This week’s parasha is entitled Balak, the name of the king of Moab, and spans Numbers 22:2 – 25:9. Most of us know the story of Balaam, and just about every kid who’s ever sat in a Sunday School class remembers about Balaam’s donkey talking to him. But I submit to you that Balak and Balaam are archetypes – symbols of a pattern of wicked behavior that has repeated itself for 3,500 years.
Let’s summarize the events of Numbers 22-25: Balak, the king of Moab, has heard that Israel is approaching, and he’s frightened. The news of what God had done to Egypt was widely known, as were Israel’s recent overwhelming victories over the kingdoms of Heshbon and Bashan. Hoping to avoid a similar fate, Balak forms a military alliance with Midian. He also attempts to elicit the help of Balaam the son of Beor, the renowned soothsayer, so that Moab will have a tactical advantage and be able to destroy the Jewish people.
Balak sends emissaries with a generous financial offer if Balaam will come and curse Israel, saying, “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” And this introduces us to a man who truly is an enigma.
Balaam invites the delegation to remain the night, while he inquires of the Lord. Of course, God had already blessed Israel, and centuries earlier promised Abraham that He would bless those who bless his descendants and curse those who curse them. Balaam ought to have known this, given his seeming familiarity with Adonai and his proximity to Mesopotamia, the land of Abraham’s origin. But if he really feared the Lord, he needn’t have asked. There was no way God would green light a curse against those He blessed. And, of course, the answer was “No”.
But King Balak wasn’t about to take “No” for an answer, and sent a larger, more prestigious entourage, with an even bigger monetary offer. Balaam initially protests that God had already given His answer. But I suppose the money was enticing… so he tells them to stay the night, so that he can inquire again. This time, God allows him to go, but warns Balaam only to speak what He tells him, and the Lord is furious with him.
And this is where things turn humorous. While they’re on the way, God sends the Angel of the Lord to confront Balaam. Balaam’s donkey sees the angel with his sword drawn, but Balaam ‘the seer’ sees nothing. The donkey abruptly turns off into a field. Balaam beats his donkey and forces it back onto the road. A short time later, the angel once again takes his stand opposite Balaam, this time in a narrow path between walls. Again, the donkey sees and tries to avoid the angel, pressing against the side of the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot. Again, Balaam is oblivious to the presence of the angel, and angrily beats his poor donkey. Finally, the Angel of the Lord takes his stand where there is nowhere to turn, and the donkey just lies down under Balaam, and won’t move. Now he’s livid, and for the third time starts beating the donkey. At that moment, God allows the donkey to talk, and she asks Balaam why he’s beating her. And he answers that she is humiliating him.
This is hysterical! It doesn’t register with Balaam that this is really weird. Instead of being amazed that his donkey is speaking to him in fluent Aramaic (or whatever he spoke), he merely joins the conversation! And then God opens Balaam’s eyes to see the Angel of the Lord.
The donkey had it right. She saw and understood what Balaam was blind to. This is what greed can do to a man. Balaam’s life was hanging by a thread and he had no idea. Imagine how large that sword was that the angel was holding! Mercifully, the Angel of the Lord spares Balaam, but reminds him that he must only speak the words that God gives him.
And the humor continues. Balaam meets up with Balak. The next morning, at Balaam’s instruction, Balak has seven altars built, and seven bulls and rams are sacrificed. Did you know that the value of a full-grown bull is about $4,800? The cost of an average adult male ram is about $175. So that’s close to $5K per altar, which means Balak spent roughly $35,000 on that sacrifice.
And when Balaam opened his mouth to prophesy, God put a blessing for Israel in it. Balak couldn’t believe it. Balaam shifted the blame to God, saying, “Must I not be careful to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?”
So Balak has him accompany him to the peak of Mt. Pisgah, to give it another try, thinking that a different location might yield a different result. And once again, he built seven altars and sacrificed seven more bulls and seven more rams. Another $35,000. And once again, God puts a word of blessing and favor over Israel in Balaam’s mouth, even comparing Israel to a mighty lion.
