Last week in Parasha Chukat (Decree), God gave the Israelites the law of purification through the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer), an ordinance for which no rational explanation can be found, much like other chukot (decrees) such as the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and shatnez (prohibition against wearing cloth combining wool and linen).
This week’s Parasha is a fascinating study on blessings and curses. It is named after Balak, the king of Moab, and begins with an interaction between him and a well-known pagan prophet, Balaam, son of Beor.
King Balak and the Moabites, a nation well-versed in the occult arts, become alarmed by the Israelites because their numbers are many, and they have gained stunning victories against their enemies, Sichon and Og.
“And Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. And Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.’” (Numbers 22:34)
Motivated by the fear of defeat, Balak seeks to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites so that he can have a physical advantage by weakening them through sorcery:
“Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 22:6)
These verses reveal the tremendous faith that ancient people groups had in the power of blessings and curses.
In today’s society, we tend to downplay such things, but even Yeshua (Jesus) demonstrated the power of blessings and curses to his talmidim (disciples).
When Yeshua saw a fig tree by the side of the road, he found on it only leaves but no fruit. He cursed the fig tree saying, “May you never bear fruit again.” (Matthew 21:19)
Shortly afterward, Yeshua’s talmidim were amazed when they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Peter said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” (Mark 11:21)
Using this example of the fig tree to encourage His talmidim regarding the power of faith-filled prayer, Yeshua answered, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.” (Matthew 21:21)
How did Yeshua curse the fig tree? It was through His words.
As God’s people, we need to understand the power of our words and use them wisely—to bless and not to curse, especially if we want God to entrust us with a greater measure of His authority.
But if we are tempted to dismiss this line of reasoning, thinking, “Yes, but He had supernatural power and authority because He is the Messiah,” we should remember that this was the exact same way that Balaam would have cursed Israel—through his words.
Proverbs reminds us that the tongue has tremendous power:
“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” (Proverbs 18:21)
The Error of Balaam
“They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing.” (2 Peter 2:14–15)
While the Israelites were in Moab, listening to the Prophet Moses, the Moabites and Midianites were listening to Balaam, a pagan prophet. Balaam had a reputation for being a powerful diviner, and definitely seems to have had the ability to hear God and convey His message.
For that reason, he told Balak that he would not deliver any blessing or curse over the Israelites other than what he heard from God.
Indeed, God had forbidden Balaam to curse Israel, saying, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.” (Numbers 22:12)
Although the king wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites, he instead blessed them. And when Balak pressed him to curse them, Balaam defended himself saying, “Must I not take care to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?”
Three times Balak tried to persuade Balaam to curse the people of Israel and three times Balaam blessed them instead.
Balaam was absolutely in the right to only speak what God told him to speak and it seems that he did only what the Lord told him to do; nevertheless, the Bible repeatedly condemns him. Why?
We know from Scripture that in his heart, Balaam did not really care for Israel’s welfare. He was greedy for riches and erred in running after the profit that awaited him for wrongly using his gifts.
“Woe to them! For they … have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit.” (Jude 1:11; see also 2 Peter 2:15–16)
Balaam was unfaithful as a prophet and displayed disregard for the will of God.
He knew it wasn’t God’s will for him to go with Balak’s messengers to curse Israel, but when the messengers came back a second time offering Balaam many riches to curse Israel, Balaam asked God a second time what He wanted him to do. (Numbers 22:12, 19–20)
God relented and let Balaam go with them, but only under the condition he speak whatever God told him to speak.
So Balaam got on his donkey and left for Moab, and even though he said all the right things, God knew his true inner motives. Were it not for his donkey being given the supernatural gift of speech, he would have been killed by the Angel of the Lord that stood in his path. (Numbers 22:33)
God can speak through a rebellious prophet and even a donkey to achieve His will, especially when it comes to blessing Israel.