Parashah Balak 2018 (Balak) Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

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Even those people who are somewhat familiar with the bible have heard of the talking donkey story. They may not know of the spiritual meaning and the protection God provided for his people, which is the true lesson of the story, but they remember something about an ass that talked.

Balak is the king of Moab who hires Balaam, a sorcerer that also seems to know (and is able to hear from) the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to curse the Israelites that are passing through his land. At first Balaam confers with God who tells him not to go because the people are God’s chosen and blessed. Balaam tells the kings representatives, who return with the bad news to the king. The king sends higher ranked people with promises of even more wealth, and Balaam asks God again if it is OK to curse the people.

God tells him to go if he must but warns him it won’t turn out well. Balaam ignores the warning and leaves. On the way his ass turns aside three times from the main road, infuriating Balaam to the point when he gets off and starts to beat the beast. That’s when the ass talks to him and asks why she is being whipped? The truth of the matter then comes out, as God open’s Balaam’s eyes and allows him to see the angel of death with his drawn sword waiting for Balaam to come within reach. If not for the ass turning aside (because she saw the angel at each of the three places) Balaam would have been killed. Realizing his sin he says he will return, but the angel tells him to continue and that he must say whatever God tells him to say.

Balaam gets to the king and tells the king that whatever God tells him to say he must say. The king also ignores this warning and the first time Balaam confers with God he ends us blessing the people. Balak is angry for Balaam doing so, but Balaam reminds the king that he can only say what God tells him to say. Two more times Balak tries to get Balaam to curse the people, and two more times they are blessed. In anger Balak tells Balaam he better run back home before harm comes to him, and Balaam says first he must tell Balak and the other kings there with them what will happen in the future. God gives Balaam a prophetic message about the eventual rule of Israel over Moab and the other countries, then he leaves.

This parashah ends with the people being seduced by Moabite women into worshiping Baal and after a plague is sent to punish the people Pinchus (son of Aaron) spears an Israelite prince and the Moabite woman he was flagrantly showing off in front of Moses, which ends the plague.

It is later, in Numbers 31:16 that we learn the idea of using Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men into bringing a curse on themselves was the brainstorm of Balaam.

You may be aware that for every Parashah reading, there is an additional reading from some other part of the Tanakh. This is called the Haftorah reading. Today’s haftorah is from Micah 5-6:8.  This is what I want to talk about today.

It is supposed this is at the time when Manasseh was ruling as king of Judea. That was one of the most sinful and degraded times throughout the history of Judea. Through Micah God asks what he has done to the people to make them turn so far away from him. He reminds them of all that he has done to save them, to support, protect and nurture them since he brought them out of Egypt.  The haftorah ends with Micah 6:8, considered by the Rabbis to be the most important prophetic utterance in all of scripture:

It has been told thee, O man, what is good: only what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.

Simple, isn’t it? There are 613 commandments in the Torah, and the Christian world believes there are over a thousand commandments in the New Covenant writings. In truth there aren’t any- everything in the New Covenant is from the Old Covenant. Yet, with all the commandments, laws, regulations, ordinances and rules that God has given to all of us we are told that there are only two important commandments: to love God and to love each other (Deut. 6:5, Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:36) and that all God requires of us is to love justice, be merciful and walk humbly with him.

It really is like Moses told the children of Israel when he said these commandments are easy to do (Deut. 30:11.)  Just love God, love each other, be merciful and humbly obey God by doing as he has instructed (this is how I interpret “walk humbly with your God.”)

How many times do we forget all that God has done for us? I include myself in this group and confess I often get angry and frustrated (in the opposite order) when something small and insignificant goes wrong. I forget all that God has provided for me, all that he has done and can continue to do. It seems so silly of me that in spite of his wondrous miracles and blessings I get pissed when I lose Internet connection for a minute.  I misuse God’s name when I curse out the screw that stripped when I was trying to tighten it and I yell at others when they have done nothing wrong because I am having a bad day.

Has anyone ever done this: in the middle of a really bad day stopped to think that it is only because of God’s many blessings in your life that you are even there, alive and able to experience that bad day? I know I haven’t, and I also know that I should. I would think it impossible to continue to feel bad after that realization.

