Messianic Education Trust
    Balak  
(Num 22:1 - 25:9)

B'Midbar/Numbers 22:9   And G-d came to Bil'am and He said, "Who are these men with you?"


In this text, we have two unusual things going on. Firstly, the phrase occurs only twice more in the Hebrew Scripture (the leading can be translated 'and' or 'but'). One occasion is "But G-d came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, 'You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman'" (B'resheet 20:3, NJPS); the other is "But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night, and said to him, 'Take heed that you say not a word to Jacob, either good or bad'" (31:24, NRSV). In both places, Rabbi Who Is ...

Hirsch: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism
Hirsch tells us, this came "as an unexpected message from G-d and to restrain a person from some intended action." So here too, Hirsch goes on, "it is by no means necessary to assume that Balaam expected or even asked for this communication from G-d." A little more radically, Hirsch questions whether Balaam had actually ever heard from G-d before in his life. Had he always just posed and got away with it? If so, then perhaps now, for the first time, he is really hearing from G-d and is being called on his presumptuous words to the Midianite princes: "Spend the night here, and I shall reply to you as the L-RD may instruct me" (B'Midbar 22:8, NJPS). Part of the argument for this is the way Balaam casually uses The Name ...

HaShem: literally, Hebrew for 'The Name' - an allusion used to avoid pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the so-called 'ineffable' name of G–d
HaShem, the tetragrammaton personal name for G-d, while in the following conversation between G-d and Balaam, the narrative ostentatiously uses the word 'G-d', the more distant and less 'familiar' name.

The second unusual thing in this text is G-d's question: ", Who are these men with you?" Are we to conclude that G-d doesn't know the answer to the question, so is actually genuinely seeking factual information, or is there something else going on? Who Is ...

Gersonides: Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, Gersonides or Ralbag (1288-1344 CE); famous rabbi, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer/astrologer; born at Bagnols in Languedock, France; wrote a commentary on the Torah and a parallel to Maimonides' Guide For The Perplexed
Gersonides offers the explanation that "though G-d knows everything, He often asks questions, both because the Torah speaks in human language and because G-d wishes to demonstrate to human judges that they must always determine the facts of a matter before issuing their ruling." There are other occasions in the Torah where G-d asks a similar question; in the garden of Eden, G-d asks Adam, "Where are you?" (B'resheet 3:9, NJPS) and in the next chapter He asks Cain, "Where is Abel, your brother?" (4:9, NASB). On both of these occasions, it is clear that G-d does know the answer to His own question, so why does He ask it? For both verses, Who Is ...

Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE), French rabbi who wrote commentaries on the Torah, the Prophets and the Talmud, lived in Troyes where he founded a yeshiva in 1067; focuses on the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text, although sometimes quite cryptic in his brevity
Rashi suggests that G-d asks gently, by way of starting the conversation without startling them, to give Adam and Cain the opportunity to confess what has gone on and repent, thus opening the way for reconciliation and forgiveness. Here, Jacob Milgrom proposes that "From Balaam's answer in verses 10-11, it becomes clear that G-d questions the emissaries's business not their names."

Rashi takes a very different idea. From the above, we can agree that, as presented, the question is ambiguous and could be taken either as a conversation starter (as intended) or as an indication that G-d was not aware of all the details. On that basis, Rashi informs us that "G-d came to give him room to err." He then proposes that "as a result of this question, Balaam said, 'There are times when not everything is revealed before Him. He is not always equally aware of everything. I, too, will see a time in which I will be able to curse and He will not understand what I am doing.'" In other words, if he chose to take it that way, Balaam could conclude that G-d was not omniscient (i.e. He does not know everything) and therefore be emboldened to hope that the might be a moment when G-d might be busy thinking about something else and Balaam would be able to slip a curse past Him without Him noticing what was going on. Faced with a direct divine command - "Do not go with them; do not curse Israel!" - Balaam has no freedom of choice and therefore cannot be held accountable for his actions. Rashi's argument is that by asking the question, G-d allows some doubt to creep into Balaam's mind, thus levelling the playing field. Then Balaam can fairly be judged for his obedience or otherwise, because he now has a choice.

Ovadiah Who Is ...

