Thoughts on Balak

The weekly Torah reading is Balak, Numbers 22:1 – 25:9.* The haftarah is Micah 5:6 – 6:8 and the reading from the Apostolic Writings is John 16:29–33.

Parashat Balak has always intrigued me. It begins with Balak, the Moabite king who is more than a bit concerned about the great multitude of illegal aliens that are about to descend upon his country. He had seen the devastation left behind in the land of the Amorites and did not wish the same to happen to his country. So he did what any self-respecting ruler in the Ancient Near East would do. First, he entered in an allegiance with Midian, then he checked his records and discovered there was a seer of some renown, who had been proficient in cursing one’s enemies to the point that a military victory would be assured. (This is good enough to be made into a Netflix Original series.)

Enter now Balaam, Seer Supreme (sort of like Stephen Strange), the go-to man when you need someone or multiple someones cursed – for the right price. Balaam’s identity is shrouded in obscurity, in that all we know is that he was a seer or diviner. He was the son of Beor and that he was either from or chose to make his home in Pethor on the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia. For a well-known seer, back in the day, not much information has remained. An online search however did produce one interesting notation.

Balaam was a wicked prophet in the Bible and is noteworthy because, although he was a wicked prophet, he was not a false prophet. That is, Balaam did hear from God, and God did give him some true prophecies to speak. However, Balaam’s heart was not right with God, and eventually he showed his true colors by betraying Israel and leading them astray, (cf. Deuteronomy 23:3-6).

This observation, while true, is often either overlooked or ignored by many. How can a seer, a diviner, a dabbler in dark arts, hear from ADONAI? But apparently, he did and was familiar with doing so. 

First visitation of Balak’s emissaries, “…I will give you an answer just as ADONAI speaks to me” (Numbers 22:8), and HaShem responds, “Do not go with them! Do not curse them, for they are blessed!” (22:12)

Second visit, “…you may spend the night here, too. Then I may find out anything else ADONAI may say to me” (22:19). Again, HaShem responds, “arise and go with them. However, only the word I tell you are you to do!” (22:20)

Over the next two-and-a-half chapters, Balaam interacted with or spoke directly for HaShem no less than five times. At one point, he proclaimed to Balak,

No misfortune is to be seen in Jacob, and no misery in Israel! Adonaitheir God is with them—the King’s shout is among them!

Numbers 23:21

This was a very important revelation, and one that set Israel apart from the other nations. The gods of the other nations were locality gods. Chemosh, the god of the Moabites ruled and reigned in the territory of Moab. The Midianites whom Balak hoped to ally with against Israel (cf. 22:4), worshipped a collection of gods, Baal of Peor, Ashteroth, and even HaShem after a fashion—probably due to being related to Abraham through his wife Keturah. But again, these were all local to the territory of Midian. Israel’s God however was different. He had Israel build a Mishkan, a dwelling place for His glory which was placed in the center of the Israeli camp. Israel’s God, lived in the midst of Israel—He traveled with them, He camped with them—His presence was always with them. We know that Israel grumbled and rebelled numerous times and were disciplined by HaShem. But they were still, in their covenantal state, holy as HaShem was holy and no misfortune, no אָ֙וֶן֙, or iniquitywas found in the camp because “Adonaitheir God is with them.”

Finally, Balak was so frustrated with Balaam’s words, he proclaimed, “Do not curse them or bless them at all” (Numbers 23:25). It would seem that Balak finally got to the point where he realized that regardless of what he asked Balaam to proclaim over Israel, the result would be a blessing. 

So, in the end, should we consider Balaam a true prophet or a false prophet? While his words all seemed to be correct and uplifting, Israel soon discovered that he was anything but a true prophet. As this parasha comes to a close, we read of the children of Israel engaging in “immoral sexual relations with women from Moab” (Numbers 25:1) and in turn “joining themselves to Baal of Peor” (25:5). In the end, Balaam did not curse Israel with the words spoken over them, instead he provided Balak a “workaround” or a temporary fix that had the potential of destroying Israel and her relationship with the God in her midst. While Balaam could not, or would not curse Israel, he apparently told Balak how to get HaShem to curse Israel, which He did as a plague brought about the death of 24,000 individuals (25:9). 

In Jude’s letter, Yeshua’s followers are admonished to avoid the wrong doings of three figures from the Tanakh,

Woe to them! For they went the way of Cain; they were consumed for pay in Balaam’s error; and in Korah’s rebellion they have been destroyed.

Jude 11

Peter goes on to describe Balaam’s error when he speaks of those who

They have abandoned the straight way. They have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness.

2 Peter 2:15

Even though Balaam spoke the true word of HaShem and blessed Israel at least three time, he still erred because “…whoever knows the right thing to do and does not do it—for him it is sin” (James 4:17). Balaam thought he could have his cake and eat it too—bless Israel with the proclamations of HaShem and then show Balak how to get God to curse Israel, supposedly leaving himself in the clear. 

Balaam learned the hard way the truth of Rav Shaul’s words to the Galatians, “Do not be deceived—God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows, that he also shall reap” (Galatians 6:7). Balaam’s schemes did not fool HaShem. There may have been times when we have found ourselves pulling a Balaam, knowing what we ought to do, what HaShem desires for us to do, but choosing to do what we want anyway. Seeking instant gratification in place of struggling with living holy and righteous. Israel had a choice, HaShem was in their midst, and they still chose fleshly gratification. Quoting Deuteronomy 31:6, the writer of Hebrews both challenges and assures us, through the ages, that we should 

Keep your lifestyle free from the love of money and be content with what you have. For God Himself has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you….”

Hebrews 13:5

As I closed last week’s Thoughts, I remind us all once again, that we all have choices to make each and every day. As we dwell in the presence of HaShem along with His Son our Messiah and through the power of the Ruach, we can make the correct choices, if we only will.

* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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