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Deciphering Bilaam’s End of Days Prophecy

‘Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell

This week’s parasha is Balak, named after the Moabite king that sought to curse Israel. Balak hired the sorcerer Bilaam to do the job, but instead of cursing Israel, Bilaam’s mouth would utter blessings and prophecies. The parasha is perhaps most famous for Bilaam’s last prophecy, concerning acharit hayamim, the “End of Days” (Numbers 24:14-25):

“I see it but not now, I behold it, but it is not soon. A star will go forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be possessed, and Seir shall become the possession of his enemies, and Israel shall triumph.” When he saw Amalek, he took up his parable and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations, and his fate shall be everlasting destruction.” When he saw the keini, he took up his parable and said, “How firm is your dwelling place, and your nest is set in a cliff. For if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” He took up his parable and said, “Alas! Who can survive these things from God? Ships will come from the Kittim and afflict Assyria and afflict those on the other side, but he too will perish forever.” Bilaam arose, left, and returned home…

What is the meaning of these cryptic words? The first part seems relatively clear: in the distant future, a leader will arise for Israel who will “uproot all the sons of Seth”, meaning all of mankind, who come from Adam’s third son, Seth. Israel’s enemies will be defeated for good, as will the evil Amalek. Bilaam is, of course, speaking about Mashiach. Then it gets more complicated. Who is the “keini”? Why does he dwell in a nest? What does Cain have to do with anything, and who is Assyria taking captive?

Balak’s Bird

The parasha begins: “And Balak ben Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab became terrified of the people…” The Zohar comments on the name Balak ben Tzippor (literally “Balak, son of a bird”) by saying that Balak was a powerful sorcerer who was able to do all sorts of witchcraft using various birds. One of those birds was called Yadua, and through it he was able to see visions. What did Balak “see” that made him so terrified of Israel?

The Zohar says that Balak took the Yadua bird as usual and performed his rituals, but this time, the bird flew away. When it returned, he saw the bird engulfed in flames, and this made him fear Israel. Why did the image of a flaming bird strike fear in Balak’s heart? What does this flaming bird have to do with Israel?

The Phoenix

In almost every culture around the world there is a myth of a magical flaming bird. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Bennu, the “solar bird” which lived for 500 years before being reborn from its own egg. The Persians spoke of Simurgh, a peacock-eagle that lived 1700 years before igniting itself in flames, and had lived so long that it saw civilization destroy itself three times. The most famous version of the myth is from the Greeks, who called the flaming bird Phoenix. The name derives from the fact that the bird comes from, and sets its nest, in the land of Phoenicia.

Phoenix by FJ Bertuch (1747-1822)

Phoenicia is another name for Lebanon, whose territories once overlapped with Israel’s. The Phoenicians and Israelites had very similar cultures and used the same alphabet. The Tanakh describes the central role that the Phoenicians played in the construction of the First Temple. They sent skilled artisans and builders, as well as gold and the cedar trees that served as the Temple’s framework. King Solomon gave the Phoenician king Hiram twenty Israelite cities around the Galilee as a gift. The two merged their navies and did business together, and are even described as “brothers” (see I Kings 5).*

In the Greek account, the eternal Phoenix builds its nest in one of the cedars of Lebanon before the nest catches fire and the Phoenix is cremated into ash. From the ashes emerges an egg, and the selfsame Phoenix hatches from it. This story is very similar to one told in the Midrash.

In the Garden of Eden

The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 19:5) describes what Eve did after eating the Forbidden Fruit. She gave some to Adam, and then

… She fed [the Forbidden Fruit] to all the beasts and all the animals and all the birds. All of them listened to her, except for one bird, called Hol, as it says, “Like the hol that has many days” (Job 29:18). The School of Rabbi Yannai said: “It lives for a thousand years; and at the end of a thousand years, fire comes out of its nest and burns it and leaves the size of an egg from it, and it comes back and grows limbs and lives.”

