When Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to commit sexual immorality with the daughters of Moab. (Bemidbar / Numbers 25:1; NET)
Israel faced many challenges in the wilderness in the years prior to their entering the Promised Land. Some went well; others not so much. This week's Torah portion includes both kinds. One in which God protected the people from harm and the second where disaster ensued. Both incidences had to do with the same opponents, the people of the region of Moab.
In the first instance Balak, the King of Moab was concerned that the people of Israel would cause him and his people much trouble, so he hired a prophet, more accurately a soothsayer, named Bilaam (or Balaam), to curse them. It's one of the more drawn out stories in the Torah. Every time Bilaam tried to curse Israel, God would not let him as blessings came from his mouth instead. The story ends or seems to end with Bilaam proclaiming nothing but good things over Israel. If this was a movie, the screen would fade to black as the narrator says, "Then Balaam rose and went back to his place. And Balak also went his way" (Bemidbar / Numbers 24:25; ESV).
The next segment begins with no reference to the previous story. Yet the people with whom Israel interacts with are still the Moabites. It begins with the verse I quoted at the start. It just seems to happen. The story of Balak and Bilaam is full of tension and anticipation, intrigue and frustration. God is at work to thwart the evil plan. Israel can't be cursed; don't even try. But now Israel does evil. Just like that. The consequence of this sin was the death of 24,000 Israelites.
While Israel was responsible for their irresponsible behavior, it didn't happen in a vacuum. Later on in this same book of the Torah we read concerning the Moabite women with whom the Israelite men sinned, "Behold, these, on Bilaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord" (Bemidbar / Numbers 31:16; ESV). Bilaam had instigated this affair. What he couldn't accomplish through spiritual power, the nation of Israel brought upon itself through sexual sin. Bilaam conceived a plot whereby he leveraged the sexuality of women to bring destruction to Israel, which in the end also brought death to himself and the women he used.
Women are still being used by the forces of evil to bring destruction through the illicit use of their sexuality. I am not saying that women's sexuality is any more evil that men's. In fact sexuality itself isn't sinful at all. It's created by God for good purposes. Yet, sexual desire is a powerful and complex thing, and when not handled within God's defined parameters, it causes great trouble.
Yet today we are taught to pursue our desires, whatever they may be. Evil is defined as those things that restrict us from fulfilling our wants. We refuse to accept how the removal of God-given restrictions to our sexual wants only serves to ruin us individually and communally.
It is extremely important for both men and women to understand the dynamics of sexual desire. Any attempt to reduce a woman's allure is viewed as sexist and oppressive, but a woman's purity is a precious gift that should be protected. Men need not be expected to be sexual animals, living to fulfill their drives. Self-control is a gift of God's Spirit and is the mark of a true man.
It is essential that we discern the Bilaams of our world - those who understand the power of women's sexuality to leverage it for their own purposes, exploiting both men and women in the process. It may be difficult to resist this ploy. But with God's help we can.
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