For the week of June 26, 2010 / 14 Tammuz 5770
Torah: Bemidbar / Numbers 22:2 - 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 - 6:8

Don't Be Fooled by Appearances

And God came to Balaam (Hebrew: Bilam) at night and said to him, "If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you." So Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. But God's anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary. (Bemidbar / Numbers 22:20-22; ESV)

This week's Torah portion includes the account of Balak, king of Moab, and how he hired a diviner by the name of Bilam to curse the people of Israel. The people of Moab, a country on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea within modern day Jordan, were in great fear of Israel. So King Balak turned to Bilam for help.

The interactions between God and Bilam are confusing. Bilam told Balak's men that he would report back to them what God would say to him. He either sincerely anticipated that the God of Israel would speak to him or he purposely gave a false impression. Either way, God did speak to him and told him not to do what Balak had asked.

When Balak was told that Bilam refused to come, he sent another entourage with promises of great honor to try to get him to do the king's bidding. Bilam gave to them what sounds like the response of a true believer:

Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more (Bemidbar / Numbers 22:18; ESV).

But when Bilam inquired of God a second time, God told him to go with Balak's men, yet he was to do only that what God told him. So he goes. But then we read that God was angry with him because he went. What's going on here?

The clue to this apparent contradiction in God's directives to Bilam is found in the fact that even though God clearly told Bilam the first time not to go, he inquired of God again. Bilam already knew God's will for this situation. There was no need for further inquiry. Yet he persisted and God sent him in a direction that God himself did not approve of.

This may seem strange, but is it? How often does God allow us to pursue the things that we know are wrong? How often have we prayed and knew deep down what God's will was and yet, not being satisfied with his answer, continued to pray until God let us do what we wanted.

Some may look at Bilam and think he was a really good guy, who faithfully followed God. Did he not only go when God said to go? And did he not speak over Israel only the words that God put in his mouth? Doesn't he seem to be a man truly blessed by God? Not if we see everything the Torah says about him.

We already noted that God was angry with him for doing this. Then, following this incident, Israel committed immorality with the Moabite women and worshipped their idols, thus resulting in a plague which killed 24,000 Israelites. It is not until some chapters later that we learn that this had been instigated by Bilam (Bemidbar / Numbers 31:16).

How often do we think that the evidence of God's power and presence in the life of an individual is an indication of God's approval of that person? We equate God's favor with his approval even when we are aware of very questionable issues in that person's life. Yeshua himself said that there would be people who would show signs of God's power and presence to whom he would one day say, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness" (Matthew 7:23; ESV). Just because God allows certain behaviors or he uses someone does not necessarily mean he approves of them.

The associated Haftarah (reading from the prophets) speaks well to this. I close with reading a portion of it:

"O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam (Hebrew: Bilam) the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD. With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:5-8)

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