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Balak | Bilam's Final Prophecy

Rav Michael Hattin
21.09.2014

 

INTRODUCTION

 

As The Book of Bemidbar begins to wind down, the people of Israel draw closer to their destination.  At the wilderness of Zin, the inhospitable badlands located in the Negev region, Miriam passed on and the people thirsted for water.  There, Moshe and Aharon struck the rock and they too were condemned to perish.  When the people reached the Mount of Hor soon thereafter,  Aharon was thus bidden to ascend to its summit and there he died, leaving Moshe to continue as leader alone.  Continuing to journey from the place of Aharon's demise, the people were attacked by the King of Arad, but prevailed against him.  They then circled around the southern shores of the Dead Sea, as they approached the land of Canaan from the east.  Skirting the territory of the hostile Edomites and inhospitable Moavites, Israel soon encountered the antagonistic Sichon King of the Amorites, who engaged them at Edre'i.  Israel miraculously triumphed against this regional superpower, and then went on to defeat the even more intimidating Og King of Bashan.  Suddenly and unexpectedly, Israel found itself in possession of a great swath of territory on the eastern side of the Jordan River, including lands considered by Balak the King of Moav to have constituted his people's unassailable patrimony.

 

"Balak son of Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorite.  Moav greatly feared the people for they were numerous, and Moav recoiled from before the people of Israel.  Moav said to the elders of Midian: 'now this congregation will consume all around us just as the ox consumes the vegetation of the field,' and Balak son of Tzippor was the king of Moav at that time" (Bemidbar 22:2-4).

 

THE LINKAGE OF THE PARASHIYOT

 

Concluding that besting the Israelites in battle was impossible, the king of Moav and his Midianite cohorts instead opted to attempt to overwhelm them through supernatural means.  Quickly, Balak dispatched emissaries to Bil'am son of Be'or, a well-known occultist from the lands of the east, whom he charged with the mission of pronouncing a fateful (and fatal) curse against the people of Israel.  Though Bil'am tried mightily to execrate Israel, time and time again he was forced instead under Divine duress to exalt them.  Balak's disappointment was palpable but Bil'am was powerless to alter his course.  As the parasha unfolds, he and those around him come to the unmistakable conclusion that neither incantations nor magic can affect the ineluctable destiny of the people of Israel, for their fate is in God's hands alone.

 

Taken together, the remarkable victory over Sichon and Og and the utter inability of Bil'am to stem the Israelite tide, both point to a single truth.  The God of Israel is neither bound by the statistical probabilities of the scientists nor is He subject to the speculative pronouncements of the prognosticators.  According to all of the empirical data, Israel should not have trounced the devastating forces of the Amorite kings who held all of the lands east of the Jordan under their suffocating aegis.  But defeat them they did, astounding not only themselves but all of the Canaanite city-states and the petty Transjordanian kingdoms as well.  As for Bil'am, his spellbinding prowess was celebrated throughout the eastern lands, but try as he might, he could not confine the God of Israel with his diablerie.  All-powerful and absolute, incorporeal and of perfect oneness, God alone determines the fate of nations and guides the history of His people Israel.

 

Three times Bil'am the seer attempts to pronounce his malediction against Israel and three times he is precluded from doing so by Divine intervention.  In the subtle shifts of language that characterize his three pronouncements, Ramban (13th century, Spain) detects not only three independent prophecies but an important chronological progression as well.  As he understands it, Bil'am's blessings unwittingly chart the entire sweep of Israel's history as a nation, describing the Exodus from Egypt, the entry and conquest of Canaan, and the founding of a monarchy, events that taken together comprise a period of approximately three hundred and fifty years. 

