Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Balak

Numbers-22:2-25:9.Haftarah:Micah 5:6-6:8

When I was kid, my aunt Betty took me to see Walt Disney’s breathtakingly beautiful animated movie Pinocchio. One of the most outstanding scenes in the film for me was the terrifying transformation of naughty boys into donkeys on Pleasure Island. It might have been that scene that made me, as a pre-schooler, resolve never to smoke, and to this day I still feel uneasy about shooting Pool!

This week’s Parasha features three donkeys; two of them human.

The first donkey is the Moabite king Balak, who fears the Israelites and calls for a renowned pagan soothsayer to use his reputed powers to put a curse on the people so he can “defeat them and drive them out of the land” (Numbers 22: 6). (All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise specified are from The Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures, Jewish Publication Society, 1988). Although Balak’s name means “destroyer”, he is attempting to destroy an indestructible people of whom God has said, I will “curse him that curses you” (Genesis 12:3).

The second “donkey” is the enigmatic prophet Balaam, or Bil’am. In 1967, a remarkable discovery was made by Dutch archaeologists at Deir ‘Alla in Jordan. A painted inscription was uncovered which begins: “The misfortunes of the Book of Balaam, son of Beor. A divine seer was he”. The inscription goes on to describe how Balaam “beheld a vision in accordance with El’s [God’s] utterance” and how the “Shaddai (almighty) gods” spoke to him in a vision.  

It seems there were non-Israelites at this period in the history of the Middle East who retained some knowledge of the true God. Others include Melchizedek (Genesis 14), and Job and his “comforters”. However, the knowledge of Yahweh these people possessed was limited because Yahweh had entered into covenant with and revealed his name to Israel alone (Exodus 3:13-15). Most people in those days were polytheists – believing in many gods – or henotheists – worshipping one god while at the same time accepting the existence (or the possibility of the existence) of other gods. Balaam says Yahweh is his god but he appears to believe Yahweh can, like other gods, be manipulated by sacrifices and offerings. Yahweh is Israel’s God and so, in order to curse them, Balaam attempts to buy Yahweh off with some very expensive sacrifices.

And then there is Balaam’s ass, the only character in the narrative that has a lick of sense. He sees what the “seer” fails to see because he is not blinded by the love of money, power and prestige. He is the first to speak reasonably.

In a series of three oracles (the fourth is a kind of unauthorised additional prophecy, given after Balak has sacked Balaam) Balaam blesses Israel, much to the frustration and annoyance of Balak. God will not allow him to curse the people:

How can I damn whom God has not damned,

How doom when God has not doomed? (23:8)

For those of us who have been reading about the rebellion of Korach and the grumbling of the people, Balaam’s second oracle comes as a bit of a shock. God puts the following words in the mouth of Balaam:

None hath beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath one seen perverseness in Israel; the LORD his God is with him, and the shouting for the King is among them. (23:21, JPS Translation)

 

Some translations say that God had not beheld iniquity or perversity in Israel. In the light of what we’ve read in previous chapters, how could that be? Zephaniah 3:17 provides a clue: “The LORD thy God is in the midst of thee, a Mighty One who will save; He will rejoice over thee with joy, He will be silent in His love, He will joy over thee with singing” (JPS Translation). Another translation paraphrases the verse: “He will love you and not accuse you.”  

Israel had certainly committed iniquity but, through the sacrificial offerings, God’s love covered Israel’s iniquities. He would allow no one to accuse or curse his people.

The most remarkable oracle is the fourth. Balak is furious and dismisses Balaam without payment, even though the soothsayer had warned him he could only speak the words Yahweh put in his mouth. So, without the formality of any religious ritual, Balaam utters a spontaneous oracle concerning the future of Moab and Israel’s enemies.

What I see for them is not yet,

What I behold for them will not be soon:

A star rises from Jacob,

A sceptre comes forth from Israel,

It smashes the brow of Moab…

Israel is triumphant.

A victor issues from Jacob… (24:17,18)

 

The rabbis have traditionally interpreted this oracle as a prophecy of the reign of David, and there is truth in that interpretation. However, Rabbi Akiva and others in the second temple period saw it also as a prediction of the Messiah, which is why he renamed the pseudo-messiah Simeon bar Koziba, “Bar Kokhba”: Son of the Star.

To understand Balaam’s prophecy, we need to bear in mind the promise of the “seed of the woman” in Genesis 3:15 and the specific manner in which he would conquer the serpent:

I will put enmity

Between you and the woman,

and between your offspring [Hebrew: zerah, “seed”] and hers;

They [he] shall strike at [crush] your head,

and you will strike their [his] heel.

 

In Numbers 24:17, the promise is reiterated by Balaam: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth” (New International version). The Moabites were the enemies of God and his people, the seed of the serpent. The NIV footnote gives an alternative translation to “the sons of Sheth”; it has “the noisy boasters”.

In the period of the Judges, which was a time of national apostasy, God kept the promise of “the seed of the woman” alive in remarkable ways. In Judges 4:6-9, Deborah instructs Barak to fight against Sisera’s forces. Barak agrees on the condition that Deborah accompanies him, and told that “the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”

Jael, Heber’s wife, kills Sisera by nailing his head to the ground. Barak was the “seed of the woman”. The “honour” for crushing the head of Sisera, “the seed of the serpent” should have gone to him but because of his dependence on a woman, a woman (not the seed of a woman) crushes the head of Israel’s enemy. And so Jael (a woman and a non-Israelite) becomes the theme of Deborah’s song in Judges 5:24-26: “She struck Sisera, crushed his head, she smashed and pierced his temple.”

In 9:50-54, another woman receives the honour of crushing the head of a seed of the serpent by dropping an upper millstone on him.

In 1 Samuel 1, Hannah prays for a son (not simply a baby), and she will dedicate him to the LORD as a Nazarite all the days of his life. Israel is oppressed by the Philistines, the seed of the serpent, and Hannah is a woman of faith. Hannah’s faith clings to the promise of “the seed” in Genesis 3:15, which is why she prays for a son (rather than a child) who will be given to the service of the LORD.

Hannah’s song in chapter 2 is not the kind of song you sing at the birth of a child. In 2:10, she sings:

The foes of the LORD shall be shattered;

He will thunder against them in the heavens.

The LORD will judge the ends of the earth.

He will give power to His king,

and triumph to His anointed one (Mashiach, “Messiah”).

 

1 Samuel 17 is the high water mark of the promise of “the seed”. In 16:13, David is anointed king of Israel and the Spirit of God comes on him in power. David, Yahweh’s Messiah, engaged in battle with Israel’s great enemy, Goliath. The description of Goliath in 17:6-10 is telling: “… he was six cubits and a span tall … and wore a breastplate of scale armour …”

There is something of the serpent about Goliath and he is “a noisy boaster”. David, the seed of the woman, the LORD’s anointed, kills him by “crushing” his head. But Goliath is not the serpent; he is merely one of the seed of the serpent. At this point in Israel’s history, the battle that will end with the crushing of the head of the serpent is still future.

Tragically, the episode ends in tears for Israel. Balaam might not be able to curse Balak but that doesn’t stop him from advising Balak (as we learn from chapter 31:16) to entice the Israelites to join in the orgiastic worship of the Baal of Peor. Idolatry brought about the exile of Israel and to this day there are Jewish people who engage in occult practices similar to those of Balaam.

But the “star” out of Jacob has risen. And in him Israel’s redemption is complete. God is able to truly look at those who trust in his Messiah, and see no iniquity or perversity in them.


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