Balak and Balaam are a right pair, two nasty pieces of work determined to curse and persecute an innocent people. Balaam is a right pair in himself, a two-sided coin, one side seemingly good, the other definitely bad. He is a prophet and says repeatedly that he can only declare the words that God puts in his mouth. Initially, he rebuffs the emissaries sent by King Balak. Yet he also appears to be a sorcerer and he ascends with Balak to the “High Altars of Baal”. He also tries three times to curse Israel, but is unable to do so, not through repentance or compassion, but because he is only able to utter the words God gives him. Equally bad, he beats a poor donkey who hears the divine voice better than he does.
Israel is other. “God does not look at wrongdoing in Jacob, and He sees no vice in Israel. God their Lord is with them and they have the King’s friendship…. How good are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacles Israel. They stretch out like streams, like gardens by the river; they are like the aloes God has planted, like cedars by the water. His branches shall overflow, and his crops shall have abundant water.”
It is all clear: Moabites bad, Israelites good. And yet, and yet, immediately after this episode, some of the Israelites, seduced by the Moabile girls, accept invitations to eat and worship with them. How good are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacles, Israel, now? Not very good at all, I think. What is needed is a good zealot to put things right, and this is precisely what Pinchas does by setting an example in dispatching an Israelite and a Midianite woman who are cavorting in the former’s tent. Pinches is rewarded with “My covenant of peace… a covenant of eternal priesthood” and the people are, once again, forgiven. Why, though, is the vav in the word ‘shalom’ written in the Scroll in a broken form?
Besides the intriguing questions raised by the sequence of events in the stories of Balaam and Pinchas, there is much else to consider in this week’s parsha. Here in Cornwall to help us consider the parsha and to lead us in prayer, song and conversation will be two special guests: David and Hannah Jacobs. Do join us this Saturday at 10:30. As already announced, the service will be followed by a session led by David and Hannah on ‘Nine reasons to be Reform and one not‘.
At least ten reasons to come.