Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Balak

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

I’m only in it for the money

In the 1980s my wife used to look after two children before and after school every day. Simon, the older of the two was very smart and a tad precocious. One morning he announced that when he grew up he was going to be a Member of Parliament. When I asked Simon why he wanted to be an MP, without a second’s hesitation he answered, ‘Because it pays a lot of money.’ I think Simon expected me to be impressed by his career choice but he was aback when I told him he’d never get my vote. ‘Why,’ he asked.

‘Because you’d only be in politics for the money.’

‘But I do want to help people as well.’

‘Too late, Simon. You’ve already told me the real reason you want to be an MP.’

Perhaps I was too harsh on the boy but I wanted to teach him an important lesson he would never forget. I knew he was probably smart enough to one day fulfil his ambition but even if he didn’t, he needed to know that life is about more than money. Which brings us to Balak the king of Moab and Balaam the son of Beor…

The king of Moab was terrified of the vast number of Israelites who had come out of Egypt and were now on his turf. Word had spread about events that had taken place just months before and he feared that the people that had brought mighty Egypt to its knees would destroy the kingdom of Moab. If Pharaoh’s army couldn’t defeat the Israelites, what could his army do? Balak needed the aid of a higher power, so he sent for the greatest soothsayer of the time, Balaam the son of Beor.

In the ancient world, the politics and everyday lives of the nations were inextricably linked to religion. People lived under the gaze of capricious deities and in the shadow of their temples. If you were going on a sea voyage, you wouldn’t get on board ship without first offering a sacrifice to the gods of the sea. If you struck a business deal, it would be done in the temple with a religious ritual. And if you were going to war you would not go without first presenting liberal offerings to the appropriate gods because when you went to war, you wanted your gods to fight against the gods of your enemies. What happened in the heavens determined what happened on earth so you needed to strengthen your gods with plenty of animal sacrifices. That’s why all ancient cultures had within their pantheons a god of war.

Israel had only one God and he was ‘a man of war’: ‘YHWH is a man of war, YHWH is his name! Pharaoh's chariots and his army he hurled into the sea… Oceans covered them, they went down in the depths like a stone. Your right-hand, O YHWH, majestic in power, your right-hand, O YHWH, shattered the enemy’ (Ex 15:3-6. The Five Books of Moses. A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes. Everett Fox).

The national deity of the Moabites was Chemosh, whose name is thought to mean ‘Destroyer’ or ‘Subduer’. From what we know from the Bible and archaeology, Chemosh seems to have had a taste for human blood. It is clear from 2 Kings 3:27 that human sacrifice was part of the rites associated with Chemosh. Balak, it seems, realised that Chemosh was no match for YHWH the God of Israel, so he sent for the renowned soothsayer Balaam, whose services were far from cheap, to curse Israel. According to Rashi and the Midrash on Numbers, Balak offered Balaam a great deal of cash to neutralise the power of Israel so he could attack and defeat them.

In 1967 excavators at Deir ’Alla in Jordan uncovered an inscription about the visions of a seer of the gods, ‘Bala’am, son of Be’or.’ If the Bala’am of the Deir ’Alla inscription is the Balaam of the book of Numbers, it is interesting to see that he is associated with a number of gods and goddesses. His strategy, it appears from Numbers, was not to call upon his gods and goddesses. Instead, Balaam sought to ingratiate himself with Israel’s God, in order to persuade him to turn him against his own people. Balaam seems to have had some knowledge of the sacrificial system of Israel because in the account of the setting up of the Tabernacle in Numbers 7, the heads of each of the tribes of Israel offer a bull and a ram as an offering to God. Balaam orders the setting up of seven altars and on each of them offers a bull and a ram. By offering far more than God had required of Israel’s tribal leaders, the seven bulls and seven rams may have been a bribe to Israel’s God;

Whatever their knowledge of Israel’s faith or history, one thing of which Balak and Balaam were unaware was God’s covenant with Abraham, under which he undertook to bless those who blessed Abraham and to curse those who cursed him. In the parasha it is evident that Genesis 12:1-3 was more than a personal promise to the father of the Hebrew nation; it clearly refers to the Jewish people as a whole. Instead of allowing Balaam to curse the people, therefore, Israel’s God causes the pagan soothsayer to bless Israel.

Centuries later, as the Haftarah reveals, prophets like Balaam had emerged within Israel. These mercenary prophets who were in it only for the money were leading God’s people astray, accomplishing what Balaam had been unable to do by his sorceries.

O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD. ‘With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:5-8)

Just as Balaam had attempted to bribe Israel’s God with sacrifice, so his people thought an abundance of sacrifices would be enough to please God. What he really wants from his people is justice, kindness and humility. Which begs the question, what happens when we fail to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God? The answer is that we need sacrifice to atone for our failure.

Although Balaam is a pagan and he does what he does for financial gain, the true God puts some remarkable prophetic utterances in his mouth, none of them greater than the prophet of Numbers 24:17: ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.’

In 132CE, the famous Rabbi Akiba renamed Simon bar Kosiba as bar Kochba (‘son of the Star’), an Aramaic pun on Balaam’s star prophecy. Akiba proclaimed bar Kochba ‘Messiah of the Jews.’ The fact that bar Kochba was not of the house of David was of no consequence to Akiba, the most learned rabbi of his day. Instead of crushing the heads of Israel’s enemies, Bar Kochba has gone down in history as the last Jewish rebel against Rome, fighting a second Jewish war from 132 to 135 CE. The Romans had had enough of Jewish intransigence and responded brutally, butchering Jews everywhere, evicting them from their land and destroying Jerusalem as a Jewish city.

The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus even hailed the Roman emperor Vespasian as the fulfilment of Balaam’s prognostication, even though Vespasian was not even a Jew.

Balaam was foretelling the coming of Israel’s true king, the Messiah and the Roman empire eventually fell but not at the hands of Simon bar Kochba, still less Vespasian. Imperial Rome’s power collapsed under the power of a message proclaimed by the followers of Yeshua, a Jew whose birth was heralded by a remarkable astronomical phenomenon of a star that brought magi from the east to worship him.

Yeshua was the fulfilment of Balaam’s prophecy and he was certainly not a prophet for money, as the following explains*:

He was born in an obscure village,
The child of a Jewish peasant woman.
He grew up in another obscure village,
Where he worked in a carpenter shop
Until he was thirty.

He never wrote a book,
He never held an office,
He never went to college,
He never visited a big city,
He never travelled more than two hundred miles
From the place where he was born .
He did none of the things
Usually associated with greatness.
He had no credentials but himself.

He was only thirty three when
His friends ran away.
One of them denied him.
He was turned over to his enemies
And went through the mockery of a trial.
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves.
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing,
The only property he had on earth.

When he was dead
He was laid in a borrowed grave
Through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen centuries have come and gone
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race
And the leader of mankind’s progress.
All the armies that have ever marched,
All the navies that have ever sailed,
All the parliaments that have ever sat,
All the kings that ever reigned put together,
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth
As powerfully as that one solitary life. 

A beautiful slide presentation of this prose poem can be viewed at:

One Solitary Life


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