According to the Midrash, it wasn’t just Adam and Eve that ate the Fruit, but all living things had a taste, making them all mortal. However, there was one bird that did not listen to the humans, and flew away, escaping death. It lives one thousand years, then burns to ashes in its nest, and is reborn. Adam, too, was meant to live in segments of one thousand years, being reborn each millennium. However, after eating of the Fruit, his life was capped at a single one thousand year segment. (Of this 1000 years, he gave up 70 to King David, which is why Adam lived 930 years, and David exactly 70. See ‘How Did Adam Live 930 Years?’ for more.)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) also speaks of this immortal bird. Here, the Phoenix is waiting patiently for Noah to give it food, so he blesses it with eternal life. In both Midrashic and Talmudic passages, the scriptural source is Job 29:18, which speaks of Hol, the Hebrew term for the Phoenix. Why was Balak terrified when he saw an image of the firebird?

The Bird’s Nest

Some of the most ancient Jewish mystical texts are collectively known as Heikhalot, “Palaces”. These texts describe the ascents of various sages to the Heavens, and their descriptions of what they see. For example, Heikhalot Zutrati describes the ascent of Rabbi Akiva while Heikhalot Rabbati describes that of Rabbi Ishmael. In their description of the Heavenly architecture, the residence of Mashiach is called kan tzippor, the “Bird’s Nest”. This moniker is used throughout later Kabbalistic texts as well. Mashiach is said to be dwelling in a bird’s nest.

Mashiach’s role can be summarized in this way: his task is to complete the various spiritual rectifications (tikkunim) and return humanity to the Garden of Eden. Central to this is restoring a world without death—the world of resurrection. Note how Jewish prayers never request for us to enter some kind of ethereal afterlife in the Heavens, but rather to merit techiyat hametim, the resurrection of the dead, here in the earthly Garden of Eden. The Sages refer to that world as Olam HaBa, the world to come; not some other world or dimension, but the coming world that is here. (See here for more on the Jewish perspective on the afterlife.)

Mashiach is the one who is supposed to defeat death and usher in that world of resurrection. The Sages actually describe two messiahs: Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. The role of Mashiach ben Yosef is to fight Israel’s wars and defeat its enemies, paving the way for Mashiach ben David to re-establish God’s kingdom. However, amidst the great battles, Mashiach ben Yosef is supposed to die. This is first mentioned in the Talmud (Sukkah 52a):

What is the cause of the mourning [at the End of Days]? Rabbi Dosa and the other rabbis differ on the point. One explained: the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef; the others explained: the cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination… Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days), “Ask of Me anything, and I will give it to thee”… When [ben David] will see that Mashiach ben Yosef is slain, he will say to Him, “Master of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life.” God answered him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life of Thee, Thou gavest it him, [even length of days for ever and ever].’” (Psalms 21:5)

The Talmud links the death of Mashiach ben Yosef with the death of all evil. Mashiach ben David will then ask God to restore Mashiach ben Yosef to life, and God answers that He had already granted that request long ago to David himself, as seen from a verse in Psalms. Ben Yosef will die, then return to life, followed by the return of all the righteous dead after him.

Not surprisingly then, the symbol of Mashiach ben Yosef is a Phoenix, and he dwells in a “bird’s nest”. The Phoenix is said to take residence in the cedars of Lebanon, which is also associated with Mashiach ben Yosef, as it says in Psalms 92:13: “The righteous one will flourish like a palm tree, he shall grow like a cedar in the Lebanon”. [For those who like gematria, the term “cedar” (ארז) has the same value as “ben Yosef” (בן יוסף).]

‘Phoenix’ is one of the 88 constellations in the night’s sky. A modern map is on the left, and a 1742 depiction from Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr’s Atlas Coelestis is on the right. Every year, a meteor shower (called the Phoenicids) appears at the Phoenix constellation, from July 3 to July 18.

Warships in Syria

This is precisely what Balak feared when he saw the Phoenix. He realized that his plot to destroy Israel would fail miserably. Moreover, he saw that he would be the very ancestor of Mashiach, since he is a great-grandfather of Ruth, who is the great-grandmother of David! Unable to work his own magic, Balak summoned another sorcerer, Bilaam. It is highly appropriate that Bilaam’s final prophecy was regarding the End of Days and the coming of Mashiach.

Bilaam sees the “keini” in his nest—Mashiach—and says “… if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” What does Mashiach have to do with Cain? The Arizal explains that the tikkun associated with Cain is the most significant, for Cain is the one who actually brought death into the world. He is the first murderer, having killed his brother Abel. Abel’s was the first ever death. If Mashiach is to remove death from the world for good, he must rectify that primordial event.

