The great prophet, Micah, had Balaam’s words on his mind.
As we know and will soon discuss, Micah delivered one of the most profound messages of all time to us, and really to the whole world. What I didn’t realize, though, until this week’s study, was that in formulating that message, the prophet placed real importance on Balaam’s blessings of Israel. “My people,” he says, “remember what Balak king of Moab planned, and how Balaam son of Be’or answered him.”
What did Balaam, the diviner, say that mattered so much to Micah? And what does all this mean to us?
Recall in the book of Numbers that Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel. Instead, pressed by God to do the opposite, Balaam blessed Israel.
In our reading of the text, we have a tendency to focus on the last part of the blessing, which is plenty beautiful: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” We’ll look at this observation in a moment. But I want to be sure we pay attention to the earlier parts of the blessing that we often miss.
Balaam shows Balak a people who are numberless, upright, and separate. He shows a strong people who eschew divination and sorcery, and refrain from evil and perversity. He sees a people it pleases God to bless because the people bear the spirit of God upon itself.
And, yes, as a result of being this way, Israel (at least its ideal) is a community characterized by fair tents, with admirable order and modesty. It’s fruitful and bountiful, with access to all that nourishes, both physically and spiritually. Its people and its leaders follow in the ways of God, and its community is thus blessed.
Sadly, though, this picture of the ideal is capable of being distorted and muddied in the tugs and pulls of the world. We know from the end of this very portion that the people so glowingly described earlier would soon stray into the idolatrous ways of Moab.
Micah sees the same proclivity in his own day, in the form of the people’s deviating from their blessed ways to the practice of idolatry and terrible social injustice.
“The Eternal,” Micah warns, “has a case against our people, and will contend with Israel.”
Yet, Micah sees beyond the mess we sometimes make of things. He, too, sees what Balaam saw – the ideal – and, if realized, its potential gift to the world. This blessed way of life “shall be among the many nations like dewdrops from the Eternal, like showers on the grass…”
Micah then wonders: How do we get there? What must we do to make the ideal real? How do we stay on the right path and avoid straying down appealing, but destructive paths? How is our blessing sustained and merited?
Is it by sacrifices? Is it by religious zeal, or by ritual acts? No, Micah says.
God has taught us what is good. The Divine has shown us what creates the lovely ways of living that Balaam saw. God has given us the prescription for what nourishes us and brings harmony to our lives. From that teaching, Micah describes eloquently what makes for blessing.
It is “Only this – to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”