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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

How Shall We Respond to Balaam's Prophecies?

(The following is a sermon/lesson presented at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA, on Shabbat Chukkat-Balak, July 8, 2006. It surveys the prophecies of Balaam, the context of the Haftarah of the day, and a related New Covenant reading, asking what our response should be to such profound truths and events).

In today's Torah reading we find the story of the Prophet Balaam, a pagan prophet with a true prophetic gift. The King of Moab, Balak, hired him to come and curse Israel. In language clearly reminiscent of the opening chapters of Exodus, Balak is alarmed at the multiplication of this foreign people, the Jews, who hae spread out across his land. He feels sure they will rise up to do him harm, unless he deals with them first.

This he attempts to do by hiring Balaam to curse Israel, because Balak has heard, "He whom you bless is blessed and whoever you curse is cursed. Balaam warns Balak's messengers that, no matter how much he is to be paid by a desperate Balak, he can only say the words that Hashem puts in his mouth.

On the way to the rendezvous, Balaam's donkey stops in its tracks three times, finally pressing Balaam's leg against the wall of a vineyard. When Balaam beats the donkey, God "opens the donkey's mouth" [gives him the power of speech], in a rather comical interchange that results in Balaam recognizing that the Angel of the LORD is barring his way. As a result the message is made clearer than ever to Balaam that he must only speak the words that ADONAI puts in his mouth,

Why this unique and strange story? In part it is a set up for the grand prophecies that are to follow, prophecies about Israel that map out in broad strokes the destiny and majesty of God's chosen nation. In effect the Scripture is telling us that the God who could speak truth through the mouth of a donkey, can also speak true prophecy about His chosen people through the mouth of a pagan prophet who will later prove to be morally corrupt.

The entire episode sets us up to recognize that what we are about to hear is nothing less and nothing other than the Word of the LORD about Israel.

Balaam gives four prophetic words about Israel, and here we will briefly review each in turn.

23:5 Then ADONAI put a word in Bil'am's mouth and said, "Go on back to Balak, and speak as I tell you." 6 He went back to him, and there, standing by his burnt offering, he with all the princes of Mo'av, 7 he made his pronouncement: "Balak, the king of Mo'av, brings me from Aram, from the eastern hills, saying, 'Come, curse Ya'akov for me; come and denounce Isra'el.' 8 How am I to curse those whom God has not cursed? How am I to denounce those whom ADONAI has not denounced? " 9 "From the top of the rocks I see them, from the hills I behold them yes, a people that will dwell alone and not think itself one of the nations. 10 "Who has counted the dust of Ya'akov or numbered the ashes of Isra'el? May I die as the righteous die! May my end be like theirs!"

Here we see Israel as a unique people [who shall not be numbered with the nations], a blessed people with a holy destiny. A people whom God has not cursed, but blessed.

23:18 Then Bil'am made his pronouncement: "Get up, Balak, and listen! Turn your ears to me, son of Tzippor! 19 "God is not a human who lies or a mortal who changes his mind. When he says something, he will do it; when he makes a promise, he will fulfill it. 20 Look, I am ordered to bless; when he blesses, I can't reverse it. 21 "No one has seen guilt in Ya'akov, or perceived perversity in Isra'el; ADONAI their God is with them and acclaimed as king among them. 22 "God, who brought them out of Egypt, gives them the strength of a wild ox; 23 thus one can't put a spell on Ya'akov, no magic will work against Isra'el. It can now be said of Ya'akov and Isra'el, 'What is this that God has done?!' 24 "Here is a people rising up like a lioness; like a lion he rears himself up -he will not lie down till he eats up the prey and drinks the blood of the slain."

Here we see Israel as the heirs to God’s promises, a people strengthened by God, mighty and formidable, protected from occultic power.

24:3Then the Spirit of God came upon him, 3 and he made his pronouncement: "This is the speech of Bil'am, son of B'or; the speech of the man whose eyes have been opened; 4 the speech of him who hears God's words; who sees what Shaddai sees, who has fallen, yet has open eyes: 5 "How lovely are your tents, Ya'akov; your encampments, Isra'el! 6 They spread out like valleys, like gardens by the riverside, like succulent aloes planted by ADONAI, like cedar trees next to the water. 7 "Water will flow from their branches, their seed will have water aplenty. Their king will be higher than Agag and his kingdom lifted high. 8 God, who brought them out of Egypt, gives them the strength of a wild ox. They will devour the nations opposing them, break their bones, pierce them with their arrows. 9 When they lie down they crouch like a lion, or like a lioness - who dares to rouse it? Blessed be all who bless you! Cursed be all who curse you!"

