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Bil'am's Sneak Attack

Parsha Balaq - Bemidbar/Numbers 22:2 - 25:9

YAHUAH is the Protector of Yisrael. He guards His people against all evil, harm, and danger, and we see a good example of His protection in this week’s Torah portion, Parsha Balaq.

However, if YAHUAH does guard His people, then why do we sometimes fall victim to evil attacks? The answer to this also lies in this week's Torah portion.

The King's Plan

In Parsha Balaq, Balaq (Balak), the king of Moab, hires Bil’am, a gentile “prophet”, to curse Yisrael. Balaq saw how Yisrael defeated Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan, and now that Yisrael was nearing them, he was afraid Yisrael would wipe them out as well.

Balaq didn’t try a physical battle because he knew YAHUAH fought for Yisrael, and he was no match for YAHUAH.

So, instead, he tried a spiritual battle. Balaq himself was a sorcerer, and Bil’am was renown for his expertise in spirituality. Whoever Bil’am blessed was blessed, and whoever he cursed was cursed. If Bil’am cursed Yisrael, then perhaps they would be weakened enough for Balaq’s sorcery and magic to work and destroy Yisrael.

But first they had to be cursed...and that was not as easy as Balaq thought it would be.

As we read through the parsha, we see that every time Bil’am tried to curse Yisrael, a blessing came out instead! He was not allowed to curse the people of YAHUAH!

Now, it may seem then, that maybe Bil’am wasn’t such a bad guy. After all, he only spoke what YAHUAH said, which were blessings.

But as we’ll see, Bil'am wasn’t all he cracked up to be.

Curses to Blessings

In Debarim 23:5, it’s written:

“But יהוה your Elohim refused to listen to Bilʽam, and יהוה your Elohim turned the curse into a blessing for you, because יהוה your Elohim loves you.” (Deb/Deut. 23:5)

Bil’am set out to curse Yisrael, but YAHUAH changed them to blessings. So, if we look at the three blessings Bil’am uttered and flip them around, then we see what curse Bil’am really tried to speak. Those curses, if they had worked, would have weakened Yisrael and made them susceptible to defeat.

So, let’s take a look…

Blessing #1:

Bem/Num. 23:7-10 And he took up his proverb and said, “Balaq the sovereign of Mo’ab has brought me from Aram, from the mountains of the east. ‘Come, curse Yaʽaqob for me, and come, rage at Yisra’el!’

(8) “How do I curse whom El has not cursed? And how do I rage at whom יהוה has not raged?

(9) “For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I observe him. Look, a people dwelling alone, not reckoning itself among the nations.

(10) “Who shall count the dust of Yaʽaqob, and the number of one-fourth of Yisra’el? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!”

In this first blessing, Bil’am speaks of Yisrael’s set-apartness: “a people dwelling alone, not reckoning itself among the nations.” Yisrael remained separate and set-apart. Though they may have had some interactions with the people around them, it was limited to the extent that they were still clearly a separate, distinct people.

In other words, Yisrael didn’t assimilate. They didn’t try to be like everyone else, to do the things they did or live as they lived. They were set-apart.

Because of this, they were blessed to have a multitude of descendants, and no one could curse or rage against them to diminish them.

If this was the blessing, what would the curse have been?

The opposite - to make Yisrael intermix with the nations so they would perish rather than flourish, and be susceptible to curse and rage from the nations.

Blessing #2:

Bem/Num. 23:18-24 And he took up his proverb and said, “Rise up, Balaq, and hear! Listen to me, son of Tsippor!

(19) “El is not a man, to lie; nor a son of man, to repent! Has He said, and would He not do it; or spoken, and would not confirm it?

(20) “See, I have received, to bless. And He has blessed, and I do not reverse it.

(21) “He has not looked upon wickedness in Yaʽaqob, nor has He seen trouble in Yisra’el. יהוה his Elohim is with him, and the shout of a Sovereign is in him.

(22) “El who brought them out of Mitsrayim, is for them like the horns of a wild ox.

(23) “For there is no sorcery against Yaʽaqob, nor is there any divination against Yisra’el. Now it is said to Yaʽaqob and to Yisra’el, ‘What has El done!’

(24) “Look, a people rises like a lioness, and lifts itself up like a lion; it lies not down until it devours the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain.”

In this blessing, Yisrael’s righteousness is emphasized. YAHUAH doesn’t see wickedness or trouble among His people. Though they may not be perfect, YAH looks upon them favorably because they accepted His Torah and strive to keep it (even though they may stumble). Therefore, YAHUAH is with them as a strong Sovereign, and no sorcery or divination can affect them.

If this is the blessing, then the curse - the opposite - would have been to cause Yisrael to do wickedness and evil, to transgress His Torah. Then, YAH's Presence would have left them, and the sorcery of Balaq would have defeated them.

Blessing #3:

Bem/Num. 24:5-9 “How good are your tents, O Yaʽaqob, your dwellings, O Yisra’el!

