by Glenn Harris | January 01 1970
Our parasha for this Shabbat is entitled Chukat, meaning “Statute (of the Law)” and covers Numbers 19 – 21. Chapter 19 includes the commandment concerning the ashes of the now-famous “Red Heifer”. I say “now famous” because of the renewed interest in the re-building of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, in Jerusalem, and the fascination of Evangelical Christians with events transpiring in Israel. You see, in order for Temple services to be reinstituted a consecrated priesthood is necessary, and that is not possible without the ashes of a flawless, all-red heifer – something which until just a few years ago had not existed in Israel for millennia. The ashes of the red heifer were for cleansing those who had contact with a dead person. Priests were not to have any contact with the dead (a law which continues to this day among priestly families, [eg. those whose last name is Cohen]). But it could happen inadvertently – and without those ashes the priest could no longer attend the altar.
A lot of grief and sadness occupies chapter 20. Miriam died and was buried in Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. The Edomites refused peaceful passage to Israel, so that we had to take a much longer, less hospitable route. Later the congregation arrived at Mt.Hor, where God summoned Moses, Aaron and Eleazar up the mountain, telling Aaron to place his mantle on his son Eleazar, after which Aaron died and was gathered to his people.
But in between the passing of these two great leaders, our people once again complained, accusing Moses and Aaron of malevolence in having brought us into the arid, desolate wilderness. We conveniently forgot that the wilderness wandering was our own doing. In fear and unbelief we had refused to enter the land and God decreed this to be our lot.
Meanwhile, there was no water in the wilderness of Zin. Moses and Aaron came to the Tent of Meeting, where God told them to assemble the people, speak to the rock and God would provide water. The people assembled, but then Moses did a grievous thing. He said, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” Striking the rock twice with his staff, water began to gush forth – enough for everyone! But by this sin, Moses forfeited the privilege of bringing Israel into the Promised Land.
Chapter 21 recounts Israel’s complaining about the manna. Because of this sin, God sent poisonous serpents into the camp. I don’t believe the snakes bit arbitrarily, but zeroed in on the complainers. Many died, and the people came to Moses, confessing their sin and asking him to intercede before God for forgiveness and rescue. God ordered Moses to fashion a bronze serpent, and whoever got bitten needed only to come out of their tent, look up to that snake-on-a-pole, and they would live. Of course, if that was you, it also meant everyone would know that you were one of the complainers, but it sure beat dying!
Yeshua made reference to this event when speaking to Nicodemus in John chapter 3. The serpent on the pole was a foreshadowing of the Messiah’s suffering on a Roman cross. Just as our people had to come out in the open and acknowledge our sins, look up to that standard and live, so it is today – we must come to Yeshua openly, admit our sins, look to Him and live. God is the same merciful God today, but salvation is always on His terms!
Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Chukat חֻקַּת. Other transliterations: Hukath, or Chukkas
Our parasha for this Shabbat is entitled Balak, the name of the king of Moab. It spans Numbers 22:2 through 25:9 and this section of the Torah will form the basis for this morning’s sermon. Most of us know the story of Balaam, and just about every kid who’s ever sat in a Shabbat School or Sunday School class remembers about Balaam’s donkey talking to him. It always gets a good laugh. But I submit to you that Balak and Balaam are archetypes – symbols of a pattern of behavior that has plagued the world for nearly 3,500 years. I also believe there are a number of lessons we need to take from this passage this morning.
Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. So Moab was in great fear because of the people, for they were numerous; and Moab was in dread of the sons of Israel. Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time.
The news of what God had done to Egypt had been widely published. The whole of the Middle East knew about what God had done to Egypt. But that was a generation earlier. It was the next generation of Israel that decimated Og and Sihon and their respective kingdoms. As though divine bookends, God gave Israel great military victories on either side of the wilderness wandering.
But now Balak, king of the Moabites, hears about what happened to Heshbon and Bashan, and rightly fears for his kingdom. So what does he do? He seeks an alliance with the Midianites. But notice there is no suggestion of a military solution to their “problem”. It seems to me Balak knew that a standard military effort would prove futile, for clearly Israel’s God was with them, and all who came against them suffered terrible defeat. He needed some kind of tactical advantage, an edge. Let’s see what he did.
