The great military leaders of World War II include nine who attained the highest rank awarded by the United States of America. Those five-star leaders are Generals of the Army George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley; Fleet Admirals William D. Leahy, Ernest King, Chester W. Nimitz, and William Halsey, Jr.; and General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold. Each man accomplished great things for his nation, and all deserved the honors bestowed on them, yet some students of history would say there is a name missing from the list. Where is George S. Patton, Jr.?
Patton died too soon, losing his life as the result of an automobile accident in December 1945. Had he lived he might eventually have become a five-star general. Might, that is, had he been able to refrain from the controversy that followed him throughout his very public military career. By the time World War II erupted he had proven his worth at home and abroad, including combat operations in Mexico and France. Less than a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Patton commanded the only all-American force in Operation Torch, the Allied landings on North Africa in November 1942. His Western Task Force conducted the longest amphibious operation in history, sailing from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to the shores of French Morocco. From there he went on to a stunning series of battlefield successes in Tunisia, Sicily, France, and Germany.
Along with Patton’s skilled leadership came his shortcomings: a volatile temper, and a tendency to speak indiscreetly. Twice in Sicily he encountered soldiers suffering from battle fatigue; both times he slapped them and accused them of cowardice. For that he was reprimanded and kept from a field command for nearly a year. When he returned to combat in command of the Third Army, he engineered the breakout from the Normandy beachhead and raced across France at astonishing speed. December 1944 witnessed his greatest battlefield accomplishment: the relief of Bastogne at the height of the Battle of the Bulge. Patton’s troops remained on the offensive thereafter, advancing across Germany and into Czechoslovakia. After the war, as an occupation commander, he continued to generate controversy by retaining former Nazi Party members in positions of authority in the belief that they were best qualified to restore and run Germany’s shattered infrastructure. While he had good reason, Patton chose to defend his decision by saying that membership in the Nazi Party in Germany was no different than membership in the Democratic or Republican parties in the United States. His remarks came at the time when the heinous crimes of the Third Reich were becoming public knowledge. As a result, he was relieved of command of Third Army and assigned to the less prestigious post he occupied at the time of his death.
As with all people it is impossible to separate Patton’s strengths from his weaknesses. Patton could “read” an enemy, understanding not only his opponent’s capabilities, but also his state of mind. That ability made him one of the greatest battlefield commanders of modern warfare. What kept him from true greatness was his inability to control himself – or, more accurately, what came out of his mouth. In that sense George Patton was very much like Balaam, a man who aspired to greatness, but whose inability to match his words with his deeds ensured that he would never attain it.
We meet Balaam in Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9), the Torah portion named for the king of Moab who hired him to curse our Israelite ancestors. Israel had just crushed three kings in battle: the Canaanite king of Arad (Numbers 21:1-3), and the powerful Amorite kings Sihon and Og (Numbers 21:21-35). It is not easy to overestimate the latter two victories. In the eyes of the peoples of the Ancient Near East, these wandering Israelite tribes may have been fortunate to defeat a minor Canaanite city-state, but Sihon and Og were rulers of the greatest regional powers of the day. By conquering their kingdoms, Israel demonstrated the power of the Living God, established themselves as threats to be reckoned with, and gained secure territories in Gilead and Bashan from which to launch the invasion of the Promised Land. It is no wonder, therefore, that Balak of Moab sought help in standing against Israel. He certainly needed it; neither his people nor their kin of Ammon had been able to stand against Sihon and Og, and in fact had lost significant territories to them. Israel’s conquest of that same territory continued to have repercussions centuries later (Judges 11:1-33). In his quest for allies Balak turned initially to the kings of Midian for additional warriors, and then sought to enhance his preparations by acquiring spiritual assistance. For that he went to Balaam, the greatest prophet of the day. Balak’s plea to Balaam reveals a large measure of desperation:
So he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the River [Euphrates]. in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people came out of Egypt; behold, they cover the surface of the land, and they are living opposite me. Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 22:5-6 NASB, emphasis added)
In truth there was no threat. YHVH had prohibited Israel from taking the land of Moab or of Ammon, the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot (Deuteronomy 2:8-9, 16-19). In fear, though, Balak did what kings normally do: protected his realm by every available means. Balaam responded by doing what prophets of YHVH are supposed to do: refused to do the bidding of an earthly king unless YHVH Himself provided authorization. On hearing that news, Balak sent a delegation of powerful princes to entice Balaam with an offer of great wealth. That offer got Balaam’s attention, so he inquired of the Lord once more about whether he should go to Moab. One wonders why he would do that since YHVH had responded in no uncertain terms the first time:
God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (Numbers 22:12 NASB)
This time, though, the Lord’s answer was somewhat different:
God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do.” (Numbers 22:20 NASB, emphasis added)
It would appear that the Lord had given Balaam permission to go with the princes of Moab. Then again, maybe not. There is a condition here that indicates YHVH is testing Balaam to ensure he remains properly motivated by righteous desire rather than greed. The next verse indicates Balaam’s failure of the test:
So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey and went with the leaders of Moab. (Numbers 22:21 NASB)
Notice the subtle difference. The Lord said that if the men had come to call Balaam, then he could rise up and go. Balaam, however, did not wait for anyone to call him; he arose on his own and went with the Moabites. His actions betrayed the inclination of his heart, which was to find some way to get around the Lord’s instructions and go after Balak’s promised reward.
