“Balaam’s Example to Avoid”
by Mark Huey
This week’s Torah portion, Balak, is full of some significant descriptions of the attempted spiritual attack on the fledgling nation of Ancient Israel, as it was encamped on the plains of Moab overlooking the Jordan, while preparing for the invasion of the Promised Land. Recall that the God-blessed conquest over the Amorites was completed (Numbers 21:10-22:1), and the Israelites were now basking in their triumph, having recently placed faith in the raised brazen serpent to ward off the sting of vipers (Numbers 21:6-20). However, the physical challenges of defeating an enemy is one thing—but now as this parashah commences, the relative relaxation of victory was going to provide the Lord, through demonically inspired individuals, the opportunity to once again test the hearts of His people. After all, people are generally vulnerable to the wiles of the Devil when they let down their guard, and experience a wide return to fleshly endeavors. So, while studying this Torah portion this week, it is appropriate that we ponder the many questions posed by the Prophet Micah, who recognized in his era the propensity for Israel to chronically fall back upon its carnal inclinations, by not recognizing what the Lord had done and what was good:
“My people, what have I done to you, and how have I wearied you? Answer Me. Indeed, I brought you up from the land of Egypt and ransomed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam. 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 6:3-8).
The Holy One of Israel never relents from persistently molding His chosen people, to be a light to rest of the world (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6), with a faithful dependence upon Him for all that they have been called to accomplish for salvation history. In our Torah reading, an opportunity for the Lord to use Balak, the king of Moab, and Balaam, a prophet for hire (Deuteronomy 23:4-5; cf. 2 Peter 2:15), to test the hearts of Israel, arrived during a period of respite from the rigors of warfare and the arduous final march to the plains of Moab. Balak was aware of Israel’s rout of the Amorites, but rather than engage the Israelites militarily, he chose to elicit the charms of a soothsayer regionally known for having the power to bless or curse people:
“Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. So Moab was in great fear because of the people, for they were numerous; and Moab was in dread of the sons of Israel. Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘Now this horde will lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.’ And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time. 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” (Numbers 22:2-6).
The problem, with Balak’s strategy, was that he chose a mere mortal to try to overturn the ultimate blessing bestowed upon the descendants of Abraham by the Creator God Himself:
“And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
Needless to say, in the end as the narrative unfolds, everyone will discover that God’s blessings far surpass anything that human beings can conjure. In the case of Balaam, we see a great demonstration of how the Holy One would not even allow him to utter a curse, but rather oracles of blessings upon His own!
Interestingly, upon receiving the request from Balak, Balaam is recorded to have consulted with God, and even references Him as a covenant keeping deity:
“Balaam said to God, ‘Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent word to me, “Behold, there is a people who came out of Egypt and they cover the surface of the land; now come, curse them for me; perhaps I may be able to fight against them and drive them out.”’ God said to Balaam, ‘Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.’ So Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak’s leaders, ‘Go back to your land, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you.’ The leaders of Moab arose and went to Balak and said, ‘Balaam refused to come with us.’ Then Balak again sent leaders, more numerous and more distinguished than the former. They came to Balaam and said to him, ‘Thus says Balak the son of Zippor, “Let nothing, I beg you, hinder you from coming to me; for I will indeed honor you richly, and I will do whatever you say to me. Please come then, curse this people for me.”’ 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’” (Numbers 22:10-20).
These interchanges reveal a great warning to God’s people down through the ages, how even those who might know about the Lord at some level—given the wrong motivations steered by a love of money (1 Timothy 6:10) and selfish ambition (Philippians 1:17)—can be used to test those who are His faithful. Jude warned the Messiah followers of his generation how people like Balaam are often found participating in love feasts or regular fellowship gatherings of the saints, via some sort of cover of having a “genuine” relationship with the Lord:
“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” (Jude 11-13).
Believers need to be warned! Discerning the spirits, by examining a person’s or a group’s spiritual fruit, and testing the faith of those attempting to influence one’s relationship with the Most High—is required of everyone who is truly seeking His righteousness. Lamentably, far too many people are easily beguiled by the same demonic principalities that once influenced those like Cain, Balaam, and Korah—because just like the Ancient Israelites, the Lord is constantly testing every heart.