And the whole thing is repeated a third time, this time from Mt. Peor. The result is the same: Balak drops another $35,000 and Israel is blessed, not cursed. At this point we are in chapter 24, and Balak is beside himself with frustration and anger, telling Balaam to go home. But before departing, Balaam pronounces his most famous prophecy. We read: And Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe; and the Spirit of God came upon him. He took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, and the oracle of the man whose eye is opened; The oracle of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered,
:מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!”
Thousands of years later, this very phrase is sung by Jewish men each morning as they enter the synagogue to pray! It is poetic justice – where is Moab or Midian?
And then Balaam continued to prophesy, saying, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come forth from Jacob, a scepter shall rise from Israel, and shall crush through the forehead of Moab, and tear down all the sons of Sheth.” This was a prophecy that would initially be fulfilled in the life of King David, who subdued those nations, and ultimately will be realized through the return of Messiah Yeshua to planet Earth when He subdues all the nations, ruling from His rightful throne in Jerusalem.
I wish I could say that the narrative ends there, on a lovely note of triumph and blessing for Israel. But in chapter 25, victory gives way to tragedy. Unable to curse Israel, Balaam recommends another strategy to Balak. Israel could be defeated if their God forsook them Himself; and that could happen if the Israelis could be enticed to break faith with Him. So, the Moabite women come and invite the Israeli men to join in their religious rites, which were sexually enticing. They successfully lured many Israelis to participate in their pagan sacrifices to Ba’al.
God was angry enough to demand that Moses have the leaders of this rebellion put to death, and the sentence was carried out. The people grieved terribly. And then, in a show of unmitigated brazenness, one Israeli man brought a Midianite woman into his tent in broad daylight, while everyone wept! That was the last straw!
We are introduced in these last verses to Pinchas. He saw this, and took swift, decisive action. He followed that couple into the man’s tent and pierced them both through (the implication being that the Israeli man and the Midianite woman were engaged in sexual intercourse at the time); putting them both to death. You might argue that such action was unwarranted, but Scripture says that it put a stop to the plague, which had already killed 24,000 people! Pinchas was, in fact, a hero.
- Why did God allow Balaam to go the second time? And why get angry about it after-the-fact? I believe the answer is that God was setting up this big-shot soothsayer for public humiliation, and Balak for defeat, while at the same time, setting up Israel for yet more blessing. Turnabout, or reversal, is a common biblical device. God used a wicked, greedy soothsayer and a wicked king to accomplish His purposes. Balak and Balaam meant it for evil. But God meant it for good. He allowed Balaam to go with them; He allowed Balak to go to all the trouble and expense of offering multiple sacrifices, only to have Balaam’s mouth open in blessing for Israel. Surprise!
- Across history, there have always been those who wanted to rid the Earth of the Jews, and, sadly, others ready to carry out such a plan for a price. There’s no logic to it, and it is useless trying to reason with that kind of hatred. It is demonic in nature. Reason doesn’t work with demonic hatred.
- Was Balaam a follower of the God of Israel? On the one hand, he invoked the name of the Lord (22:18), offered sacrifices, and had the appearance of obedience. He even had a track record of successful prophecies (22:6). On the other hand, he is referred to as a ‘diviner/sorcerer’ (22:7, 24:1 – in Joshua 13:22 he is called a soothsayer), used his abilities for personal gain (cf. 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 1:11), and was willing to curse those whom God blessed. His memory is associated with corruption and disgrace (Rev. 2:14). Perhaps, like the seven sons of Sceva, he invoked a name he didn’t have a right to, and he’ll be dealt with for it.
- A warning to those who think that performing miracles is proof of a person’s salvation, or of God’s approval of them. On that Day, some people will say, “Lord, Lord, in Your name did we not prophecy, and cast out demons and perform miracles…?” His response to them will be, “Depart from Me.” If you think this account of Balaam is merely a warning against greed, you’re missing something. It is a warning to us to have nothing to do with the Balaams of this world.
- Don’t presume that every opportunity that presents itself is God opening a door for you. If in some way it will negatively affect your walk with Yeshua, the offer may actually be a test of your integrity. Don’t be presumptuous. We need to be very careful not to spiritualize our desire for material things. God gave Balaam permission to go, yet was displeased that Balaam was willing to prostitute himself. We dare not set aside principle for the sake of financial gain. When people do wrong, God will yet bring good out of it, but that doesn’t absolve us of our guilt in doing the wrong.