Balak | "A Star Shall Shoot Forth out of Yaakov"
As The Book of Bamidbar begins to wind down, the people of Israel finally draw close to their destination. At the wilderness of Zin, the inhospitable badlands located in the Negev region, Miriam passes on and the people thirst for water. There, Moshe and Aharon strike the rock and they too are condemned to perish. Soon thereafter, the people reach the Mount of Hor, Aharon is told to ascend to its summit and there he dies, leaving Moshe to continue as leader alone. Journeying from the place of Aharon's demise, the people are attacked by the King of Arad, but remarkably prevail against him. They then circle around the southern shores of the Dead Sea, approaching the land of Canaan from the east. Skirting the territory of the hostile Edomites and inhospitable Moavites, Israel soon encounter the antagonistic Sichon King of the Amorites, who engages them at Edre'i. Israel miraculously triumphs against this regional superpower, and then goes on to defeat the even more intimidating Og King of Bashan. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Israel finds itself in possession of a great swath of territory on the eastern side of the Jordan River, including lands considered by Balak the King of Moav to have constituted his people's unassailable patrimony:
Balak son of Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorite. Moav greatly feared the people for they were numerous, and Moav recoiled from before the people of Israel. Moav said to the elders of Midian: "now this congregation will consume all around us just as the ox consumes the vegetation of the field," and Balak son of Tzippor was the king of Moav at that time (Bamidbar 22:2-4).
THE LINKAGE OF THE SECTIONS
Concluding that besting the Israelites in battle was impossible, the king of Moav and his Midianite cohorts instead opted to attempt to overwhelm them through supernatural means. Quickly, Balak dispatched emissaries to Bilam son of Be'or, a well-known occultist from the lands of the east, whom he charged with the mission of pronouncing a fateful (and fatal) curse against the people of Israel. Though Bilam tried mightily to execrate Israel, time and time again he was forced instead under Divine duress to exalt them. Balak's disappointment was palpable but Bilam was powerless to alter his course. As the parasha unfolds, he and those around him come to the unmistakable conclusion that neither incantations nor magic can affect the ineluctable destiny of the people of Israel, for their fate is in God's hands alone.
Taken together, the remarkable victory over Sichon and Og and the utter inability of Bilam's sorcery to stem the Israelite tide, both point to a single truth. The God of Israel is neither bound by the statistical probabilities of the political scientists nor is He subject to the provisional pronouncements of the prognosticators. According to all of the empirical data, Israel should not have trounced the devastating forces of the Amorite kings who held all of the lands east of the Jordan in their suffocating embrace. But defeat them they did, astounding not only themselves but all of the petty Transjordanian kingdoms and the Canaanite city-states as well. As for Bilam, his spellbinding prowess was celebrated throughout the eastern lands, but try as he might, he could not confine the God of Israel with his diablerie. And with each successive failure, the deflating reality weighed more heavily upon him: all-powerful and absolute, incorporeal and of perfect oneness, it is God alone who determines the fate of nations and who guides the history of His people Israel.
Three times Bilam the seer attempts to pronounce his malediction against Israel and three times he is precluded from doing so by Divine intervention. In the subtle shifts of language that characterize his three pronouncements, Ramban detects not only three independent prophecies but an important chronological progression as well. As he understands it, Bilam's blessings unwittingly chart the entire sweep of Israel's history as a nation, describing first the Exodus from Egypt, then the entry and conquest of Canaan, and finally the founding of a monarchy, events that taken together trace an outline of approximately three hundred and fifty years.
THE FOURTH AND LAST PROPHECY
There is of course a fourth proclamation that Bilam offers, this time without any of the sacrificial preparations and preliminary remarks to Balak that highlighted his first three attempts to secure Divine favor. Undaunted by Balak's increasingly irate disapproval, Bilam presents his fourth oracle unsolicited, as he admits defeat and sets his sights homeward. This time, he peers far into the future, inspired by a vision of Israel's absolute triumph over all of its foes:
"And now," said Bilam, "I am returning to my people. Let me counsel you as to what this nation shall do to your people at the end of days!" He (Bilam) proclaimed his oracle and said: "These are the words of Bilam son of Be'or, the words of the man with the seeing eye. This is the pronouncement of the one who heard the words of the Almighty, who knows the knowledge of the Most High, who perceived a vision of the All Powerful, falling down but with open eyes. I see him but not now, I gaze upon him but not soon. A star will shoot forth out of Yaakov, a scepter shall rise from Yisrael, who shall crush the princes of Moav and demolish all of Shet's descendants. Edom shall be their inheritance, Se'ir their enemies shall be their inheritance, and Israel shall be triumphant. A ruler shall issue forth from Yaakov, and he shall destroy the remnant of the city…" (Bamidbar 24:14-19).