This is, admittedly, an interpretation gained through reading the Scripture in translation. The original Hebrew may impart a different meaning. However, it is not difficult to speculate that Balaam may have lain awake all night after hearing from the Lord, rationalizing the message until he had twisted the meaning to the point that he could get up and go away with the Moabite princes thinking he was doing YHVH’s will. His self-deception illustrates the peril Yeshua explained many centuries later:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth [Mammon]. (Matthew 6:24 NASB)
What happened next confirms the Lord’s interpretation of Balaam’s true motivation. In one of the strangest incidents recorded in Scripture, Balaam’s donkey serves as God’s instrument of communication (Numbers 22:22-35). Three times the Angel of the Lord stands in Balaam’s path, holding a drawn sword ready to strike him down. His disobedience has rendered him spiritually blind, and thus he cannot see his peril. Fortunately his beast is not so blind; each time she finds a way to turn aside or stop so that Balaam avoids death. Not knowing the reason for her actions, Balaam beats her each time with his stick. At the third occasion, when the donkey lays down in the road, Balaam speaks to her, saying he would slay her right there if he had a sword. Much to his surprise she responds, asking why he would beat her when she has never been accustomed to disobey him.
It is easy to make too much, or too little, of this biblical account of a beast speaking like a human. Perhaps our reaction to the story reveals more about ourselves than about our God and His Word. If we can believe He created the world, why would we not believe He can give the power of speech to a beast? I recall my mother saying she believed that animals once had the power of speech, but that power was lost to them when Adam’s sin brought the curse to this earth. Perhaps she is right, and perhaps one day we will be able to converse with beasts. I have no trouble believing that, nor that on one particular day YHVH gave the power of speech to a donkey for a specific purpose.
The purpose was to get Balaam’s attention so that the Lord could open his eyes to his disobedience and the consequences of it. In dismay Balaam offers to turn back, but the Lord permits him to go on, provided he speaks only what the Lord tells him to say.
The word Balaam speaks is not what Balak hired him to say. Three times Balak takes Balaam to high places where he can see the camp of Israel. Each time he builds altars and offers sacrifices, and each time Balaam speaks the word of the Lord. That word is not a curse, but a blessing. It is instructive to review what he said:
He took up his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, ‘Come curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!’ How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced? As I see him from the top of the rocks, and I look at him from the hills; behold, a people who dwells apart, and will not be reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!” (Numbers 23:7-10 NASB, emphasis added)
Then he took up his discourse and said, “Arise, O Balak, and hear; give ear to me, O son of Zippor! God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? Behold, I have received a command to bless; when He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it. He has not observed misfortune in Jacob; nor has He seen trouble in Israel; the Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them. God brings them out of Egypt, He is for them like the horns of the wild ox. For there is no omen against Jacob, nor is there any divination against Israel; at the proper time it shall be said to Jacob and to Israel, what God has done! Behold, a people rises like a lioness, and as a lion it lifts itself; it will not lie down until it devours the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain.” (Numbers 23:18-24 NASB, emphasis added)
He took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, and the oracle of the man whose eye is opened; the oracle of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered, how fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! Like valleys that stretch out, like gardens beside the river, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the waters. Water will flow from his buckets, and his seed will be by many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God brings him out of Egypt, He is for him like the horns of the wild ox. He will devour the nations who are his adversaries, and will crush their bones in pieces, and shatter them with his arrows. He couches, he lies down as a lion, and as a lion, who dares rouse him? Blessed is everyone who blesses you, and cursed is everyone who curses you.” (Numbers 24:3-9 NASB, emphasis added)
There is much to mine from these prophecies, but for now we will consider only a small portion of their meaning. Once again Rabbi David Forhman of AlephBeta Academy provides timely instruction. His commentary on Balak connects these words of Balaam with the promises YHVH gave to Abraham when he passed the test of offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice to the Lord. On that occasion the Lord said this:
Then the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” (Genesis 22:15-18 NASB, emphasis added)
As Rabbi Fohrman points out, the first two blessings are easy to identify. Abraham receives the promise that his descendants will be multiplied greatly, and Balaam echoes that by saying, “Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number the fourth part of Israel?” The Lord tells Abraham that his descendants will conquer (“possess the gate of”) their enemies, and Balaam says not only that Israel will be like a lioness devouring the prey, but that “there is no omen against Jacob, nor is there any divination against Israel”. In other words, Abraham’s descendants of Israel will be invincible. However, in the third promise there appears to be a disconnect. Abraham hears that all the earth shall be blessed in his seed, but Balaam says, “Blessed is everyone who blesses you, and cursed is everyone who curses you.” This is what YHVH promised Abraham at their first recorded conversation, when He tells him to leave his homeland (Genesis 12:1-3). Is there a disconnect? Not really. Rabbi Fohrman explains:
The answer must be that the Bible is NOT messing up the pattern, it’s explaining to you the pattern. The Bible in effect is saying, you expected to hear Balaam say what the Akeidah angel said; Through Israel blessing will come to the world. Well guess what, that IS what you heard. Idea A; those who bless you I will bless, those who curse you I will curse. Idea B; through you blessing will come to the world, those ideas they aren’t two separate ideas, they’re interchangeable. How is it that through Israel blessing comes to the earth? You know what the mechanism for that is? It’s the fact that those who bless you will be blessed and those you curse you will be cursed. (Rabbi David Fohrman, “Balak – What Is Israel’s Purpose in the World?”)
