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.
Balaam: A Prophet for Profit
Balaam’s legacy could have been that of a great man of integrity, but he was motivated more by the love of profit than the love of being a prophet.
His downfall was greed. He was a man who loved money more than truth. That is the reason he is traditionally called in Judaism Balaam haRashah (Balam the Wicked).
Jewish mysticism, in fact, links the word bala’am to the related word b’lo’am, which means without nation, indicating that Balaam has been excluded from citizenship in Heaven because of his evil motives.
We also must beware of being motivated by riches rather than eternal rewards, as Proverbs 15:27 states, “He who is greedy for gain troubles his own house.”
Balaam’s true character and motives becomes more apparent later. When he realized he could not curse Israel directly, he counseled the Midianites to lead the Israelites into sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols, thereby bringing destruction upon themselves. (Numbers 31:14–16; Revelation 2:14)
The Israelites fell into this trap, and a plague descended upon them, killing 24,000 Israelites before Pinchas (Phinehas) stopped it by taking radical action against sin. (Look for more about Pinchas stopping the plague in the next Parasha.)
In the end, Balaam did not enjoy his profit and the Midianites did not enjoy the fruit of his wicked counsel. Those who heeded it died, and he met his end when the Israelites defeated the Midianites. (Numbers 25:1–8; Numbers 31:14–18; Joshua 13:22)
“Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.” (Numbers 31:8)
Balaam’s Advice Brings Death
Levi, a 3rd century Torah scholar is quoted as saying, “Who practices magic will be harassed by magic. His end will come to no good.”
Judaism is adamantly opposed to the practice of magic or sorcery, and we are also warned against listening to false prophets. Balaam’s love of money led him into error. In that error, he also led others astray.
Ultimately, it was Balaam’s counsel to the enemies of the Israelites that caused the children of Israel to fall, but it also caused the downfall of those who heeded his advice.
Each of us must ask ourselves, “To whose counsel am I listening?”
Moreover, we do well to remember that while we cannot be cursed when we are walking in obedience to God, if we willingly break God’s commandments, the hedge of God’s protection in our lives might be broken so that the enemy can gain access.
As well, we must be careful that, after God has enable us to escape someone’s plan to destroy us, we don’t bring a curse on ourselves by falling into sin.
Once we understand the concept of cursing and blessing, we should recognize that Yeshua does not want our careless or malicious speech to be the source of trouble for friend or foe.
He has not called us to curse our enemies, but rather to love them and pray for them.
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44–45)
Believers often find themselves hated and persecuted. As followers of the Master, however, we are challenged to speak blessings and the power of life over our loved ones and even those who hate or persecute us.
God’s Life-Giving Counsel: Bless Israel
Although Balaam was not allowed to curse Israel directly, he did not have Israel’s best interests at heart. As a prophet, he could have stood against idol worship and come alongside Israel.
Even today, there are many people whose pride prevents them from acknowledging Israel as the prophesied leader among the nations.
Of course, those who have this attitude must be forewarned that God will fulfill this prophecy, and that He doesn’t take kindly to those who oppose His purposes concerning Israel. The Word of God states, “The nation or kingdom that will not serve you will perish; it will be utterly ruined.” (Isaiah 60:12)
God has blessed the Jewish People; they are the “apple of God’s eye.” (Zechariah 2:8)
Those who curse them have cursed themselves, since God made the following promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel) and their descendants forever: “I will bless those who bless you and those who curse you I will curse.” (Genesis 12:3)
These blessings and curses are very real and are still in effect today as God is faithful to his promises to Israel.
It may sometimes appear that all hope is lost for Israel, who to this day is surrounded by enemies, but the Word of God reveals that all of the nations who come against Jerusalem will be destroyed by the Lord Himself. (Zechariah 14; Ezekiel 39)
This stands as a warning to all nations who will come against Israel in these end times.
“On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves.” (Zechariah 12:3)
Conversely, all those who bless Israel can look forward to walking in God’s blessings. Now that is a promise to hold onto!