So he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the River, in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people came out of Egypt; behold, they cover the surface of the land, and they are living opposite me. “Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”
Balak knew exactly who to turn to: Balaam the soothsayer/diviner; a spiritual “hit-man” as it were, hired to pronounce blessings or curses on behalf of the highest bidder. Balak knew Balaam could be had for a price. So let me ask you a question: Do you enjoy a good reputation? Are you a known quantity in the workplace? At school? In your neighborhood? Do people know that you belong to Yeshua, and that your convictions are not for sale? Some of you may even have made enemies for yourselves precisely because you would not be bought off. Some of you may have lost friends because you would not jettison your values for whatever reason. Unfortunately, there seem to be far too many people whose Christian principles are turned off like a light switch once they leave the assembly. Did you know that one Hebrew word, Avodah, can be alternately translated “work” “service” or “worship”? God would have us know that there is no such thing as compartmentalizing our lives. Your day-to-day work (and for you students – your studies) is every bit as much service to the Lord as your singing a hymn or reciting the Shema. If you are honest, thoughtful and conscientious on the job, you are offering a pleasing sacrifice. If, on the other hand, you are dishonest or just don’t care about the quality of your work, I suggest you are offering “strange fire”.
Balak – “devastator”
Balaam – proper name; also name of a town in Manasseh (possibly a moniker assigned to him later by Moses and Israel, since Bi-lo-am could be rendered “without a nation” inferring we are looking at a man whose loyalties rested with whoever paid the most.
So Balak summons Balaam, who was neither a good prophet nor a non-profit. And he asks him to come and curse Israel, since as far as Balak knows, whomever Balaam blesses is blessed, and whomever he curses is cursed. Does that formula sound familiar? It should, for God promised Abraham that whoever blessed him (and his descendants) would be blessed, and that whoever cursed Abraham’s seed would be cursed. And now Balak seeks to curse the descendants of Abraham. Do you see the spiritual power play?
As far back as the time of the Patriarchs, and down to this very hour, there have always been those who would rid the Earth of the Jewish people, and, sadly, others who have been equally ready to carry out such a plan for a price.
It is a sad fact of human existence that we fear and hate what we do not understand. And let’s be honest, it takes little effort and no time at all to hate, whereas it takes time and investigation to arrive at understanding. Israel was a powerful but unknown quantity to Moab and its king, and the thing that is feared frequently is targeted for elimination. Witness, for example, the hateful intolerance in universities at the mere suggestion that Darwin may have been wrong. It is enough to get a professor censured or denied tenure, or a student mocked by their professor. Witness the intense hostility on the part of the Jewish community at the suggestion that Yeshua is the Messiah, and the refusal to investigate (we have the rabbis to thank for keeping our people fearful and suspicious). Witness most recently the attempt to silence voices of opposition by re-introducing the transparently phony,so-called “fairness doctrine”.1But let’s get back to our narrative.
So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam and repeated Balak’s words to him. He said to them, “Spend the night here, and I will bring word back to you as the Lord may speak to me.” And the leaders of Moab stayed with Balaam. Then God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?”Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent word to me, ‘Behold, there is a people who came out of Egypt and they cover the surface of the land; now come, curse them for me; perhaps I may be able to fight against them and drive them out.'”God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.”So Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak’s leaders, “Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.”
I’d like to know how is it that a foreign, wicked “prophet” knew the Lord’s name and communicated with Him. Was he a prophet who had once been good and later went bad? Did he fall prey to “the dark side of the force”? I don’t think so. I think he, being a soothsayer, was aware of the name of Israel’s God on account of His fame, and what He had done in Egypt. And he, perhaps like the seven sons of Sceva, attempted to name a name he didn’t have the right to name, and he’s going to be dealt with for it.2Could this also relate to Simon the sorcerer, whose ambition for power prompted him to attempt to buy spiritual power from the apostles?3There are powers and authorities at work in heavenly places – things that we, perhaps blessedly, are not privy to on a daily basis.
Does it make you uncomfortable that this soothsayer is using the name of Adonai, and that God was actually speaking with him? Does it make you uncomfortable that God asked Balaam who these men were that came to him (as though He didn’t know)? Does it make you uncomfortable that God says “no” the first time Balaam asks, but later will say “yes” and then get angry that Balaam actually took Him up on the “yes”? Well don’t worry, there’s even more in this story to make you uncomfortable. Don’t worry – with God’s help we’ll resolve them.
First, note that the elders of Moab and Midian4brought money with them – fees for divination. Let there be no question that they knew who they were dealing with, and that Balaam was accustomed to taking fees in exchange for his incantations. In fact, his words to the emissaries are rather telling: “Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” It’s as if he’s saying, “Sorry, boys, you know I’d love to oblige you and come and curse Israel, but God won’t let me.”
