Bamidbar Twenty-Four: Mah Tovu

Balaam was brought by Balak, the king of the Moabites, specifically to curse Israel. However, he has been blessing Israel instead, angering Balak, but fulfilling God’s wishes. Balaam can see that the spirit of God is among the Israelites, and he blesses them once again. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! They extend like streams, like gardens by the river, like aloes which the Lord planted, like cedars by the water (Numbers 24:5-6).” The first line of this blessing has become the Mah Tovu prayer, which Jews say daily. It’s so interesting to see that its origin is here, in words spoken  by a non-Jewish, non-Israelite prophet, whose exact connection to God I still don’t understand. It’s clear that he’s very loyal to God, but why was he chosen? What led to this relationship? The text doesn’t say.

The blessing continues, with Balaam saying that the Israelites will defeat Agag, who is the king of the Amalakites. He concludes by saying that those who bless Israel will be blessed, and those who curse Israel will be cursed. This could be part of his motivation for giving the blessings to the Israelites – that he wants to be blessed in turn, and sees this as the way to do it. The relationship that God has with the Israelites extends to their relationships with others, apparently, so it makes sense to want to stay on their good side. However, Balak initiated this whole interaction with the goal of cursing the Israelite people. “Balak’s anger flared against Balaam, and he clapped his hands. Balak said to Balaam, ‘I called you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them these three times. Now, hurry back to your place. I said I would honor you greatly, but the Lord has deprived you of honor (Numbers 24:10-11).” Personally, I think this is a pretty moderate reaction to the betrayal that Balak perceives as having been done to him. He doesn’t curse or punish Balak. He only says that he won’t reward him, because he didn’t do what he was brought to do. This makes sense to me.

Balaam seems pretty content with this, and is ready to go home anyway. But before he does, he prophesies for Balak. “I see it, but not now; I behold it, but not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth (Numbers 24:17).” Basically, there’s nothing to worry about in the immediate future, but eventually, everything Balak fears is going to happen, and the Israelites are going to be victorious over the region. And honestly, this eventually turns out to be true. Today, all of the peoples of the ancient Near East are gone, except one. The Israelite people have become the Jewish people, and live on. I guess Balaam was right about this one!


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