Upon given permission to travel to adhere to Balak’s request, our Torah reading depicts the somewhat amusing reality of how God can, at times, use a common animal to communicate to His people. In this case, the infamous Balaam’s donkey is actually noted for speaking words that the angelic host called into action:
“So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey and went with the leaders of Moab. But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding on his donkey and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand, the donkey turned off from the way and went into the field; but Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back into the way. Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path of the vineyards, with a wall on this side and a wall on that side. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pressed herself to the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he struck her again. The angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place where there was no way to turn to the right hand or the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam was angry and struck the donkey with his stick. And the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’ Then Balaam said to the donkey, ‘Because you have made a mockery of me! If there had been a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.’ The donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?’ And he said, ‘No.’ Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed all the way to the ground. The angel of the LORD said to him, ‘Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to me. But the donkey saw me and turned aside from me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, I would surely have killed you just now, and let her live.’ Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, ‘I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the way against me. Now then, if it is displeasing to you, I will turn back.’ But the angel of the LORD said to Balaam, ‘Go with the men, but you shall speak only the word which I tell you.’ So Balaam went along with the leaders of Balak” (Numbers 22:21-35).
The Lord used this unique encounter to demonstrably warn Balaam that he was not to speak anything but what He instructed him to say. Then, because there was a delay in Balaam’s arrival, Balak’s anxiety was responded by Balaam indicating that he would only be able to speak a word that God put in his mouth:
“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).
Obviously, despite some impure motives centered on gold and silver, the frightening episode with Balaam’s donkey speaking to him—had communicated to Balaam that he had better speak only the words given to him by the God of Israel Himself.
As our parashah continues, we find that Balaam was definitely aware of many of the rituals associated with properly approaching the Lord. By sacrificing seven bulls and seven rams on seven different altars, Balaam obviously knew a considerable amount about the revealed ways of the Almighty. The lesson to be learned is that none of us are to be fooled by someone who claims to know the Lord—and perhaps can quote Scripture to tickle the ears (2 Timothy 4:3), with all sorts of teaching using the Bible as a basis for unsound conclusions. In the case of Balaam, he was once again constrained to speak only what the Lord allowed, despite the pleas of Balak to curse Israel:
“Then Balaam said to Balak, ‘Build seven altars for me here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me here.’ Balak did just as Balaam had spoken, and Balak and Balaam offered up a bull and a ram on each altar. Then Balaam said to Balak, ‘Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go; perhaps the LORD will come to meet me, and whatever He shows me I will tell you.’ So he went to a bare hill. Now God met Balaam, and he said to Him, ‘I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.’ Then the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, ‘Return to Balak, and you shall speak thus.’ So he returned to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, he and all the leaders of Moab. He took up his discourse and said, ‘From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, “Come curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!” How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? As I see him from the top of the rocks, and I look at him from the hills; behold, a people who dwells apart, and will not be reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!’ Then Balak said to Balaam, ‘What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!’ He replied, ‘Must I not be careful to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?’ Then Balak said to him, ‘Please come with me to another place from where you may see them, although you will only see the extreme end of them and will not see all of them; and curse them for me from there’” (Numbers 23:1-13).
Instead of cursing Ancient Israel, Balaam uttered some profound words that echo the blessing bestowed upon Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12:2-3). Balak was mortified that rather than cursing the Israelites, Balaam actually blessed them. So to get another vantage point and perhaps elicit the desired curse, Balak relocated Balaam to a higher perch so he could see all of the encamped Israelites.
A second oracle comes forth from the mouth of Balaam, which is even more mellifluous, almost waxing poetically when compared to the first discourse. Naturally, Balak was once again appalled with the words he heard:
“And he said to Balak, ‘Stand here beside your burnt offering while I myself meet the LORD over there.’ Then the LORD met Balaam and put a word in his mouth and said, ‘Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.’ He came to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, and the leaders of Moab with him. And Balak said to him, ‘What has the LORD spoken?’ Then he took up his discourse and said, ‘Arise, O Balak, and hear; give ear to me, O son of Zippor! God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? Behold, I have received a command to bless; when He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it. He has not observed misfortune in Jacob; nor has He seen trouble in Israel; the LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them. God brings them out of Egypt, He is for them like the horns of the wild ox. For there is no omen against Jacob, nor is there any divination against Israel; at the proper time it shall be said to Jacob and to Israel, what God has done! Behold, a people rises like a lioness, and as a lion it lifts itself; It will not lie down until it devours the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain.’ Then Balak said to Balaam, ‘Do not curse them at all nor bless them at all!’ But Balaam replied to Balak, ‘Did I not tell you, “Whatever the LORD speaks, that I must do”’?” (Numbers 23:15-26).
