Chukat (Numbers 19:1−22:1)
Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9)
I. Summary of Chukat
A. Chukat = (This is the) “ritual” (law that the Eternal has commanded).
B. God gives Moses and Aaron the laws surrounding the sacrificial offering of an unblemished red heifer which is used for purifying those “Israelites and strangers” who come in contact with a dead person. (19:1-22)
C. The Israelites arrive at the wilderness of Zin. Miriam dies and is buried there. Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron that they have no water. God tells Moses to order the rock to yield water; however, Moses strikes the rock (twice) to get water (rather than ordering water from rock). God immediately tells Moses and Aaron that they will not enter the Land of Israel. (20:1-13)
D. Moses requests safe passage for Israelites from the king of Edom who refuses to let them pass through his land. Per God’s instructions, Moses strips Aaron of his priestly garments and gives them to Aaron’s son Eleazer. Aaron dies. (20:14-29)
E. Canaanite king of Arad battles Israelites and takes Israelite prisoners. With God’s help, Israel then defeats king. Israelites complain to Moses and God about the lack of bread and water. God punishes Israelites for complaining (with seraph serpents which “bit the people and many of the Israelites died”). The Israelites go to Moses to repent. God forgives Israelites (telling Moses to mount seraph figure on a standard so that anyone who was bitten and looks at it would recover from the snakebite). (21:1-9)
F. Israelites are victorious in battles against both the Amorites (who, like Edomites, refused to let the Israelites pass) and the people of Bashan (whose lands they capture and whose King Og Moses was told by God not to fear). (21:10-22:1)
II. Summary of Balak
A. Balak = “Balak” (… saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites).
B. When Balak, the Midianite king of Moab, sees the victory of the Israelites over the Amorites, he persuades the pagan (non-Israelite) soothsayer Balaam to curse the Israelites so that Balak can defeat Israelites and drive them out of the region. God forbids Balaam to curse the Israelites so Balaam denies Balak’s request. Balak again asks Balaam to curse Israelites. God now allows Balaam to go with Balak but only if Balaam agrees to obey God’s commands. (Num 22:2-20)
C. As Balaam is riding on his she-ass with Moabites back to Balak, the she-ass encounters an angel and swerves from the road. Balaam beats the she-ass (three times). The she-ass asks Balaam why he beat her. God “uncovered Balaam’s eyes” to allow Balaam to see angel as well. The angel gives Balaam permission to continue on trip but only if he heeds the word of the angel/God. (Num 22:21-35)
D. Balaam then blesses the Israelites (three times) instead of cursing them and prophesies that Israel’s enemies will be defeated. (22:36-24:25).
E. Israelites men consort with Moabite women and their god. God tells Moses to punish Israelites by publicly impaling ringleaders and bringing a plague on Israelites (which plague kills 24,000 Israelites!). The plague is stopped when Pinchas, a grandson of Aaron, kills an Israelite man and his Midianite companion. (25:1-9).
III. Commentary (Plaut, various websites, Jewish Study Bible, Hevreh discussions)
A. Significance of red heifer rules – Two possibilities: 1) a test of Israel’s unconditional obedience to God or 2) a reminder that our lives are made up of details, which individually may seem unimportant but together make us who we are … God is in the details. Note parallel between paradox of rules (the very ashes that made a Jew impure are the same ashes that are used to make someone pure) and paradox involving our poor choices (when our discontent with our past behavior becomes the impetus to change that behavior, i.e. negative behavior becomes the pathway for a purification of soul).
B. Significance of Miriam’s death – Fact that it is mentioned immediately prior to episode of Moses hitting rock for water suggests that Miriam could have been a dowser (who had no successor) so without Miriam, Israelites lacked water and hence their complaining about lack of water which led to Moses getting water from rock. Miriam’s death could also have suggested the end of the leadership generation that led Israelites out of Egypt and to Canaan as evidenced by the deaths of Moses and Aaron occurring shortly after death of Miriam, i.e. Miriam’s death prepared Israelites for the coming death of Moses.
C. Sin of Moses and Aaron – At least five possibilities: 1. Lack of faith - Words (ordering water from rock) would have demonstrated faith of Moses and Aaron in public whereas physical act of hitting rock did not do so. Hitting rock twice (rather than once) confirmed lack of faith. 2. Unrestrained ego - The sin of Moses and Aaron consisted of their saying, "Are we to bring you water out of this rock?" They should not have said "we" but rather "Shall the Eternal bring you water out of this rock?" 3. Anger - When Moses used the expression "you rebels", he committed sin of getting angry rather than being patient. 4. Prior sins - The Meribah incident is punishment for prior sins of Aaron (golden calf) and Moses (not limiting influence of pessimistic scouts or Moses’ killing of the Egyptian taskmaster). 5. Unknowable - The real sin was edited out to safeguard their reputation. We don’t need to know their sin. Just accept it.
