Balak (King of Moab)

Numbers 22:2 to 25:9

Balaam's view of IsraelThe time – 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt….. The location – Outside of the Israelite camp…. For the first time we view the Israelite people as others see them…. A powerful people to be feared.

“Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.”

Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.’”

Balak then send a message to the prophet Balaam, “There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. Come then, put a curse upon this people for me; since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.’” (Num. 22:2-6)

Now a few comments on the lines above…

First… who is Balaam? Torah never really tells us who he was. It is assumed that he was one of the leading prophets of the non-Hebrew world at the time. One of the things he could do is place blessings and curses.

Second… In reading this tale, the power of blessings and curses must be emphasized. The people believed these blessings/curses were extremely effective if placed by the right person. So, Balak, king of Moab, felt that with the proper curse, his chance at victory over the Israelites was much greater than through ordinary battle.

Now, for the surprising revelations, we learn about the view of the Israelites from outside their camp…. First, as noted above, they are now a people to be feared…. (What a change from the report we got from the spies many years ago.)

Second … The powers and influence of the Eternal has spread beyond the Hebrew community. Balaam, definitely a non-Hebrew, recognizes the power of God and even talks with Him and requests permission to journey to Moab. God, after a second request, approves the journey… but tells Balaam that he will only deliver the message God approves.

Balaam and the angel

Balaam and the angel who blocked his path

On this journey there is a bizarre episode involving a talking donkey – or ass as it is called in Torah’s English translation. The donkey sees an angel of God blocking the road, while Balaam, the prophet, does not…. Until the donkey informs Balaam… and God allows him to see the Angel. At this point, we the reader asks: “Is the ass the prophet?…. or is the prophet an ass?” …. That sarcastic question aside …. Only the reader sees this episode. The leaders of Moab still view Balaam with great respect and expect powerful curses from him… even though Balaam states that he can only deliver words of the Eternal.

The comedy of the talking ass probably receives the greatest attention; but, I believe the real message of this parsha is in the prophesies made by Balaam.

Balaam is called to curse the Israelites and God places the following messages into Balaam’s prophesies. Because of their poetic beauty and powerful message, we will take a closer look at them.

First Prophesy:

“From Aram has Balak brought me,
Moab’s king from the hills of the East:
Come, curse me Jacob,
Come, tell Israel’s doom!”

“How can I damn whom God has not damned,
How doom when the Eternal has not doomed?”

“As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations,
Who can count the dust of Jacob,
Number the dust-cloud of the upright,
May my fate be like theirs!” (Num. 23:7-10)

Now the Moabite leaders are angered. The powerful prophet has delivered the words of God. He acknowledges the power of the Eternal and states that he can’t damn those that the Eternal has not damned. In the last lines he also emphasizes the numbers of the people … comparing them to the dust of the fields which is beyond count.

Second Prophesy:

“God is not human to be capricious,
Or mortal to have a change of heart.
Would [God] speak and not act,
Promise and not fulfill?”

“My message was to bless;
When [God] blesses, I cannot reverse it.”

“No harm is in sight for Jacob,
No woe in view for Israel.
The Eternal their God is with them,
And their King’s acclaim in their midst.”

“God who freed them from Egypt
Is for them like the horns of the wild ox.
Lo, there is no augury in Jacob,
No divining Israel;
Jacob is told at once,
Yea Israel, what God has planned.”

“Lo, a people that rises like a lion,
Rests not till it has feasted on prey
And drunk the blood of the slain.” (Num. 23:19-24)

Balaam admits that God has a plan…. And he is powerless to change it. God freed the Israelites from Egypt and as long as they follow the plan, they will be successful in battle and defeat their foes.

Balak tells Balaam, “’Don’t curse them and don’t bless them!’ In reply, Balaam said to Balak, ‘But I told you; Whatever the Eternal says, that I must do.” Then Balak said to Balaam, ‘Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps God will deem it right that you damn them for me there.” (Num. 23:25-27)

Third Prophesy

“… How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!”

“Like palm groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like the aloes planted by the Eternal,
Like cedars beside the water;
Their boughs drip with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water.”

“Their ruler shall rise above Agag,
Their sovereignty shall be exalted.
God who freed them from Egypt
Is for them like the horns of the wild ox.”

“They shall devour enemy nations,
Crush their bones,
And smash their arrow.”

“They crouch, they lie down like a lion,
Like the king of beasts; who dares rouse them?
Blessed are they who bless you,
Accursed they who curse you!” (Num. 23:5-10)

After Balaam praises the Israelites and predicts their victories, Balak is enraged at the blessings. He sends Balaam out of his nation without pay.

Before Balaam exits Moab, he speaks a Fourth Prophesy:

“Word of Balaam son of Beor,
Word of the man whose eye is true,
Word of him who hears God’s speech,
Who obtains knowledge from the Most High,
And beholds visions from the Almighty…”

“What I see for them is not yet,
What I behold will not be soon:”

“A star rises from Jacob,
A scepter comes forth from Israel;
It smashes the brow of Moab,
The foundation of all children of Seth.”

“Edom becomes a possession
Yea, Seir a possession of its enemies;
But Israel is triumphant.
A victor issues from Jacob
To wipe out what is left of Ir.”
Balaam continues to list the nations that will fall to the Israelites. (Num. 24:16-24)

Thus, from a leading prophet of the Gentile world comes words of blessing … words of praise for the Israelites. This is the view of the Israelites from the outside world…. Now, the job of Moses is to reinforce this reality upon the people.

Earl Sabes

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