In this week’s parasha we meet the pagan prophet Bil’am, hired by Balak, king of Moab, to come and curse Israel, because Balak has heard concerning Bil’am, “He whom you bless is blessed and whoever you curse is cursed.” But Bil’am warns Balak’s messengers who come to hire him that no matter how much they pay him, he can only say what Adonai puts in his mouth.
On the way to the rendezvous with Balak, Bil’am’s donkey stops in its tracks three times, finally pressing Bil’am’s leg against the wall of a vineyard. When Bil’am beats the donkey, God “opens the donkey’s mouth” (gives her the power of speech), in a rather comical interchange that results in Bil’am recognizing that the Angel of Adonai is barring his way. Why this strange story? In part it is a set-up for the grand prophecies that are to follow, mapping out the destiny and majesty of God’s chosen nation. Torah is telling us that the God who could speak truth through the mouth of a donkey, can also speak true prophecy about his chosen people through the mouth of a pagan prophet.
Bil’am blesses Israel four times:
FIRST BLESSING: How am I to curse those whom God has not cursed? How am I to denounce those whom Adonai has not denounced? From the top of the rocks I see them, from the hills I behold them yes, a people that will dwell alone and not think itself one of the nations. Who has counted the dust of Ya’akov or numbered the ashes of Israel? May I die as the righteous die! May my end be like theirs! (Num 23:8–10)
Here we see Israel as a unique people who shall “not think itself one of the nations,” a blessed people with a holy destiny. A people whom God has not cursed, but blessed. Historically, how have the Jews stood out as a differentiated people?
SECOND BLESSING: No one has seen guilt in Ya’akov, or perceived perversity in Israel; Adonai their God is with them and acclaimed as king among them. God, who brought them out of Egypt, gives them the strength of a wild ox; thus one can’t put a spell on Ya’akov, no magic will work against Israel. It can now be said of Ya’akov and Israel, “What is this that God has done?!” Here is a people rising up like a lioness; like a lion he rears himself up – he will not lie down till he eats up the prey and drinks the blood of the slain. (Num 23:21–24)
Here we see Israel as the heirs to God’s promises, a people strengthened by God, mighty and formidable, protected from occult powers. How has demonic power been unleashed on this people throughout our history?
THIRD BLESSING: How lovely are your tents, Ya’akov; your encampments, Israel! They spread out like valleys, like gardens by the riverside, like succulent aloes planted by Adonai, like cedar trees next to the water. Water will flow from their branches, their seed will have water aplenty. Their king will be higher than Agag and his kingdom lifted high. God, who brought them out of Egypt, gives them the strength of a wild ox. They will devour the nations opposing them, break their bones, pierce them with their arrows. When they lie down they crouch like a lion, or like a lioness – who dares to rouse it? Blessed be all who bless you! Cursed be all who curse you! (Num 24:5–9)
Here again, Israel is mighty, strong, formidable against its foes. But in addition, it is fruitful, blessed, and a blessing to all who bless them, while all who seek to curse them will themselves be cursed. How has Israel been a blessing to the world, and curse to those who would curse them?
FOURTH BLESSING: I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not soon – a star will step forth from Ya’akov, a scepter will arise from Israel, to crush the corners of Mo’av and destroy all descendants of Shet. His enemies will be his possessions – Edom and Se’ir, possessions. Israel will do valiantly. (Num 24:17–18)
Here we see the one who fulfills God’s purposes for Israel – the Messiah. He will be Israel’s protector and vindicator against her enemies. The nations that plundered Israel will themselves be plundered, and Israel protected by the might of God and the saving work of his Messiah. In what ways has the church from among the nations lost touch with how the Messiah remains Israel’s protector and warrior King?
Our haftarah, Micah 5:6–6:8, adds some not-to-be-missed color as we read of “the remnant of Jacob,” being victor over her enemies like a lion one dares not rouse up. We read of the purification of the descendants of Jacob from all their idolatry and spiritual corruption. We read a synopsis of the saving acts of God in bringing Israel out of Egypt, and of his determination to bless Israel despite her own stumblings, and in the end, what Adonai requires of us is to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.
And just a few verses before this, we read of the one who brings all this blessing, the Messiah, of whom it is written “But you, Beit-Lechem near Efrat, so small among the clans of Y’hudah, out of you will come forth to me the future ruler of Israel, whose origins are far in the past, back in ancient times” (Mic 5:1 ). This one, the one called Beth-Lachmi, the Bethlehemite, in our Shabbat prayer “L’cha Dodi” is the one through whom these culminating blessings come over Israel.
Yeshua is the ultimate guarantor that the people of Israel, and with them, the church from among the nations, will at the end of all things, be blessed and not cursed.
Even a donkey knows that! Now you do too!
All Scripture citations are from Complete Jewish Bible (CJB).
- Rabbi Stuart Dauermann