Light from the Sidra

Balak (‘Balak’). 23rd July 2016. 17th Tammuz 5776.

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

A tale of three asses

One of the most memorable scenes in Walt Disney’s beautiful animated movie Pinocchio is the terrifying transformation of naughty boys into donkeys on Pleasure Island where, by their misbehaviour, the boys turn themselves into asses. 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; one of them an ass by nature, the other two self-made.

The first ass is the Moabite king Balak, who thinks he can subvert the plans of HASHEM by hiring a renowned pagan soothsayer to curse Israel and ‘drive it away from the land’ (Num. 22: 6). Balak’s name means ‘Destroyer’ but he is attempting to destroy an indestructible people of whom HASHEM said, ‘Him who curses you I will curse’ (Gen. 12:3).

The second ass is the enigmatic prophet Balaam. In 1967, an inscription was uncovered at Deir ‘Alla in Jordan, 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 [God’s] utterance’ and how the ‘Almighty gods’ spoke to him in a vision.

And then there is Balaam’s ass, the only character in the entire narrative that has any sense. He sees what the ‘seer’ fails to see because he is not blinded by the love of money, power and prestige. In a series of three oracles (the fourth is a kind of unauthorised additional prophecy, declared after Balak has fired Balaam), Balaam blesses Israel – much to the frustration and annoyance of Balak – because HASHEM will not allow him to curse the people: ‘How can I curse? —God has not cursed. How can I anger? — HASHEM is not angry’ (Num. 23:8).

Balaam’s second oracle comes as a bit of a shock since the rebellion of Korah and the grumbling of the people are still fresh in our minds: ‘[HASHEM] 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’ (Num. 23:21). In the light of chapters 16, 17, 20 and 21, how could God have perceived no iniquity in his people?

Some parents understand this. Although they might come down hard on their kids if they step out of line but woe betide anyone else who has a go at them! Apart from which, Israel had certainly committed iniquity but the sacrificial offerings covered their iniquities and HASHEM would allow no one to accuse or curse his people. There is a similar statement in the New Testament Letter to the Romans: ‘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. He is at the right hand of God, and also makes intercession for us’ (Rom. 8:33-34).

Balaam’s most remarkable oracle, however, is his fourth. The furious Balak dismisses him without payment, even though the soothsayer had warned him he could speak only the words HASHEM put in his mouth. Without the formality of religious ritual, Balaam utters a spontaneous oracle: ‘I shall see him but not now, I shall look at him but it is not near. A star has issued from Jacob, and a sceptre bearer has risen from Israel, and he shall pierce the nobles of Moab and undermine the children of Seth…’ (Num. 24:17,18).

To understand Balaam’s prophecy, we need to bear in mind the promise of Genesis 3:15: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring [Hebrew: zerah, ‘seed’] and her offspring. He will pound your head, and you will bite his heel.’ That promise is reiterated in Numbers 24:17: ‘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 ‘seed’ of the serpent and the NIV footnote gives an alternative translation to ‘the sons of Sheth’ – ‘the noisy boasters’.

The period of the Judges was a time of national apostasy but HASHEM 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. The honour for pounding the head of Sisera should have gone to a man but because Barak depends on a woman, HASHEM would deliver Sisera into the hand of a woman – Jael – who literally pounded Sisera’s head into the ground. Jael, a woman and a non-Israelite to boot, became the theme of Deborah’s song in Judges 5:24-26: ‘She hammered Sisera, severed his head, smashed and pierced his temple.’
Judges 9:50-54 records another woman who, in the days of Israel’s apostasy, received the honour of crushing the head of the evil Abimelech by dropping an upper millstone on him.

In 1 Samuel 1, Hannah – a woman of faith who clings to the promise of ‘the seed’ – prays for a son (not simply a baby), whom she will dedicate to HASHEM as a Nazarite all his life. When Samuel is born, Hannah sings: ‘HASHEM — may those that contend with Him be shattered / let the heavens thunder against them. May HASHEM judge to the ends of the earth. May He give power to His king, and raise the pride of 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. As HASHEM’s Messiah, David takes on Israel’s great enemy Goliath in mortal combat. There is something of the serpent about the nine-and-a-half foot tall, ‘noisy boaster’ Goliath in his breastplate of scale armour. David – the seed of the woman – HASHEM’s Messiah crushes the head of the seed of the serpent but at that point in Israel’s history, the crushing of the head of the serpent himself is a thousand years in the future.

Tragically, however, although Balaam’s prophecy was fulfilled partly in David’s dust up with Goliath and ultimately in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the episode ends in tears for Israel. Balaam might not have been able to curse the nation but that doesn’t stop the money-grabbing pagan seer from advising the Moabite king (as we learn from chapter 31:16) to invite the Israelite men to an orgy in honour of the Baal of Peor. Israel’s continued idolatry would eventually result in galut, the exile of Israel and, to this day, many Jewish people are caught in the occult web of the New Age movement.

Nevertheless, the ‘star’ out of Jacob has risen and in him Israel’s redemption is complete. And when HASHEM looks at those who trust in his Messiah, he sees no iniquity or perversity in them. Look and live!

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