D. Balaam as a sorcerer v. prophet – Traditional view sees Balaam as a sorcerer who ended up in hell (Rabbinic translation of “back home” in Num 24:25). Alternative view sees Balaam as prophet who left God and became a magician but was also one of many pagan prophets who turned other people to God so as not to allow other nations to say God was accessible only to Israelites other nations.
E. Why God prevented Balaam from cursing the Israelites – Four possibilities: 1) To teach Balaam a lesson, that he was not his own master. 2) To benefit Israel, i.e. since the Israelites grew up in Egypt where there was considerable superstition and sorcery, Israelites might take Balaam’s curses seriously and be demoralized v. being uplifted by his blessings. 3) God was concerned for Israel’s safety, i.e. had Balaam cursed Israel, the surrounding nations would have plucked up the courage and gone to do battle with Israel on the strength of his curses. 4) Balaam did not have it in his power either to bless or to curse.
F. Why God agreed to Balaam’s request go to Balak after previously denying request – It was the intent of God that Balaam go to Balak after God ordered Balaam to follow God’s words since God wanted Balaam to promote brotherhood between peoples and also that Israel be blessed by a prophet of the nations (and so Balaam erred by not telling this to Balak which angered God … – “God was incensed at his going” – Num 22:22). At first Balaak wanted to actively go along and curse Israelites v. in second instance, Balaak wanted to still go along but passively (and not curse Israelites). In first instance, Balaam’s actions driven by God v. in second instance, Balaam’s actions driven by free will.
G. Prohibition against opposite doors - Balaam praised the tents of Jacob (Num 24:5) because the arrangement of the entrances made it impossible for a family to see inside the tents of others, showing respect for privacy. This became the source for the ruling that one may not build a door directly opposite the door of a neighbor or make a window in line with a neighbor’s window.
H. Moses softens God’s order - God tells Moses to impale all “heads of people” (Num 25:4) i.e. including innocents. Moses seems to intercede when he instructs officials to slay only the guilty, i.e. “men who attach themselves to Baal-peor”. (Num 25:5)
I. Faith more important than military might - Was this entire Balak/Balaam episode God’s way of saying that Israelites need their faith in God to protect them even though they had military might, i.e. a way for God to reinforce the importance of faith as Israelites approach Promised Land? Perhaps explains juxtaposition of military encounters (with Arad king, Amorites and people of Bashan) with acts of God (divine guidance given Balaam directly by God and then indirectly by angel).
J. God’s participation in deception - Knowing of Balak’s expectations, isn’t God a partner in Balaam deception of Balak (misleading Balak into believing that Balaam will curse the Israelites)?
K. Turning curses into blessings – Do all bad things have the potential to generate good things?
L. Significance of Pinchas - Why is the murder by Pinchas viewed by God as worthy of God’s reward (stopping the plague and, in next parasha, Pinchas being given hereditary and permanent priesthood)? Is it an empty reward in that God already allowed the plague to kill 24,000 Israelites? Also, story of Pinchas shows us that there is a thin line between a passion for God and murderous zealotry.
IV. Lessons for today
A. How we travel the journey of life is more important than the specific destination we reach – Just as Moses arguably did reach the Promised Land (by virtue of leading the Israelites’ development as a people and bringing them to the doorstep of Canaan), so our personal Promised Land should be leading an ethical life rather than acquiring a certain amount of financial wealth, having the most friends, etc.
B. Remember and acknowledge the role of one’s faith in God and efforts of others in your own achievements - One reason Moses is not allowed into the Promised Land is his overestimation of his own worth and power. We must learn to acknowledge God's presence in our lives. If we can teach ourselves to recognize the role of God and of others in our own individual beliefs, we can learn to appreciate and enjoy our journey even more.
C. Desirable qualities of leadership – Solve the problems, have faith in God, respect the people and demonstrate strength, compassion and patience.
D. Accept and learn from our mistakes - If even Moses could make a mistake (instead of speaking to the rock, Moses mistakenly hit it with his stick), we shouldn't expect ourselves to be perfect. We have to try our best and learn from the mistakes we do make.