Light from the Sidra

Balak 3rd July 2015. 17th Tammuz 5775

Torah: Numbers 22:2-25:9. Haftarah: Micah 5:6(7)-6:8

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


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The misfortunes of the Book of Balaam, son of Beor. A divine seer was he. The gods came to him at night. And he beheld a vision in accordance with El's utterance. They said to Balaam, son of Beor: ‘So will it be done, with naught surviving. No one has seen the likes of what you have heard!’

Deir 'Alla is situated in western Jordan, about five miles east of the river Jordan. When the site was excavated by a team of Dutch archaeologists in 1967, they discovered a remarkable inscription about the ‘seer’ Balaam, son of Beor, a fragment of which is reproduced in the previous paragraph. Balaam is one of those great mysterious figures of Scriptures of who suddenly appear on the scene of biblical history and then vanish so the find was a remarkable confirmation of the reliability of Numbers 22-25. Although not a Jew, Balaam claims that HASHEM is his God. This shouldn’t surprise us, because we know from other Bible books that HASHEM was known outside Israel. He was known to Malchizedek, the mysterious king of ancient Jerusalem in Genesis 14, as well as to Job and his companions.

In the ancient Middle East, when two nations went to war, they believed their gods fought against the gods of their enemies, so the victors offered sacrifices of gratitude to their patron deities. The Egyptian gods made Egypt the superpower it was and the fact that Israel’s God had defeated the entire pantheon of Egypt inspired awe in the nations which stood between them and the land to which they were travelling.

The Sidra opens with the king of Moab feeling a ‘sickening dread’ as he contemplates the likelihood of Israel ‘licking up’ his land. Out of desperation he sends for Balaam, a man with a reputation for being able to bless and curse. What Balak and Balaam himself hadn’t counted on was HASHEM’s unchangeable character and his covenant relationship with the children of Abraham. Balaam, it seems, imagined that by presenting lavish offerings to HASHEM he could persuade him to curse the people he brought out of Egypt. But Balak and Balaam were playing a dangerous game that was bound to backfire because of HASHEM’s promise to Abraham recorded in Genesis 12:1-3: ‘I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing; I will bless those who bless you, and him who curse you I will curse.’

Because ‘God is not a man that he should be deceitful, nor a son of man that he should relent’ (Numbers 23:19), in spite of Balak’s lucrative offer, Balaam had to bless Israel: ‘Behold! To bless I have received — He has blessed, and I shall not contradict it. He perceived no iniquity in Jacob, and saw no perversity in Israel. HASHEM, His God, is with him, and the friendship of the King is with him’ (Numbers 23:20-21).

How could HASHEM state that he ‘perceived no iniquity in Jacob, and saw no perversity in Israel’? What are sidras Shelach and Korach all about if not iniquity and perversity? Israel’s divinely instituted sacrificial system enabled God to overlook his people’s iniquity and perversity. If God so no evil in Israel, who was Balaam to curse them?

A New Testament letter to Messianic Jews and Gentiles in Rome sheds an interesting light on Numbers 23:21: ‘There is now no judgment of condemnation to those in Messiah Yeshua… Who will bring an accusation against God’s chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Messiah is the one who died, and moreover was raised.’ If it could be said in the pre-Messianic era that HASHEM saw no sin in his people, how much more can it be said when Messiah has paid the price not just to cover sins and transgressions but to remove the guilt of them for ever.

The high point of Balaam’s utterances is Numbers 24:17-19, after the Moabite king had forbidden him to speak again: ‘A star rises from Jacob, a sceptre comes forth from Israel; it smashes the brow of Moab, the foundation of all the children of Seth. Edom becomes a possession, yea, Seir a possession of its enemies; But Israel is triumphant. A victor issues from Jacob to wipe out what is left of Ir’ (Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures, The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text).

Moab had conspired to curse Israel and would suffer the curse of defeat at the hands of the king who will rise out of Israel. As the prophecy was fulfilled by King David, it’s surprising that this week’s Haftarah isn’t 2 Samuel 8. In that chapter, ‘David… struck Moab. He measured [his captives] with a rope, laying them down on the ground and measuring two ropes’ length to be put to death and one ropes’ length to be kept alive. The Moabites became subjects to David… from Moab, from the Children of Ammon… from Amalek… David gained renown upon returning from striking down Aram at the Valley of Salt: eighteen thousand [men]. He appointed authorities in Edom… and all of Edom became subjects of David.’

The Haftarah reading from the book of Micah urges rebellious Israel to remember ‘what Balaam son of Beor answered [Balak]… in order to recognize the righteous acts of HASHEM’ (Micah 6:3-5). But why didn’t the compilers of the Haftarot begin the reading at the first verse of Micah 5, since the rest of Micah’s prophecy is founded on the promise that the Messiah will save Israel from their idolatry and their enemies. The source of Israel’s salvation will be Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, through a ruler descended from David. Meanwhile, HASHEM will deliver his people to their enemies ‘until the time that a woman in childbirth gives birth.’ What kind of prophecy is that? Women give birth all the time. But Micah’s contemporary Isaiah had spoken of a virgin giving birth to a son who would be ‘God with us.’ The woman will bring forth Messiah the son of David, the ‘star’ of Balaam’s prophecy. That prophecy was indelibly woven into Jewish thinking, even after David died, so much so that when Shimon bar Kosiba raised a Jewish army against Rome, Rabbi Akiva dubbed him Bar Kokhba, ‘Son of the Star.’

But Bar Kokhba, like Esau, arrived on the scene too late. The virgin-born Son of David – the true ‘Son of the Star’ – had already come and returned to heaven from where he had begun to save his people from their greatest enemies: the Satan and their own sins and iniquities.

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