Saturday 1st July 2023 12th Tamuz 5783
Parashiyot Chukat Balak
Chukat: Numbers 19:1-22:1; Judges 11:1-33; John 3: 10-21
Balak: Numbers 22:2-25:9; Micah 5:6-6:8; Hebrews 10:5-9, 31-39
By Suzy Linett, Devar Shalom, Ontario, CA
The speaking donkey
As I read the Scriptures, I’m struck by how much of it easily relates to my childhood in the 50s and 60s. The TV show “Father Knows Best” and the childhood game of “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” come to mind. In this week’s double portion, however, it is a tale—one of deception, rebellion, and the need for obedience—that the donkey realizes first.
The reading opens after the rebellion of Korach when he was swallowed by the earth; followed by ongoing complaints, the need for repentance, and further consecration of the tithes and offerings. This week, the reading begins in Numbers 19 with a list of rules directly from the Lord which are difficult to comprehend, but nonetheless required. Those who were contaminated by touching the dead bodies during the rebellion must be purified. The purification comes through the sacrifice of a red heifer, with many specific qualifications. The Israelites are to follow them in order to return to the Lord’s presence. Despite the meticulous and tedious tasks, it is not long until, following the death of Miryam, the people once more rebel against Moses and Aharon.
All this reminds me of that television series. Each week, a problem or difficulty was presented to Jim Anderson, the father of the family. It was resolved with the realization that the father of the house had the answer, had the solution, and expected certain specific behaviors. Yet, in the following episode a week later, a different problem ensued with the same outcome and resolution.
Why didn’t the children of Israel learn? Why didn’t the Anderson family learn from week to week on television? Why do we fail to follow our Heavenly Father’s commands and statutes fully? As I struggle with this failure and with my personal desire to do right versus my fleshly inclinations, I am drawn to compassion. I see the reality of the struggle. I have the entirety of the Word of God, I have the indwelling presence of Ruach HaKodesh, and I have the truth of Messiah, yet I blow it. I fail.
When the Israelites lacked water, Moses was to speak to the rock once again, yet this time he struck it (Num 20:7–11). He was tired of the constant whining, of the moral failures of the people to follow the statutes, completely. He was frustrated. Those of us in ministry leadership understand. Sometimes the members of our congregations complain. They fail to follow the teaching. Yet, for Moses, his act of defiance kept him from entering the Land of Promise (Num 20:12). Why did such a simple failure result in such a tremendous act of discipline? Scripture says, “From everyone given much, much will be required” (Luke 12:48 b). Moses was in a position of leadership and had been given the nation. He had wealth and power. He had fame. He failed and, as a result, much was required of him. Great discipline was required for the people to understand that everyone must follow the Lord. The leadership is not exempt.
The Israelites continue their march. Esau/Edom provides a difficulty, but as always, the Lord prevails (Num 20:18–21). Aharon dies and his son assumes the priesthood (20:27–29). The Israelites are victorious over Og and Sichon (21:34–35). They enter the area of Moab and reach the banks of the Jordan, and Moses is able to view the Promised Land before he dies, showing the compassion of the Lord through the disciplinary process (27:12).
The question for the Israelites and for us today is whether or not we understand that our Heavenly Father really does know best. This is like another childhood experience I believe many of us had when we questioned our parents’ authority: “Because I’m the father/mother, and I said so! That’s why.” We are commanded to follow the instructions even when they don’t make sense to us. The blood of a red heifer should not cleanse or purify anyone from a medical standpoint. Speaking to a rock, or even striking it, should not bring out gushing water from any scientific view. Further in the passage, a bronze serpent is lifted up to save the people from poisonous snakes. There is no medical or other logic here. Yet, later, in following passages, the people will fail and begin to worship the bronze serpent. Yeshua will refer to it in John 3:15. Will the Israelites walk in obedience? Will we walk that way when life doesn’t make sense?
The next parasha in our pair continues the story. Balak, King of the Moabites, unites with the Midianites to fight and destroy Israel. He hires the prophet Balaam as a hitman to pronounce a curse upon the Israelites so that they may be defeated in battle. The prophet is instructed by the Lord that he is not to go with Balak, and not to pronounce curses, as the Israelites are blessed, but to say what he is told (Num 22:18–20). Balaam struggles with the need to bless Israel and yet wants the vast sums of money offered to speak curses. He saddles his donkey and heads out. The angel of the Lord blocks the path. The donkey sees the angel and stops. After a few exchanges, the donkey speaks to Balaam. This is where it gets interesting. I am an animal lover.
Yet if my pets, or any animal, were to speak to me in English, I believe I would pass out. Not Balaam. He begins to argue with the donkey. I argue with myself. I know what I should or shouldn’t do, yet I struggle. Paul says the same thing centuries later: “For I do not understand what I am doing—for what I do not want, this I practice, but what I hate, this I do” (Rom 7:15). The struggle is real. Do we accept our personal accountability, or do we argue and attempt to “pin the tail,” or the tale of the circumstances, on the donkey or other speaker of truth?
Humility requires that we accept correction from others, often those who we may see as having less spiritual understanding or ministry training. Do we accept it, or see those who oppose us as donkeys? Balaam accepted the correction after the argument, and pronounced the blessing of Ma Tovu: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwellings, O Israel!” (Num 24:5), which becomes such an integral part of Jewish morning liturgy. Balaam follows with another blessing, prophesying the coming of the Jewish Messiah (24:17). Yet sin continues, and as the Torah reveals, Israel persists in a cycle of commitment, failure, repentance, and return to God.
Our Heavenly Father does know best, and sometimes we must check to see if we are playing pin that tale on the donkey.