In all of his prophetic pronouncements, Bilam utilizes obscure metaphors and indefinite references. His fourth and final prophecy, though, is particularly cryptic: when is the "end of days"? What or who is the "shooting star"? Who are "the descendents of Shet"? Who is the "ruler from Yaakov" and what city will he destroy? Not surprisingly, the commentaries disagree concerning the import of Bilam's prophecy and its exact historical framework, and we will examine two possibilities and their ramifications. It should be borne in mind, however, that notwithstanding these numerous textual ambiguities, the thrust of Bilam's message is crystal clear: in the final analysis Moav and his allies will be utterly vanquished while Israel will be triumphant.
THE INTERPRETATION OF IBN EZRA – HISTORY
"It seems to me," says Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, "that this prophecy concerns David. 'I see him, but not now' is an apt description, since David would only arise four hundred years hence…David did in fact 'crush the princes of Moav' (see Shemuel II 8:2)…and it is known that David exercised dominion over Edom and the mount of Se'ir…" (commentary to Bamidbar 24:17-19).
Thus, Ibn Ezra understands that Bilam sees the future downfall of Moav at the hands of the Israelite monarch David, who succeeded King Shaul and united the people of Israel behind him. David, an enlightened ruler and gifted warrior, vanquished all of the hostile nations surrounding Israel, namely Moav, Amon and Edom, and laid the groundwork for an empire. The "end of days," therefore, does not mean the "end of time," but rather "far off in the future." The mention of "a scepter" is a clear reference to some form of rulership or royalty, just the sort that King David would effectively wield. The scepter reference is twinned by the text to the metaphor of a "shooting star" whose path is clearly visible in the heavens, for David's dominion would be manifest to all of the surrounding nations.
Though taking note of the sweeping historical progression that characterizes Bilam's first three pronouncements, Ibn Ezra nevertheless maintains that the eastern seer's oracles are addressed primarily to Balak and to his people Moav. It was in fact David who first dealt them a crushing defeat, and Ibn Ezra is content to confine the sweep of Bilam's charged and inspired words to a relatively short period of Biblical history, namely about four hundred years. Ibn Ezra feels no necessity to assign Bilam's pronouncements a significance more far-reaching than that. He maintains that Bilam's forward-looking vision of a future Israelite monarchy is more than sufficient to highlight to Balak and his cohorts not only the inefficacy of their wretched attempts to curse Israel when God desires to bless, but also the profound difference between true prophecy and mere prognostication.
THE INTERPRETATION OF THE RAMBAN – ESCHATOLOGY
The Ramban in contrast, detects in Bilam's prophecy a description of the unfolding of a much more momentous process. Commenting on the general outline of Bilam's words, Ramban remarks:
All of Bilam's prophecies see progressively farther into the future. First he pointed out that Israel is God's portion and inheritance, and then he spoke of their conquest of the land and domination of its kings. Thirdly, he saw them securely dwelling in their land and becoming abundant upon it. He saw them appoint a king that would vanquish Amalek, and establish a kingdom that would achieve victory under David…
So far, Ramban's outline closely resembles that of Ibn Ezra. Concerning the fourth prophecy, however, he radically parts ways with his predecessor. As Ramban explains, "in this fourth vision, Bilam goes on to see the Messianic Age, and he therefore describes his vision as 'not now' and 'not soon', because it will unfold only far off in the future…It is God's counsel that He will fulfill at the end of days" (commentary to 24:14).
For the Ramban, the expression "end of days" implies the Messianic Age, and this usage is in fact documented in the books of the Prophets many times (see Devarim 4:30, 31:29; Yeshayahu 2:2; Yirmiyahu 30:34; Yechezkel 38:16). As for the metaphor of the shooting star, "…since the Messiah will gather in the dispersed people of Israel from the ends of the earth, he is referred to as a "shooting star" that traverses the sky from the ends of the heavens…"(commentary to 24:17).
