 14:3, 18:7, 18:20-21, 21:23). I suspect what made Balaam different from others was his faith in the power of his words to come to pass, whereas others might waver if the effects were not immediate. As Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” It’s the ‘believing before you see it’
part that trips most people up. In this story, I imagined that Balaam didn’t struggle with this because he had a rare gift of seeing into the spiritual realm from time to time. If he could see the effects of his words before they were manifest into the physical, he’d certainly have had an easier time believing in their power.
This is also an interesting story because Balaam wasn’t an Israelite, nor was his heart pure—yet still, God spoke to him. He had no covenant to cling to, but he clearly understood covenant, and he knew how to manipulate it to his own ends. The story in Numbers doesn’t actually show Balaam explaining to Balak how to get the Israelites to curse themselves; it cuts straight from Balaam’s oracles of blessing over the Israelites in Numbers 22-24, to the Israelites’ harlotry with the Moabite women and worship of Baal in Numbers 25. But we know that this was Balaam’s doing from Numbers 31:16, Jude 11, and Revelation 2:14. 2 Peter 2:15 reveals that Balaam’s motivation for this was financial gain.
I used to think it was very strange that God gave Balaam permission to go with the Moabites and then sent an angel to kill him along the way because he went. That certainly seems contradictory. But God did tell Balaam no
the first time, which should have settled the matter. (Maybe there’s a lesson here: if God says no the first time, probably don’t keep asking?) The fact that Balaam asked again perhaps indicated that he was likely to do it regardless of what God said. Perhaps it wasn’t God’s best for Balaam to go, but He allowed it as a concession, knowing there was a potential danger in this loose cannon with impure motives. God’s concession, though, was for Balaam to wait until the men came to call him again in the morning; if they did, then he could go with them. There’s no indication that he did wait—Balaam just rose, saddled his donkey, and went. The fact that Balaam did not exactly follow the Lord’s instructions was a harbinger of what was to come. Balaam’s words had great power, and while God could use him to bless the Israelites, He could not afford to let this man say or do anything God did not explicitly authorize—hence the avenging angel.
Once Balaam was sufficiently terrified into submission, God let him live and continue on his way. And indeed, he did bless Israel only… but he still wanted Balak’s money. So he found a loophole in God’s instructions, which he exploited to his own benefit.
Fortunately for us today, we are now no longer under the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13-14), and we cannot curse ourselves with bad behavior as the Israelites could. Even so, we can still disqualify ourselves from receiving all the blessings God wants for us, if we do not mix His promises with faith (Hebrews 4:2).
I am what my people of Amau call a Seer. Most people perceive with their physical senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. So I suppose I must have been born with a gift, though I’ve never known anything different. I am as aware of the spiritual world as I am of the physical, though I cannot always perceive it with my eyes. Because of this, I learned from childhood that the spirit realm affects the physical—that in fact, it is the greater reality of the two. And yet, I could affect the spirit realm by my words. My words influenced the unseen, and then the unseen influenced and changed what was seen.
There were some limits to this, though. The primary limit was that there was a Power in the unseen realm much greater than I. I knew a few details about Him: that He is One, not many, like so many other cultures seemed to believe. That He is righteous, balancing mercy with justice. He does not let the wicked go unpunished. This instilled in me a healthy fear of Him: I did not want to end up on the wrong side of that equation. I also understood that while my words had power to influence the physical realm through the spiritual, He did not always authorize me to use them. I wasn’t totally sure what might happen if I tried to speak that which He explicitly forbade, but I did not wish to find out.
By rumor, as I grew, I also learned that He had favorites. In fact, He had one favorite people group in particular: the people of Israel. All the surrounding nations heard the stories of how the Lord delivered this band of former slaves from their captives in Egypt, and led them across the Red Sea. They had even plundered their former masters before they went. I heard how they had driven back the Amalekites, and defeated the Amorites. Now they were camped in the plains of Moab, on the other side of the Jordan from Jericho. I dwelt near the Euphrates with my own people, but even we felt the tension in the air.
So when the messengers from Balak, king of Moab came to me, I knew why they had come before they spoke. But a young man I recognized from the king’s court drew near and bowed low before me.
“I have come to you in the name of King Balak of Moab. Thus says the king to my lord, Balaam the Diviner: A people went out from Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they dwell next to me. And now, please come curse this people for me because they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I will prevail, and we will defeat them, and I will drive them out of the land because I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”
I glanced behind the messenger who had spoken, to another who held a small leather pouch in his hand, which jingled just a little as he moved. A little shiver of anticipation ran down my spine. If that pouch was filled with gold pieces, it represented a fortune! Little wonder: Moab was surely sick with dread of the Israelites. They knew that the Israelites’ strength came from the spirit realm, and that was the realm of my influence. No fee would be too high. I resisted the urge to ask to see the coins right then.