Sforno: Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550 CE), Italian rabbi, philosopher and physician; born in Cesena, he went to Rome to study medicine; left in 1525 and after some years of travel, settled in Bologna where he founded a yeshiva which he conducted until his death
Sforno goes one step further and assumes that G-d is actually responding to Balaam's request for His input. Although not mentioned in the text, this isn't an unreasonable extrapolation as Balaam has told the Midianite princes that he will let them know what HaShem says about their invitation to come and curse Israel. The Sforno re-translates the first word of the question , who, as if it were , what, and puts this question in G-d's mouth: "What are their dealings with you that you have prepared yourself for prophecy on their behalf so as to know what to do for them? Are you asking Me to tell you the future so that you may tell it to them, or are you asking My permission to fulfill their desire for a curse?" On this account, G-d wants to know how Balaam has got so far down the road with the Midianites that he has promised to seek the L-rd on their behalf. Is Balaam really asking G-d what he should do, or has he already decided what he wants to do and is just asking for a rubber-stamp approval?

G-d does seem to specialise in asking questions to which He already knows the answer in order to speak into human lives. Several hundred years later, in a cave on Mt. Horeb, the Scriptures tell us that the word of the L-rd came to Elijah and asked him, "Why are you here, Elijah?" (1 Kings 19:9 and 13). Of course G-d knew that Elijah was running away from Queen Jezebel and her threats against his life; He had arranged for an angel to feed him at the start of his journey to the mountain - forty days walking, all the way from northern Israel - but He was providing an opportunity for Elijah to unburden himself and release his pent-up fear and anxiety. Only then would Elijah's mind be clear to accept his next assignment to "anoint Hazael as king of Aram ... anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet" (vv. 15-16, NJPS).

The prophet Isaiah told the kingdom of Judea when they were trying to form an alliance with Egypt - which would essentially mean becoming a vassal state to Egypt, under Egyptian rule and authority, rather than trusting in the L-rd their G-d - that a time would come when their Teacher would no longer be hidden, that they would se their Teacher clearly and "your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, 'This is the way, walk in it,' when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left" (Isaiah 30:21, ESV). Once again, a gentle word of correction or challenge rather than a harsh voice or rebuke. When we turn off the way, when our feet step out of the path to which we are being called, a voice behind us will pick us up and correct us without startling us, making us jump or lose our footing so that we fall.

Yeshua comforted the disciples during the Last Supper by promising them the same support when they were spreading the word and teaching others about Him. Although there was a lot more to say, most of which would simply have to wait, He told them, "When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come" (John 16:13, ESV. There they all were in Jerusalem, celebrating Pesach together, only Yeshua was talking about going away, He had accused one of the disciples of being about to betray Him, He had been through an astonishing role-reversal and washed their feet, and thoroughly scared them by saying that they would be put out of the synagogues and even killed.

We need to ask whether we have heard G-d ask us this sort of question recently and, if so, what He was trying to say or do. "Why are you here?" might mean, "Are you really supposed to be here?" or "What are you looking for here?" or perhaps just "Tell me what provoked you to be here." The question "What are you doing?" might have connotations of "Is this what you are supposed to be doing?" or "Do you think I asked you to do this?", or it might be a compassionate, "I'm sorry you felt driven to do this. Tell me about it." G-d wants to be in a relationship with us and that relationship requires two-way communication. It also requires more than simply set-piece prayers, useful though they can be on occasions; it means that we really tell Him what hurts, what delights us, how we feel, when we're tired - all the things about life. Yes, He does know them already, but sharing them in conversation makes the relationship work and delights His heart as we share with Him and allows Him to comfort, laugh with, encourage, bless and - if necessary - correct us. Listen out for those questions in your life and then be prepared to answer them.

Further Study: Psalm 25:4-6; John 14:16-17

Application: Have you ever heard one of G-d's questions? If not, why not ask Him today about it and see if you can move your relationship with Him on to another level of intimacy. He's just waiting for you!

02:20 28Jun18 Di Stanfield: This has made me see YHWH in a new way. We've heard that he is shy and will not interact with us if we do not invite him; this reinforces that idea and sits comfortably. I pray that when he speaks to me I will hear and heed him.

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© Jonathan Allen, 2018



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