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Parasha Balak (Destroyer): Curses and Superstition

Balak (Destroyer)
Numbers 22:2–25:9; Micah 5:6–6:8; Romans 11:25–32

In last week’s Torah portion, which is called Chukat (Decree), the Israelites continued their journey toward the Holy Land.  When they arrived in Amorite territory, they requested permission to pass through peacefully.

The Amorites, however, denied their request and went to war against them instead.  But God was with the Israelites, and they triumphed over the Amorites.

Jewish Man-Streimel-Western Wall

An Orthodox Jewish man prays in Jerusalem at the Western (Wailing) Wall wearing a shtreimel, which is worn by many married Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men, as well as by the Perushim (separated), Jews who came to Israel from Lithuania at the beginning of the 19th century.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Moabite king, Balak, resorts to the power of cursing after seeing Israel’s victory over the Amorites.

“And Balak, the son of Zippor, saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.”  (Numbers 22:2)

To ensure the downfall of Israel, he offers Balaam, a renowned pagan prophet, fabulous riches in exchange for cursing Israel.

Instead of cursing Israel, however, Balaam pronounces a blessing over Israel while speaking under the compulsion of the Spirit of God and asks, “How can I put a curse on people God hasn’t cursed?”  (Numbers 23:8)


Open Torah scroll

As Balak repositions Balaam to curse Israel three times, the prophetic blessings of Balaam become increasingly specific.

He informs Balak that those who oppose Israel oppose God and those who curse Israel will be cursed.  In a fourth and final prophecy, Balaam delivers a Messianic prophecy telling Balak that the Messiah will come to save Israel, destroying Israel’s enemies.  (Numbers 24:15–25) 

“I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near.  A Star will come out of Jacob; a Scepter will rise out of Israel.  He will crush the foreheads of Moab.”  (Numbers 24:17; compare with Genesis 49:10)

men's section-Western Wall-Kotel

The men’s section of the Western Wall, also called the Kotel.

 Although Balaam begins this Parasha fully committed to lining his pockets by ruining Israel with his curses, he learns that cursing this nation whom Adonai Himself has blessed is a waste of time.

He comes to understand that God has an unconditional plan for the Israelites.

They could only be weakened if they are drawn away from the God of Israel into sin.  (Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14)

Indeed, in Numbers 25, when the Israelites become entangled with Moabite women and are drawn into idol worship, 24,000 of them die in a plague.

“Nevertheless, I have a few things against you:  There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.”  (Revelation 2:14)

Jewish Man-Western (Wailing) Wall-Jerusalem-prayer books-Hebrew Bible

An Orthodox man prays at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem

Though Balaam was a self-proclaimed worshiper of the one true God, YHVH, he was in fact a self-serving polytheist sorcerer who, despite having a revelation of God’s will for His people, was more interested in his own will being done than God’s will.

He was prepared to use witchcraft to achieve those ends, revealing that his heart was far from God.

God’s Word prohibits any kind of sorcery.  Magic and witchcraft are strictly forbidden for His people, as it is written:

“Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft.”  (Deuteronomy 18:10)

God nevertheless uses this man to pronounce His blessings over Israel in the presence of Israel’s enemy and to deliver a beautiful Messianic prophecy.

We also see in this Parasha that to achieve these ends, God gives Balaam’s donkey the ability to speak to warn him of his imminent death because he had disobeyed God in going with the Moabites and was greedily running after the reward for cursing Israel.


Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt

Remember Balak and Balaam

“My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered.”  (Micah 6:5)

This week’s Haftarah (Prophetic portion of Scripture) mentions Balak and Balaam, confirming that the Messiah, whom Balaam prophesied about, will redeem Israel and defeat her enemies.

Included in that Final Redemption is the removal of idol worship and witchcraft, of which the Prophet Isaiah said Israel was full.

