by Mark Huey
This week’s Torah portion, Balak, chronologically finds the Ancient Israelites further down the trail on their arduous and circuitous march to Canaan, the Promised Land, but without the able counsel of Aaron to co-administer with the aging Moses. Following the death of Aaron (Numbers 20:24-29), the indigenous populations of the desert areas begin an incessant military attack on the migrating Israelites. A brief engagement with the Canaanites is described in Numbers 21, as Israel must turn to the Holy One for guidance and deliverance to secure victory.
Israel’s journeys take a turn to avoid the conflict with the Edomites, who earlier had refused passage through their territory (Numbers 20:18-21). At this point, the complaints of Israel once again centered around their perceived lack of bread and water (Numbers 21:5). To chastise the Israelite grumblers, God sent snakes into the camp with a deadly venomous bite (Numbers 21:6). This judgment created an opportunity for Israel to gaze, by faith, upon the brazen serpent fashioned by Moses in order to receive physical healing (Numbers 21:7-9). The lifting up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness, is intended to parallel the lifting up of Yeshua the Messiah on the cross:
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
Rather than elaborate on the significance of this to our faith, I would like to instead focus on how the Torah goes on to record the continuing sojourn of the Israelite survivors in the wilderness. The journey continues as a series of encampments are detailed from Oboth to Moab to Zared, to beyond the Aram at the border between the Moabites and the Amorites (Numbers 21:10-14). Apparently, more specific details of these different encampments and the conflicts that ensued were contained in another text called “the Book of the Wars of the LORD” (Numbers 21:14), that today is no longer extant. Some additional locations are cited as the sojourn proceeds “from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the land of Moab, at the top of Pisgah which overlooks the wasteland” (Numbers 21:19-20).
Many Bible scholars have attempted to trace the exact locations of these wanderings, and Biblical archaeologists are often very interested as to where they might have been located in the Ancient Near East. Time does not permit us the luxury of researching these specific places, but most assuredly, we know that God gave His people more instruction and admonition at each stop.
As the Israelites reached the border with the Amorites, they again, similar to the pleas made with Edom, sent messengers to their king to receive passage through their territory on the “king’s highway” (Numbers 21:22). The belligerent Amorites, fearful of the perceived invasion of their lands, challenged Israel to battle. A war erupted when the Amorites refused passage. Once again, Israel prevailed, and even occupied some of the cities built by the Amorites (Numbers 21:23-31). In a short time, with the favor of the Almighty, Israel began to receive a regional reputation as a powerful army when the Amorites are defeated.
After occupying the Amorite cities and towns, the final encampment finds Israel bivouacked in martial array by tribes on the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan River from Jericho (Numbers 22:1). One can just imagine how awesome a sight this must have been, as the victorious Israelites prepared themselves for the final assault on the stronghold that was protecting the eastern flank of Canaan. It is at this point that Balak, the king of Moab is introduced, and his dread of the Israelites is recorded (Numbers 22:2-4). Fearing a military defeat if his army challenges the Israelites, Balak instead chose another method to thwart their advance into his domain. Rather than engage Israel in battle, Balak decided to call upon the infamous Balaam, a renowned prophet, whom he enticed to come meet him, that he might verbally curse the people of Israel:
“So he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the River, in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, ‘Behold, a people came out of Egypt; behold, they cover the surface of the land, and they are living opposite me. Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.’ So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam and repeated Balak’s words to him” (Numbers 22:5-7).
The diviners in Balak’s court were accustomed to bringing down curses upon anyone whom their master asked them to curse. Probably not unlike Pharaoh’s magicians we see in Exodus, these diviners were associated with the black arts. Some of what they performed may have been nothing more than “parlor tricks,” but there were those few who were demonically empowered and could use the supernatural to please Balak. In the case of Balaam, Balak hired someone who was particularly keen on using the supernatural.
Threatened by the presence of God’s glory emanating from the Tabernacle, with the tribes of Israel positioned in a semblance of military order, King Balak decided that Balaam would curse the Israelites for him. He had heard of Balaam’s fame, and that he might have some kind of influence with Israel’s God. He wanted Israel to be cursed and ineffective, lest they did to him what they had done to some of the other surrounding nations.