I once wrote a post called “SWISH!” which stands for So What, I‘m Saved, Halleluyah!  I wrote that and felt it for a day or so, then forgot all about it. Oy! Vat a schmendrick!

God has done, is doing and will continue to do wonderful and miraculous things for us. The world isn’t such a great place to be in but God can overcome the world, and those who worship God and try to obey all he has said we should do will be blessed- that is God’s promise (Deut. 28.) So, when things go bad or when we feel tempted by the world and it’s fleshly rewards, we need to SWISH; we need to remember Micah 6:8; we need to remember that as humans we tend to forget what was done for us and revel in our own authority and power (even though we really have neither) turning from God’s ways and thinking we are OK in doing so.

It’s this simple: first we have to repent of our sin. Then we must accept Yeshua as our Messiah so that through him we can receive forgiveness. Then all we need to do to remain in good standing with the Lord is this: love God and people, show mercy, act justly and live humbly.

Parashah Balak (Balak) Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Here is one of the best known biblical tales- the story of Balaam’s talking ass.

We start with Balak, son of the the king of Moab, seeing the Children of Israel on his doorstep having just annihilated both King Og and King Sichon, and taken their lands. Being afraid for his own kingdom, Balak sends envoys to Mesopotamia to find Balaam, a known prophet who’s reputation is that whomever he blesses is blessed, and whomever he curses is cursed.

Balaam is an enigma in the bible- he is obviously a true prophet of Adonai because when asked to come curse a people (at this point he doesn’t know who the “people” are) he sacrifices and asks the guidance of Adonai. Adonai tells him that these people are blessed (indicating God has blessed them), so Balaam cannot curse them. Balaam tells the envoys he cannot go with them, and sends them away (it is important to note that he doesn’t tell them what God told him, just that he cannot go with them.)

Balak figures Balaam is holding out for more money, so sends more important men with a better offer. Once again Balaam asks God, who this time relents to say go if you are called, but say what I tell you. Balaam saddles up his ass and rides with them the very next morning. However, God places an angel in the way where Balaam has to pass a narrow gap, and although Balaam is blind to the angel, the ass is not and steps to the side to avoid the angel. Balaam is peeved at this and strikes the ass. This happens again, and this time Balaam’s foot is crushed against a wall by the ass while trying to avoid the angel. Again, the ass gets a beating. Finally, the angel with sword drawn is directly in the path at a point where there is no way around, so the ass just plops down on the ground. Balaam gets off and beats it, cursing at it. Then two remarkable things happen:  first, the ass talks to Balaam asking why he is beating it these three times. The second remarkable thing is that Balaam answers without skipping a beat, as if having your ass talk to you is an everyday event!

Finally, Balaam sees the angel, confesses his sin to God and says he will return home. At this point God tells him to continue to go, but he must say only what God tells him to say.

Balak is overjoyed to see Balaam, and takes him to a high point where he can see the tribes encamped. Balak says to curse them, but after Balaam sacrifices and gets a word from God, he blesses them as God directs. Balak is upset, and Balaam tells him that he warned Balak’s envoys and Balak that he could only say what Adonai told him to say. Balak is unrelenting, takes Balaam to two other locations to see (stupidly enough) if that would change God’s mind, but each time Balaam blesses even more.  Now Balak is so peeved that he sends Balaam away without pay, but before going God gives Balaam a prophetic word for Balak, as well as the kings of the Midian tribes that were with them regarding their future.

The parashah ends relating how the women of Midian lure the men of Israel into worshiping their gods, and how this sin results in a plague from God. One prince of Israel, from the tribe of Simeon, goes as far as to rebelliously display his Midianite woman right in front of Moses. This so angers Phinehas (Pinchas), Aaron’s, son, that Phinehas grabs a spear and runs it through both of them, pinning them together.

It is interesting to note that even after Balaam is told don’t curse the Israelites, when urged a second time to do so, he again asks God if he can go. God relents to let him go but warns he must say only what God tells him to say; the Talmud explains this apparent change of mind by God as God, having warned him not to go, allows that if he is absolutely determined to go to his destruction, so be it. The Rabbi’s tell us the angel that was placed in Balaam’s path was not a destroying angel, as the story may imply, but an angel of mercy to try to turn him back before it was too late. Later in the Torah we learn that Balaam was the one who gave the idea to the kings of Midian to have their women seduce the men of Israel to sin, and Balaam (finally) got his reward when Israel fought against Midian and he was slain with the sword.

