The Israelites had just defeated Og and Sihon and were encamped outside the border of Moab. The king, Balak, has emissaries go to Bilyam (that is the correct pronunciation of his name), a sorcerer of renown, asking that he come and curse the Israelites so that they will not be able to defeat Balak’s armies. Bilyam, who is a sorcerer and user of divination (both of these considered sinful by Adonai) sacrifices and calls on Adonai for guidance. And Adonai answers him! He tells him not to go, and Bilyam obeys, sending the emissaries back to Balak.
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This isn’t acceptable to Balak, who sends more important men with promises of greater reward. Bilyam tells this second group of emissaries (Numbers 22:18):
And Bilyam answered and said unto the servants of Balak: “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord, my God, to do anything, small or great.”
However, after saying he can’t go against God, for some reason he again asks God if he can go, and God says if he is called then he can go. On the way, God sends an angel to prevent Bilyam from going, and although Bilyam doesn’t see the angel, his donkey does. The donkey avoids the angel no less than three times, the third time (with no way to pass) the donkey stopped and dropped to its knees. As Bilyam beats it with a stick, the donkey is given the power of speech by God and talks to Bilyam. Then God allows Bilyam to see the angel, sword drawn and ready to kill, and Bilyam asks forgiveness for going and says he will return.
But God has a better plan and tells Bilyam to go, ordering him to say only what God gives him to say. Bilyam arrives, and three times instead of cursing the people, he blesses them. This infuriates Balak, who sends Bilyam back without pay.
The parashah ends with the Israelites being seduced into sin by the Moabite women, and in the midst of a plague sent by Adonai to punish them, Pincus, the son of Aaron, stays the plague by killing an Israelite and Moabite woman who were flaunting their sinful relationship right in front of Moses.
Later in the Bible, we learn that this seduction (which was designed to make the people sin and have God destroy them) was the brainchild of Bilyam!
There is just so much in here to work with. However, I am going to do something different than I usually do with this parashah, and talk about Bilyam’s seemingly schizophrenic personality.
Let’s first look at something Jeremiah will say hundreds of years from this time, in Jeremiah 17:9:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceeding weak- who can know it?
Bilyam is a study in contradiction. He comes from Mesopotamia, the same place where Abraham came from, and we know that Bilyam knows of God because (as we saw above) he refers to God as “the Lord, my God.” This makes him a “Believer”, yet he is also a known sorcerer and diviner, which God strictly forbade his people to perform.
Like Bilyam, our desires, our thoughts, and our actions are not always completely in accordance with our stated beliefs. We may be cruel to our loved ones, yet gentle and compassionate to a pet. We may worship every Shabbat and be “Born Again”, but we sin during the week and figure it will be OK because we will ask for forgiveness at services later that week.
Human beings are not perfect (oh- really? What a surprise!) and we will often do that which we don’t really want to do, and more often than not, not do what we want to do. Hmmm….doesn’t that sound like someone else you know? Maybe that nice Jewish tent-maker from Tarsus? (Romans 7:18.)
Bilyam did as God said when he first asked to go with the king’s men by refusing to go. But the second time they came back Bilyam was told that if the men call him, he can go but speak only what God tells him to say. Yet, after giving Bilyam the OK to go, God sends the angel to stop him, even if it had to kill him.
Why did God say go if he didn’t want him to go?
The Talmud says that audacity may prevail even before God. It states that Bilyam’s insistence to go wrested from God his consent to go, but God also warned him of the consequences, saying that he finds no pleasure in the destruction of sinners, but if he (Bilyam) is bound to go, then go. In that case, it makes sense: God already said not to go, but Bilyam insisted that he really wanted to go, so God said, essentially, “If you are determined to go, then go but remember that I already told you not to go and when I say something, I mean it!”
With all due respect to the Talmud, I have a different idea. I believe that the second time Bilyam asked if he could go, knowing that God already told him these people cannot be cursed because they are blessed, God said that if Bilyam was being summoned by the king by royal order, then he can go.
In other words, if Balak was giving a royal command that Bilyam must go to him, then God would give permission to go only so that Bilyam does not disobey a royal order. However, this second group was not ordering him to go, they were still just asking. There was no royal command to appear, so when Bilyam went, he was really going because he wanted the reward and intended to do as Balak asked, going against God’s commandment not to curse the people. That is why God sent the angel to stop him.
We all have the potential to be obedient and disobedient, based solely on our innate selfishness and iniquity. This is something that must be conquered, but to conquer it we must first take possession of it. What I mean is that we must recognize our own natural sinfulness; when we recognize what we are (know thyself?) then we can recognize what we are doing. How many people do you know that do something terrible without really realizing what they are doing? They speak cruelly to others, they act without compassion, or they steal and cheat but excuse it away. They do these things, and many times think they are really a nice person.
Since I have been saved by Messiah Yeshua, I say: “I used to be a sinner that rationalized my sins; now I am a sinner who regrets my sins.”
This confession of mine demonstrates what I am talking about- we were sinners who were saved when our sins were forgiven, but we are still sinners!! Being forgiven for our sins means being forgiven for the ones we have performed, not for anything that comes after. We are required to repent and ask forgiveness for every single sin we commit throughout our lifetime. There is no automatic forgiveness clause in the “Sinner’s Prayer.”
The lesson to learn from this parashah is that we are all sinners at heart, and only when we can own up to our own iniquity, realize that it is always there, and always will be there whether we are “saved” or not, then we will better be able to recognize when we do sin. We will also know when we want to sin and thereby work (with God’s help through his Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit) to overcome that sin.
One sin at a time. We can never be sinless, but we can always sin less; pray for forgiveness, ask for help in recognizing sin before you do it, and settle for one less sin each day.
That is my daily prayer, and I think it is a good one.
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Tonight begins the Shabbat, so Shabbat Shalom!
Until next time, L’hitraot and Baruch HaShem!