In Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9), we see that contrary to Balak’s desire to have Bnei Israel cursed, Balaam not only blesses Israel but foretells the eventual destruction of numerous neighboring nations. Interestingly, in the rest of scripture, Balaam’s reputation is in the cesspool. Why? Numbers 31:16 tells us the answer. In relating Moses’ anger about Midianite spoils of war we are told, “…they are the ones—because of Balaam’s advice—who caused Bnei-Yisrael to be unfaithful to ADONAI in the matter of Peor, so that the plague was on the community of ADONAI!” So, while Balaam is presented in this week’s portion as the one who blessed and did not curse Israel, he is remembered as eventually satisfying Balak’s desires, thereby causing Israel to stumble and incurring the wrath of HaShem.
It is said that Balaam’s behavior is a result of his desire for honor and financial remuneration. While this is probably true, we should recognize that Balaam does not profess this himself. He was a prophet of some repute, which is seen in Balak’s plea, “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed,” (Numbers 22:6). It appears that in the process of “doing his job” Balaam ran a fowl of HaShem, which resulted, aside from his death, in his actions becoming an example of the error of desiring gain, at least gain requires actions contrary to the expressed Word of God.
Kefa (Peter) describes people who are diametrically opposed to the plans of HaShem and teaches others to do likewise, as those who 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). Concerning the damage individuals might do, Jude notes, “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). But, note an important distinction between Kefa and Jude. Where Jude agrees with the Torah account that Balaam’s desire for gain caused his downfall, Peter qualifies the desire for gain as “from wrongdoing.” Not being successful in one’s profession is not the problem; the aspect of wrongdoing is. Balaam knew that Israel was blessed and protected by HaShem and that he could not personally curse Israel. However, Balaam apparently suggested to Balak that HaShem’s favor would be removed from Israel by enticing them to engage in idolatry and sexual immorality– and it worked. Thus, we read in the Ruach’s charge against the church at Pergamum, “But I have a few things against you. You have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who was teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before Bnei-Yisrael, to eat food sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality,” (Revelation 2:14).
Yeshua’s words bring to mind Balaam’s actions when he stated, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will stick by one and look down on the other. You cannot serve God and money,” (Matthew 6:24). Again, it is not the money that is problematic but the kavanah or motivation behind the acquisition. HaShem commanded man (and woman) to “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the land, and conquer it. Rule over the fish of the sea, the flying creatures of the sky, and over every animal that crawls on the land,” (Genesis 1:28). We should be successful in our endeavors as we seek to fulfill this charge with proper kavanah, all the time remembering the words of Rav Shaul, “…whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Yeshua, giving thanks to God the Father through Him,” (Colossians 3:17). Gain should not be sought for gain’s sake or even for our own sake, but rather it should be sought to bring honor and glory to HaShem.
Before leaving the Apostolic Writings, perhaps one other individual should be considered. In Acts 8 there is the story of Simon the Sorcerer. “Now a man named Simon had been practicing magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, saying he was someone great,” (Acts 8:9). Then under the preaching of Philip “…Simon himself believed; and after being immersed, he continued with Philip. And when he saw signs and great miracles happening, he was continually amazed,” (Acts 8:13). Things seemed to be going well until the Apostles came from Jerusalem and conferred the gift of the Ruach upon the new believers. We have no idea why Simon did not receive the Ruach initially. But whatever the reason, Simon thought he could acquire the Ruach by his own means, by offering Kefa money. Kefa was less than impressed, to say the least, and immediately corrected Simon offering him the way of returning to proper faith. The last we hear of Simon the magician is his request to Kefa to pray for him. “Pray for me, so that none of what you have said may come upon me,” (Acts 8:24). Since there was no judgment recorded, I assume (and this is only an assumption) that Simon was restored. This assumption should give us hope; if we falter or stray, the opportunity to return is always available. Maybe even Balaam could have been restored had he not been so determined to continue loving the wages of wickedness.
So, each of us should continually seek to follow Joshua’s command to Bnei Israel, “…choose for yourselves today whom you will serve—whether the gods that your fathers worshipped that were beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living.” And then with Joshua, affirm that “as for me and my household, we will worship Adonai!” (Joshua 24:15). The choice remains ever before us, to choose the way of Balaam or that of Joshua.