And so, Mashiach ben Yosef is a reincarnation of Cain, and he must die as a measure for measure rectification for Cain’s murder of Abel. And who is Abel? Mashiach ben David, the one who brings about the resurrection of Mashiach ben Yosef! The brothers finally make peace. Cain and Abel are the two messiahs, and their mission is to restore peace to the entire world—after all, they were the ones that brought conflict into the world to begin with.

What did Bilaam say? He saw the keini, the one of Cain, in his nest. He is taken captive by Assyria—amidst a great battle that brings massive warships from the West—and “will perish”. He must perish because he is Mashiach ben Yosef, and through his demise all death and evil die with him. With these words, Bilaam fittingly ends his prophecy of the End of Days, for that event is the very end of the world as we know it, and the start of an entirely new era into which even Bilaam could not peer.

This week in the news: the USS George HW Bush, one of the largest warships in the world, docks in Haifa, Israel, on its way to a mission in Syria. Does the current Syrian conflict play into Bilaam’s prophecy?

*After the kingdoms of Phoenicia and Israel were destroyed, their outpost of Carthage in North Africa remained. This trading post had become a powerful city-state, and challenged Rome for control of the Mediterranean. The greatest Carthaginian leader was Hannibal. While many are familiar with Hannibal, few are aware of his last name, Barak (Latinized as Barca). Recall that the Biblical Barak was Deborah’s military general. He hailed from the tribe of Naphtali, and it is precisely from this region that Solomon gave Hiram twenty cities. Considering that Hiram and Solomon had combined their navies and traded together across the Mediterranean and Red Sea together, it is very possible that Carthage was one of the joint Israelite-Phoenician outposts, and Hannibal was a descendent of the Biblical Barak! Interestingly, Hannibal spent the last years of his life in Greek Syria, and helped Antiochus III conquer Judea. Unlike his son Antiochus IV (of Chanukah fame), Antiochus III was very friendly with the Jews, and supported Jerusalem’s Temple.

Did Bilaam Prophesize 9/11?

This week’s Torah reading is Balak, which describes how the Moabite king Balak hired the (non-Jewish) prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Balak saw what the Israelites had done to neighbouring kingdoms, and feared that he would lose his own as well. He therefore sought to reverse their fortunes through a curse. The Sages state that Bilaam could sense the precise moment when – just once a day, for precisely 1/58,888th of an hour (or about 61 milliseconds) – God was in his “strictest” mode, and Bilaam could take advantage of this moment to kindle God’s wrath against His chosen people (Berakhot 7a).

The plan ultimately failed, of course, and instead of cursing the Israelites, Bilaam’s mouth uttered blessings and praises. Perhaps most interesting, Bilaam also spoke a series of prophecies about the End of Days. They begin like this:

I see it, but not now; I behold it, but it is not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel which will smite the Moabite princes and uproot the sons of Seth. Edom shall be inherited, and Seir will become the inheritance of its enemies, and Israel shall do valiantly. And out of Jacob shall one have dominion, and will destroy the remnant of the city… (Numbers 24:17-19)

1558 Mantua Publication of the Zohar

1558 Mantua Publication of the Zohar

Bilaam describes a time in the very distant future, and the Sages agree that the “star of Jacob” refers to Mashiach. The Zohar (III, 212b) further elaborates on Bilaam’s prophecies, and describes what precisely is supposed to happen, and when that star of Jacob will be seen. Within this lengthy passage are a few verses that describe a scene quite familiar to the modern reader, and have therefore been used to suggest that the Zohar predicted the events of September 11, 2001:

… And [the star] will be seen on the sixth day, on the 25th day of the sixth month. It will be gathered on the seventh day, at the end of seventy days. On the first day it will be seen in a city of Rome. On that same day, three high structures of that city of Rome will fall and a great edifice will fall…

In traditional Jewish texts, Rome is typically referred to as Edom, and represents the entire Western (or European/Christian) world. The “city of Rome” represents whatever place is the centre of the Western world at a particular period of time. After the city of Rome itself had fallen in 476 CE, the “new Rome” was Constantinople. When this new Rome collapsed as well (and became present-day Istanbul), a “Third Rome” was said to arise. In the past, we have written about the identity of the Third Rome. Most scholars – at least in Jewish circles – agree on two possibilities: the Third Rome is either Moscow (as we have written about before), or New York.*

World Trade Centers: North, South, and 7

World Trade Centers North, South, and 7

If it is indeed New York, then the Zoharic passage above makes a lot of sense. A great edifice of three high structures will fall? Yes, on September 11, three of the iconic World Trade Center buildings collapsed (WTC1, WTC2, and WTC7). And the dates match quite closely, too. The Zohar says the 25th of the sixth month, ie. the 25th of the month of Elul. September 11, 2001 happened to be the 23rd of Elul!