It is worth noting that people in the ancient world understood the nature of vows, and of blessings and curses, and of the binding nature of a word spoken. I remember as a boy in elementary school having this kid who was from another country get mad at me, and he uttered a curse to the effect that I would die that night. Of course in retrospect his curse carried no weight. But don’t think I didn’t wonder whether something might really happen to me that night. While we regard ourselves as too sophisticated today to give credence to such “superstitions”, I think we too often fail to recognize the seriousness of what comes out of our mouths. Perjury is a serious matter, and deserves swift and severe punishment. The breaking of marriage vows should be absolutely unthinkable to us! Words mean something. Our “yes” needs to be yes, and our “no” no. Let’s strive to be men and women who are good to our word, and bring honor to the Lord.
But here’s what I’d like to know: How much did Balaam already know about Israel? How much of their Abrahamic ancestry was he aware of? How much of what had transpired in Egypt was he privy to? If he actually had some kind of spiritual authority, and if, as seems to be true in this case, he conversed with God, how familiar was he with God’s special covenant with Israel?
As for God asking Balaam who these men were, I put that in the same category as God asking Adam where he was. The Creator of the cosmos, the one who knows the very number of hairs on our heads, knew full well who these men were, and why they came to Balaam, and what kind of man Balaam was. In Balaam’s mind, this was an opportunity to make some easy money, but in truth God’s question to him was meant as an opportunity to come clean. And God told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to curse our people, for they were already blessed. So the next morning he sends them away, and you can almost hear the disconsolate sigh he must have uttered at missing out on this financial opportunity.
Which leads to another point: you are mistaken to presume that every opportunity that presents itself is God opening a door for you. How do you whether an opportunity that presents itself is from the Lord? For all you know it is meant as a test of your integrity. Don’t be presumptuous. We need to be very careful not to spiritualize things, when it’s really about “the flesh”. We’ll return to that idea later. Let’s continue our reading.
The leaders of Moab arose and went to Balak and said, “Balaam refused to come with us.”Then Balak again sent leaders, more numerous and more distinguished than the former.They came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor, ‘Let nothing, I beg you, hinder you from coming to me; for I will indeed honor you richly, and I will do whatever you say to me. Please come then, curse this people for me.'”Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.
Whoa! Does this shock you? This was not an Israeli prophet, but a foreign soothsayer. And yet he talks like a “believer”. I think it’s a veneer of religious piety. But let’s go on.
Now please, you also stay here tonight, and I will find out what else the Lord will speak to me.”God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do.”
Balak found out that Balaam refused to come and here’s the conclusion he drew: he didn’t offer enough money, or send distinguished enough emissaries. How did he arrive at that conclusion? Now perhaps I’m reading too much in here, but we really have to wonder whether this is a case of Balaam’s reputation preceding him. His answer to the second delegation is curious. He says, “Look, it isn’t about money. God said ‘No’… but hey, stay the night and let me see if maybe God will change his mind.” But what does the Scripture say about God – that He is not a man that He should change His mind.
Balaam has two deadly problems here: greed and bad theology. Yet strangely enough, God appears to change His mind. Or does He? For those who are parents, this is easier to understand. You tell your son or daughter “Absolutely not” to one of their less brilliant ideas about something they want to do. But they persist, and bring up the idea again (and again), and you decide, not that your son or daughter has truly had a stroke of brilliance, but that they need to learn first-hand the consequence of their persistence in folly. So you give them permission. You hope they’ll read between the lines and think better of it (which usually doesn’t happen). So God gives Balaam permission to go, but warns him not to say anything but what he is told. Again, the importance of our words. Let’s go on.
So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey and went with the leaders of Moab.
Does that imagery sound a little familiar – rising early and saddling a donkey? It is the very same description of Abraham, when God called him to bring his beloved son Isaac to Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice there. Consider the juxtaposition of these two men, Abraham and Balaam. Abraham arose early and saddled his donkey – in order to sacrifice what he treasured, while Balaam arose early and saddled his donkey – in order to acquire treasure!
But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding on his donkey and his two servants were with him.23 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand, the donkey turned off from the way and went into the field; but Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back into the way.24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path of the vineyards, with a wall on this side and a wall on that side.25 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pressed herself to the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he struck her again.26 The angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place where there was no way to turn to the right hand or the left.27 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam was angry and struck the donkey with his stick.28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”
This is hysterical! It just doesn’t register with Balaam that this is really weird. Instead of being blown away that his donkey is speaking to him in fluent Aramaic (or whatever he spoke), he just joins the conversation!
29 Then Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a mockery of me! If there had been a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.”30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.”
(this is an eloquent donkey – almost Shakespearean)
Friends, when God says “No” and you persist on asking, He will find even more unusual ways than this to get your attention. When God has spoken, nothing more need be said.
