Walking Against God’s Will. As we saw last week, Israel had begun the final leg of the journey to Canaan land. Traveling northward along the King’s highway, they would pass directly through the land of Moab. Balak, the king of Moab, felt threatened by Israel so he sent an emissary to Balaam in Mesopotamia asking him to come to Moab and to curse Israel. In Numbers 22:12, God clearly commanded Balaam, “Thou shalt not go with them [Moabites]; thou shalt not curse the people [Israel]: for they are blessed.” Notice in verse 13, Balaam did not give the whole story to the Midianites. He only said, “the LORD refuseth to give me leave to go with you.” He did not tell them the most important thing – that God had absolutely forbidden him to curse Israel because they were blessed! You will note that the Hebrew word דֶּ֖רֶךְ (deh-rech – meaning ‘way’ – Strong’s #1870) is used 8 times [verses 22, 23, 24, 26, 31, 32, 34]. Often it has the Hebrew letter bet ( ב) as the prefix to indicate ‘the way’ or ‘in the way’ – בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ (b-derech). Verse 32 clearly shows us that God’s way and Balaam’s way were at odds: “I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me.”
Spiritual Vision Check. A secondary ‘theme’ in this Torah portion becomes apparent as we count the number of times the word ‘see’ appears in the text. First, the donkey ‘sees’ the angel of the Lord in verses 23, 25 and 27. The Hebrew word for ‘see’ is רָאָה (rah-ah – Strong’s #7200). Then God ‘opens’ the
donkey’s mouth so that she speaks to Balaam. Here the Hebrew word for ‘open’ is פָתָח (pah-tach) which literally means ‘open’. Then God ‘opens’ Balaam’s eyes in Num. 22:31. Here the word translated as ‘open’ is גָלָה (gah-lah – Strong’s #1540). The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) says, “When God revealed himself to Balaam it is said that Balaam’s eyes were “uncovered,” “opened”. (Num 24:4, 6) It appears that in this manner Balaam saw something which he otherwise could not see.” From this point forward, Balaam refers to himself as “the man whose eyes are open” (cf. Num. 24:3, 15) Spiritual vision is a key theme with at least 24 occurrences of the word ‘see’ (in various forms) in Numbers 22.
Curses Become Blessings. God’s will was clear. Israel was NOT to be cursed. However, Balak had offered Balaam great riches if he would curse Israel. Further insight from Deut. 23:5 shows that Balaam truly did WANT to curse Israel: “Nevertheless the LORD thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the LORD thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the LORD thy God loved thee.” This verse explains why Balaam blessed Israel when he really wanted to curse them because God overruled and turned each curse into a blessing! Balak was furious! Balaam’s four prophecies about Israel are true because God gave them. One of the greatest prophecies in the T’nakh about the Messiah was given by Balaam in Numbers 24:17: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Seceptre shall rise out of Israel ..” This prophecy probably guided the wise men from the east (the same area that Balaam was from) thousands of years later that Matthew speaks about in his Gospel, to worship the newborn king of the Jews.
Etymology of the word ‘Prophet’. According to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT), the word for prophet, נָבִ֣יא (navi), is derived from the Hebrew root, נבע, “meaning to bubble up, “boil forth,” hence, “to pour forth words, like those who speak with fervour of mind or under divine inspiration, as prophets and poets.” It occurs 277 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The plural is נְבִיאִ֔ים (n’vi’im) and is also the second division of the T’nakh. 1 Samuel 9:9 gives some etymology about the word ‘prophet’: “Beforetime in Israel, when a man went to enquire of God, thus he spake, Come, and let us go to the seer: for he that is now called a Prophet was beforetime called a Seer.” The Hebrew word translated as ‘seer’ in this verse is רֹאֶֽה – ro-eh, from the root for the word ‘to see’. The seer or the prophet was the one who could see the way to go during hard times. He could see God’s vision when no one else could. Because He saw God’s vision, he often also saw God’s coming judgments.