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a number of articles circulated online (for example, here) suggesting that the Zohar predicted this tragedy, and added an additional detail of great interest: These articles claimed that Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, better known as the Vilna Gaon – who lived in the 18th century – corrected the Zohar and wrote that the event will, in fact, take place on the 23rd of Elul. These articles claim that the Vilna Gaon’s correction is recorded in a mystical text called Sifra DiTzniuta.

Are these claims true, and did the Zohar really predict the September 11 attacks?

What Do The Prophecies Actually Say?

First of all, Sifra DiTzniuta was written and published long before the Vilna Gaon’s time, so suggesting that his correction of the Zohar was recorded there is already unlikely. The Vilna Gaon did write a commentary to the Sifra DiTzniuta (full text is available here).

Having searched through both Sifra DiTzniuta and the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on it, I was unable to find any reference to the 23rd of Elul, or any correction of the Zohar’s prophecy. This doesn’t necessarily mean the claim is false, but it definitely looks like the source is incorrect.

Either way, we have to go back to the Zohar and read the entire passage, not only those few verses describing the fall of the buildings. It reads like this:

“It is taught that in the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will rebuild Jerusalem and reveal one firm star, glowing with seventy pillars of fire, and with seventy sparks flashing from it in the middle of the Firmament, and they will be reigned over by seventy other stars, and they will glow and burn for seventy days.

“And [the star] will be seen on the sixth day, on the 25th day of the sixth month. It will be gathered on the seventh day, at the end of seventy days. On the first day it will be seen in a city of Rome. On that same day, three high structures of that city of Rome will fall and a great edifice will fall. The ruler of that city will die. Then the star will spread out to be seen in the rest of the world. In that time, great wars will stir all around the four corners of the world and no faith will be found among [its people].

“In the middle of the world, when that star will shine in the middle of the Firmament, a great king will arise and rule the world, and his spirit will gain pride over all the kings, and he will awaken a war between both sides, and he will become strong against them.

“On the day that the star will be hidden, the Holy Land will tremble forty-five miles around the place of the Holy Temple, revealing an underground cave. From this cave will come out a blazing fire to burn the world. And from this cave a great branch will grow out, and it will rule over the whole world, and to it will be given the kingdom. The Holy Beings will gather to it. Then Mashiach will be revealed to the entire world…”

Clearly, there is a lot more going on! While Jerusalem has been rebuilt, we have yet to see the emergence of a star glowing with seventy pillars of fire, with seventy other stars glowing for seventy days. (These may be metaphors, of course, and may not be literally referring to celestial objects.) The Zohar says the edifice would fall at the end of seventy days (or at the beginning, depending on how one reads the passage). There was nothing particularly salient about the period of seventy days before or after 9/11. Moreover, “the ruler of that city” did not die on that day. The events of 9/11 did instigate “great wars” and it is true that we live in an increasingly faithless world. Ultimately, a “great king” to rule the entire world has not arisen (as far as we can tell), nor did the Holy Land tremble to reveal a cave from which Mashiach sprang forth.

Therefore, to suggest that this Zohar is speaking of the 9/11 attacks is perhaps a bit premature. While there are several parallels, the entire sequence of events has not occurred in the fifteen years since September 11, 2001. It appears that we have yet to witness the true fulfilment of Bilaam’s and the Zohar’s prophecies.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*While New York is the largest city in the United States, and by far its most important and famous, another candidate for the “Third Rome” is Washington, D.C. Washington has the plus of being a capitol city, the seat of “the ruler” as the Zohar says. It, too, was attacked on 9/11, and its major edifice – the Pentagon (the world’s largest office building) – damaged. Interestingly, long before Washington became America’s capital city, it was settled by a man who named it Rome!

