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Balak – Tents of Jacob, Tabernacles of Israel

Jun 29, 2023

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of Balaam, who was hired by the Moabite king Balak to curse Israel. God initially told Balaam that he must not go with the men to curse Israel. Later God told Balaam to go with Balak’s men and to say whatever He will tell Balaam to say. The result was that Balaam ended up blessing Israel instead of cursing them.

I’d like to discuss one verse from Balaam’s blessings.

“How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacles, Israel!” – Numbers 24:5

The Hebrew word translated here as “your tabernacles” is mishkanotecha. Many English translations render it as “your dwellings.” While this translation is accurate, of the 140 times the word mishkan – “tabernacle” or “dwelling” – appears in the Bible, approximately 120 of them refer explicitly to the Tabernacle or the Tent of Meeting in the desert. So, while it makes sense to translate mishkan in our verse as “dwelling,” the word carries with it the connotation of the Tabernacle, God’s dwelling place, the house of worship.

In this blessing, Balaam refers to the nation of Israel by the common name, Israel, but also as Jacob. The name Jacob is used collectively for the people of Israel on many occasions. To understand the deeper meaning of our verse, we first need to explore what Jacob means as a name for the entire nation.

The meaning of Jacob’s name is explained twice in Genesis. First, when Jacob is born, his name is explained as a reference to his grasping of the heel of his brother Esau at the moment of birth (Gen. 25:26). The Hebrew word for heel is akev. The word for “follow” is akav from the same root. “Jacob” – Ya’akovfollowed his brother out of the womb grasping his heel. Therefore, he was named Ya’akov, Jacob.

Later, after Jacob and his mother Rebekah deceived his father Isaac so that Jacob would receive the birthright blessings, Esau unjustly accused Jacob of cheating him, despite the fact that Jacob had earlier purchased the birthright from Esau, entitling him to these blessings. When Esau realized that Jacob had “stolen” the blessings, Esau gave Jacob’s name a new meaning.

Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” – Genesis 27:36

The Hebrew word for “cheated” here is akav from the same root as Jacob’s name. It implies lying in wait, ambushing, or deceiving.

Simply put, the name “Jacob” does not have positive connotations. It variously implies following, being on the heel, deception, and cheating. In fact, if we look at Jacob’s own life, we see that he was often compelled to live by his wits and outsmart others – whether it was Laban, Esau, or even his own father. Jacob, unlike his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham, lived much of his life in exile under the authority of others.

What is true of Jacob as an individual is true of his offspring – the Jewish people. This is why they are sometimes referred to collectively as Jacob. The Jewish people, like their forefather and namesake, are sometimes forced to live in exile as subordinates and second-class citizens – the follower, the heel – in hostile and oppressive environments. Like Jacob, their father, Jews have repeatedly been forced to flee after being unjustly accused and targeted. And so, when scripture refers to the People of Israel as Jacob, it is this subordinate, exile identity that is being described. For example:

“For the Lord will deliver Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.” – Jeremiah 31:11

We see this, as well, where God is referred to as “the God of Jacob.”

May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you! – Psalm 20:2

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. – Psalm 46:6-7

Day of trouble? The nations rage? The God of Jacob protects and shields His people when they are being attacked, pursued, and persecuted by the nations. (See also Psalms 76:7, 84:9, 94:7, 75:10, 81:2,5)

But Jacob has another name: Israel. This second, more honorable and loftier name was given to him when he wrestled with and defeated the angel who attacked him. (Gen. 32:29) That was a battle he won not through deception but by prayer and direct physical struggle. For this victory, he was told that he was now capable of truly triumphing. He would now be Yisrael, derived from two words; sar – meaning “prince” or “minister,” and el, meaning “God” or “power.”

And yet he retained both of his names. Sometimes he would need to be Jacob, living by his wits as a second-class citizen in a hostile and anti-semitic environment. At other times he would be able to behave as Israel – triumphant, influential, and strong.

Now to Balaam’s blessing:

“How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacles, Israel!” – Numbers 24:5

It is interesting that Balaam connects “tents” to “Jacob” and “tabernacles” to “Israel.” The first half of the verse brings to mind the description of Jacob and Esau as young men.

So the boys grew. And Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a mild man, dwelling in tents. – Genesis 25:27

Tents are homes. They are private places. “Your tents Jacob.” Jacob describes a private, inward focus in our relationship to God. Any devoted servant of God confronts challenges on a daily basis. It may be true that the primary task in serving God is to influence, to lead, and to help others get close to Him. But with influence comes interaction. It is impossible to repair the world without engaging with it. And with that engagement, people of faith all too often find themselves in the position of being influenced by the darker parts of the world rather than changing them for the better. 

For this, we need to be, like Jacob, “dwellers of tents.” To stay strong in one’s religious values; to have the strength to continue to influence the world for the good, we must also retreat from it. We must travel inward to our homes, to our families, to our tents. 

A tabernacle, on the other hand, is very public. The entire purpose of a tabernacle is the glory of God. It is open to all to enter to worship and be inspired. The higher calling of the covenantal relationship with God is all about the tabernacle. Anyone who has faith in God and devotes their life to serving Him understands that the focus of that mission is to bring knowledge of God to the entire earth. Israel is a name that implies this mission – Israel connotes the ministering influencing role of God’s people.

With all this in mind, we can now understand Balaam’s blessing more fully. First, Balaam praised the tents of Jacob. He praised the way the nation of Israel focuses inward, on their families and their own relationship to God. Then he praised the tabernacles of Israel, the way that Israel fulfills its ministering role, serving as a vehicle to bring all nations in to faith and worship of the God of Israel.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast

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