“Lodge here tonight,” I told them, “and I will bring you word again, as the Lord will speak to me.”
They did as I asked, and I withdrew at sunset to inquire of the Lord.
It usually took longer for Him to respond to me, but that night, He spoke at once. Whether the words were aloud such that other human ears could have perceived it, I do not know, but to me, it was audible.
“Who are these men with you?” He said.
I was pretty sure He knew the answer; He was just starting the conversation. I told Him, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent word to me, saying, ‘A people went out of Egypt who covers the face of the earth. Now come, curse them for me. Perhaps I will be able to battle them and drive them out.'” Please, please, please… I thought, my imagination filled with what I could do with the gold in that pouch. What a great man that would make me!
The Lord said, “You will not go with them. You will not curse the people because they are blessed.”
I deflated. “But… God…” I bit my lip. “Surely there’s some minor curse I could pronounce against them?”
He said nothing more. I knew from experience that this meant the conversation was over. My father used to do that when I was young: he’d lay down the law, and then give me the silent treatment as I wheedled, begged, and threw tantrums, until I finally accepted that he meant what he’d said. I sighed.
In the morning I returned to the men of Moab, and told them with great reluctance, “Go to your land. The Lord refuses to let me to go with you.”
The messengers exchanged a look of consternation with one another.
“Are… you sure?” one ventured, holding up the pouch and deliberately jingling it before my eyes. “The king will pay you handsomely for this service of yours.”
I let out an involuntary groan and averted my eyes from the pouch. “Would that it were up to me,” I told them. “But it is not.”
At last they returned the way they had come. When they had gone, I looked up at the sky and shouted, “Why?” When He still gave me the silent treatment, I added, “What is so special about this people of Yours? What makes them any better than Moab, or the Amalekites, or the Amorites, or the Amauites for that matter? Why do You bless them, and You won’t bless me?”
Silence again, though I felt His reproach. He had blessed me. I had a great gift that apparently was quite rare. I’d often wondered if there was anything special about my words, or if anybody else’s words might have the same effect as mine—it was just that, since I could see into the spirit realm where they had an effect, I did not waver once I’d spoken them, nor contradict them by speaking only what I saw already manifested in the physical realm, thus negating the effect in the spirit. Because of this ability, I was already prosperous: I’d used the words of my mouth to bless my own flocks and herds, crops and home, and I had quite literally eaten the fruit of my lips. If that weren’t enough, I used this same ability on behalf of others, and was paid handsomely for my troubles. I did not get my hands on that delicious little sack of gold, though… I whimpered at the thought, and huffed, crossing my arms over my chest and glaring at nothing in particular.
“You’re unfair,” I accused the Lord. “You play favorites. That’s inherently unfair!”
Silence still. I heaved another put-upon sigh, and went about my business for the day, saddling my donkey and taking her into the marketplace.
Late that day, just before sunset, I saw a large company on the horizon riding to my home. As they drew near, I saw their splendor: these were princes and warriors of Moab, not the messengers I had seen the day before. My eyes widened and my heart pounded with anticipation. Balak was not giving up then!
One of the princes dismounted and bowed down low before me. I pasted on a smile as I scrutinized his fine clothing, imagining what it might look like upon me.
“My lord Balaam,” the prince said by way of greeting. I could get used to being called ‘my lord.’ He went on, “This is what Balak son of Zippor says: Do not let anything keep you from coming to me, because I will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say. Come and put a curse on these people for me.”
An involuntary groan escaped my lips at this. How could I continue to refuse? But I managed, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God. Now spend the night here so that I can find out what else the Lord will tell me.”
The men agreed, and I withdrew from them and fell prostrate before the Lord.
“‘I will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say’?” I quoted Balak to the Lord. “How can You expect me to refuse such an offer? I cannot! Let me go with them, I beg You!”
There was silence at first. But then the Lord replied, “If the men come to call you, rise and go with them; but only say what I tell you to say.”
“Ha ha!” I cried, triumphant.
I could barely sleep that night. I rose at first light and saddled my donkey. My conscience pricked at me that the Lord had told me to wait for the princes to call me, but hadn’t they essentially already done that by coming the day before? I ignored this detail and went to rouse them.