“They are full of superstitions from the East; they practice divination like the Philistines.”  (Isaiah 2:6) 

“I will destroy your witchcraft and you will no longer cast spells.”  (Micah 5:12)

Torah Scrolls-Ark-keterim-rimonim

Torah scrolls adorned with keterim (crowns) and rimonim (Torah finials, literally pomegranates).

Blinded by Pagan Traditions

In the time of Micah, Israel was steeped in the pagan religions surrounding her.

In this Haftarah, a startling question is posed that reveals that many Israelites no longer realized how revolted God is by human and especially child sacrifice, a horrifying ritual of the Canaanites:

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?  …  Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  (Micah 6:6–7)

Western Wall-Women's section

Prayer in the women’s section of the Western (Wailing) Wall

In response, God draws them back to the covenant and underlines that He has already shown them what is good.

He also highlights the following three pillars of true religion: justice, mercy and a wise, humble walk with the Lord.

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require [doresh, meaning seek] of you?  To act justly and to love mercy [chesed] and to walk humbly with your God.”  (Micah 6:8)

The Hebrew word that is translated as mercy in this verse is chesed, which is often translated in English Bibles as loving-kindness.

Jerusalem-Orthodox mother-children-Mea Shearim

An Orthodox Jewish mother with her children in Jerusalem.

While the word implies piety, or a proper response to God, it also means “kindness to the lowly, needy and miserable, as shown in all charitable acts, especially such as go with personal service.”  (Expositors Bible Commentary)

A fuller rendering of the Hebrew translated “to walk humbly” is to have a relationship with God characterized by modesty, decency, chastity, personal holiness and purity.

In the Brit Chadashah (New Covenant), Yaacov (James) also answered the question:  “What is true religion, or in other words, what does God seek from us?”

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”  (James 1:27)


Hamsa, an amulet for warding off the “evil eye”

Witchcraft and Superstition

Just as in the days of the prophets Micah and Isaiah, Israel is still desperately in need of the Lord.

When it comes to witchcraft and superstition, Israel is like other nations in that it is full of divination, New Age religions and philosophies.

Today in Israel, many homes, cars, and shops contain some form of a hand amulet called a hamsa (five) with a representation of the “eye of God” to protect them from the evil one.

This ancient symbol, which is prevalent in the Middle East, is one example of the “superstitions from the East” that have been embraced in Israel.

Apart from these folk superstitions, there is also a mystical school of Jewish thought called Kabbalah, a word that comes from the Hebrew root meaning to accept or receive.

hamsa-palm-shaped amulet

The hamsa, a palm-shaped amulet that is popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa, is commonly used in jewelry and wall and window hangings.  Throughout history, it has represented protection in many societies.

Kabbalistic sects of Judaism focus on how the world works, immortality and the soul, and the essence of God.

Tzfat, Israel, where courses are offered in Jewish mysticism and astrology, is considered the center of Kabbalah.

Kabbalah has gained traction and become increasingly trendy, as celebrities such as Madonna, Britney Spears, and Demi Moore have endorsed it.

Jewish man-praying-Shacharit-Kotel-tefillin

A Jewish man prays at the Western Wall wearing a set of tefillin (phylacteries).  The black boxes on the arm and the forehead contain parchment inscribed with Torah verses, a literal rendering of the command to bind the Word to our arm as found in Deuteronomy 6:8; 11:18.

Final Redemption

Parasha Balak promises that God one day will cleanse the Holy Land, indeed the world, of superstitions, mysticism, and all spiritual defilement.

Nevertheless, even in the midst of this, a righteous remnant of God’s people remains as “dew” from the Lord.

“The remnant of Jacob will be in the midst of many peoples like dew from the Lord, like showers on the grass, which do not wait for anyone or depend on man.”  (Micah 5:6)

In Israel, during the hot summer months when there is no rain, the night mist, which falls as dew upon the Land in the early morning, is the only source of water for the grass and field flowers; therefore, the dew is a beautiful end-time image of the life preserving Living Water that this holy remnant represents to Israel and the nations.

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