Here again, Israel is mighty, strong, formidable against its foes. But in addition, it is fruitful, blessed and a blessing to all who bless them, while all who seek to curse them will themselves be cursed.

24:15 "This is the speech of Bil'am, son of B'or; the speech of the man whose eyes have been opened; 16 the speech of him who hears God's words; who knows what 'Elyon knows, who sees what Shaddai sees, who has fallen, yet has open eyes: 17 "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not soon -a star will step forth from Ya'akov, a scepter will arise from Isra'el, to crush the corners of Mo'av and destroy all descendants of Shet. 18 His enemies will be his possessions -Edom and Se'ir, possessions. Isra'el will do valiantly, 19 From Ya'akov will come someone who will rule, and he will destroy what is left of the city." 20 He saw 'Amalek and made this pronouncement: "First among nations was 'Amalek, but destruction will be its end." 21 He saw the Keini and made this pronouncement: "Though your dwelling is firm, your nest set on rock, 22 Kayin will be wasted while captive to Ashur." 23 Finally, he made this pronouncement: "Oh no! Who can live when God does this? 24 But ships will come from the coast of Kittim to subdue Ashur and subdue 'Ever, but they too will come to destruction." 25 Then Bil'am got up, left and returned to his home; and Balak too went his way.

Here we see the consummating means of God’s purposes for Israel, the Messiah. He will be Israel’s protector and vindicator against her enemies. The nations that plundered Israel will themselves be plundered, and Israel protected by the might of God and the instrumentality of His Messiah. And we see this portrait mirrored in our Haftarah and in our New Covenant reading as well.

In the Haftarah we read more information about this coming King. . . .

Micah 5:6 They will shepherd the land of Ashur with the sword, the land of Nimrod at its gates; and he will rescue us from Ashur when he invades our land, when he overruns our borders.

7 Then the remnant of Ya'akov, surrounded by many peoples, will be like dew from ADONAI, like showers on the grass, which doesn't wait for a man or expect anything from mortals. 8 The remnant of Ya'akov among the nations, surrounded by many peoples, will be like a lion among forest animals, like a young lion among flocks of sheep - if it passes through, tramples and tears to pieces, there is no one to rescue them. 9 Your hand will be raised over your enemies; all your adversaries will be destroyed. 10 "When that day comes," says ADONAI, "I will cut off your horses from among you and destroy your chariots. 11 I will cut off the cities of your land and lay waste your strongholds. 12 I will cut off sorceries from your land; you will no longer have soothsayers. 13 I will cut off your carved images and standing-stones from among you; no longer will you worship what your own hands have made. 14 I will pull up your sacred poles from among you and destroy your enemies. 15 I will wreak vengeance in anger and fury on the nations, because they would not listen."

Micah 6:1 So listen now to what ADONAI says: "Stand up and state your case to the mountains, let the hills hear what you have to say." 2 Listen, mountains, to ADONAI's case; also you enduring rocks that support the earth! ADONAI has a case against his people; he wants to argue it out with Isra'el: 3 "My people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me! 4 I brought you up from the land of Egypt. I redeemed you from a life of slavery. I sent Moshe, Aharon and Miryam to lead you. 5 My people, just remember what Balak the king of Mo'av had planned, what Bil'am the son of B'or answered him, [and what happened] between Sheetim and Gilgal - so that you will understand the saving deeds of ADONAI."

6 "With what can I come before ADONAI to bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with burnt offerings? with calves in their first year? 7 Would ADONAI take delight in thousands of rams with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Could I give my firstborn to pay for my crimes, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" 8 Human being, you have already been told what is good, what ADONAI demands of you - no more than to act justly, love grace and walk in purity with your God.

Again we read of the seed of Jacob, here, ”the remnant of Jacob,” as being victor over her enemies and like a lion one dares not rouse up. We also read here of the purification of the descendants of Jacob from all their idolatry and spiritual corruption. We read a synopsis of the saving acts of God in bringing Israel out of Egypt, and of His determination to bless Israel despite her own stumblings, In the end, what the LORD requires of us is to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

And just a few verses before this, we read of the instrumentality of all this blessing, the Messiah, of whom it is written Micah 5:2 But you, Beit-Lechem near Efrat, so small among the clans of Y'hudah, out of you will come forth to me the future ruler of Isra'el, whose origins are far in the past, back in ancient times.” This one, the called the Beth-Lachmi, the Bethlehemite in our ancient prayer “L’cha Dodi,” is the one through whom these culminating blessings come over Israel.