Balak’s reaction to silence Balaam, so that no more words of any kind would be uttered over Israel, was received by deaf ears. Balaam had to have realized how the Lord God was using him to bless Israel, and he was overcome by the Spirit of God, being led to eloquently proclaim yet another oracle:
“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. God brings him out of Egypt, he is for him like the horns of the wild ox. He will devour the nations who are his adversaries, and will crush their bones in pieces, and shatter them with his arrows. He couches, he lies down as a lion, and as a lion, who dares rouse him? Blessed is everyone who blesses you, and cursed is everyone who curses you.’ Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam, and he struck his hands together; and Balak said to Balaam, ‘I called you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have persisted in blessing them these three times! Therefore, flee to your place now. I said I would honor you greatly, but behold, the LORD has held you back from honor’” (Numbers 24:1-11).
From this description of Israel, uttered through the mouth of a prophet for hire, came some beautiful words which define Israel as blessed with prosperity and mighty among its adversaries. These are words which have been incorporated into the traditional Jewish liturgy of the Shabbat service, and hence are employed at many Messianic congregations and fellowships. Balak was sternly warned that all who bless Israel will be blessed, but those who curse Israel will be cursed. Balak was livid. Despite the opportunity for Balaam to significantly cash in on Balak’s request to curse Israel, Balaam was constrained to only speak what the Lord was ultimately directing by His Spirit. In fact, Balak’s command for Balaam to stop speaking was ignored, as Balaam continued to proclaim a final oracle that directs one to the future, and how the Holy One would be dealing with the adversaries of Israel:
“Balaam said to Balak, ‘Did I not tell your messengers whom you had sent to me, saying, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything contrary to the command of the LORD, either good or bad, of my own accord. What the LORD speaks, that I will speak”? And now, behold, I am going to my people; come, and I will advise you what this people will do to your people in the days to come. 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 24:12-25).
Sometimes, the Spirit of the Most High can be so compelling to vessels of righteousness—or in the case of Balaam, one seeking personal gain, financial acquisitions, and/or self-elevating notoriety—that people cannot terminate the flow of revelation coming forth from God. Here, we find a reference to the coming of the Messiah in days to come (Numbers 24:17). Also seen is a list of regional powers to the Ancient Near East, which will either be ruled by Israel, or will experience some kind of judgment from God. Regardless of the details, the point made is that the still-sojourning Israelites and the Lord they serve will be a power to contend with.
After what was surely an exhausting exercise, Balaam finally left, and the disappointed Balak returned to his city to contemplate what, for him, had been depressing words declared over Israel. Needless to say, Balak probably had a few restless nights, as the Israelites were encamped around the Tabernacle and were anticipating entering into the Promised Land. However, as the Israelites were gathered, we do see how later, that Balaam gave the Moabites some wicked advice on how to have the Israelites curse themselves:
“Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord” (Numbers 31:16).
The conclusion to our parashah ends on some disappointing developments and actions taken, which result in the deaths of many Israelites, who are on the precipice of entering into Canaan:
“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. The LORD said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.’ So Moses said to the judges of Israel, ‘Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.’ Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation and took a spear in his hand, and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked. Those who died by the plague were 24,000” (Numbers 25:1-9).
It is here that the sin of Baal Peor is detailed, with the introduction of the grandson of Aaron, the son of Eleazar, named Phinehas. He was to eventually become the high priest of Israel, and will be discussed in much greater detail in next week’s reading (Numbers 25:10-30:1[29:40]). Nevertheless, Phinehas’ zealousness for the Lord, brutally dealing with the sin in the camp, is mentioned. When seeing this action, perhaps it is much clearer why the Jewish Sages turned to Micah 5:6-6:8 as the Haftarah. They surely wanted to see people faithful to God be reminded of the imperative to do justice and walk humbly before Him (Micah 6:8).
Of course, the requirement to serve the Lord in righteousness, walking humbly before Him—and not being like a Balaam, who was perverted by his lust for riches—never goes away. The need to remember the poor examples of those who are spoken about in the Bible, and how the people of God will have their faith in him challenged by a number of ways—should necessarily direct us to implore Him for wisdom, discernment, and steadfastness! This is even more imperative for those who know that Yeshua the Messiah has come, as Believers in Him have each experienced a transformation of their hearts and minds via the presence of the Holy Spirit.