Continuing the theme, the Ramban explains:
A ruling scepter shall arise out of Israel that will crush the corners of Moav and demolish all of the descendents of Shet the son of Adam, who is the progenitor of all humanity. Bilam meant to inform Balak that his people of Moav would not be vanquished by Israel now, but at the end of days they will not escape the scepter that shall rule over them…As for Edom, its downfall will transpire at the hands of the Messiah, because our present exile under the domination of Rome is associated with Edom…for they disputed our rule, and concerning them it was stated "one nation shall overpower the other" (Bereishit 25:23)…Edom and Se'ir the enemies of Yaakov shall be inherited by them… (commentary to 24:17-18).
Thus, the Ramban detects in Bilam's final words a prophecy of cosmic proportions. Bilam sees not only the entry of the tribes into Canaan and their settlement of the land, events that began to unfold soon after his return eastward to his home, but he also perceives the final chapter of Israel's national history and the ultimate purpose of their election: the dawning of the Messianic era. The remnants of Israel, destined to be dispersed to the four corners of the earth and to languish interminably under the cruel conditions of exile, will in the end be gathered and restored to their land under the capable rule of the Messianic king. There they will finally overcome the enemies that had beset them from ancient times, the very ones that even until the end of days continued to dispute their mission and their claim. The proverbial Edom, Yaakov's twin and nemesis, the personification of the Roman Empire and its heirs that destroyed the Second Temple and scattered the Jews worldwide, will in the end submit to Israel's rule and the irresistible message of redemption that their God shall proclaim. The arrival of the Messiah will herald a new era of human history, of concord, harmony and peace, of reconciliation between God and man and between man and himself, and Israel's role in the realization of that most noble of visions will be decisive.
A LARGER DIVERGENCE
The disagreement between the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban may in fact point to a larger divergence. Ibn Ezra is a rationalist who sets the parameters of his interpretation in accordance with the immediate context of the passage. If the first three pronouncements of Bilam are historically confined to the period of Israel's entry into their land and to the founding of their first state, then it is reasonable to assign Bilam's fourth pronouncement to this era as well. Why search for intimations of far-off and final events when it is possible to adequately interpret the verses in question as referring to known and documented occurrences that are no less momentous? The Ramban, on the other hand, his being animated by the soul of a mystic and the mystic's preoccupation with the "end of days," detects in Bilam's charged words a future vision of cosmic significance.
At the same time, it should be noted that Ibn Ezra is quick to emphasize that his reading is not at all calculated to undermine belief in the messianic future (commentary to 24:17):
The foolish ones believe that by explaining "a star shall shoot forth out of Yaakov" as a reference to David constitutes a denial of the Messiah's coming. God forbid that it should be so! The Messiah's arrival is explicitly spelled out in the prophecy of Daniel as I have explained, for there he mentions the rise of the Syrian Greek kings, the appearance of Hasmoneans, the building of the Second Temple and the years of its final siege, as well as the exile and the redemption that will follow it. Moreover, we need no additional prophetic pronouncements, for Moshe's words are the main thing: "Though your dispersion may be at the ends of the earth, God your Lord shall gather you from there…and God your Lord shall return your captivity and have mercy upon you, and He shall return and gather you in from among all of the nations to which God your Lord scattered you…"(Devarim 30:4-5).
THE BAR KOCHVA REVOLT
In the final analysis, both Ibn Ezra as well as the Ramban may be reacting, each of them in his own way, against a famous Rabbinic tradition concerning the interpretation of this verse:
Rabbi (Yehuda the Prince – redactor of the Mishna) used to explain: "a star (kochav) shall shoot forth out of Yaakov" – read not star (kochav) but rather deceiver (kozev)!" When Rabbi Akiva would see that ben Kosva he would explain: "this man is King Messiah!" Said to him Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta: "Akiva, your cheeks will have sprouted with grass and King Messiah will still not have arrived!" (Midrash Eikha Rabba 2:5).
The historical background to the disagreement between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta is, of course, the aborted Bar Kochva rebellion of 132-135 CE. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the defeated province of Judea continued to be ruled from Caesarea by a series of rapacious and oppressive governors. Heavy taxation and religious oppression took their toll on the large remnant of Jews who chafed under the Roman yoke. Finally, after six decades of abusive rule, a well-planned rebellion broke out during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, having been sparked, in part, by his decision to erect a pagan temple on the ruins of Jerusalem. The leader of the revolt was a very charismatic and gifted warrior and by the name of Shimon Bar (son of) Kosva. The Roman garrison was driven from Jerusalem and for a brief moment the Jews enjoyed relief. The legions however soon returned with an overpowering vengeance and the rebellion was put down with great cruelty. Bar Kosva died defending his last redoubt of Beitar in the summer of 135 CE and with his death were extinguished the last vestiges of Jewish sovereignty until the dawn of the modern state of Israel. The Romans laid waste to the Judean countryside and the remaining Jewish population, now a minority in their own land, was henceforth concentrated in the Galilee.