This is one Jewish understanding of this text, and it is a very good one. It is simple, yet profound – and quite easy to miss. Do we want to be blessed? Then let us bless Abraham’s descendants. The more we bless them, the more that blessing reflects back upon us. With cursing it is the same way. If we want proof we need merely look at the examples from history of those who have blessed the Jewish people and those who have cursed them. What has happened to each? We might also look at the considerable accomplishments of Jews in every realm of human endeavor and see how these descendants of Abraham have brought blessing into the world.
But there is another, and perhaps greater, understanding of this text. It concerns the other part of Abraham’s descendants, the ones who are not Jewish. It also concerns his greatest Jewish descendant: Messiah. The rabbis would likely concur that since Messiah comes through Abraham’s line, and since He will redeem and restore the earth, that every nation will be blessed through Him. Disciples of Yeshua of Nazareth believe He is the fulfillment of that promise. That is the bold statement in the first words of the Apostolic Writings (New Testament):
The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham: (Matthew 1:1 NASB)
This Son of Abraham completed the Messianic task of taking on Himself the penalty of death pronounced on all of humanity because of our rebellion against the Creator. That redemptive work made it possible for all who desire it to come back into fellowship with YHVH by becoming part of His people of Israel. In other words, by the work of Messiah Yeshua, those who act in faith to follow Him become descendants of Abraham (Galatians 3:28-29; Romans 4:13). As the Apostle Paul explains (Romans 11:11-32; Ephesians 2:8-22), we become part of Israel, fellow heirs with the Jewish people, our brethren of Judah. As many are now beginning to understand, this is how the Lord is fulfilling another ancient promise: to regather and restore the entire nation of Israel – all twelve tribes – along with multitudes from the nations who join with them thanks to Messiah’s redemptive work.
What does this mean in terms of Balaam’s pronouncements? It means that the blessing or cursing of Israel applies not only to the Jewish people, but to all who are adopted or grafted in to the nation. Whether Jewish, Christian, Messianic, or Hebrew Roots/Ephraimite, all Israelites can claim not only a share of that promise, but the responsibility illustrated by the next portion of Balaam’s story (Numbers 25:1-9). The men of Israel took notice of the pretty young women of Moab and Midian, and soon began to associate with them in the most intimate ways. It did not take long before the Israelites were participating in the worship of the Moabite gods. The idolatrous rebellion was so severe that a prince of the tribe of Simeon even engaged in an open sexual relationship with a Midianite princess. The result was swift and terrible: the Lord sent a plague that struck down 24,000 people. That plague would have killed even more if it had not been for the zealous action of Phineas the priest, Aaron’s grandson, who took a spear and slew the rebellious Simeonite leader with his Midianite consort.
We learn later in the Scripture that it was Balaam who caused this tragedy (Numbers 31:9-16; II Peter 2:12-16; Jude 1:11; Revelation 2:14). He understood that Israel was invincible and enjoyed the protection of the Lord. If, however, some way could be devised that would cause Israel to be removed from the Lord’s protection, then they would no longer be invincible. The answer was simple: no enemy could curse Israel, but the people of Israel could bring a curse upon themselves if they could be induced to disobey YHVH. Thus he counselled Balak to send his young women to entice the Israelite men away from the Lord and into the worship of their heathen gods. Israel therefore cursed Israel, and thus it was Abraham’s seed themselves who received the curse of the Lord God.
What does this mean for us, the heirs of Israel in this modern day? The peril of departing the Lord and serving other gods is still there, and we still suffer from it. Yet we suffer from a curse even worse than that. How long has it been that Christians and Jews have cursed one another? How often is it that various sects within both parts of God’s people have warred against each other? Is there any wonder why the Kingdom of Heaven suffers great loss? Satan need not lift a finger to hinder the work of the Lord; like Balak, he has God’s people do the work for him by cursing themselves. No wonder the Lord’s prophet issues this warning:
“My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab counseled and what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and from Shittim to Gilgal, so that you might know the righteous acts of the Lord.” With what shall I come to the Lord and bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:5-8 NASB, emphasis added)
If ever we desire to see the Lord’s people victorious over the enemy of this earth, and if ever we would attain the greatness our King desires of us, then our words and actions toward one another must be consistent with His undying love for us and His commitment to the covenants He made with our fathers.