“The Lord gave me permission to go with you,” I told them breathlessly. “Take me to your king!”
The princes seemed as glad to hear my response as I was glad to give it. They readied themselves quickly, and I mounted my donkey and followed them.
At first we traveled in one company, but soon my donkey began acting strangely. She fell behind the others, and then even strayed from the path they were following, ignoring my tug upon her reins and venturing into one of the fields.
“What are you doing?” I cried impatiently, tugging harder. She utterly ignored me, which both confused and infuriated me. I’d never seen her act like this before, and I needed to catch up to the others. From one of my saddlebags I dug out a switch, and used it to beat her flanks. She let out a sharp bray that made me wince.
“Well, if you don’t want more of that, do what I tell you!” I retorted.
At last, she returned to the road. I dug my heels into her flanks to try to get her to speed up to catch up with the company, but she refused—in fact, it felt like she was fighting me with every step. Presently the road narrowed, as a wall on either side delineated vineyards of different owners. Suddenly my donkey veered sharply toward one wall—but there was nowhere to go, so she just pressed against it and stopped altogether, crushing my foot against the wall in the process. I let out a roar and beat her harder.
“What is wrong with you?” I shouted, gritting my teeth against her sharp bray of pain. “Come on!”
She shuddered under me, and hesitatingly moved forward again, still hugging one wall but not so closely that she crushed my foot. Presently the lane narrowed so that she could no longer do even this: there was nowhere for her to turn aside. So she literally lay down under me, right there in the path.
“Why you worthless ass—!” I beat her as hard as I could, and she yelped and shuddered, but refused to budge. The third time I struck her, she half turned her head so that she could see me from one of her eyes.
“What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
I blinked, and my hand froze in midair. I could see into the spirit realm from time to time, and I had spoken to God, but this was a new one. Still, the sensible thing to do would be to answer her.
“Because you have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now!”
“Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
“No,” I had to admit.
Suddenly I perceived that she and I were not alone. A brilliantly glowing man stood directly in front of the path, barring our way, sword drawn. My mouth dropped open, and I slid off of my donkey’s back and fell to the ground before him.
“Why have you beaten your donkey these three times?” the angel demanded. “I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.”
I caught my breath, as a wave of terror passed through me. “I have sinned,” I admitted. I meant in beating my donkey, but as I said it, I realized that I’d also sinned in not waiting for the men to call me in the morning, as the Lord had instructed. “I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.”
The angel sheathed his sword, and stood to one side, making a very narrow path for us. “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.”
I swallowed hard, understanding the emphasis. I had not explicitly obeyed the Lord’s instructions before. I was given safe passage now only on condition that I do better in the future.
My donkey got to her feet and picked up her pace to catch up with the company of princes. I was rattled, and she probably was too. She never spoke to me again.
When I arrived in Moab, King Balak hurried out to meet me.
“Did I not send you an urgent summons?” he scolded by way of greeting. “Why didn’t you come to me? Am I not able to reward you?”
I had best disabuse him of any false expectations he had now, I realized, not much caring to face the avenging angel again.
“Well, I have come to you now,” I told him. “But I warn you, I can’t say whatever I please. I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.”
Balak smirked. “I am sure God will see fit to allow you to speak whatever is in your own best interest.”
Before I could protest again, he turned and said, “Come. We will sacrifice to your God to appease him.” He led the way, along with the company of princes he had sent to collect me, to a place called Kirjath Huzoth. There he offered oxen and sheep to the Lord, and he provided me and his princes with sheep to offer likewise. I considered telling him that if his intent was to ‘butter up’ the Lord to get Him to do what he wanted, that he was wasting his time. But Balak would learn that soon enough.
The following morning, Balak beckoned me alone, and took me to the high places where their people sacrificed to Baal. I saw this, and knew what the Lord would think of it—there was no Baal, He was the only God, and this was precisely why He wasn’t likely to bless Moab—but I chose not to comment on it. There was no point; Balak wouldn’t listen, and that wasn’t why we were here. The king pointed down into the plains, and I blinked, taken aback by the sheer number of the Israelites.
“These are my enemies,” Balak told me unnecessarily. “Now, curse them for me!”
I took a deep breath. Then I said, “Build seven altars for me here, and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.” I was kind of stalling for time, and kind of doing the very thing I’d mentally mocked Balak for the day before: trying to butter God up. Seven was a special number to Him, though I wasn’t entirely sure why. It was a number of completion. I also knew, as every nation knew intuitively, that He required blood sacrifices. I again considered telling Balak to tear down the altars to Baal while we were at it, but dismissed this. I doubted he would take kindly to this suggestion.