 

THE FOURTH PROPHECY

 

There is of course a fourth proclamation that Bil'am offers, this time without any of the sacrificial preparations and preliminary remarks to Balak that highlighted his first three attempts to secure Divine favor.  Undaunted by Balak's increasingly irate disapproval, Bil'am presents his fourth oracle unsolicited, as he sets his sights homeward.  This time, he peers far into the future, inspired by a vision of Israel's absolute triumph over all of its foes:

 

'And now,' said Bil'am, 'I am returning to my people.  Let me counsel you as to what this nation shall do to your people at the end of days!'  He (Bil'am) proclaimed his oracle and said: 'These are the words of Bil'am son of Be'or, the words of the man with the seeing eye.  This is the pronouncement of the one who heard the words of the Almighty, who knows the knowledge of the Most High, who perceived a vision of the All Powerful, falling down with open eyes.  I see him but not now, I gaze upon him but not soon.  A star will shoot forth out of Yaacov, a scepter shall rise from Yisrael, who shall crush the princes of Moav and demolish all of Shet's descendants.  Edom shall be their inheritance, Se'ir their enemies shall be their inheritance, and Israel shall be triumphant.  A ruler from Yaacov shall destroy the remnant of the city…' (Bemidbar 24:14-19).

 

In all of his prophetic pronouncement, Bil'am utilizes obscure metaphors and indefinite references.  His fourth and final prophecy, though, is particularly cryptic: when is the "end of days"?  What or who is the "shooting star"?  Who are "the descendents of Shet"?  Who is the "ruler from Yaacov" and what city will he destroy?  Not surprisingly, the commentaries disagree concerning the import of Bil'am's prophecy and its exact historical framework, and we will examine two possibilities and their ramifications.  It should be borne in mind, however, that notwithstanding these numerous textual ambiguities, the thrust of Bil'am's message is crystal clear: Moav and his allies will be vanquished and Israel will be victorious.

 

THE INTERPRETATION OF IBN EZRA – HISTORY

 

"It seems to me," says Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain). "that this prophecy concerns David.  'I see him, but not now' is an apt description, since David would only arise four hundred years hence…David did in fact 'crush the princes of Moav' (see Shemuel/Samuel 2:8:2)…and it is known that David exercised dominion over Edom and the mount of Se'ir…" (commentary to Bemidbar 24:17-19).

 

Thus, Ibn Ezra understands that Bil'am sees the future downfall of Moav at the hands of the Israelite monarch David, who succeeded King Shaul and united the people of Israel behind him.  David, an enlightened ruler and gifted warrior, vanquished all of the hostile nations surrounding Israel, namely Moav, Amon and Edom, and laid the groundwork for an empire.  The 'end of days,' therefore, does not mean the 'end of time,' but rather 'far off in the future'.  The mention of  'a scepter' is a clear reference to some form of rulership or royalty, just as King David would effectively wield.  The scepter reference is twinned by the text to the metaphor of a 'shooting star' whose path is clearly visible in the heavens, for David's dominion would be manifest to all of the surrounding nations.

 

Though taking note of the sweeping historical progression that characterizes Bil'am's first three pronouncements, Ibn Ezra nevertheless maintains that the eastern seer's oracles are addressed primarily to Balak and to his people Moav.  It was in fact David who first dealt them a crushing defeat, and Ibn Ezra is content to confine Bil'am's charged and inspired words to a relatively short period of Biblical history,  namely about four hundred years.  Ibn Ezra feels no necessity to assign Bil'am's words a significance more far-reaching than that, and deems that Bil'am's pronouncement of a future vision of Israelite monarchy is certainly sufficient to highlight to Balak and his cohorts not only the inefficacy of their wretched attempts to curse Israel when God desires to bless, but also the profound difference between true prophecy and mere prognostication.

 

THE INTERPRETATION OF THE RAMBAN – ESCHATOLOGY

 

The Ramban (13th century, Spain) in contrast, detects in Bil'am's prophecy a description of the unfolding of a much more momentous process.  Commenting on the general outline of Bil'am's words, Ramban remarks:

 

     All of Bil'am's prophecies see progressively farther into the future.  First he pointed out that Israel is God's portion and inheritance, then he spoke of their conquest of the land and domination of its kings.  Thirdly, he saw them securely dwelling in their land and becoming abundant upon it.  He saw them appoint a king that would vanquish Amalek, and establish a kingdom that would achieve victory under David…

 

So far, Ramban 's outline closely resembles that of Ibn Ezra.  Concerning the fourth prophecy, however, he radically parts ways with his predecessor.  As Ramban explains, "in this fourth vision, Bil'am goes on to see the Messianic Age, and he therefore describes his vision as 'not now' and 'not soon,' because it will unfold only far off in the future…It is God's counsel that He will fulfill at the end of days" (commentary to 24:14).

