Parashat Balak - July 8th

בלק Balak

Numbers 22.2—25.9

An important theme of Parashat Balak is the way God will fulfill the promised blessings and curses in his covenant with Abraham. This fulfillment will come with the reign of King-Messiah in the last days (Numbers 24.14, 17ff.). Balak’s statement to Balaam that “he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22.6; see v. 12; 24.9) draws directly from God’s promises to bless those who bless Abraham and his seed and to curse those who curse Abraham and his seed (see Genesis 12.3; 27; 29). In fact, this parashah contains eight references to blessing (22.6, 12; 23.11, 20, 25; 24.1, 9, 10) and eleven references to cursing (22.11, 12, 17; 23.7, 8, 11, 13, 25, 27; 24.9, 10). The high point comes when Balaam learns the unchangeable truth that it is “good in the Lord’s eyes to bless Israel” (24.1).

God’s covenant with Abraham contains elements that hint at royal connections in Abraham’s promised seed. These are then revealed more clearly in this parashah. This can be seen by comparing Genesis 27.29 and its later amplification in Genesis 49.8-12 with statements explicitly tied to Israel’s king in Parashat Balak.

“Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be every one who curses you, and blessed be every one who blesses you!” (Genesis 27.29)

“Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as a lioness; who dares rouse him up?” (Genesis 49.9)

“Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. . . . He couched, he lay down like a lion, and like a lioness; who will rouse him up? Blessed be every one who blesses you, and cursed be every one who curses you.” (Numbers 24.7, 9)

How does Parashat Balak tie the blessings (and curses) of the Abrahamic covenant specifically to the Messiah?

The Messiah in the Parashah

The number three carries a special meaning in this parashah. In chapter 22 Balaam tries three times to resist God’s will, while his donkey has better spiritual discernment; it is on the third time that his eyes are opened to see the supernatural Messenger of the Lord (Numbers 22.31; 24.4, 15). Later Balak tries three times to have Balaam curse Israel; it is on the third of these that Balaam’s eyes are opened to see things he had not seen before (22.31; 24.17).

For a number of reasons, it is clear that the third oracle is the culmination of the story of Balak and Balaam. Here the emphasis is on the vision Balaam receives when his eyes are supernaturally opened to see things that would take place in the “Last Days,” namely the coming of the Messiah.

There is a clear connection between the third oracle and Jacob’s blessing of Judah in Genesis 49.

Then Jacob called his sons, and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in days to come.”

Comparison of Numbers 24.7-9, 14, 17 with Genesis 49.1, 9-10

Then Jacob called his sons, and said, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in days to come. . . . Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as a lioness; who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.

(Genesis 49.1, 9-10)

Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God brings him out of Egypt; he has as it were the horns of the wild ox, he shall eat up the nations his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows. He couched, he lay down like a lion, and like a lioness; who will rouse him up? Blessed be every one who blesses you, and cursed be every one who curses you. . . . And now, behold, I am going to my people; come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days. . . . I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth.

(Numbers 24.7-9, 14, 17)

 

These similarities strongly suggest that these passages refer to the same individual, namely the Messiah.

Another reference to the Messiah is found in Numbers 24.8: “God brings him out of Egypt; he has as it were the horns of the wild ox, he shall eat up the nations his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows.”

This verse is almost identical to 23.22, which clearly speaks of Israel. For this reason some, like Rashi, have claimed that 24.8 is also about Israel. However, there is a small but very important difference between the two verses. Where 23.22 has “God brings them out of Egypt,” 24.8 says “God brings him out of Egypt.” Between 23.22 and 24.8 the focus has shifted, because the text has introduced a king in 24.7. Verses 7 and 8 then read, “His [Israel’s] king is exalted above Agag, and his [the king’s] kingdom is exalted. God brings him [the king] out of Egypt; He [God] has as it were the strength of the wild-ox.”

Now Balaam’s eyes are opened, and he sees spiritual realities that he could not see before. In 23.22 he could only see Israel’s exodus from Egypt. In 24.8, he discovers harbingers of the future within Israel’s exodus. Just as God brought Israel out of Egypt, so God will bring Israel’s Messiah out of Egypt. The identification of the “him” in 24.8 with the coming Messiah is confirmed in 24.9, a nearly verbatim quotation of another messianic prophecy (Genesis 49.9): “he bows down, he lies down as a lion, and as a lioness who can stand him up.” (Pesikta Zutra [Midrash Leqah Tov] identifies the figure in Numbers 24.9 as the Messiah: “’He crouched, he lay down like a lion.’ This is Messiah the King.”) It is this king through whom the promises to the patriarchs will be fully realized: “Blessed are those who bless you and cursed are those who curse you.”

[SP]

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Balak is intent on going directly against the promises of God. He uses the same words given to Abraham as a blessing and tries to turn them into a curse of Abraham’s descendants. Balak is in effect trying to destroy God’s plan of salvation by destroying its instrument, the people of Israel. The timing of Balak’s action is also important, as Israel is just about to enter the promised land. The Word of God is at stake! Will God be able to fulfill his promise to bring them into the land or not? This is why God intervenes.

As in other biblical stories, the names of the characters in this story relate to their actions. “Balak” (בלק) means destruction, chaos (Nahum 2.11; Isaiah 24.1). Indeed he can be seen to represent Satan. Similarly the name “Balaam” (בלעם) can mean “to devour a nation,” which he is called to do. It can also mean “without a nation”; we are never told Balaam’s nationality or his roots.

That they come against Israel in the broad meaning of the word, that is, against God’s plan of salvation, is also clear from the way Balak describes Israel in Numbers 22.4-6. Both Pharaoh and Haman wanted Israel to be destroyed for similar reasons (they are too many, too strong).

This is indeed a spiritual war, as Balak brings in Balaam, a spiritual figure. We learn from Revelation 2.14 that Balaam was trying to destroy Israel spiritually when he, “taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality.”

But God himself reminds us here that his words cannot be changed and that he knows everything from the very beginning, since he does not change his mind (unlike man). In a similar way, his grace is forever, as “he does not see iniquity in Israel”(Numbers 23.19-21). This is a strange statement. How can this be true? It is because God is looking into Israel’s future, to the time when the Messiah will rule among them (“the shout of a king is among them”), to the time of their salvation. God sees us in a similar way. Although we are sinners, he can look at us and say that he sees no sin, because he sees our glory and our forgiven state in Messiah the King. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us.” (Ephesians 1.7-8)

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Haftarah: Micah 5.7—6.8

Shabbat Shalom!

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