Balak had the animals I requested brought to us, and while he built the altars, I prepared the animals for slaughter. Then the two of us offered one bull and one ram on each of the altars, and set fire to them. Then I told the king, “Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go; perhaps the Lord will come to meet me, and whatever He shows me I will tell you.”
I ventured alone to a desolate hill connected to the one on which we had built the altars, and prayed to the Lord.
“Oh Lord, may it please you to curse the enemies of Balak!”
The Lord’s reply, I knew, was not one that would please the king. When He had finished, He said, “Return to Balak, and tell him what I have said.”
I trudged back to the king with a heavy heart, and to my dismay, I saw that in the interim, the princes of Moab had also joined him. I groaned inwardly, but when I was near enough, I called out, “Thus the Lord has bid me speak: From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, ‘Come curse Jacob for me, And come, denounce Israel!’ How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced? As I see him from the top of the rocks, And I look at him from the hills; Behold, a people who dwells apart, And will not be reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, Or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, And let my end be like his!”
As I spoke, I had my back turned to Balak and his princes, but I could sense their gnashing of teeth. Sure enough, when I turned around, I saw Balak’s dark countenance.
“What have you done to me?” he demanded. “I took you to curse my enemies, but you have actually blessed them!”
I felt miserable. But what could I do? I imagined the avenging angel, sword drawn, standing right beside me, ready to strike me down should I misspeak. “Must I not be careful to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?”
The king huffed, and then turned and conferred with his noblemen. In the interim, I looked up to heaven and shook my head at the Lord in annoyance.
“Will you let me say nothing that pleases him?” I complained.
Balak turned back to me, his expression smoothed as if with renewed determination. “Please come with me to another place from where you may see them, although you will only see the extreme end of them and will not see all of them; and curse them for me from there.”
I felt my hopes rise too, irrational though I knew it was. After all, God had changed His mind from forbidding me to go with the men from Balak the second time I approached and asked Him, had He not? True, He’d given me permission and then sent an angel to slay me along the way, but I think that was due to a technicality…
At any rate, I went with Balak and his men, across the ridges of the adjoining hills, across the field of Zophim to the top of Pisgah. There, Balak and some of the princes built seven more altars, and the remaining men went to retrieve seven more bulls and seven more rams. We again offered burnt sacrifices to the Lord, though I also noticed and ignored the altars to other gods nearby. Again I told Balak and the princes to stay by the offerings while I went to consult the Lord.
No sooner had I wandered ashrimp inway from the group, the Lord told me, “Go back to Balak, and thus you shall speak.” It was no better than before. Feeling a little sick to my stomach, I turned around and trudged back to them.
“So soon?” Balak asked eagerly, eyebrows raised. “Come now, what did He give you to say?”
I sighed. “Thus says the Lord: Arise, O Balak, and hear; Give ear to me, O son of Zippor! God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? Behold, I have received a command to bless; When He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it. He has not observed misfortune in Jacob; Nor has He seen trouble in Israel; The Lord his God is with him, And the shout of a king is among them. God brings them out of Egypt, He is for them like the horns of the wild ox. For there is no omen against Jacob, Nor is there any divination against Israel; At the proper time it shall be said to Jacob And to Israel, what God has done! Behold, a people rises like a lioness, And as a lion it lifts itself; It will not lie down until it devours the prey, And drinks the blood of the slain.”
I watched as the lines of Balak’s face deepened into a scowl as I spoke. I could hardly blame him. When I had finished, he shouted, “Do not curse them at all nor bless them at all!”
I felt utterly wretched. “Did I not tell you, ‘Whatever the Lord speaks, that I must do’?”
Balak turned his back on me with a snort of disgust, and went to confer with his nobles once more. At this point, I just wanted the encounter to be over.
He returned, his expression implacable. “Please come, I will take you to another place; perhaps it will be agreeable with God that you curse them for me from there.”
Why he still thought location would make any difference at all, I did not know, but I went with him without comment. Balak and his nobles led me to the top of Peor, a mountain which overlooked a wasteland. As before, I instructed Balak, “Build seven altars for me here and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here.” The Moabites followed my instructions, and offered their sacrifices.
Even so, I did not bother to withdraw to pray to the Lord this time and ask Him to let me curse the people of Israel. He would not. I could say only what He gave me to say. And yet… as I turned to look at the altars of Baal behind the altars the Moabites had just built to the Lord, the germ of an idea began in my mind.