(6) “Like wadis that stretch out, like gardens by a river, like aloes planted by יהוה, like cedars beside waters.

(7) “He makes water flow from his buckets, and his seed is in many waters. His sovereign is higher than Agag, and his reign is exalted.

(8) “El who brought him out of Mitsrayim is for them like the horns of a wild ox; he devours nations, his enemies; and he breaks their bones, and with his arrows he smites.

(9) “He bowed down, he lay down like a lion. And, like a lion, who would rouse him? Blessed is he who blesses you, and cursed is he who curses you.”

Here Yisrael’s peacefulness is spoken about. Bil’am saw Yisrael encamped according to their tribes, peaceably dwelling among one another without strife or discord. They lived the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore, Elohim was with them to defeat all their enemies.

The opposite curse would have been to stir up strife, discord, and brotherly hatred among Yisrael so that YAHUAH would no longer fight for them.

Yisrael was blessed three times because they were set-apart, righteous, and peaceable with one another. These are what kept them attached to YAHUAH, and YAHUAH attached to them. Therefore, YAHUAH would guard them and bless them. No curses would prevail against them, and hence, Bil’am’s mission failed. All his curses turned to blessings.

A New Tactic

But then here comes chapter 25:

Bem/Num. 25:1-3 And Yisra’el dwelt in Shittim, and the people began to whore with the daughters of Mo’ab,

(2) and they invited the people to the slaughterings of their mighty ones, and the people ate and bowed down to their mighty ones.

(3) Thus Yisra’el was joined to Baʽal Peʽor, and the displeasure of יהוה burned against Yisra’ĕl.

Yisrael sinned and a plague broke out among them killing 24,000 people (vs. 9).

What in the world happened?

Now, surely, we’ve seen Yisrael sin before, but after Bil’am spoke those three blessings esteeming Yisrael, how could they have fallen to such acts?

To get the whole picture, we have to jump ahead a couple of parshiyot. In Bemidbar 31, Yisrael battles against Midyan:

Bem/Num. 31:1-2 And יהוה spoke to Mosheh, saying,

(2) “Take vengeance for the children of Yisra’el on the Midyanites. After that you are to be gathered to your people.”

Vengeance? For what exactly?

Bem/Num. 31:8 And they slew the sovereigns of Midyan with the rest of those who were pierced: Ewi, and Reqem, and Tsur, and Hur, and Reba, the five sovereigns of Midyan. And they slew Bilʽam son of Beʽor with the sword.

Why did they slay Bil’am with the sword? Didn’t he only speak blessings?

Bem/Num. 31:15-16 And Mosheh said to them, “Have you kept all the women alive?

(16) “Look, they are the ones who caused the children of Yisra’el, through the word of Bilʽam, to trespass against יהוה in the matter of Peʽor, and there was a plague among the congregation of יהוה.

And there we have it! Evidence of Bil’am’s wickedness!

Three times Bil’am tried to curse Yisrael, but he couldn’t. So, what did he do?

He changed tactics.

Bil'am knew that as long as Yisrael was set-apart, righteous, and loving one another, YAHUAH would not allow any harm to come to them.

But if they sinned…then YAHUAH Himself would punish them.

Bil’am knew this, so he counseled Midyan on how to defeat Yisrael. Cursing and sorcery wouldn’t work. Instead, entice them to sin and bring on their own distress.

The women of Midyan enticed the Yisraelites and caused them to sin before Elohim. Yisrael whored with the Midyanite women and bowed down to their idols.

Thus, they intermixed with the gentiles, not remaining set-apart, and they committed idolatry and sexual immorality, transgressing the Torah and bringing wickedness into the camp.

When the innocent of Yisrael saw the wrongdoers among them, strife and discord broke out. Indeed, Moshe told the judges to stand against their idolatrous brothers and slay them. Their peace and love for one another was gone.

Bil’am told the Midyanites to entice Yisrael to sin, and their sin destroyed their set-apartness, their righteousness, and their love for one another.

What Bil’am’s curses couldn’t do, their own sin did.

And when they sinned, YAHUAH Himself punished them.

Be On Guard!

This is an important lesson for us.

Surely, when we are doing right in the eyes of YAHUAH, no harm can come to us. No curse, sorcery, witchcraft, or divination will have any effect.

But be on guard because the adversary may try another tactic - to entice us to sin!

When we sin, then we are open to all sorts of troubles because YAHUAH Himself will punish us - He will allow the destroyer into our lives.

Be aware!

The temptation to sin will often come to affect the three areas mentioned above:

  • the adversary will try to keep us from being set-apart - enticing us to do and live as the peoples around us;

  • he will try to keep us from being righteous - to disobey YAH’s commands, not doing what we know is right;

  • and he will try to keep us from being at peace with one another - causing strife, dissension, and discord - baseless hatred.

So be on guard, and beware of Bil’am’s sneak attack!

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