The Seer Who Could Not See. Matthew Henry says that Bishop Simon Patrick (1626-1707) and also many Jewish scholars of his time, thought that Balaam had been a great prophet referring to Balak’s accolade in Num. 22:6, “he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.” Although God gave him many chances, and showed him a great miracle in letting his donkey speak, Balaam never repented. He never aligned his way with God’s way and died trying to help the Midianites to destroy Israel when God clearly told him that Israel was blessed. Numbers 31 speaks of the children of Israel’s destruction of both the Midianites and of Balaam. This event is also recorded in Joshua 13:21-22, “Balaam also the son of Beor, the soothsayer, did the children of Israel slay with the sword.” Sadly note that at the end of his life, Balaam was not called a prophet or seer, but a soothsayer. There are several Hebrew words translated as ‘soothsayer’ in the T’nakh, but the one used here is קּוֹסֵ֑ם (ko-sem). TWOT says that ko-sem referred to one who practiced divination and, “The major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and the minor prophets Micah and Zechariah all mention קָסַם [ko-sem] in a derogatory sense.” In the New Testament, Balaam is used as an example NOT to follow: 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11; Revelation 2:14.
Don’t Ignore God’s Word! All of Balaam’s problems started when he ignored God’s Word concerning Israel in Gen. 12:3: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.” By attempting to curse Israel, Balaam actually put himself under God’s curse! Although God showed him the truth, he did not repent and his life spiraled downwards. God is still on the throne and looking out for His ancient people, the Jewish people. And although many ‘Balaks’ and ‘Balaams’ have come on the scene down through the centuries, none have been able to destroy Israel, but rather, eventually they have met with destruction. I do not want to be like Balaam whose way was perverse before God. Just this week I have been praying through Psalm 119 which has 176 wonderful verses about God’s Word. I want my way to align with God’s way: “O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!” (Psalm 119:5)
Esau’s Inheritance. The book of Numbers is partly a narrative of Israel’s desert wanderings interspersed with the laws and requirements of the offerings and also, rules for dividing the land of Canaan. Deuteronomy recounts (and summarizes) the events of the desert years and here we find God’s command to Moses to begin the final leg of the journey home to Canaan: “Then we turned, and took our journey into the wilderness [desert]by the way of the Red sea, as the LORD spake unto me: and we compassed [circled] mount Seir [Edom] many days. And the LORD spake unto me, saying, Ye have compassed this mountain long enough: turn you northward. And command thou the people, saying, Ye are to pass through the coast of your brethren the children of Esau, which dwell in Seir; and they shall be afraid of you: take ye good heed unto yourselves therefore: Meddle not with them; for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as a foot breadth; because I have given mount Seir unto Esau for a possession.” (Deut. 2:1-5) We have to go to Genesis for the backstory to Esau’s possession. When Jacob returned to Canaan to live, Esau, “went into the country from the face of his brother Jacob.” (Gen. 36:6) Two verses later, we learn the location of the land where Esau fled: “Thus dwelt Esau in mount Seir: Esau is Edom.” (Gen. 36:8) The Lord warned Israel that He had given Edom to Esau and He would not give any of this land to them.
Numbers 20, where we are studying this week, gives some extra details that Edom denied Moses’ request for passage: “Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country: we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, neither will we drink of the water of the wells: we will go by the king’s high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed thy borders. And Edom said unto him, Thou shalt not pass by me, lest I come out against thee with the sword.” (Num. 20:17-18) Note that Moses said Israel would use, “the king’s high way” to pass through Edom. The Hebrew says: דֶּרֶךְ הַמֶּלֶךְ – “derech ha-melech”. The word הַמֶּלֶךְ (ha-melech) means “the king” while דֶּרֶךְ (derech) means ‘way’ or ‘path’ hence the phrase, “king’s high way” in the AV.
Two Major Trade Routes. Two vitally important trade routes criss-crossed the land of Canaan joining three major continents: Africa, Europe and Asia. The King’s Highway extended from Egypt (in Africa) across the Sinai Peninsula, northward across Transjordan, past Damascus and onwards to Mesopotamia (in Asia) and the Euphrates River. The Via Maris (Latin for “way of the sea”) is the modern name for an ancient trade route linking Egypt with the northern empires of Syria and Mesopotamia. Its earlier name was “Way of the Philistines“, a reference to a passageway through the Philistine Plain (which today consists of Israel’s southern coastal plain and the Gaza Strip). It was the most important route from Egypt to Syria in the Fertile Crescent and followed the Israeli Mediterranean coastal plain before crossing over into the plain of Jezreel and the Jordan valley. Together with the King’s Highway, the Via Maris was one of the major trade routes connecting Egypt with Mesopotamia on the western edge of the Fertile Crescent.