Significantly, it was none other than the illustrious 2nd century CE sage Rabbi Akiva who provided Bar Kosva which much-needed support. Throwing his substantial influence behind the imposing warrior, who held in his hands the rekindled hopes of national restoration, Rabbi Akiva proclaimed Bar Kosva to be the much-anticipated messianic king who would rescue Israel from their oppressors and rebuild the Temple on its ruined site. Rabbi Akiva was already an old man when the rebellion broke out, but his pronouncements no doubt enhanced Bar Kosva's stature immeasurably while many of his students filled the warrior's burgeoning ranks. Seeking a Scriptural allusion for Bar Kosva's pretensions, Rabbi Akiva found it in our parasha, reading Bilam's prophecy concerning the "star that would shoot forth from Yaakov" as a reference to Bar Kosva himself! Cleverly, Rabbi Akiva preserved the messianic fervor of the verse and its charged imagery of the overarching shooting star while making use of the warrior's real name. Utilizing a skillful transfer of letters, Shimon Bar Kosva now became "Shimon Bar Kochva, prince of Israel"!
But at least some (many?) of the sages disagreed with Rabbi Akiva's judgment and declared that the venerable and aged scholar would be long dead before the messiah would have come. And when Rabbi Yehuda the Prince considered the matter with almost a century of hindsight, he too linked bar Kosva to the verse in question, this time reading it as a reference to the false messiah ("deceiver") that the failed warrior turned out to be! In the end, the abortive revolt was decisive for the future of the Jewish presence in the land of Israel, for in its aftermath the much-dwindled population of Jews became a minority, their former capital was plowed over to become a pagan city, much of their former territory was utterly desolated, and even the name of their land was expunged from history in a strong-handed attempt to break their ancient connection with it. Thus it was that Judea became Syria-Palaestina.
RETURNING TO IBN EZRA AND RAMBAN
Perhaps Ibn Ezra still heard the echo of Rabbi Yehuda's words in his ears when he decided to interpret the verse as a reference to more successful leaders, to David who overcame the Moavites and made them his vassals. To refer to King Messiah as that star that would shoot forth from Yaakov was to employ a metaphor that was still tainted by Rabbi Yehuda's caustic and sarcastic comment, a thousand years after the revolt had so miserably failed. The Ramban, on the other hand, took up the theme indicated by Rabbi Akiva's enthusiastic endorsement, even though in the end the messianic hopes that the sage pinned upon bar Kochva had not been realized. Though in his failure bar Kochva thus joined the long line of Jewish national leaders who had not lived up to their potential, the messianic aspirations of the verse in question could not be quelled, and so the Ramban returned to the reading that the early sages seemed to favor – the "shooting star" was none other than the messianic king that would one day restore the Jews to their land and the Temple to its former glory.
It is appropriate to conclude with another reading that bridges the gap between Ibn Ezra and Ramban by invoking an axiom of Biblical poetry. Almost all Biblical poetry utilizes couplets, paired phrases expressing a similar idea in two separate stitches that use slightly different words or images. To graphically demonstrate the principle, we might write Bilam's words as follows:
I see him but not now, I gaze upon him but not soon.
A star will shoot forth out of Yaakov, a scepter shall rise from Yisrael,
who shall crush the princes of Moav and demolish all of Shet's descendants.
Edom shall be their inheritance, Se'ir their enemies shall be their inheritance,
and Israel shall be triumphant.
A ruler shall issue from Yaakov, and he shall destroy the remnant of the city…" (Bamidbar 24:14-19).
Perhaps the implied parallels here are in fact pointing to TWO different leaders of Israel, both of whom will save the people from their enemies and bring victory and triumph! Might these two be none other than David and the King Messiah respectively, the very same individuals later invoked separately by Ibn Ezra and Ramban? It is actually Rashi who raises the possibility that Bilam's final prophecy refers both to David as well as to the messianic king who is his direct descendent, though admittedly Rashi comes to his conclusion from a different direction (see his commentary to 24:17,19). In Rashi's opinion, Bilam's final prophecy, brimming with anticipation and forward-looking optimism, must be referring to Israel's greatest moments as a nation – the reign of their first ideal king who brought them success, and the rule of their final king who will restore their fortunes as in days of old.