31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed all the way to the ground. 32 The angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to me.33 “But the donkey saw me and turned aside from me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, I would surely have killed you just now, and let her live.”34 Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the way against me. Now then, if it is displeasing to you, I will turn back.”
The donkey had it right. The donkey saw and understood what Balaam was blind to. This is what greed does to a man. Balaam’s life hung by a thread and he didn’t know it. I don’t even want to know how large that sword was that the angel was wielding!
I detest those paintings that depict angels as little child-like cherubs. In nearly every recorded instance of a human being encountering an angel, it is terrifying. These beings must be immense and powerful! This angel came in an adversarial manner. Balaam’s lust for wealth put him in opposition to God’s purpose, which was that Israel be blessed. And his spiritual eyes were blind – but his donkey could see things perfectly.
There is an interesting parallel here. God had sent Moses to Egypt, but you may recall that God sought to put him to death on the way (for not having circumcised his son).
How does this relate to God’s will? God gave Balaam permission to go, but God was clearly displeased that Balaam was ready to prostitute himself. And that’s what we do anytime we put aside principle for the sake of financial gain. This is not arbitrariness on the part of God. God sometimes lets us have our fill of our own ways, and when we fall flat on our face, desires that we learn a lesson, pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, and come away a little wiser. Discipline from the Lord is a good thing.
35 But the angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but you shall speak only the word which I tell you.” So Balaam went along with the leaders of Balak.36 When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at the city of Moab, which is on the Arnon border, at the extreme end of the border.37 Then Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not urgently send to you to call you? Why did you not come to me? Am I really unable to honor you?”38 So Balaam said to Balak, “Behold, I have come now to you! Am I able to speak anything at all? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I shall speak.”39 And Balaam went with Balak, and they came to Kiriath-huzoth.40 Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep, and sent some to Balaam and the leaders who were with him.41 Then it came about in the morning that Balak took Balaam and brought him up to the high places of Baal, and he saw from there a portion of the people.
I find Balaam’s veneer of spirituality to be singularly distasteful; certainly not an example to be followed.
Then Balaam said to Balak, “Build seven altars for me here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here.”2 Balak did just as Balaam had spoken, and Balak and Balaam offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.3 Then Balaam said to Balak, “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.” So he went to a bare hill.4 Now God met Balaam, and he said to Him, “I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.”5 Then the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and you shall speak thus.”6 So he returned to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, he and all the leaders of Moab.7 He took up his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, ‘Come curse Jacob for me, And come, denounce Israel!’8 “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?9 “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.10 “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!”11 Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!”12 He replied, “Must I not be careful to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?”
Turnabout, or reversal, is a common biblical device. Imagine it – God used a wicked, greedy soothsayer to accomplish His purposes. Balak and Balaam meant it for evil. They sought to curse Israel. But God meant it for good. He allowed Balaam to go with them; He allowed Balak to go to all the trouble of offering multiple sacrifices, only to have Balaam’s mouth open in blessing for Israel. Surprise!
This brings up an important lesson for us. When we do wrong, God may yet bring good out of it, but that doesn’t absolve us of our guilt in doing the wrong. Do you recall Paul’s words: What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it (Romans 6:1-2)? Beware of rationalizing away things you know to be wrong.
Note that this prophecy has Israel distinct from the nations! This is not to say that Israelis better, but God’s purpose was to create a distinct people, a people intended bring Him glory. Sadly, we broke that covenant, but God will yet be glorified through Israel.
Then Balak said to him, “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.”14 So he took him to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each altar.15 And he said to Balak, “Stand here beside your burnt offering while I myself meet the Lord over there.”16 Then the Lord met Balaam and put a word in his mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.”17 He came to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, and the leaders of Moab with him. And Balak said to him, “What has the Lord spoken?”18 Then he took up his discourse and said, “Arise, O Balak, and hear; Give ear to me, O son of Zippor!19 “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?20 “Behold, I have received a command to bless; when He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it.21 “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.22 “God brings them out of Egypt, He is for them like the horns of the wild ox.23 “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!24 “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.”25 Then Balak said to Balaam, “Do not curse them at all nor bless them at all!”26 But Balaam replied to Balak, “Did I not tell you, ‘Whatever the Lord speaks, that I must do ‘?”
Balak (perhaps Balaam, too) was under the mistaken impression that the God of Israel was no different from the gods of the peoples. He supposed that a change of geography might bring a change of mind. But see what happens – another blessing! In all, five oracles of blessing were spoken for the people of Israel. Note, too, the similarity of the language to that of Jacob’s blessing for Judah in Genesis chapter 49 – likening the nation to a lion/lioness! The message is clear: don’t mess with Israel(the apple of God’s eye)!