The Via Maris (purple), King’s Highway (red), and other ancient Levantine trade routes, c. 1300 BCE (Wikipedia)
The Long Road Home. According to the Biblical record, during the Exodus from Egypt, God instructed Moses to purposefully avoid the Via Maris route:“And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt. But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt.” Exodus 13:17-18 The Lord knew that by following the shorter Via Maris route, Israel would encounter the Philistines. Instead, He led them into the desert so that He could save them from Egypt at the Red Sea.
After the 40 years of the desert wanderings, Moses would now finally lead Israel up the King’s Highway until they crossed over the Jordan river into Canaan. In modern Jordan, Highway 35 and Highway 15 follow The King’s Highway, connecting Irbid in the north with Aqaba in the south. The southern part of the route crosses several deep wadis, making it a highly scenic if curvy and rather low-speed road. (see photo at the top) The Lord picked the King’s Highway as Israel’s long road to their new home – Canaan. He knew it was in the desert, far from water; but He was the water of life. It was far from food – but He supplied their food. It was steep and hard to climb; but He would give them strength. It was curvy and one could become easily lost; but He was their guide. Yes, the Lord choose the King’s Highway on purpose to teach Israel that He would supply all they needed on the long walk home. The Lord wanted to develop in the children of Israel the faith in Him that they at first lacked (hence wandering in the desert for 40 years). The desert is always the best school for developing faith because it is a place where we truly must trust the Lord for even basic needs. Is your life path hard and steep? Confusing? Lacking in even basic resources? Don’t despair! The Lord may be sending you this direction on purpose to increase your faith. Remember if you only walk on the flatlands of the Via Marias, yes you will reach your destination faster and easier, but you won’t arrive with as much faith!
This week we begin the book of Exodus and the Torah portion, Sh’mot (שְׁמוֹת ), which means ‘names’. This is the 2nd word in the Biblical Hebrew text which begins: וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת <- (v’eh-leh sh’mot) – translated as, “and these are the names”. Sh’mot (“names”) is also the Hebrew name of the book of Exodus. Chapter’s 1-2 let us know that hundreds of years (430 of them) have passed since the closing events of Genesis 50. Also, we are introduced to Moses and his younger years. When Moses kills the Egyptian in ch. 2, he forever leaves his life of grandeur in Egypt (as Pharaoh’s daughter’s son) and flees to the land of Midian to become a humble shepherd. Here he lives for 40 years.
Where God Spoke to Moses
A few years ago, I took a class on Bible geography with Dr. Jonathan Lipnick of eTeacher and He taught us a very important observation, “The physical setting of the Bible plays a major role the theology of the Bible. To understand the God of the Hebrew Bible, you must understand the place (ie, Israel!) where He has that relationship with His people. The Bible would not be the book we know if it were situated anywhere else.”
Exodus 3:1-2 gives us the geographical setting for the passage under consideration: “Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb. And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.” Notice I highlighted the phrase, “backside of the desert”. The Hebrew word translated as ‘desert’ is מִּדְבָּר (mid-bar) and means exactly that – ‘desert’. If you have ever visited Israel and gone to my favorite places – the Judean Wilderness or the Negev, then that is the mid-bar. (Although Moses is not in Israel at this time, but in Midian.)
The desert is in general a still and quiet place. I love the desert and love to visit desert places. Many prophets received revelations from God while in the desert (among them, Moses, David and the apostle Paul). It is not that God is more real in the desert than in other places, because God is everywhere present. It is just that we are so easily distracted from knowing God due to the many distractions of life. In the desert, we detach from the noisiness of everyday life that demand our attention and can focus on God. It is then that God can speak to our heart. I think it is most important that Moses was not just in the desert, but in “the backside of the desert” when God gave Him this revelation. God wanted Moses in a place where He had his undivided attention before He revealed to him His most important name!
What God Spoke to Moses
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was the Chief Rabbi of the UK from 2001 – 2013, wrote that Moses asked God two questions at the ‘burning bush’: Who am I? and Who are you? God’s answer to the second question is worth close examination. In Exodus 3:14, God tells Moses,
אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה – transliterated as Eh-he-yeh asher eh-he-yeh. The word that is repeated twice, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה (eh-he-yeh) is the future tense form of the verb ‘be’ – (ie, “I will be”). So literally the phrase is, “I will be what I will be.” In the AV this phrase is translated as, “I AM THAT I AM”. However, the reader must remember that in Hebrew, the verb ‘be’ does not have a present tense form – only future and past. Therefore there is no way to say, ‘I am’ or ‘he is’ or ‘we are’. You can say ‘I was’ or ‘he will be’. Also, there are NO CAPITAL letters in Hebrew so all capitalization in English translations is added by the translators. Capitalization does not exist in the original Hebrew text.