Balaam received the messengers sent from Balak, who informed him of the problem that the king wants solved (Numbers 22:8-11). Yet in their interactions, we learn some interesting things. Balaam had supernatural power because of some kind of relationship he had with the Creator God (Numbers 22:13, 18-20). Balaam knew who the God of Israel was. Whether the Lord is only one of many deities that Balaam knew, or was the only one he knew, we cannot be entirely certain. Some would suggest that Balaam may have been a descendent of Abraham, and carried on the traditions of Abraham’s God, having mixed them with other local religions. Others may speculate that Balaam, as the able profiteer, was quite inclusive about what deities he would commune with, as he was ultimately interested with only money. Regardless of which is the case, the God of Israel allowed Balaam to communicate with Him, although Balaam could only speak the things that the Lord allowed him to:
“Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, ‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the LORD my God. Now please, you also stay here tonight, and I will find out what else the LORD will speak to me.’ God came to Balaam at night and said to him, ‘If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do.’ So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey and went with the leaders of Moab” (Numbers 22:18-21).
On the journey to meet with Balak, Balaam had an encounter with the angel of the Lord (Numbers 22:22-35). As he traveled, this angel blocked Balaam and his donkey. Balaam struck his donkey three times, and his donkey actually talked back to him (Numbers 22:28-30). The angel of the Lord asked what Balaam had been doing, as he had failed to realize how the donkey saw the angel and was saving Balaam in the process—as the angel would have surely struck down Balaam (Numbers 22:33). Balaam was told to continue on his way, but that he would only be able to speak what the Lord allowed him to speak (Numbers 22:35). When arriving to see King Balak, Balak inquired as to what has delayed Balaam, and all Balaam could tell him was that he could only speak what God would let him speak:
“When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at the city of Moab, which is on the Arnon border, at the extreme end of the border. Then Balak said to Balaam, Did I not urgently send to you to call you? Why did you not come to me? Am I really unable to honor you?’ So Balaam said to Balak, ‘Behold, I have come now to you! Am I able to speak anything at all? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I shall speak’” (Numbers 22:36-38).
Balaam, only being allowed to speak what God allowed him to speak, could not do anything else than bless Israel in the words that he would utter forth. This he did twice (Numbers 23:7-10, 18-24), invoking a stern rebuke from King Balak: “Do not curse them at all nor bless them at all!” (Numbers 23:25). Yet, with the wheels in motion and Balaam commissioned by Balak to speak forth something to the Israelites, all Balaam could respond back with was, “Did I not tell you, ‘Whatever the Lord speaks, that I must do’?” (Numbers 23:26). The third time, situated where he could see the Israelites, undoubtedly included the most significant of the words of blessing that Balaam was compelled to speak forth:
“When Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not go as at other times to seek omens but he set his face toward the wilderness. 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, how fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! Like valleys that stretch out, like gardens beside the river, like aloes planted by the LORD, like cedars beside the waters. Water will flow from his buckets, and his seed will be by many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted” (Numbers 24:1-7).
In this scene we find Balaam high up on a hill overlooking the encampment of Israel, noting that they were camped in an orderly way around the Tabernacle. Can you imagine seeing several hundred thousand people arrayed around the Tabernacle from such a vantage point? If you have ever been to Israel today, and have looked at this specific area, you might be able to vaguely picture what Balaam was seeing. But the curious thing is that as Balaam began his utterance, perhaps beginning to curse Israel, all he could say was: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (ATS), Mah-tovu ohalekha Ya’akov mishkenotekha Yisrael.
The Mah Tovu is now an important part of the Shabbat liturgy used in the Jewish Synagogue. I consider it to be quite ironic that something that Israel’s enemy intended for gross evil, has ended up being included in a hymn recited at the beginning of most morning Shabbat services—including many throughout the Messianic movement!
In his fourth oracle, Balaam looked prophetically into the future, and described the ultimate end of the nations that will be harassing Israel:
“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, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered. 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. Edom shall be a possession, Seir, its enemies, also will be a possession, while Israel performs valiantly. One from Jacob shall have dominion, and will destroy the remnant from the city.’ And he looked at Amalek and took up his discourse and said, ‘Amalek was the first of the nations, but his end shall be destruction.’ And he looked at the Kenite, and took up his discourse and said, ‘Your dwelling place is enduring, and your nest is set in the cliff. Nevertheless Kain will be consumed; how long will Asshur keep you captive?’ Then he took up his discourse and said, ‘Alas, who can live except God has ordained it? But ships shall come from the coast of Kittim, and they shall afflict Asshur and will afflict Eber; so they also will come to destruction.’ Then Balaam arose and departed and returned to his place, and Balak also went his way” (Numbers 24:15-25).