I have to ask myself: What is it with this guy, Balaam? He is clearly a prophet of Adonai because not only does he ask of Adonai, but he is answered by Adonai! And he should know that when God said these people are blessed by Him, that no curse he may give would have any effect, anyway. Also, as I mentioned above, Balaam doesn’t tell the first envoys that God has blessed this people, only that God said Balaam cannot go with them. This didn’t slam the door shut in Balak’s face, as it should have, but left it open a bit, so to speak, so that Balak could send a better offer. It is clear that Balaam, although a prophet of Adonai, from the very beginning wanted to have the rewards offered by Balak.

God knew that Balaam’s intent was to curse the people, and he put the fear of God (literally) into him by sending the angel. God then allowed Balaam to continue to go because God used this human desire to sin and turned it into a way to glorify Himself.

He’s good at things like that.

The lesson Balaam teaches us today is this: anyone can be turned from service to God by the allure of worldly rewards. Anyone. That means you, that means me, that means anyone. It also shows us that God is going to warn us, and try to stop us from hurting ourselves, but if we stubbornly refuse to listen, even if our family donkey is telling us we are doing something stupid, then God will move out of the way as we rush towards destruction.

During our lives God will give us more than enough rope to pull ourselves up, or to hang ourselves. It’s our choice. We need to listen to God, whether He speaks to us directly or through another medium. Often events in our life proclaim God’s will for us, other times it may be events in someone else’s life that we see happen, that warn us of what will happen to us if we do the same things. And then we may just get a direct word from God through the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) that is designed to keep us on the right path.

Shaul warns us against this, as well. In 2 Peter 2, Shaul talks about false prophets and wicked people who sin, and entice others to sin. When we see sin and work with our brother or sister to help them overcome it, we must be careful not to get too close to it, or we, ourselves, may be enticed into it. Just as the men of Israel were enticed by the Midianite women, as Balaam was enticed by the riches offered, and even as Judas was enticed by the offer of silver, we all, every one of us, must be careful not to allow the innate sinfulness within us to be given any leeway.

The best guide we have is the Ruach HaKodesh. We must discipline ourselves to listen to it. Next, we need to make sure we are surrounded by godly people who can encourage and help us. Finally, we must never judge sinners or backsliders harshly, but instead treat them with love and encourage them to do T’Shuvah (repentance) that they may be saved. Again, though, be warned- work with sinners but do not allow yourself to get too close. Even if you never touch a fish, hang around the fish market all day you will stink like old haddock! Sin comes slowly and stealthily, so stay alert. Read your bible, know the signs, and listen to those who are godly and knowledgeable.

Remember: you can learn a lot when you are open to hearing what others say, even if the one talking is an ass.

Parashah Balak Numbers 22:2 – 36

Here we have one of the more celebrated stories of the Bible. I expect most readers know the story: Balak, the king of the Moabites, calls upon Balaam, who is a well-known sorcerer and diviner, to curse the Israelites so as to protect Balak’s kingdom. Balaam, however, is also a prophet of the true God, Adonai, and at first he properly requests of Adonai what he should do. God tells Balaam that the people are His people and blessed, and that he (Balaam) is not to curse them or go with the king’s envoy. This is the first word that God gives to Balaam, but Balak is insistent and sends another envoy to Balaam, promising him even more riches than at first. This time Balaam asks God again, which he really shouldn’t have done since God is the same today, yesterday and tomorrow. If these are God’s people, which God said they were, then they will always be God’s people until God, Himself, says they aren’t (do you hear that, Replacement Theologists?)

So Balaam is told that if he is summoned to the king he can go. Balaam goes, but in his heart he intends to do as the king asks. On the way God sends an angel to keep Balaam from getting to his destination and Balaam is blind to the angel’s intervention. His ass, however, is not and purposefully leaves the road to avoid the angel standing in the way. Balaam, not understanding what is happening, is angry at the beast and beats her. This happens two more times: the second time to move out of the way the ass crushes Balaam’s leg against a stone wall and gets beaten, and the third time because the angel is in such a narrow place there is no way to go around, the ass just drops to the ground and refuses to move. This time as Balaam starts to beat the animal with his staff, she looks up at him and speaks to him, asking why he was treating her so badly.

