Light from the Sidra


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

Worshipping the true God the wrong way

One of my favourite lines in the movie Avengers Assemble comes from Captain America. The Norse god Loki, assisted by thousands of aliens with bad attitudes, launches an attack on the earth. As he prepares to rush off and do his bit to save the world, Captain America makes a statement of faith: ‘There’s only one God, and he doesn’t dress like that!’

There are some curious ideas about religion. One view is that all religions are basically the same, and that all faiths worship the same God. Pardon me, but the God I worship doesn’t have the head of an elephant, and he doesn’t promise a paradise of wine, women and song for those who hijack planes in his name and fly them into skyscrapers. It’s common to find (particularly in institutes of higher education) religion explained in evolutionary terms: primitive people were afraid of lightning so they worshipped it but as they grew smarter they came up with the notion of powerful, invisible personal forces behind natural phenomena. Then a religious genius called Abraham had the bright idea that there was only one God, monotheism was born, and from that concept Judaism, Christianity and Islam developed. Of course, as we get smarter, the truth will finally dawn on us religious saps there is really no God, and when we finally accept that fact and leave religion behind us we will all be able to spend our self-centred lives living in harmony.

The evidence, however, points in the opposite direction. We see in the books of Moses that the knowledge of the one true God mankind originally possessed was corrupted, leaving mankind groping around like a blind man in a cellar at midnight looking for a black cat that might not exist. Unless God reveals himself and takes away our blindness we will continue to search blindly for him. Which brings us to Balaam.

This mysterious wizard knows about Yahweh, the one true God, the God who has taken Israel for his people, and worships him. But although Balaam’s God is Yahweh, it seems the soothsayer has no intimate knowledge of him. For a start, even though he acknowledges that he cannot go beyond what Yahweh tells him, he practices divination, something forbidden to the Israelites. He imagines Yahweh can be bribed and manipulated by the presentation of lavish and expensive sacrifices. Even after Yahweh thwarts Balaam’s attempts to bring a curse on his chosen people, Balaam advises Balak the king of Moab to use his women to seduce the men of Israel into worshipping their gods, which was sure to bring the wrath of God on them.

In the Haftarah, Yahweh pleads tenderly with his people to ‘remember now what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him; from Shittim unto Gilgal, that ye may know the righteous acts of the LORD.’ (Micah 6:5)

Balaam had tried to bribe Yahweh with sacrifices; what does God require of his people? Should they, like Balaam, come to him with ‘ burnt-offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?’ (6:6,7)

How about human sacrifice? ‘Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ (6:7) Sacrifices were, of course, part of the divinely instituted temple rituals but they were never intended to be a substitute for justice, mercy and humility (6:8).

Religion is fine, as far as it goes, but what the true God really requires is that we ‘do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.’ Those three requirements sum up the entire Torah and Prophets. Only because we fall short of that standard is atoning sacrifice necessary. We should never imagine that we can bribe God with sacrifices of any kind. You know: ‘God, ‘If you do this for me, I will do that for you.’ Or: ‘See what I’m doing for you, God; now you owe me one.’  

Balaam fell short of every one of God’s requirements. He did not do justice; he did not love mercy and he certainly did not walk humbly with his God. All of which begs several questions: Why do you serve God? Do you think religious observance is a means of ingratiating yourself with him or are your prayers and gifts offered out of gratitude for his love? Does your religion make you want to do the right thing for others? Does your piety cause you to be merciful? Does your devotion to your faith make you humble?

If not, what distinguishes your faith – however sincere – from that of Balaam?

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