Torah Portion: Balak (Bamidbar) Numbers 22-25
HafTorah: Micah 5:6-6:8
NT II Peter 2:1-22, Jude 11, Rev. 2:14-15
This week we look at a very interesting story. It concerns Balak, King of Moab and a Gentile prophet named Balaam. We read of the fear of Balak when he becomes aware of the approaching Israelites. Should he have been afraid? No. Why? The Moabites were descendants of Lot. In D’Varim (Deut) 2:9 G-d tells Israel they are not to disturb Moab because they are cousins and G-d has given them their own land. So actually Balak had nothing to fear. He just didn’t know it. How often we fear what has no real threat because we do not know who we are as G-d’s children. Balak’s response to Israel, in Numbers 22:3, is much like Pharaoh’s reaction in Exodus 1:9. Another parallel we see here is when Balak calls to Balaam in Numbers 22:6 he echoes G-d’s word to Abraham in Genesis 12:3. What is odd is that with Abraham, it is G-d who blessed. Here Balak thought this power rested with Balaam. In fact Balak seals his own fate by trying to curse Israel.
In any case, Balak calls Balaam to curse Israel. Who is Balaam? Was he a gentile sorcerer? Did he know G-d? He was well known for sure. He came from Mesopotamia (D’Varim Deut. 23:4-5) So here in Bamidbar (Numbers) 22:6 we see Balak offering him a job. It seems Balaam knew G-d on some level. (Numbers 22:18) He calls on Him as L-rd my G-d. This should be a caution to us that everyone who calls on the name of the L-rd is not necessarily a good guy. It is possible to have knowledge of G-d while at the same time not a servant of his. (Matt. 7:22-23) Whatever the case Balaam advertised himself as one who hears the word of G-d. Numbers 24:15-16
Balak’s messengers came to Balaam with their request. He tells them he will consult with G-d. G-d’s answer is in Numbers 22:12-13. Do not go with them. So Balaam returns and says he can’t go with them or curse these people for they are blessed. Balak, not wanting to take no for an answer, redoubles his efforts with more distinguished messengers and the promise of vast wealth. Balaam repeats his refusal but then adds that he will check again with G-d. Balaam is suggesting that G-d may relent. This time G-d says go and when he goes G-d seeks to kill him. So what is going on? Is G-d saying both go and don’t go and when He says go why does He then try to kill Balaam? How do we make sense of this? I think the answer is not as difficult as it might seem. What is the hardest word for anyone to hear? No. G-d said no once. That should have been enough for Balaam if he truly knew G-d. However, the answer he wanted to hear was “yes.” He knew G-d did not want him to go but he asked again. So Balaam’s response to no says something about him. For us here lies a lesson. When we ask G-d for something and He says no why is that so hard for us to accept? So we keep going back again and again until like Balaam, G-d does not force His will upon us. There is a saying in the Midrash, “Man is led down the path he chooses.” So in the second response of G-d it is like, “Okay go with them, I won’t stop you from going but it does anger Me that you came back again to ask.”
Maybe the second time Balaam asked G-d’s yes was actually a no in that it was as if He were saying, “Go but you bear the consequences.” When G-d speaks and we do not listen we live with our choices. To make the point with Balaam G-d arranges a demonstration to show Balaam that he is not as good as he thinks he is. His donkey had more spiritual insight than Balaam. A false prophet speaks what he thinks people want to hear. A true prophet speaks what people need to hear. In our own lives we sometime find it hard to hear “no” or we already have our mind set on something and only go through the motions of involving G-d in the situation. Then when it becomes obvious that we are on the wrong path we become angry at G-d and say, “Why did you let this happen?” He didn’t – we let it happen because we did not want to hear G-d’s answer.
Balaam ends up blessing Israel. In fact his words are part of the daily prayers of Jewish people around the world. (Bamidbar, Numbers 24:5) “How goodly are your tents O Jacob.” He seemed to be praising the family qualities of Israel, their devotion to family. The Midrash also says their tents were arranged so that each family had privacy and modesty, which was the driving force in Israel. Also a lesson for us in these days of a disregard of modesty.