As you read this prophecy, you will note that Balaam started this oracle with the same recognition that he started his third oracle with when he blessed Israel. But this time, as Balaam got a peek into the future for Israel, he got a vision of a “star” (Heb. kokav) with power coming forth, crushing its enemies. I believe that this is a strong prophetic picture of the Second Coming of Yeshua when He will return to execute judgment upon the nations of the Earth and restore the Kingdom of Israel. It reminds me of the description that the Apostle John gives in the Book of Revelation when He is shown Yeshua in His exalted glory:
“And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, ‘KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS [Deuteronomy 10:17; Daniel 2:47]’” (Revelation 19:11-16).
One actually gets a prophetic glimpse at the future work of Yeshua through the oracles of Balaam, which when we compare to the declarations made by some of the Prophets of the Tanakh, are really no different. This demonstrates that the Lord can communicate His message for humanity through a large number of vessels—even those on the outside trying to harm His people.
Finally, as our Torah portion concludes, we discover that there is one piece of counsel that Balaam did provide Balak that goes beyond his inability to verbally curse Israel. Since Balaam was unable to issue any verbal curses against Israel, he does tell Balak that the men of Israel can be given over to their biological fleshly lusts, and would thus be responsible for cursing themselves by disobeying their God. By enticing the men to take up lascivious relationships with the women of Moab, their actions should bring God’s judgment upon them in just a short matter of time. This is described in the closing verses of Balak, and will continue next week with more details given in Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1[29:40]):
“While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry against Israel” (Numbers 25:1-3).
We see that the gross sexual activities that the Israelite males performed with the local prostitutes, ultimately brought the anger of the Lord down upon them. This is because their sexual debauchery would ultimately lead to idolatry and them sacrificing to other gods. We see that the God of Israel is quite serious about disloyalty to Him, and He does not appreciate His chosen people engaging in sin. This is one of the reasons that the curses levied for disobedience, including the vile sins of sexual immorality and worshipping other gods, are repeated continually throughout the Scriptures. Even if some restitution can take place between God and His people, the consequences of such sin often remain.
When we turn to this week’s corresponding Haftarah reading, taken from the Prophet Micah, we are admonished about the human propensity to do things that people hope will appease God for their wicked ways:
“‘My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab counseled and what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and from Shittim to Gilgal, so that you might know the righteous acts of the LORD.’ With what shall I come to the LORD and bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:5-8).
As you read the concluding statement, you will note that Micah reminded his ancient audience that the Holy One of Israel is not at all impressed with the burnt offerings of animal sacrifices, or even the presentation of one’s firstborn as something special for Him. Instead, the focus turns to what the Lord is most concerned about for His people, as He desires that they perform justice, love, kindness, and walk humbly before Him. This is what pleases our Heavenly Father. These qualities are a total reflection of who He is—qualities and traits perfectly embodied in the Person of Yeshua the Messiah.
Is there any other who humbled Himself more than Yeshua? Certainly, even though Moses is referred to as the humblest human who ever lived upon the Earth (Numbers 12:3), Moses’ humility, however, is quite insignificant compared to the Son of God who emptied Himself of His exaltedness and power in Heaven—to come down to Earth as a lowly human:
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Yeshua the Messiah, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped [exploited, NRSV], but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Yeshua EVERY KNEE WILL BOW [Isaiah 45:23], of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Yeshua the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).
This degree of humility is almost beyond our comprehension. This is the same Yeshua who admonished the Pharisaical leaders of His era, that they had widely forgotten the weightier matters of justice emphasized by the Torah:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24).
Here, the Messiah rebukes these Pharisees for their obedience to relatively minor aspects of the Torah, but who forget to do the most important things. The problem that Yeshua addresses is that one’s adherence to the minute details of the Torah, although good, will do nothing to negate a neglect for the weightier provisions that deal with justice, mercy, and faithfulness. If all one focuses on is doing outward things, rather than exhibiting what it means to be just, loving, merciful, and compassionate to others, then he or she is desperately missing the point of why one is to obey God. Obeying God includes the mission of demonstrating His goodness to others—so that they may come to know and serve Him as well!