In the Newer Covenant reading we read of the fulfillment of all this expectation, in the coming of Yeshua the Messiah [Luke 1:26-56]. Here we read of Yeshua that he is the ultimate Davidic King who will rule over the house of Ya’akov forever. He is to be born of the Holy Spirit

Miryam’s response is to proclaim the greatness of God in a poem, something still done in the Middle East when a hero is being praised. Not to make a comparison here [l’havdil] but when Abu Musab al-Zarkawi was killed in a recent raid in Iraq, Osama bin Laden praised him on a tape released to the media. This habit of praising heroes in poetry and song is ancient in the Middle East. Here is what Miryam says about the God of Israel, her hero:

46 . . . "My soul magnifies ADONAI; 47 and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, 48 who has taken notice of his servant-girl in her humble position. For -- imagine it! -- from now on, all generations will call me blessed! 49 "The Mighty One has done great things for me! Indeed, his name is holy; 50 and in every generation he has mercy on those who fear him. 51 "He has performed mighty deeds with his arm, routed the secretly proud, 52 brought down rulers from their thrones, raised up the humble, 53 filled the hungry with good things, but sent the rich away empty. 54 "He has taken the part of his servant Isra'el, mindful of the mercy 55 which he promised to our fathers, to Avraham and his seed forever."

What ought to be our proper response to these magnificent hero passages in the prophecies of Balaam, in the prophet Micah, and in Luke? And what does this have to do with why we gather here around this shulchan, before this Ark?

The answer is that we are here to praise the One Supreme God, who does such mighty works, who shows such faithfulness to the descendants of Jacob. We are here because such a God deserves our worship. And if we are spiritually healthy and aware of what our faith is supposed to be about, we will sense and give vent to a strong impulse to worship Him—offering our lives as living sacrifices, mingled with our praises of Him. When we gather together in this place, we will do so to offer him the sacrifice of prayer as the unified people of God, the beneficiaries of His mighty works.

If we don’t do this there is only one reason: we just don’t get it. We do not rightly comprehend who we are, who God is, and what He has done. We think we know, but we do not.

The proof of this is the portraits of heavenly worship we find in the Bible. Why is it that no one in the heavenly realm has difficulty worshipping God, why is it that it is both rich and poor, small and great, who stand in worship before the throne? It is because they all get it—they all see God for who He is, they understand the majesty of His works, they marvel at His covenant faithfulness, and as a result, the only thing they can do, the only thing they want to do is give Him the honor, glory, power and praise, the glory due His Name.

To rightly respond to God, we must have corporate worship—communal worship—and not just personal worship. We must have the gathered people of God singing the praises of our Holy hero. And again, it is most proper that we do this together, and publicly.

For this reason, Psalm 35:18 says this: “I will give you thanks in the great assembly, I will give you praise among huge crowds of people.” And Psalm 40:10 puts it this way: “I did not hide your righteousness in my heart but declared your faithfulness and salvation; I did not conceal your grace and truth from the great assembly." Psalm 107:32 says this: “Let them extol him in the assembly of the people and praise him in the leaders' council.” Hebrews 2:11-12, quotes from Psalm 35:18, reminding us that Yeshua Himself stands amidst his assembled people praising His Father: “11 For both Yeshua, who sets people apart for God, and the ones being set apart have a common origin - this is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers 12 when he says, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise." When we gather, we join with Yeshua through the Holy Spirit in the praise of the Father and His mighty works.

I never tire of telling you how we have distorted our relationship with God because we have so individualized it. We speak of Yeshua being “our personal Savior.” To me it sounds like someone speaking of their “personal trainer.” Yeshua is not your personal Savior—he is the covenant keeping Son of David in whom all of God’s promises to all of God’s people are Yea and Amen. We praise Him and His Father for the mercy shown to all.

Jews remember that God made his covenants and kept and is keeping His promises to a people—not just to you or to me or someone else, but to a people. And so it is the people gathered who ought to offer Him praise. Our tradition provides us the vehicle whereby we can offer Him that praise with one voice, even as the Apostle Paul says “5 And may God, the source of encouragement and patience, give you the same attitude among yourselves as the Messiah Yeshua had, 6 so that with one accord and with one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah” [Romans 15:16].

We employ the liturgy so that we might with one voice glorify the God who created, called, and covenanted with Israel, joining our voices not only with one another, but also with others throughout the world and throughout time. This is our privilege, our calling, and our role as a holy nation and a Kingdom of Priests.

