Parashat Balak – Erev Shabbat 25 June 2021
Week of 20-26 June 2021
Torah portion: Numbers 22:2-25:9 Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8
Theme: LORD, the God of the Israelites
Fox’s theoretical structure of the Book of Numbers places the present parashah in the second part:The Rebellious Folk: Narratives of Challenge, section C: Encountering the Other (c.22-24) and Final Rebellion: Apostasy (c.25). The significance of names, numbers (counting) and of being in the wilderness continue in this parashah.The name of Balak, King of Moab, sounds like the word to destroy while Bil’aam, the sorcerer, suggests swallower (destroying). Beor, Bil’aam’s father’s name, also suggests destroying. So we see two camps – that of the destroyers and that of the Israelites, separated and powerful with YHWH, their God as the one who blesses and does not allow the sorcerer to curse them.
To further summarise this parashah, I suggest a division of five scenarios. 1) Balak sends two sets of messengers to engage Bil’aam’s powers. 2) After the second time, Bil’aam accompanies the messengers on his she-ass. The she-ass sees a vision of a messenger from God which Bil’aam does not see. Bil’aam grows angry and beats the ass because she is hindering his journey to Balak and causing him discomfort. The she-ass speaks to Bil’aam who then sees the messenger and is willing to return home. 3) Bil‘aam reaches Balak who takes him to three vantage points to look at the numerous and powerful Israelites in order to curse them more effectively. Each time (3 times) the curse turns out to be a blessing from YHWH, the God of the Israelites. God’s original blessing cannot be reversed. 4) Bil’aam is ready to return to his own home but before he goes he utters a fourth oracle for Balak as a final warning concerning the impenetrable power of God surrounding the Israelites: the same power that controlled Bil’aam to bless rather than curse the Israelites. 5) In the camp of the Israelites (in stark contrast to what Balak fears) the wilderness experience of dissatisfaction, complaints and rebellion continues: Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor (25:3a). Israel, blessed by YHWH, is still unfaithful to the Lord their God.
As an example of the faithfulness of God we look at Bil’aam’s first oracle (23:7-10). In this he describes how Balak asked him to curse Yaakov. Bil’aam asks how it was possible to curse what God has not cursed and how destroy from the face of the earth what YHWH loves, guides and protects. As Bil’aam stands on the heights of Baal (the place of worship of Baal) he sees Yaakov: a people apart but secure – separated from other nations. Deuteronomy (33:28-29) describes how Israel has dwelt securely and is more fortunate than other nations because it is victorious in the Lord: your enemies fawn upon you as you stride upon the heights and You are a people sacred to the Lord your God (Dt 7:6-11).Then Bil’aam speaks about measuring/counting the dust of Yaakov. We recall what God said to Abram in Gn 13:16 and we remember that numbering or counting a people is to have power over them. Balak and no other nation will have power over Yaakov as long as YHWH is their God, their shield and protector.
Twice Bil’aam compares the Israelites to a lion the king of the beasts (23:24; 24:9). Genesis (49:9) describes Israel’s blessing for his son Judah: he crouches like a lion recumbent, the king of the beasts – who would dare rouse him? Out of Judah, God’s people will survive through the line of King David and the Messiah.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1) What are your experiences of seeming curses turning into blessings because you have obeyed and trusted the LORD our God?
Bibliography: Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses (New York: 1997); African Bible (Nairobi: 2004).
This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Bernadette Teresa Chellew, South Africa, Bat Kol Alumna: 2008