Problems inevitably come when we decide to disobey God, and/or ignore His instructions for us. If we do not obey our Heavenly Father, we will incur consequences for our disobedience to Him. In the case of the Ancient Israelite men who cohabitated with Moabite prostitutes, how many of them had bastard children as a result? Certainly, while these men could be reconciled to God, damage was done and many of them likely had half-Israelite children to deal with. This is not only a sin that remains confined to ancient times—because the sins of adultery and fornication always bring consequences. And this is certainly not the only sin that can create generational problems (but we will leave these discussions for another time).
In Jude’s epistle we see warnings that in his generation, over a millennia after the incident with Balak, some gross sinful activities were occurring among those claiming to follow Yeshua. We should not be surprised when we see similar things today, and instead know that we can turn to the Scriptures to be prepared for the inevitability of God’s judgment:
“Yet in the same way these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties. But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’ But these men revile the things which they do not understand; and the things which they know by instinct, like unreasoning animals, by these things they are destroyed. Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah. These are the men who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever. It was also about these men that Enoch…the seventh…from Adam, prophesied, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.’ These are grumblers, finding fault, following after their own lusts; they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage. But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah that they were saying to you, ‘In the last time there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.’ These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 8-19).
What we particularly need to be mindful of in this era of mass communication, is that the same demonic influences that were present among the diviners in Balak’s court, or in the Apostolic era, are still able to influence people today. They are looking for willing vessels, and lamentably they find them far too often in those who are not only open to sin and are in open rebellion against God, but may even be masquerading as men and women of God. Instead of being truly humble men and women of God, who are totally satisfied with the assignments and tasks that He has given them, they exercise their free will and do things motivated at the best by their flesh, and at the worst by Satan himself. The Apostle John warns us about this:
“Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
Certainly in our reading this week, we can see that Balak and Balaam were both motivated by the world system that John would later warn his audience about. The questions we should be asking ourselves today when we consider this are innumerable, but a few come to my mind:
- What am I focusing on throughout the day when I allow my mind to wander?
- Who am I worshipping?
- Who am I praising?
- What does my heart and will want to do with my time?
- How am I exercising justice?
- Am I loving in all situations?
- Do I extend mercy at all times, or just in the case of someone I know?
- Am I worrying about the minute details of the Torah, or am I focusing on the weightier matters of morality and justice?
- What could I possibly be doing to bring curses upon myself, and/or damage my relationship with God?
As you can see, the list can go on and on, and will likely be specific for each person who is truly trying to work through the challenges of his or her relationship with the Lord.
Our Heavenly Father wants a relationship with us, and He wants the best for us! He does not want us to be cursed, but instead wants us to be blessed. When we obey Him, it pleases Him—and He has no choice but to shower us with His blessings! But these blessings will be things that can testify of His goodness—they will not be the wanton desires of our fallen flesh. I believe that when we study the Torah we can learn how to serve and obey the Lord more effectively. When we can do this, we can truly fulfill the calling that Israel was intended to have as being a light to the world. People can come to us and see Yeshua the Messiah living through us, and desire to have what we have. Just like Balaam had no choice but to bless Israel, so should any servants of darkness we encounter only be able to speak positive things about us.
 Editor’s note: The phrase sefer milchamot ADONAI, “the Book of the Wars of HASHEM” (ATS), may be a textual redaction following the principal compilation of the Torah by Moses. If indeed added later, either during the period of United Monarchy, Divided Monarchy, or even the post-exilic period, it refers to a text or series of records that is no longer extant. It is possible that many traditions of this text survive in veiled references through the remainder of the Tanakh (Old Testament), as well as some of the histories as recorded by Philo, Josephus, or other ancient Jewish (and possibly also Christian) commentators.
 Cf. Hertz, Authorised Daily Prayer Book, pp 4-5; Harlow, Siddur Sim Shalom, 61.
 Editor’s note: Please keep in mind that if Moses were indeed the most humble human being who ever lived on Earth, that he would have never written this about himself. Most conservative commentators are agreed that the statement in Numbers 12:3 was added to the Torah by Joshua, or other scribes, after Moses’ death.
 While sometimes rendered as “grasped” (2:6, NASU/NIV), the noun harpagmos best means “someth. to which one can claim or assert title by gripping or grasping, someth. claimed” (BDAG, 133).