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Light from the Sidra

Balak. 5 July 2014. 7 Tammuz 5774.

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

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)

A tale of three asses

When I was kid, my aunt Betty took me to see Walt Disney’s breathtakingly beautiful animated movie Pinocchio. One of the most outstanding scenes in the film for me was the terrifying transformation of naughty boys into donkeys on Pleasure Island. 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 asses; two of them human.

The first ‘ass’ is Balak the Moabite king who fears the Israelites and calls for a renowned pagan soothsayer to use his reputed powers to curse Israel so he can ‘defeat them and drive them out of the land’ (Numbers 22: 6). Although Balak’s name means ‘destroyer’, he is attempting to destroy an indestructible people of whom God said, I will ‘curse him that curses you’ (Genesis 12:3).

The second ‘ass’ is the enigmatic prophet Balaam, or Bil’am. In 1967, Dutch archaeologists at Deir ‘Alla in Jordan made the remarkable discovery of a painted inscription 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 El’s [God’s] utterance’ and how the ‘Shaddai (almighty) gods’ spoke to him in a vision.

From the biblical evidence it seems there were non-Israelites at this period who retained some knowledge of the true God. Among them were Melchizedek (Genesis 14), and Job and his ‘comforters’ as well as Balaam. However, the knowledge of HASHEM these people possessed was limited because HASHEM had revealed his name to Israel alone (Exodus 3:13-15). Most people in those days were polytheists – believing in many gods – or henotheists – worshipping one god while at the same time accepting the existence (or the possibility of the existence) of other gods. Balaam says HASHEM is his god but he appears to believe HASHEM can, like other gods, be manipulated by sacrifices and offerings. HASHEM is Israel’s God and so, in order to curse them, Balaam attempts to buy HASHEM off with some very expensive sacrifices.

And then there is Balaam’s ass, a real ass but the only one in the entire narrative who appears to have any sense. The ass sees what his ass of a master the ‘seer’ fails to see because the ass is not blinded by the love of money, power and prestige. He is the first character to speak reasonably.

In a series of three oracles (the fourth is a kind of additional prophecy, given after Balak has fired Balaam). Much to the frustration and annoyance of Balak, Balaam once again blesses Israel 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’ (Numbers 23:8).

After the rebellion of Korah and the grumbling of the people, Balaam’s second oracle comes as something of a shock. God puts the following words in the mouth of Balaam: ‘[God] perceived no iniquity in Jacob, and saw no perversity in Israel. HASHEM, his God, is with him, and the friendship of the King is in him’ (Numbers 23:21).

In the light of what we’ve read in previous chapters, how could God say he perceived no iniquity in Jacob and saw no perversity in Israel? Zephaniah 3:17 provides a clue: ‘HASHEM, your God, is in your midst, the Mighty One who will save. He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will be silent with His love, He will be joyful over you with glad song.’

Israel had certainly committed iniquity but, through the sacrificial offerings, God’s love covered Israel’s iniquities. He would allow no one to accuse or curse his people.

Balaam’s most remarkable oracle is his fourth utterance. Balak is furious and dismisses Balaam without payment, even though the soothsayer had warned that he could only speak the words HASHEM put in his mouth. So, without the formality of any religious ritual, Balaam utters a spontaneous oracle concerning the future of Moab and Israel’s enemies.

What I see for them is not yet,

What I behold for them will not be soon:

A star rises from Jacob,

A sceptre comes forth from Israel,

It smashes the brow of Moab…

Israel is triumphant.

A victor issues from Jacob… (Numbers 24:17, 18. The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox))

 

The rabbis have traditionally interpreted this oracle as a prophecy of the reign of David, and there is some truth in that interpretation. However, Rabbi Akiva and others in the second temple period saw it as a prediction of the Messiah, which is why he renamed the pseudo-messiah Simeon bar Koziba, ‘Bar Kokhba’: Son of the Star.

To understand Balaam’s prophecy, we need to bear in mind the promise of the ‘seed of the woman’ in Genesis 3:15 and the specific manner in which the seed of the woman would conquer the serpent: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring [Hebrew: zerah, ‘seed’] and her offspring [zerah]. He will pound your head and you will bite his heel.’

In Numbers 24:17, the promise is reiterated by Balaam: ‘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 enemies of God and his people; they were the seed of the serpent. The NIV footnote gives an alternative translation to ‘the sons of Sheth’: ‘the noisy boasters’.

In the period of the Judges, which was a time of national apostasy, God 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 will accompany him, but is told by Deborah that ‘HASHEM will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.’ Jael, Heber’s wife, kills Sisera by nailing his head to the ground with a tent peg. Barak was the ‘seed of the woman’. The ‘honour’ for pounding the head of Sisera, ‘the seed of the serpent’ should have gone to him but because of his dependence on a woman, a woman – not the seed of a woman – ‘pounds’ the head of Israel’s enemy. And so Jael – a woman and a non-Israelite, to boot – becomes the theme of Deborah’s song in Judges 5:24-26: ‘She hammered Sisera, severed his head, smashed and pierced his temple.’

In Judges 9:50-54, another woman receives the honour of crushing the head of a seed of the serpent by dropping an upper millstone on him.

In 1 Samuel 1, Hannah prays for a son (not simply a baby) and vows she will dedicate him to HASHEM as a Nazarite all the days of his life. At that time Israel was oppressed by the Philistines, the seed of the serpent but Hannah was a woman of faith. Hannah’s faith clung to the promise of ‘the seed’ of Genesis 3:15, which was why she prayed for a son (rather than a child) who she would devote to the service of HASHEM.

Hannah’s song in chapter 2 is not the kind of song you sing at the birth of a child. In 2:10, she sings:

HASHEM — may those who contend with Him be shattered,

Let the heavens thunder against them.

May HASHEM judge 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. David, HASHEM’s Messiah, engages in battle with Israel’s great enemy, Goliath and the description of Goliath in 17:6-10 is telling: ‘… he was six cubits and a span tall … and wore a breastplate of scale armour …’ (New International Version)

There is something of the serpent about Goliath, and he is ‘a noisy boaster’ but David, the seed of the woman, HASHEM’s anointed, kills him by ‘crushing’ his head. But Goliath is not the serpent; he is merely one of the seed of the serpent. At this point in Israel’s history, the battle that will end with the crushing of the head of the serpent is still in the future.

Tragically, the episode ends in tears for Israel. Balaam might not be able to curse Balak but that doesn’t stop him from advising the king of Moab (as we learn from chapter 31:16) to entice the Israelites to join in the orgiastic worship of the Baal of Peor. Idolatry brought about the exile of Israel and to this day there are Jewish people who still engage in occult practices similar to those of Balaam.

But the ‘star’ out of Jacob has risen. The Messiah has come and in him Israel’s redemption is complete. God is able to truly look at those who trust in Jesus his Messiah, and see no iniquity or perversity in them.


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