alternate textThe name of this week’s Torah portion (Num 22:2-25:9) is “Balak” and the question is often asked why a Torah portion is named after a wicked person. In total there are six Torah portions named after people (Noach, Sarah, Yetro, Korach, Balak and Pinchas) – five of these were righteous ones belonging to the people of Yahweh but Balak was the evil king of Moab who schemed to curse the Yisraelites in the desert. Why have the ancient rabbis decided to name a Torah portion after a person like this? The answer to this question will come to the surface more and more as we dig deeper into this portion of Scripture. This week’s portion is about Balak, the king of Moab (or Moáv) who was terrified about the coming of the Yisraelites into his country and therefore pleads with Balaam (or Bilám) to curse the people of Yisrael. Balaam came from some country in the East and is never specifically called a prophet – in Joshua 13 he is called a “diviner” (Afrikaans: “waarsêer”) – so he seems to have been someone from a pagan background with the ability to “see” the future. Throughout this portion he is often called the man whose eyes are opened. However, he is warned by Yahweh not to curse the Yisraelites. When he decides to go anyway, he is confronted by his own donkey, but he still fails to realize that Yahweh, the Elohim of the Yisraelites, is very serious about not allowing anyone to curse the people He had previously decided to bless. In the end, Balaam finds himself blessing the Yisraelites instead of cursing them and he even prophesy’s about the coming of Messiah: “I see Him, but not now; I observe Him, but not near. A Star shall come out of Yaakov, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Yisrael, and shall smite the corners of Moav, and shall destroy all the sons of Shet” (Num 24:17). The Torah portion concludes with a very sad incident where a great number of the Yisraelites become involved with the practices of Baal-Peor, which involved perverse sexual acts with Moabite women (according to certain sources Baal-Peor was also linked to public displays of human excrement, in other words, offering to idols that which – in our time – is normally disposed of in a toilet). Yahweh sent a plague among the people and 24000 were killed, until Pinchas the priest intervened and killed two of the key people involved.

The entire portion is characterized by the element of surprise and the unexpected:

• Balaam, a seer or diviner coming from a pagan background, is used by Yahweh the Elohim of Yisrael and he even refers to Him as “Yahweh my Elohim” (22:18)
• A donkey speaks and has the ability to see into the realm of the spiritual and the unseen.
• Balaam, who is repeatedly called the one whose eyes are opened, cannot see what a simple donkey can see
• What was intended to be a curse, turns out to be a blessing – combined with a prophesy about the coming Messiah
• Having seen the powerful hand and mighty acts of Yahweh in the wilderness over a period of 40 years, the people of Yisrael suddenly turn their backs upon Yahweh and become involved in the most sinful acts thinkable.
• A priest, who is normally excused from military service and the handling of weapons, grabs a spear and kills a man and a woman involved in sinful practices, dealing with sin in a way contrary to what is expected from a priest. In the process, however, he becomes a hero and Ps 106:31 says this act “was reckoned to him for righteousness to all generations forever”.

In our own lives things do not always turn out the way we have expected. One moment we think that we know how things work and we know what to expect. Just to be surprised the very next moment when something completely unexpected happens. Many people approach Scriptures and belief with an attitude of: I know exactly how it works and if it works like this sometimes, it will surely work like this always. These people forget that Yahweh is a living and sovereign Elohim dealing with living situations and living people. He does not change from situation to situation, but his wisdom is superior to ours and his perspective is much wider and much deeper than ours. It might just be that He acts in a way that we do not expect – with very good reason! In such cases we should not accuse Him of breaking his own rules or being divided within Himself. Rather, we should be glad that He acts according to his superior knowledge and his extreme righteousness and his unimaginable kindness, and not according to our own limited understanding and abilities.

What is quite interesting about this week’s Torah portion, is that the names Yisrael and Yaakov are often used in a way as if they are two different people or two different nations:

Num 23:7 Balak the sovereign of Moav has brought me from Aram, from the mountains of the east. ‘Come, curse Yaakov for me, and come, rage at Yisrael!’
Num 23:10 Who shall count the dust of Yaakov, and the number of one-fourth of Yisrael? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!
Num 23:21 He has not looked upon wickedness in Yaakov, nor has He seen trouble in Yisrael. Yahweh his Elohim is with him, and the shout of a Sovereign is in him.
Num 23:23 For there is no sorcery against Yaakov, nor is there any divination against Yisrael. Now it is said to Yaakov and to Yisrael, ‘What has El done!’ (see also: 24:5 and 24:17).

Why would this be the case? In some of the old commentaries this reference to both Yaakov and Yisrael in “Parashah Balak” is attributed to the meaning of the two names (Yaakov = grabbing by the heel; Yisrael = struggling with, and prevailing against Elohim). Yaakov and Yisrael are not two different people, but two different names for the same person. It represents two different dimensions in the lives of those who belong to Yahweh. On the one hand, the dimension of grabbing others by the heel and being entangled with the “lowly” and “fleshly” aspects of this world. And on the other hand, the dimension of struggling with Elohim and (from time to time) tasting the victory and enjoying the experience of prevailing in the presence of the Almighty. It is not a question of which dimension is right and which is wrong. Or a question of which is best and which is worst. No, both are realities that cannot be sidestepped if one wishes to be part of the people of Yahweh. There are times when the Yaakov existence take the upper hand – times of physical hardship and conflict – times when we realize that man is born to toil (or: “for trouble”, as is written in Job 5:7). And then there are times when the Yisrael existence take the upper hand – times when we manage to sense the shalom and the calmness and the victory of Yahweh within the circumstances surrounding us – almost as if we have come to a place where we find ourselves in the very presence of Yahweh. The point is: Yahweh can do the unexpected and transform our Yaakov experience to a Yisrael experience in next to no time!

So why was this week’s Torah Portion named after the wicked person Balak? Balak was a Moavite, in fact the king of Moav. One of the most well known Moavites or Moabites in Scriptures was a woman by the name of Ruth. It is said in the Talmud that Ruth was a direct descendant of Eglon, the son of Balak. Ruth made the decision to join the people of Yisrael and she subsequently became the great grandmother of David, the forefather and forerunner of the Messiah. Yahweh can surely do the unexpected. He can use a Moavite – someone like Ruth, even someone like Balak, to introduce this world to some of the things about Himself – things that they (we!) would otherwise not have known. Yahweh often follows a route and a way of doing that no one would have predicted and no one would have expected, to reveal Himself and to reveal something of his plan for this world. The Messiah Himself, and what He came to do (and the way in which He did those things) demonstrated that Yahweh will keep on doing the unexpected and that the people of this world will keep on discovering that their dreams and their perceptions and their religious ideas were not exactly what the Almighty had in mind. We need to make room in our own lives for Yahweh’s unique and unexpected way of acting on our behalf and on behalf of this world. If necessary, we need to get rid of our fixed ideas and preconceived thought patterns. To believe in Yahweh, per definition, means to allow Him to be Yahweh, the sovereign one. It means we should, at all times, allow Him to surprise us and do unexpected things, for “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, nor have entered into the heart of man what Elohim has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9).

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