The following concept is very important. The root of the verb that is repeated twice in the Hebrew text, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה, is היה (Strong’s #1961) – the verb ‘to be’. Now, look how similar the Hebrew letters are for the verb ‘be’ (היה) to the letters in God’s covenantal name – יְהוָֹה (also known as the tetragramaton – a Latin phrase meaning “the four letters”). The Hebrew word for the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to exist’ is basically derived from God’s name! Thus etymologically, we see that all existence is derived from God! God does not officially introduce the name יְהוָֹה to Moses until Exodus 6:3, although Moses has used it many times already in Exodus and in Genesis (remember that he wrote these books).
Rabbi Sacks reminds us that God really never answered Moses’ first question as to why He had chosen him. However God did assure Moses of success. Rabbi Sacks explains God’s viewpoint this way, “You [Moses] will succeed because I am not asking you to do it alone. I am not really asking you to do it at all. I will be doing it for you. I want you to be My representative, My mouthpiece, My emissary and My voice.” He goes on to say, “In the Tanakh as a whole, the people who turn out to be the most worthy are the ones who deny they are worthy at all. … The heroes of the Bible are not figures from Greek or any other kind of mythology. They are not people possessed of a sense of destiny, determined from an early age to achieve fame. They were people who doubted their own abilities. There were times when they felt like giving up. Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah reached points of such despair that they prayed to die. They became heroes against their will. There was work to be done – God told them so – and they did it. It is almost as if a sense of smallness is a sign of greatness.” To this great insight, I simply say, ‘amen’.
There are so many great applications from this passage that just “fall out” if we are faithful to study out the details of history, culture, geography and language. The inductive method of Bible study will always give the best grasp of the Bible truths.
There are many qualities of the desert that God can create in our life regardless of where we live geographically, and one of them is that of ‘limited resources’. God often puts His servants into ‘desert situations’ regardless of where they are living to teach them the same principles that He taught Moses, and the children of Israel and David and Paul. So if we find ourselves in a desert of God’s making, let us not fret, but rather rejoice that God is wanting to speak to us and give us a deeper view of Himself and so He is sending us to the school of the desert.
This weeks Torah Portion, ‘Vayechi’, is named for the first Hebrew word of Genesis 47:28 – וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם <- (‘Vayechi Ya’cov b’eretz mizraim). The AV translates it exactly as written, “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt…” The first Hebrew word in the above phrase is וַיְחִ֤י(vah-yi-chi). The root of וַיְחִ֤י is חיה and means ‘live’! Often it is used in the plural, חַיִּים֙ – chaim, like in Genesis 2:9 speaking of the ‘tree of life’. However, it is always translated into English in the singular ‘life’. Chaimis a frequently used Hebrew word. Perhaps you have heard the phrase l’chaim meaning, ‘to life’. Chaim is also a popular male name in Israel. Israel’s first president was Chaim Weizemann.
Jacob’s life was basically lived in three different places. For 77 years he lived in Hebron ( חֶבְר֑וֹן ) with his parents – Isaac and Rebekkah. [This was also where Abraham had lived.] Then he left Hebron (not as young man as many tell the story, but at the age of 77), to find a wife among Rebekah’s family back in Syria ( Padanaram). He lived there for 20 years where he married his wives and had 11 sons and one daughter. Upon his return to Hebron, Rachel gave birth to the 12th son, Benjamin, but died in childbirth and Jacob buried her near Bethlehem. Jacob lived 33 more years back in Hebron. The last 17 years of Jacob’s life, however, were spent in Egypt. At the time of his death, he commanded his sons to return his body to the family burying place, the cave of Machpelah in the plains of Mamre that Abraham had purchased from Ephron the Hittite.