Bilaam: The Last Prophet

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, is named after the Moabite king who sought to curse the Jewish people in the Wilderness. Seeing how the Hebrew nation had grown so large and powerful, and had earned God’s favour, Balak feared the Jews. He knew that taking them on physically would fail, so he decided on a spiritual solution to his problem. He summoned Bilaam (or Balaam), the greatest prophet among the gentiles, to curse the Jewish people in return for vast riches. Bilaam, however, refused the generous offer, knowing that there was no way he could curse the Jews if God did not wish it. Bilaam admitted that as a genuine prophet, he could only pronounce what Hashem would put in his mouth, and nothing more. Nonetheless, Balak continued to entice Bilaam until the prophet acquiesced, and agreed to give it a shot. Every single one of his attempts failed, and each time that Bilaam would open his mouth to curse the Jews, a blessing would emerge instead. Frustrated, Balak and Bilaam give up.

The story does not end there, though. Having failed to curse the Jews, Balak and Bilaam come up with another plan. Knowing that God’s favour only rests upon the Jews when they act righteously and in a holy manner, the two realized that they could tempt the Jews towards sin. Once the people are mired in sin, God’s divine protection would be lost, and the nation would in effect be cursed. This time, their plan worked like a charm.

'Balaam and the Angel' by John Linnell

‘Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell

Balak and Bilaam sent a great number of gentile women to bring the Jewish men into sexual immorality and licentiousness. From there, they enticed them further into idolatry. Everything spins out of control, and Moses seems powerless to stop the endless cycle of sin. This reaches a climax when Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon, publicly engages in sexual acts with a Midianite woman.

It is Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, who finally steps in to end the tragedy. He slays Zimri, shocking the nation and waking the people. Pinchas is given an everlasting blessing for bringing an end to the immorality. According to some opinions, he later slays Bilaam as well. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) states that it was precisely when Bilaam went to redeem his reward that he was killed.

Interestingly, all of the ancient texts agree that Bilaam was a true prophet, and was even equal in prophecy to Moses! How did Bilaam attain the merit for prophecy, and how did he fail so miserably?

The Origins of Bilaam

The Midrash relates how the gentiles brought a complaint against God. They argued that had God given them a leader like Moses, they too would have surely become holy and righteous nations. So, God did indeed send them a prophet like Moses. This was Bilaam.

In fact, the Arizal states that Moses and Bilaam stem from the same spiritual root: they were both reincarnations of Abel, the son of Adam (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 29). The spiritual spark corresponding to the letter Hei in Abel’s name (הבל) was given to Moses (משה), while the sparks corresponding to the letters Bet and Lamed in Abel’s name (הבל) were given to Bilaam (בלעם). So, it isn’t surprising that the two are often described as being of equal greatness in prophecy.

Unfortunately, the gentiles’ request for a prophet did not bring the result they had expected. Instead of using their prophet as a leader for goodness, they adopted him to further their own evil ends.  And this began long before Balak summoned him.

The Talmud (ibid.) recounts how Bilaam was once one of the three main advisors and soothsayers to the Pharaoh in Egypt. The other two were Iyov (Job) and Yitro (Jethro). When Pharaoh’s astrologers saw that the Redeemer of the Hebrews would soon be born, it was Bilaam who advised that all the male firstborn be drowned. Job was against the idea, but remained silent. For this, he was so severely punished (as described in the Book of Job). Jethro was the only one who spoke up and tried to avert the decree. For his opposition to the Pharaoh, he was forced to flee the kingdom. In poetic fashion, the very redeemer he was trying to save at birth ended up being his own son-in-law! Bilaam, meanwhile, ended up working with Balak to try and finish the job he started over a century earlier. Once again, he failed.

A Balance in the Universe

The Midrash (Tanchuma on Balak, Passage 1) elaborates that for every great leader, king, or prophet that God had sent the Jews, he equally sent one to the non-Jews. King Solomon’s counterpart was Nebuchadnezzar. While the former used his talents to build the First Temple, a House for God and a place of holiness and unity, the latter used those same talents to destroy that very same holy place. King David’s counterpart was Haman. Both were blessed with wealth and success. The former used these resources to bring the people together and unify all the tribes, bringing peace to the region; the latter used his resources to incite a genocide. Moses’ counterpart was Bilaam. The former used his prophecy to bring God’s message of holiness, peace and goodness; the latter used his prophecy for idolatry, destruction, and immorality. The passage in the Midrash concludes that God subsequently took away all forms of prophecy from non-Jews. Bilaam was the last true prophet among the gentiles.