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

B'Midbar/Numbers 22:18   I am not able to cross over the word of the L-rd my G-d to do small or great.

View whole verse and interlinear translation ...

These words are spoken by Balaam to the second set of messengers sent by King Balak of Moab to ask him to come and curse the people of Israel as they sit encamped upon the borders of Moab. The first set had already been turned away at G-d's command, but Balak persisted with his request for a divine malediction against Israel so that he might be able to defeat them - or at least protect his own boundaries. Before asking them to stay the night while he consults with G-d, Balaam tells the messengers, "Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the L-RD my G-d" (JPS). He warns them, as it were, that even in the face of the most attractive blandishments, he cannot disobey G-d.

Jacob Milgrom suggests that "I could not do anything" denotes a moral impossibility; not that the action itself is impossible, but that Balaam would personally be unable to act, by force or a moral obligation before G-d. Targum Onkelos appears to support that, changing the Hebrew , "I am not able" to the Aramaic , "I don't have permission". It is not that Balaam wouldn't like to go or can't be bothered; he is forbidden by G-d. While the Who Is ...

Bechor Schor: Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bechor Schor of Orleans (born c. 1140 CE); French tosafist, exegete and poet who flourished in the second half of the 12th century; a pupil of Jacob Tam and the Rashbam, he sought rational explanations for the miracles found in the Torah and confined himself to the pshat plain meaning of the text
Bechor Schor counters that "This was a ploy to drive up the price, as when Ephron tells Abraham, 'A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver - what is that between you and me?' (B'resheet 23:15)", the Who Is ...

Ramban: Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman of Gerona or Nachmanides (1194-1270 CE), Spanish rabbi, author and physician; defended Judaism in the Christian debates in Barcelona before making aliyah
Ramban insists that Balaam is making a genuine point of principle: either "I cannot transgress His command for whatever I do, I do in His Name" or "I cannot go beyond His word for He is my God and I am His servant."

Milgrom explains that the phrase "small or great" is a literary merism1 used to mean "anything" as seen in Jonathan's words to David: "Behold, my father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me" (1 Samuel 20:2, ESV). The verb is a Qal infinitive of the root , which has a range of meanings such as "cross over, pass over or though" and particularly with respect to commands or instructions, "to transgress or disobey"; a similar use of the verb can be seen in the phrase , "they have transgressed/broken my covenant" (Joshua 7:11).

Taking a slightly different tack, 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 "against his will", Balaam "disclosed that he is under the authority of others". Similarly to the Ramban's comment above, Rashi's comment means that Balaam knows that he is not his own man: he is G-d's servant and under His authority. However much Balaam might want to portray himself to Balak's messengers as a free agent and in charge of the situation, he nevertheless has to explain that he is in fact constrained by G-d. Rashi goes on to show that Balaam "unwittingly prophesied that he was unable to nullify the blessings by which the patriarchs were blessed from the 'mouth of God' Himself." Although these events are going to take another chapter or so to play out, Balaam's own mouth announces here that his (or any) attempt to curse Israel - thus reversing G-d's promises - are destined to fail.

Writing to the Corinthian church, in the section about head-coverings2, Rav Sha'ul speaks about the need for a married woman to cover her head in church - "a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels" (1 Corinthians 11:10, ESV) - as a sign of authority, to show that she was married and under the authority of her husband. This practice is widely followed within the Jewish world, although purportedly as a means of modesty rather than authority, where a married woman will cover her own natural hair by a wig or a snood when in public. Many Jewish men will also wear a kipa or yarmulke on their heads3 as a sign that they are under G-d's authority. Although this is strictly a custom rather than a mitzvah, it is based upon two commands in the Torah: firstly, that the high priest always has his head covered, "you shall set the turban on his head and put the holy crown on the turban" (Shemot 29:6); secondly, that whoever takes a Nazirite vow leaves their hair to grow as a sign of his separation or holiness towards G-d: "All the days of his vow of separation, no razor shall touch his head. Until the time is completed for which he separates himself to the L-RD, he shall be holy. He shall let the locks of hair of his head grow long ... because his separation to G-d is on his head" (B'Midbar 6:5-7, JPS). From these ideas, the rabbis sought to make all the Jewish people holy to G-d and instituted a head-covering for men so that they should not sin: "Cover your head so that the fear of heaven may be upon you" (b. Shabbat 156b).

During Yeshua's ministry years, He too encountered authority: "When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to Him, appealing to Him, 'Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly'" (Matthew 8:5-6, ESV). A centurion would have had a clearly identifiable uniform, so Yeshua would have known exactly who he was and the rank that he held. Yeshua agreed to go to the centurion's house to heal the servant, but the centurion replied, "Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it" (vv. 8-9, ESV). He can recognise the authority that Yeshua has and that He holds that authority because He has been given it; like the centurion, Yeshua exercises authority because He is under authority. The people too could see Yeshua's authority: "for He was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes" (7:29, ESV). He in turn delegated authority to others: "And He called to Him His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction" (10:1, ESV) and in His final words to the disciples He confirmed that authority when He told them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore ... and I will be with you" (28:18-19, ESV).

Are we - the current generations of Yeshua's disciples - under authority today and how would people recognise that? It cannot be wearing a kipa since that is a particularly Jewish sign and covers many people who are clearly not followers of Yeshua. Yeshua said that His disciples would be known by the love they had for one another (John 13:35), but that is surely not a sign of authority. Titus is told, "Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you" (Titus 2:15, ESV) and Rav Sha'ul speaks of the authority he has been given "for building up and not for tearing down" (2 Corinthians 13:10, ESV), but Yeshua told the disciples that "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant" (Mark 10:42-43, NASB). It must be the quiet authority we have as sons and daughters of G-d, for proclaiming the kingdom as often by our actions as by our words, for challenging while respecting those with whom we disagree, for meeting the needs of the disenfranchised and marginalised in our society, for speaking out for justice and compassion in a materialistic world. All these are our authorities, given by Yeshua, by the power of the Ruach and exercised for G-d on behalf of others. The boundaries are clear; if Yeshua said, "the Son can do nothing of His own accord, but only what He sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise" (John 5:19, ESV), how much more so we who follow the Spirit who "will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak" (John 16:13, ESV).

1. - A rhetorical term for a pair of contrasting words (such as near and far) used to express totality or completeness. Also, a type of synecdoche: using the parts of a subject to describe the whole.

2. - The current application of this passage - whether for hats, hair or neither - is widely debated or ignored within the church world. It is quoted here simply with regard to the principle of the sign of authority.

3. - Some wear a kipa at all times, some just in public and some just in synagogue. For the purpose of this argument, we are ignoring the fact that many Jewish men wear a kipa as a means of affiliation, simply to let others know that they are Jewish.

Further Study: 1 Timothy 4:12-17; Matthew 23:8-12

Application: Do you know the authority of G-d in your life? You cannot have authority until you are under authority, so make sure that you take your place in the chain of command today.

© Jonathan Allen, 2012

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