Reflection on Balaam’s Praise

JMJ

מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל

How fair are your tents, 0 Jacob! How fair your dwellings, Israel! 
– Numbers 24:5 (Jerusalem Bible, 1968)

The chant “Ma Tovu, Ohehlecha Yacov” is often used at the beginning of the Friday Evening synagogue service. The congregation chants slowly and gently, as if chewing on a text for meditation. Sung in Hebrew, to a traditional tune, it seems almost like a line of the Psalms. The quoted text, though, is from a gentile: Balaam, who is called a prophet in Numbers. He would not have spoken in Hebrew – although the tex is recorded thus. What is sparking the writer’s interest though is that Balaam uses the name of God. In the Jerusalem Bible (1968) this is driven home by rendering the name of God as “Yahweh” in the text. This translation also notes when Balaam uses “Shaddai” (almighty). Balaam’s later history is not so good: in Deuteronomy, he is slain for his leading the Israelites astray. In Revelation, Balaam is described as a stumbling block, showing King Balak how to seduce the people. Without regard to the historicity of the text, it’s interesting that, despite conflicts in later sections, the final form of the story included in Numbers posits a major prophetic revelation outside of Israel.

Balaam is one of several important speakers in the Bible who are not members of or ancestors of Israel: Job, Balaam, Jethro, Melchizedek, and King Cyrus are each given very important functions in the story of the Hebrews. Collectively these seem to add a depth of complexity to Israel’s identity as “the Chosen People”. God is clearly working through other nations as well.

What does it mean that the Jewish scriptures allow for this Gentile to know the Name of God? Genesis 4 says that Enosh was the first to invoke the name of God – Yahweh is mentioned by name in Genesis 4:26 of the Jerusalem Bible – but the same Chapter puts the divine name first in the mouth of Eve. According to an article on Wikipedia, which the writer quotes with some trepidation, the Divine Name occurs 165 times in Genesis.

The implication seems to be that the knowledge of the Divine Name is spread throughout the human family and we need only be reminded of it.  Israel seems, thus, to foreshadow the Church is in the world as “the Sacrament of Salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶780), with Israel serving as a sacramental of the Name. The term is taken on purpose for a sacramental is more of a reminder of the thing, than a mystical conveyance of the thing itself. Balaam singing “Ma tovu…” then becomes a prayer of the Gentile. “Israel, you are so beautiful: you call me to remember the true God.”

Balaam knows he can say nothing but what Yahweh tells him to say. He can say neither more nor less (Gen 22:20, 22:35, 22:38, etc), even though Balak asks him to curse Israel. Balaam says, “How shall I curse one when God does not curse? How shall I denounce when God does not denounce?” (23:8) Although only tangentially related to this essay, we might well ask the same thing today regarding the Saints of the Church whom we are asked to curse in the name of political correctness.

The Prophecies of Balaam are now of note: “See, a people dwelling apart, not reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob? Who can number the cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the just! May my end be one with theirs!” (Gen 23:9b-10). God promised to make Israel’s children to be numbered like the sands of the sea. Balaam is seeing the measuring rod by which all nations are judged. They are a people “dwelling apart”. In fact, the boundaries of the nations are based on the numbers of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:8). 

I have seen no evil in Jacob / I marked no suffering in Israel. / Yahweh his God is with him; / in him sounds the royal acclaim. (Gen 23:21) His God is with him – but His God is our God as well. As I noted, they are the sacramental of the name. 

Now Balaam becomes “the man with far-seeing eyes.. one who hears the word of God.” (24:3-4a, 15-16a) and he sees what God commands. Yet the prophecies in chapter 24 are Messianic! A Gentile is making these prophecies of the coming king. A hero arises from their stock, he reigns over countless peoples. His king is greater than Agag, his majesty is exalted. (24:7) I see him-but not in the present, I behold him-but not close at hand: a star from Jacob takes the leadership, a scepter arises from Israel. (24:17) Again this seems to underscore Israel’s position as among the nations of the world by virtue of this coming king. Here it is being confessed by someone not from the Twelve Tribes and so adding importance. Even those “out in the world” recognize our importance. 

If Israel serves as a sacramental of the Divine Name in the world then the ways others know the name mark moments of grace present and active. Melchizedek can bless Abraham because they both know the same God – even though Abraham is seemingly closer to God (in terms of their relationship) than the priest-king. Jethro knows of Yahweh (Ex 18:10), so that Moses can be ready when the Burning Bush happens. Rahab’s awareness of God (Joshua 2:8ff) opens her eyes and heart to helping the Hebrew spies. In various ways, these Gentiles serve as sacramentals for Israel: reminding Israel of his duty to God, or reminding Israel of God’s faithfulness.

These passages call out to the present writer because he has journeyed long in other paths, seemingly rejecting God. These passages seem to be signs of hope!  God can speak through these other people and traditions. This is echoed in writers from the Eastern Orthodox tradition who can hear Christ in the “old testaments” of other religions, for a good example, see Christ the Eternal Tao by Fr Damascene, a very “traditionalist” Orthodox Monk. This book is a favorite of the present writer as it bypasses syncretism yet shows well how God used another religion to prepare for Christ.  Likewise, Missionaries, when meeting a new people, search for connections in the local culture so that the Gospel can be preached using local signposts. 

As noted, in later books of the Bible Balaam is not a “good guy”: quite the opposite. So it’s clear that having the right ideas about God (at least sometimes) does not prevent one from going astray. In fact, it might be argued that Balaam’s nearness to what Israel was learning about God made it easier for them to follow him into his own errors. We cannot heed every word of every person outside the faith who uses the Divine Name. It is not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Mat 7:21).  There are a lot of shenanigans caused by people who use the Name of Jesus or Christ. A Course in Miracles is a good example of how bad things can get if one is outside the faith and just misusing the faith left and right! Yet Balaam shows us it is possible for someone outside to be “connected” (even if for a moment). His song is still sung in the Synagogue. 

If Israel is seen as a sacramental of the Divine Name, a reminder that God is “the One who Is” or “the Existing One” as he is named by the Byzantine liturgy, all of us can sing, How fair are your tents, 0 Jacob!  Israel has shown us all the way to the Tabernacle of God. Balaam, though, indicates that even it is possible for those outside the community to be faithful in their own way. They can – on occasion – even be used by God to show the community her own mistakes. It could be possible for God to use non-Christians to correct our missteps. 

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He feeds the homeless and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.