How does a community know that God is on their side?
In the Hebrew Bible, God rewards people with food, fertility, long life, and success in war. God determines the winner of a battle. If an enemy attacks a group of Israelites and wins, God is punishing the Israelites. If the Israelites attack and win, God is giving them the victory because they have found favor in God’s eyes.
Both this week’s Torah portion, Balak, and the accompanying haftarah reading, Micah 5:6-6:8, predict that when the Israelites please God, they will conquer other countries like a lion devouring its prey.
What can people do to get God on their side?
In Balak, the blessings that the prophet Bilam pronounces for the Israelites include two hints about why God is on their side. But in the haftarah, the prophet Micah directly states what God wants.
A sign of divine favor
The Israelites traveling from the Reed Sea to Mount Sinai defeat an attack of Amalekite nomads in the desert, with God’s help.1 Their next military engagement is on the southern border of Canaan, where the Israelites alienate God and are condemned to forty years in the wilderness. They march north anyway, even though Moses warns them that God is no longer on their side, and this time the Amalekites defeat them.2
After that the Israelites avoid combat until their forty-year sentence is almost completed. Then, instead of approaching Canaan from the south, they circle east and north around the kingdoms of Edom and Moab.
When they finally head toward the Jordan River and Canaan (in last week’s Torah portion, Chukat) they ask the Amorite king Sichon for permission to pass through his territory. He attacks them instead. The Israelites win and conquer all of his land, from Arnon River to the Yabok River.3
… he was Sichon, king of the Amorites, and he had made war against the first king of Moab and taken all his land from his hand, as far as the Arnon. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:26)
The next Torah portion, Balak, opens with the current king of Moab’s fear of the hordes of Israelite invaders camping across the Arnon in what used to be Moabite land. King Balak hires a Mesopotamian prophet to come and curse the Israelites, so he can defeat them. But each time the prophet Bilam prepares to do so, God makes him speak a blessing instead.4
Two of Bilam’s blessings compare the Israelites to lions. The lion was the top predator among non-human animals in the Ancient Near East, an apt metaphor for a human nation that is the top predator among the nations in the region—the nation that wins wars and cannot be conquered.
In the first of his two blessings mentioning lions, Bilam says:
Hey, a people like a lioness rises,
And like the lion it rears up.
It does not lie down until it devours prey
And drinks the blood of the slain. (Numbers 23:24)
Later in the portion Balak some Midianites living in Sichon’s former territory seduce many of the Israelite men into disobeying God and worshiping Baal Pe-or.5 After the apostasy has been squelched, God orders the Israelites to attack the Midianites.6 Like ravenous lions, the Israelite men kill every Midianite male and burn down all their villages.7
Bilam refers to lions in another blessing when he says of the Israelite people:
It kneels, lies down like a lion
And like a lioness, who [dares to] impose on it? (Numbers 24:9)
When the Israelites cross the Jordan River they have a reputation for conquering two Amorite kingdoms, both Sichon’s kingdom of Cheshbon and the Og’s kingdom of Bashan. In the book of Joshua, they conquer large parts of Canaan. Bilam’s blessing indicates that in the future (perhaps in the time of King Solomon) their new nation “relies on its reputation and does not fear attack even when lying down.”8
Micah makes a similar prediction in this week’s haftarah. The book of Micah begins with a denunciation of the northern Israelite kingdom, Samaria, which the Assyrian Empire had recently conquered. Micah’s prophecies for the southern kingdom of Judah alternate between catastrophe if the Judahites offend God and good fortune if they retain God’s favor. In the haftarah for Balak, Micah prophecies:
And the remainder of Jacob9 will be among the nations,
In the midst of many peoples,
Like a lion among beasts of the forest,
Like a young lion among flocks of sheep
That passes through and tramples
And tears apart, and there is none to rescue them.
Your hand will be high over your adversary
And all your enemies will be cut down. (Micah 5:7-8)
How to earn divine favor
Bilam passes on God’s blessings for the people who already have favor in God’s eyes. In his very first blessing, he says:
Who has counted the dust of Jacob,
Or numbered [even] a fourth of Israel?
May my soul die the death of the upright,
And may my end be like theirs! (Numbers 23:10)
Here dust is a metaphor for fertility, as in Genesis when God promises to make Abraham’s descendants “like the dust of the earth, so that if a man is able to count the dust of the earth, he can also count your descendants”10.
This verse in Balak implies that the Israelites have been rewarded with fertility (another sign of divine favor) because they are upright. But we do not learn God thinks of them that way.
In his third blessing, Bilam says:
Mah tovu your tents, Jacob,
And your dwellings, Israel! (Numbers 24:5)
mah tovu (נַה־טֺּווּ) = How good they are. (Mah = what, how + tovu = they are good, from the same root as tov, טוֹב = good: desirable, useful, beautiful, kind, or virtuous.)
How are they good? All shelters are desirable and useful. Are the tents or future dwellings of the Israelites beautiful? Probably not; the rest of the Torah waxes lyrical about nature and about the sanctuaries the Israelites build for God, but not about their personal habitations. So does Bilam mean that Israelite houses, i.e. families, are good in the ethical sense?
According to the Talmud, Bilam sees that the entrances of the tents are not aligned so that they face each other, thereby giving each family more privacy—and this makes them worthy of God’s presence.11 Subsequent commentators, including Rashi, interpreted this privacy as a form of sexual morality.
But the haftarah goes much farther than the Talmudic speculation that Bilam was referring to a narrow area of morality.
Micah, after comparing the Israelites to a lion, delivers a different prophecy in which God will destroy Judah, presumably through a foreign army, as a punishment for worshiping idols.
Then he quotes God as bringing as case against the Israelites for turning toward idols despite all the help God gave them in the past: bringing them up from Egypt; giving them Moses, Aaron, and Miriam as leaders; and making Bilam answer Balak with blessings.12
Next Micah imagines the Israelites asking what they can give God to get back into favor—thousands of rams as burnt offerings? Streams of oil? Their own firstborn sons?13 He replies:
It was told to you, human, mah tov
And what God is demanding from you:
Only to do justice
And to love kindness
And to live carefully, walking with your God. (Micah 6:8)
mah tov (מַה־טּוֹב) = what is good.
Here tov clearly means “good” in the ethical sense, and it is not limited to sexual morality. God wants us to treat other human beings with both justice and kindness. God also wants religious observance that is not ostentatious or immoral, like the sacrifices the Israelites suggest, but part of a careful, mindful life.
Even when we are not looking for divine favor to vanquish our enemies or give us happy lives, Micah’s statement of what God wants is a valuable guide to being morally upright. May we all learn to pay attention to where we walk, and correct our course as needed so that we treat our fellow humans with both justice and kindness.
- Exodus 17:8-13.
- Numbers 14:39-45.
- Numbers 21:21-25.
- Numbers 23:11-12, 23:25-26, 24:1, 24:10. In the Hebrew Bible a prophecy is usually a conditional prediction; it forecasts what will happen if a person or nation makes a certain choice. A blessing, such as Isaac’s blessings of his sons in Genesis 27, is an unconditional prediction.
- Numbers 25:1-9. See my post Balak: Being Open.
- Numbers 25:16-18, 31:2.
- Numbers 31:3-18.
- 18th-century Moroccan rabbi Chayim ben Mosheh ibn Attar, Or HaChayim, translated in sefaria.com.
- The “remainder of Jacob” probably refers to the kingdom of Judah, since the Assyrians had deported thousands of Israelites from the other Israelite kingdom, Samaria.
- Genesis 13:16.
- Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra.
- Micah 5:9-6:5.
- Micah 6:6-7.