Remarkably, Balaam seems to take this miraculous event in stride and, maybe because he was so angry he doesn’t even realize he is talking with his ass, he simply answers the ass back. The ass is quite well spoken, and points out to Balaam that she has been his ride for many years and never before was so obstinate, and he cools down enough to realize she is right. Just as this happens God allows Balaam to see what the ass has been seeing- an angel with drawn sword standing just out of reach, ready to kill him. The angel told Balaam that he knew Balaam was going to do what he had been told not to do, and if it hadn’t been for the animal moving out of the way these three times, Balaam would already be dead and the ass would be alive.

Balaam confesses his sin and is ready to return, when the angel tells him to continue but say only what God tells him to say, resulting in some of the most beautiful blessings and poetry of the entire Bible. In fact, one of the blessings is sung every Shabbat when we sing the Mah Tovu.

After blessing Israel three times, in accordance with what God tells Balaam to say, Balak is understandably upset with Balaam, doesn’t pay him a red penny ( or silver shekel, as the case may be) and sends him back to his own home. Before he goes, however, Balaam has a prophecy of destruction for each of the different kings gathered there with Balak.

Balaam was a very important man, revered, feared and sought after. He was a bit of a conundrum, too, in that although he is generally renown within the Rabbinical circles as an evil man, he knew God, was able to talk with God, and was used by God. He was not totally a pagan, yet he worked with pagans and performed pagan rituals.

I liken him to many people today who think they can pick and choose what they want, and think God will just go along with them. Buffet Believers, I call them; they are willing to enthusiastically worship God by obeying those laws and regulations that please them, but if there is something they don’t like, well, that particular requirement isn’t needed. It is only for men, or for women, or for Jews, or is outdated and no longer valid, or maybe it isn’t really a sin, at least it shouldn’t be, yadda-yadda-yadda. In other words, they love what they love and what they don’t want to do, isn’t required. Buffet Believers- take what you like, leave what you don’t.

Sorry to bust your bubble, but everything on God’s table is good for you: you don’t need to worry about there being any gluten-free foods, there ain’t no substitute sugar or decaf coffee; it is all real, it is all good for you, and it is all required.

Balaam though he could fool God, and he almost lost his life trying to. There are many like this throughout the Bible. In Jeremiah and Ezekiel God, in visions, shows these prophets important men in secret rooms doing sinful things and thinking that God doesn’t know about it. God knows: believe me, He knows. So when Balaam’s ass saw the angel and turned aside, did Balaam think this strange? After all, the ass was correct when she said she had never done anything like this before, so why didn’t Balaam stop and think about what is happening? How often do each of us, in the midst of doing something we are (pardon the expression) hell-bent on getting done, stubbornly refuse to see what is happening around and to us while we are rushing forward to our goal? Balaam was thinking only of the riches he was to receive, and as such was blind to not just the angel of God, but even to the actions of his trusted and life-long friend who was actually saving his life!

Have you an experience that is similar? Have you ever found yourself to be so stubbornly obsessed by something you want, even though in your heart you know it may not be right, that you rush headlong into a brick wall, all the time cursing and hurting those who love you and are trying to stop you from hurting yourself?

I have. If you think you haven’t, well, if you haven’t that is great. But I think you are fooling yourself; it is almost a basic aspect of human nature that we sometimes (oftentimes?) do that which is bad for us, and I’ll bet that most everyone reading this right now can say they have done something like what Balaam did.

I believe that God is in charge of everything and in control of everything, but that doesn’t mean He does control everything. Sometimes He lets us do our own thing, and sometimes He intervenes. If you are finding that your friends, family, workmates, anyone is “in your way” and trying to stop you from doing something you really want to, maybe, just maybe, you should stop for a second and think about it. Maybe you are rushing headlong into something that is not good for you but you can’t see the angel in the road ahead of you. Maybe you should take a short break: smoking lamp is lit so light ’em if you got ’em, and rethink what you want to accomplish. You may be on the right path; but, if there are people that you have known and trusted and these people are leading you off the path you are on, you need to stop dead in your tracks and listen to them.

You should always be willing to listen to others because you never know who God will use to help you.

Even if the one you are listening to is an ass.