The 12 sons of Jacob all died in Egypt, but only Joseph had the faith to tell the children of Israel, “God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.” (Genesis 50:24-25) The final sentence of Genesis says, “So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” (Genesis 50:26) The English word ‘coffin’ is translated from the Hebrew word אָר֖וֹן (ah-ron) which literally means a closet, or something with doors that you store things in. In this case, Joseph’s body was stored inside. As Viceroy of all of Egypt, Joseph could have no doubt requested to be buried in one of the great Pyramids where the Pharaohs were buried. Joseph had lived most of his life exiled in Egypt, but he never forgot that Egypt was not his home and he did not want his final resting place to be there! Joseph was the only one of the 12 brothers whose final resting place was Israel. The children of Israel honored his wish and when they left Egypt on the first Passover, Moses himself made sure they took the bones of Joseph as he had commanded: “And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you. ” (Exodus 13:19) This action guaranteed his placement into the honor roll of faith in Hebrews 11: “By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.” (Hebrews 11:22) It takes a huge amount of faith to pray prayers that we know won’t be answered in our lifetime. Joseph had that kind of faith! I want this kind of faith too!
Edith Samuel, in her book, “Your Jewish Lexicon”, says that chesed is one of the “most high-frequency words” in the Jewish lexicon. Chesedחֶסֶד [remember in Hebrew the ‘ch’ is pronounced as in ‘Bach’] occurs 237 times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Strong’s #678) and is most often translated into English as the old fashioned word, ‘lovingkindness’, but also ‘mercy’ and ‘kindness’.
The best way to explain the concept of chesed is to look at someone who exhibited it to others. One of the greatest examples is found in today’s Torah portion when Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers. During his 20 years in Egypt, God had taught Joseph some powerful lessons, preparing him to be the preserver of his family ie, the Jewish people! During the same 20 years, Joseph’s brothers had been suffering with a very guilty conscience! In Genesis 42, the first time they meet Joseph (and of course they did not recognize him), he calls them spies, they reply, “And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.” (Gen. 42:21) Apparently they had an agreement among themselves never to tell the real truth about Joseph since they told Joseph in verse 13 that one brother “is not”. Joseph’s actions towards his brothers, before he reveals who he is, it not due to revenge, but he is trying to bring them to the point of repentance and freedom from their guilt. He realizes that while he was imprisoned in Egypt, they have been imprisoned inside of their guilty conscience. Finally when Joseph did reveal his identity, his brothers “could not answer him; for they were troubled at his presence.” (Genesis 45:3) Again, it was their guilty conscience that caused them to be “troubled at his presence”.
Because Joseph is full of chesed and forgiveness, he is the initiator in the entire event of restoration. Joseph immediately shares with his brothers the very powerful, life changing lesson that God had taught him. From man’s perspective, Joseph was sold into Egypt. Genesis 37:28 specifically states, “… they [his brothers] … sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.” However here in Genesis 45, Joseph is able to say, “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.” (Gen. 45:5)God had taught Joseph one of the most important lessons of life – God is in control of every event and if we trust completely in Him, His unseen hand will work it out for our good. Joseph said that God SENThim into Egypt to preserve the very ones who had harmed him – his family. In order for Joseph to be able to preserve his family from the coming famine, God had to send this special trial into his life to mature him. The twenty years in Egypt was not an intellectual pursuit of God by Joseph. Joseph did not even have the Word of God! It had not been written yet. All Joseph had was God!! God taught Joseph to view life from His perspective, instead of man’s perspective which is very limited because we are finite. Therefore, Joseph learned that bad things are often good things in disguise. Now it was time for Joseph to teach this lesson to his family. When the brothers least deserved kindness from Joseph, he gave it. He forgave them and sought their good and wanted to preserve them from the famine. God deals the same way with us. When we least deserve it, God shows us lovingkindness and forgiveness – usually through other people. Do you recognize God’s chesed towards you in all situations? The next time something ‘bad’ happens, remember that it may turn out to be the best thing to ever happen if we will view it from God’s perspective!
According to Webster, etymology is, “the tracing of a word back as far as possible in its own language.” The first occurrence of the word ‘Israel’ (yisrael) – יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל in the Hebrew Bible is found in this week’s Torah portion in Genesis 32:28. In this passage, the angel of the LORD confronts the patriarch Jacob at Peniel and changes his name: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” What does ‘Israel’ ( יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל <-) mean? First, note that the last two letters, אל, (El), is one of the names for God and occurs 6,581 times in the Hebrew T’nakh. [The longer form of this word is אלוהים (Elohim) and occurs 2,602 times in the T’nakh.](more…)