Such worship is not a chore, nor simply a responsibility to be added to our To Do lists. Worship is a sign of awareness and an evidence of life—a sign that we not only understand and believe who God is and what He has done, but that we are alive to the Spirit of God.

And when we do not have this impulse to worship, we either do not know what our faith is about, or we are unresponsive to the motions of the Spirit. A.J. Heschel reminds us, “This is why in Jewish liturgy, praise rather than petition ranks foremost. It is the more profound form, for it involves not so much the sense of one's own dependence and privation as the sense of God’s majesty and glory.”

Yeshua told the woman at the well what God wants. Ultimately He is not seeking believers, or even workers for the harvest, although He does seek these as well. Above all else, the Father is seeking worshippers, And contrary to those people who imagine that Jewish worship is secondary or even suspect, Yeshua said this: “We worship what we know, for salvation is of the Jews.”

In worship, “Praise is our first response. Aflame with inability to say what His presence means, we can only sing, we can only utter words of adoration" [Heschel, Abraham Joshua. “Prayer: Now Before Whom You Stand.” In Rothschild, Fritz A., ed. Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997:213].

James Kugel reminds us, “Prayer, you see, is what we offer up to God, and our offering, like the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple, should be perfect. This is another reason why you should concentrate on learning the prayers by heart” [Kugel, James. On Being A Jew. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1990:103].

Our prayers are our priestly offering to God. Yes, we come in Yeshua’s Name, but what do we bring with us? Our sins? Yes, we want forgiveness. But what gifts do we bring to the Holy One? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: Through him, therefore, let us offer God a sacrifice of praise continually. For this is the natural product of lips that acknowledge his name [Hebrews 13:15].

We have meditated today on the astounding goodness of God to the descendants of Jacob. As we turn now to offer Him the sacrifice of praise, it would be helpful to be instructed by Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was a master of prayer. Here is what He has to teach us today about how the liturgy helps us in our priestly ministry of praise of God.

“We have to distinguish between two main types of prayer: prayer as an act of expression and prayer as an act of empathy.

The first type comes to pass when we feel the urge to set forth before God a personal concern. Here the concern, even the mood and the desire to pray come first; the word follows. It is the urge to pray that leads to the act of praying.
While it is true that the prayer of expression is a common and universal phenomenon, it is inaccurate to assume, as most people do, that prayer occurs primarily as an act of expression. The fact is that the more common type of prayer is an act of empathy. There need be no prayerful mood in us when we begin to pray. It is through our reading and feeling the words of the prayers, through the imaginative projection of our consciousness into the meaning of the words, and through empathy with the ideas with which the words are pregnant, that this type of prayer comes to pass. Here the word comes first, the feeling follows.

In the prayer of empathy, we begin by turning to the words of the liturgy. At first, the words and their meanings seem to lie beyond the horizon of the mind. . . . Gradually, going out to meet its meaning, we rise to the greatness of prayer. On the way to the word, on its slopes and ridges, prayer matures—we purify ourselves into beings who pray [Heschel, Abraham Joshua, “Prayer: Expression and Empathy.” In Rothschild, Fritz A., ed. Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997:203-204],

I asked a question at the start of today’s deliberations: How shall we respond to Balaam’s prophecies? The answer to that question is that the only right response, the only response that is sensitive to the movings of the Spirit and in harmony with Yeshua, the only response in keeping with our identity as a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation is that we, the assembled seed of Jacob, ought to offer Him our sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that acknowledge who He is and what He has done.

This is our privilege, our joy, and our place in the world.

At 7/15/2006 5:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then ADONAI put a word in Bil'am's mouth and said, "Go on back to Balak, and speak as I tell you." How do you classify this guy as a pagan since he
heard the word of ADONAI,
spoke the word as instructed
therefore, he had to believe in ADONAI

which is more than many "believers."

At 7/17/2006 9:33 AM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

To the person who said,"How do you classify this guy [Bila'am] as a pagan since he heard the word of ADONAI,spoke the word as instructed therefore, he had to believe in ADONAI which is more than many 'believers,'", I say, "Good question."

I say he is a pagan because it is clear that he is not identified in Torah as part of the covenant people of God, but an outsider who has a genuine prophetic gift. In addition, alhtough he has real experience with Hashem, he has no real allegiance to the God of Israel and to his people. We know this because he later advises Balak to have some of his women seduce the Israelite men that they might bring a curse upon themselves. See Numbers 25:1-9; 31:16.


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