According to Jewish tradition, the people of Israel read the Scriptures in a pattern that covers the Torah (five books of Moses), the Prophets and the Writings each year. This way, every God-fearing Jew meditates on the entire Old Testament every year if they attend a synagogue that keeps this weekly Bible reading pattern.
It was probably this tradition that led Jesus to the exact portion of Isaiah’s prophecy (chapter 61:1-2) when he was handed the scroll of the Bible to read at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth (See Luke 4). Here Jesus made His first recorded public appearance, pronouncing over Himself one of the most profound Messianic prophecies in the Bible to the astonishment of the hearers. Yet He did not have to research long or Google this word; He simply read the portion of Scripture assigned to that very Sabbath. Jesus was the right person in the right time and place with the right faith and conviction when He launched His public ministry that led Him to His cross and changed the world forever!
This week’s Synagogue Scripture reading comes from Numbers 22:2-25:9, the famous story of Balaam and his remarkable prophecies over Israel just before the newborn nation entered the Promised Land. I want to highlight this Scripture portion because it contains some of the most beautiful promises and blessings ever spoken about the people of Israel. Yet, these utterances came not from a friend or a lover of God’s people, but rather from the mouth of a greedy and carnal diviner who planned to use his mystical powers to curse God’s people in return for a hefty fee.
The entire event began with Moab and Midian’s fear that the passing Israelites would annihilate them on their way from Egypt to their Promised Land. They “sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor… to call him, saying: ‘Look, a people has come from Egypt… they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! … please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty … Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land…” (Numbers 22:5-6). Balaam was no friend of Israel, but he did recognize the voice of the Lord. Eventually, through the strange ordeal with his talking donkey, he served as God’s unusual mouthpiece during this epic drama.
Balaam’s first oracle, while standing by the impressive seven altars that he had erected, seems to capture Israel’s history and calling for thousands of years to come, saying, “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? … For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him. There! A people dwelling alone, not reckoning itself among the nations…” (Numbers 23:8-9).
Some say this captures Israel’s destiny to be a nation chosen by God; to be isolated, friendless, hated and often rejected by all other nations. While world history may support this opinion, there is more to the picture. Israel was called to reflect a divine message for a world lost in darkness; to point to a holy, loving and perfectly good God who has a plan and a purpose for each of His children. At the same time, Israel was called to serve as an object lesson; a painful and perpetual ‘case in point’ that humanity cannot, by its own strength, walk back into a perfect fellowship with this great and beautiful God; the friendship that was long lost in the garden. This is the real dilemma, and understanding this helps explain the purpose and call of the nation of Israel and why it had to dwell alone from all others.
Even as a tiny minority often surrounded by hostile cultures, Israel was called to keep the faith and hold to the national identity at all costs in order to keep the light shining and the lesson visible. Most of all, Israel was called to prepare the way and to bring forth the Savior of the world, our Messiah. The nation had to be present during His first coming as the Lamb of God; and Israel must again be present, in real time and place, in preparation for His second coming as the Lion of God!
Though scattered all over the world, speaking many languages and reflecting multiple cultures, ethnicities, and political orientations, the Jewish nation, by God’s grace, was kept unique, distinct, and set apart for thousands of years; “a people dwelling alone, not reckoning itself among the nations.” Balaam was correct.
His second prophecy was even more astonishing, saying, “… I have received a command to bless… and I cannot reverse it. He (God) has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel. The LORD his God is with him,
and the shout of a King is among them… For there is no sorcery against Jacob, nor any divination against Israel …” (Numbers 23:21-24). I hope you caught this remarkable truth – no curse can overcome what God has blessed! This principle has followed the people of Israel and God’s children everywhere for thousands of years. Hardships and trials are inevitable, even necessary, but God’s blessing and purpose is unchanging!
Do we deserve such grace? Have we somehow earned the right to be so blessed in spite of our obvious weaknesses and failures? No, we haven’t! But God, in His great mercy and everlasting lovingkindness, has chosen to “… not observe iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel.” He hides His face, as it were, from our sin, and He chooses instead to look upon the acceptable sacrifice of the Savior. All you can do is believe Him.
Balaam’s’ third prophecy really confounded the kings of Moab and Midian when they heard the diviner proclaiming, “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob! Your dwellings, O Israel! Like valleys that stretch out, like gardens by the riverside, like aloes planted by the LORD … God brings him out of Egypt… He shall consume the nations, his enemies; he shall break their bones and pierce them with his arrows… Blessed is he who blesses you, and cursed is he who curses you.” (Numbers 24:5-9). Can we imagine the shock of these hostile kings who were plotting Israel’s demise? This was a reminder of God’s unconditional covenant promise to Father Abraham from Genesis 12:1-2. God has spoken, and He is not in the habit of changing His mind.
However, Balaam’s fourth oracle is the prize of it all, and considered by both Jewish Rabbis and Christian scholars to be one of Israel’s greatest Messianic prophecies. He said, “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel…” (Numbers 24:17). The Star and Scepter are found in descriptions of Israel’s Messiah in other scriptures in both the Old and New Testament. On that distant day, from the rugged mountaintops east of the Jordan River, looking far into Israel’s future, Balaam saw the Savior! Again, he was right.
The end of Balaam’s tale was tragic as the real motives of his heart were exposed and judged (see Numbers 25, Joshua 13:22, 2-Peter 2:15, and Jude 1:11). So the big question from this week’s synagogue reading is why God chose to bless Israel with these great blessings and prophetic predictions using a pagan greedy psychic like Balaam. Perhaps the only good answer for that is found in Proverbs 27:1-2, saying, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth. Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.”
Apparently, it was important that possibly the greatest prophetic blessing ever spoken over Israel during a time of great transition; a transformation from slavery to freedom and from obscurity to center stage, would come from a hostile stranger and not a friend. Maybe this is the best way to prove to all that God’s people are indeed blessed beyond any curse!
Either way, the words came true, Israel dwelt apart and separate for millennia, and the Messiah did rise as a “star out of Jacob.” We are blessed to be alive today, to serve God and to live among a nation regathered after thousands of years of exile back to its homeland, able to rebuild the ancient ruins and to behold these wonders unfold before our eyes. Hopefully, you are making plans to join us in Israel and experience the miracle for yourself. Our SAR-EL team is looking forward to hosting you here.
With Blessings from Jersualem,