I turned my back upon them again for now, though, and turned to look out over the wilderness. I gave over my tongue to the Lord and uttered His prophecy as it came to me: “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, And the oracle of the man whose eye is opened; The oracle of him who hears the words of God, Who sees the vision of the Almighty, Falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered, How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! Like valleys that stretch out, Like gardens beside the river, Like aloes planted by the Lord, Like cedars beside the waters. Water will flow from his buckets, And his seed will be by many waters, And his king shall be higher than Agag, And his kingdom shall be exalted. God brings him out of Egypt, He is for him like the horns of the wild ox. He will devour the nations who are his adversaries, And will crush their bones in pieces, And shatter them with his arrows. He crouches, he lies down as a lion, And as a lion, who dares rouse him? Blessed is everyone who blesses you, And cursed is everyone who curses you.”
Balak fairly shook with fury as he listened to this oracle. As if needing to lash out physically somehow, he clapped his hands together forcefully. Then he jabbed a finger in my direction and accused, “I called you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have persisted in blessing them these three times! Flee to your place now. I said I would honor you greatly, but the Lord has held you back from honor!”
I shook my head. “Did I not tell your messengers whom you had sent to me, saying, ‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything contrary to the command of the Lord, either good or bad, of my own accord. What the Lord speaks, that I will speak’? I will go back to my people; but come, and I will advise you what this people will do to your people in the days to come.” The germ of what I intended to do had grown in my mind, but I had decided that I would first stoke Balak’s fear of the Israelites before I gave him my recommendation. That way, he might yet be disposed to honor me, though I could not do what he had summoned me to do.
I turned back out to the wilderness where we could see Moab in the distance, and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, And the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, The oracle of him who hears the words of God, And knows the knowledge of the Most High, Who sees the vision of the Almighty, Falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered. I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be a possession, Seir, its enemies, also will be a possession, While Israel performs valiantly. One from Jacob shall have dominion, And will destroy the remnant from the city.” Then I turned in the direction of Amalek, and pronounced, “Amalek was the first of the nations, But his end shall be destruction.” I turned in the direction of the Kenites, and declared, “Your dwelling place is enduring, And your nest is set in the cliff. Nevertheless Kain will be consumed; How long will Asshur keep you captive?” I opened my arms to encompass all these nations, and cried in a loud voice, “Alas, who can live except God has ordained it? But ships shall come from the coast of Kittim, And they shall afflict Asshur and will afflict Eber; So they also will come to destruction.”
I turned and beheld the stunned horror on the faces of Balak and all of his princes. I smiled. “Here is the end of the matter,” I said. “The Lord has blessed Israel; neither I nor you nor anyone on earth can curse those whom the Lord has blessed. But I will tell you what you can do instead.” I pointed at the altars of Baal. I saw confusion cross their faces as they turned to look where I pointed. “No one outside of Israel may curse them, but they can curse themselves.”
King Balak whipped around to face me again, eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?” he demanded. “Why would they do such a thing?”
“Simple,” I shrugged. “They are in covenant with the Lord, but it is not an unconditional covenant. If they violate their end of the agreement, they bring themselves out from under His protection. They will be as weak and susceptible as any other nation. In fact, the covenant itself enumerates the curses that will come upon them, should they cease to follow the Lord their God only.”
Balak’s eyes widened, and his mouth fell open. He was practically salivating.
“What are these rules that they must keep?” he demanded. “And how can we entice the Israelites to break them?”
“Your land is a land of beautiful women, is it not?” I asked casually. Balak and the princes nodded eagerly, and I went on, “And harlotry is included as one of the rituals of your worship to Baal, is it not?”
“Yes!” Balak cried, the beginnings of understanding dawning on his face.
I nodded. “Very good. The Israelites’ first two commandments given them by the prophet who led them out of Israel were these: ‘you shall have no other gods before Me,’ and ‘you shall not make for yourself a carved image; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me.'” I left out the part I had heard about His blessings to the thousandth generation of those who love Him. “So you see? I do not believe you could directly entice them to sacrifice to Baal, unless you gave them an incentive. But if your beautiful Moabite women were to entice the Israelite men into sexual encounters, provided it is in the context of Baal worship…” I opened my hands with a casual flourish, and Balak and the princes now shared my smile. “The people will curse themselves.”
Balak’s grin hardened into a snarl. I kept my hand open before him and let it hang there, until he finally glanced at it and took my meaning. He smirked, and gestured to one of the princes beside him, “Pay the man. He has given us what we wished, after all.”
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