 

For the Ramban, the expression 'end of days' implies the Messianic Age, and this usage is in fact documented in the books of the Prophets many times (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:30, 31:29; Yeshayahu/Isaiah 2:2; Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 30:34; Yechezkel/Ezekiel 38:16).  As for the metaphor of the shooting star, "…since the Messiah will gather in the dispersed people of Israel from the ends of the earth, he is referred to as a "shooting star" that traverses the sky from the ends of the heavens…"(commentary to 24:17).

 

Continuing the theme, the Ramban explains:

 

A ruling scepter shall arise out of Israel that will crush the corners of Moav and demolish all of the descendents of Shet the son of Adam, who is the progenitor of all humanity.  Bil'am meant to inform Balak that his people of Moav would not be vanquished by Israel now, but at the end of days they will not escape the scepter that shall rule over them…As for Edom, its downfall will transpire at the hands of the Messiah, because our present exile under the domination of Rome is associated with Edom…for they disputed our rule, and concerning them it was stated "one nation shall overpower the other" (Breishit/Genesis 25:23)…Edom and Se'ir the enemies of Yaacov shall be inherited by them… (commentary to 24:17-18).

 

Thus, the Ramban detects in Bil'am's final words a prophecy of cosmic proportions.  Bil'am sees not only the entry of the tribes into Canaan and their settlement of the land, events that began to unfold soon after his return eastward to his home, but he actually perceives the final chapter of Israel's national history and the ultimate purpose of their election: the dawning of the Messianic era.  The remnants of Israel, though soon dispersed to the four corners of the earth and languishing under the cruel conditions of exile, will again be gathered and restored to their land under the capable rule of the Messianic king.  There they will finally overcome the enemies that had beset them from ancient times, that even until the end of days continued to dispute their mission and their claim.  The proverbial Edom, Yaacov's twin and nemesis, the personification of the Roman Empire and its heirs that destroyed the Second Temple and scattered the Jews worldwide, will in the end submit to Israel's rule and the irresistible message of redemption that their God shall proclaim.  The arrival of the Messiah will herald a new era of human history, of concord, harmony and peace, of reconciliation between God and man and between man and himself, and Israel's role in the realization of that most noble of visions will be decisive.

 

RECONCILING THE TWO VIEWS

 

Though the Ibn Ezra's interpretation seems on the surface completely at odds with that of the Ramban, there is in fact a telling connection between the two.  The genius of Jewish tradition and the key to its remarkable survival has always been its ability to comprehend human history as a purposeful progression, to transcend present adversity by grasping tightly to a glimpse of eternity, and to see in seemingly unrelated events God's unmistakable involvement.  David was Israel's first king, possessing a rare combination of military prowess and political talent, genuine concern for justice and the welfare of his people, and a profound spiritual sensitivity and sincere religious awareness.  Through the tumultuous events in his own life, he also came to understand and to champion true teshuva and rapprochement with God.  It was during David's lifetime and through his inspiration that the disparate tribes of Israel began to coalesce into a nation centered around Jerusalem, that they were able to battle and overcome their foes, and that the necessary material and spiritual foundations for the building of the Temple and the ideal Jewish State were first set down. 

 

Though that State achieved ideal form for a only very short period of Biblical history, by coming into real existence it served as the sustaining inspiration for all subsequent visions of the good and the right, of the Jewish people achieving their national purpose and radiating the truth of God's teachings to all humanity, of a Messianic future that the Prophets of Israel were the first to proclaim.  No wonder the Messianic figure was regarded not only as a genealogical "descendent of David," but as the ideal embodiment of his example as well.  Thus, there is less that separates the explanation of the Ibn Ezra from that of the Ramban than meets the eye.  When Bil'am perceives in his mind's eye the ascent of David and the success of his exploits, he unwittingly also catches a fleeting look of the end of days.  Then, the Messiah who is David's descendent will succeed in completing the awesome task of nation-building and Temple-building, of restoring Israel and returning them to God, of proclaiming to all the world the truth of His teachings, the essential elements of David's own achievements.

 

Shabbat Shalom

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