Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Balak

Numbers 22:2 - 25:9

What an extraordinary figure Balaam is. He appears suddenly, out of nowhere in the account of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. He was obviously known far and wide in the ancient Middle East because although he lived 400 miles from Moab, Balak the king of Moab was aware of his reputation as a soothsayer. Balaam must have had a reputation for truth and accuracy in his prophetic messages or he would never have become so famous and Balak would never have called him. Balak wanted Israel to be under a curse so that Moab might enjoy peace, so he called for the man known throughout the ancient world as one whose words came to pass.

And indeed, what Balaam spoke about Israel was true. Israel was a unique people, the people of the LORD. Because of God’s grace they were a people with hope. They were powerful in the strength of God, enjoying his blessing and protection from their enemies. Balaam saw a great ruler arising in Israel who would defeat Moab and Edom, and his prophecy came to pass hundreds of years later in the reign of David, who foreshadowed the greater king to come, the Messiah. At the time Balaam observed Israel, his utterances concerning Israel were true, or would be true in the future.

But, unlike the future prophets of Israel there was perversity in Balaam. The word of the Most High was quite clear, he was not to go with the messengers of Balak and he was not to curse Israel. That should have been the end of the matter, and when the messengers of King Balak returned he should have sent them away immediately. But Balaam clearly was determined to go with Balak’s servants. Instead of waiting to see if they called him, he rose the next morning, saddled his ass and went with them. That was why God became angry with him. The LORD had purposed to use Balaam for his own ends, but Balaam went out of self-interest. Because his motives were impure, he was wrong to go and God was rightly angry with him.

Balaam was motivated by greed. Balak was prepared to reward him well, and the messengers made special mention of this on their second visit. Balaam knew he would have to speak the word of God but he hoped also to benefit from the situation. And he succeeded. After his prophecies failed to meet the king of Moab’s expectations, Balaam revealed to Balak how Moab could weaken Israel. In Numbers 31:16 Balaam counsels Moab to invite Israel to a feast of the Baal of Peor, which was little more than an orgy in honour of Moab’s god.

Balaam remains typical of the kind of people whose beliefs are sound but whose behaviour fails to match their profession. He was a prophet who uttered sublime truths while at the same time being consumed by greed. It is all too possible to be like that. We are not talking about a basically sound individual guilty of an occasional fall, but a man with a completely wrong attitude of heart.

The Haftarah contains those famous words from Micah about what God requires of us, “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God”. Those qualities should motivate us. To love mercy is to rejoice in it and to take pleasure in it. To walk humbly with God indicates a moment-by-moment communion with him and a delight in him, rather than in ourselves, our gifts or our achievements. A great religious document asks the question, “What is the chief end of man?” And answers, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”.

These aspirations should be our true inner motivation to follow the ways of the LORD. Do they characterise you or are you more like Balaam, driven by pride, greed, envy and lust, unseen but nevertheless real? If so then, as the Great Sage said to Rabbi Nicodemus, “You must be born again”.

What an extraordinary figure Balaam is. He appears suddenly, out of nowhere in the account of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. He was obviously known far and wide in the ancient Middle East because although he lived 400 miles from Moab, Balak the king of Moab was aware of his reputation as a soothsayer. Balaam must have had a reputation for truth and accuracy in his prophetic messages or he would never have become so famous and Balak would never have called him. Balak wanted Israel to be under a curse so that Moab might enjoy peace, so he called for the man known throughout the ancient world as one whose words came to pass.


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