Then Balak said to Balaam, “Please come, I will take you to another place; perhaps it will be agreeable with God that you curse them for me from there.”28 So Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor which overlooks the wasteland.29 Balaam said to Balak, “Build seven altars for me here and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here.”30 Balak did just as Balaam had said, and offered up a bull and a ram on each altar. When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go as at other times to seek omens but he set his face toward the wilderness.2 And Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe; and the Spirit of God came upon him.3 He took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, and the oracle of the man whose eye is opened;4 The oracle of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered,
:מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
5 How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!
Thousands of years later, this very phrase is sung by Jewish men each morning as they enter the synagogue to pray! It is poetic justice – where is Moab? Midian?
6 “Like valleys that stretch out, like gardens beside the river, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the waters.7 “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.8 “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.9 “He couches, 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.”10 Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam, and he struck his hands together; and Balak said to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have persisted in blessing them these three times!11 “Therefore, flee to your place now. I said I would honor you greatly, but behold, the Lord has held you back from honor.”12 Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you had sent to me, saying,13 ‘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 ‘?
“And now, behold, I am going to my people; come, and I will advise you what this people will do to your people in the days to come.”15 He took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, And the oracle of the man whose eye is opened,16 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.
17“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.
In the midst of these prophecies of the good that God intends to do for Israelis this promise that a king will arise in Israel, who will eventually crush the kingdom of Moab. This, in fact, was accomplished through King David, who completely subdued the Moabites. But I believe it transcends even that nearer future to speak of the coming Messiah, the One who will wield the scepter over the kingdom of Israel forever.
18“Edom shall be a possession, Seir, its enemies, also will be a possession, while Israel performs valiantly.19 “One from Jacob shall have dominion, and will destroy the remnant from the city.”20 And he looked at Amalek and took up his discourse and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations, but his end shall be destruction.”21 And he looked at the Kenite, and took up his discourse and said, “Your dwelling place is enduring, and your nest is set in the cliff.22 “Nevertheless Kain will be consumed; how long will Asshur keep you captive?”23 Then he took up his discourse and said, “Alas, who can live except God has ordained it?24 “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.”25 Then Balaam arose and departed and returned to his place, and Balak also went his way.
I wish I could say that the narrative ends there, on such a lovely note – a note of triumph for Israel over the many enemy nations, and a series of blessings upon the sons of Jacob. But our parasha continues at chapter 25.
While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab.2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry against Israel.4 The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.”5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.”6 Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting.7 When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation and took a spear in his hand,8 and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked.9 Those who died by the plague were 24,000.
When Balaam found himself unable to pronounce the desired curse upon Israel; when it became apparent that Israel was to be blessed, he recommended another strategy to the king of Moab. The only way this people would be defeated was if their God Himself turned against them; and the only way to get their own God to turn on them would be if they broke faith with Him.
Most biblical scholars believe that the grievous sin Israel committed at Baal Peor was a strategy which Balaam had recommended to Balak. If they could get Israel to break faith with their God, He would forsake them. So they invited the Israeli men to join in their religious rites, which were of a highly sexual nature. They successfully enticed many men of Israel to participate in their pagan sacrifices to Ba’al.
God was angry enough to demand that Moses have the leaders of this rebellion put to death, and the sentence was carried out. The people were grieving terribly. And then, in a show of unprecedented brazenness, one Israeli man brought a Midianite woman into his tent in broad daylight, while everyone was weeping! That was the last straw!
We are introduced in these last verses to Pinchas. He saw this, and took swift, decisive action. He followed that couple into the man’s tent and pierced them both through (the implication being that the Israeli man and the Midianite woman were engaged in sexual intercourse at the time); putting them both to death. You might argue that such action was unwarranted, but notice the text tells us that this act put a stop to the plague God had sent on Israel, which had already killed 24,000 people! Pinchas was, in fact, a hero.
Some questions and thoughts to ponder from this narrative:
Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Balak בָּלָק.
1. I am reminded that the radio airwaves are and have long been available to anyone who has the desire to communicate their ideas and the sponsors to fund them. Air America failed, not because anyone shut them down, but because their ratings were so poor they couldn’t attract and keep advertisers.
2. See Acts 19:11-20
3. See Acts 8:9-10 and 18-24
4. It is worth noting that the origin of the Moabites was Lot’s daughters deciding to get their father drunk and then sleeping with him after Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. The origin of the Midianites was Abraham’s marriage to Keturah (presumably after the death of Sarah). See Gen. 19:30-38 and 25:1-2).