Tag Archives: Assyria

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 (see, for example, Zohar II, 7b). 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.

The Guardian Angels and Hybrid Beasts Known as Cherubs

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, relates God’s instructions to the Israelites for constructing the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. The most important part of this elaborate structure was undoubtedly the Aron HaKodesh, the Ark of the Covenant. Throughout the centuries, this gold-plated Ark has often been depicted in art, history, and even film (perhaps most notably with Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark). However, what the Ark actually looked like is hard to discern. The Ark disappeared two and a half thousand years ago when the First Temple was destroyed. Since then, many different versions and interpretations for its appearance have been proposed, both by Jewish Sages and secular scholars.

Common Depiction of the Ark

Common Depiction of the Ark

The issue is not so much with the Ark itself, since the Torah is pretty clear on its description: a box two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high, made of wood and plated with gold from the inside and out. (A cubit is somewhere in the area of two feet long.) What’s not so clear is the part that follows: the Ark’s cover, with its two golden Cherubs.

What is a Cherub (kruv, in Hebrew)? The only descriptor the Torah gives is that the Cherubs had wings. Rashi, drawing from the Talmud, comments on verse 25:18 that they had the face of a child. The Torah describes the two as being set on the cover ish el echav, literally “a man facing his brother”. This suggests a human form to the Cherubs, along with their child-like face and wings. Indeed, this is how the Cherubs are generally depicted. The reality may be quite different, though. A look at the historical and Biblical evidence may shed some more light as to the true identity of the Cherubs.

Raphael's Cherubs, from his 'Sistine Madonna'

Raphael’s Cherubs, from his ‘Sistine Madonna’

The Evidence

A similar word for the Hebrew term kruv is found across the languages of the Ancient Near East: kuribu in Akkadian, karabu or kirubu in Babylonian and Assyrian. These refer to very large statues placed at entrances to important venues which served as guardians. They had the body of a bull or lion, with wings, and a human head. At times, they were worshipped as guardian deities.

Assyrian Karibu, now housed at the University of Chicago

Assyrian Kirubu, now housed at the University of Chicago

Karibu at the Louvre

Kirubu at the Louvre

This parallels the Torah’s original description of Cherubs. The very first time Cherubs appear is in Genesis 3:24. Following Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, God placed Cherubs to guard the entrance to Eden so that man could not return. Like the Mesopotamian kuribu, the Cherubs are guarding an entrance.

This could be why the Cherubs were placed atop the Ark, again as guardians of the holy vessel. When the Tanakh describes how King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings, chapter 6), it states that Solomon had two massive ten-cubit high Cherubs placed at the entrance to the Holy of Holies (the room in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept). The following chapter describes them as kruvim arayot, “Cherub-Lions” (7:36). Not only do we once again see the Cherubs as guarding an entrance, but we now have some evidence that the Cherubs had a lion-like appearance, just as the Mesopotamian kuribu often had.

All of this appears to hint to a famous passage in the Bible: Ezekiel’s Vision of the Chariot.

Ezekiel’s Chariot

In the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, we are given a detailed description of the Merkavah, the Divine Chariot:

“And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, a brightness was all around it; and from within the appearance of electrum, out of the midst of the fire. And from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot… As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and all four had the face of a lion on the right side; and all four had the face of an ox on the left side; all four had also the face of an eagle.” (1:4-10)

Ezekiel describes his angelic vision, with winged figures that have attributes of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and the appearance of a man. The figures are leading the way for the Divine Chariot, again serving as sentries or guardians.

This description allows us to potentially synthesize the Torah’s description of Cherubs with the historical and Biblical evidence: human-like winged creatures with aspects of a lion and a bull or ox. Although Cherubs are not explicitly mentioned in Ezekiel’s account, the Merkava, or Chariot, is explicitly mentioned, and it shares the same root letters (k-r-v or r-k-v) as Cherubs, kruvim.

We can draw further proof from the Book of Psalms, which states that God “rode upon a Cherub, and flew, and swooped down upon the wings of the wind,” (18:11) as well as from II Samuel, which says God “rode upon a Cherub, and flew, and was seen upon the wings of the wind,” (22:11). Clearly, the Cherubs are associated with the Divine Chariot, so it isn’t hard to relate them to Ezekiel’s vision.

So, are the Cherubs innocent child-like, winged angels, as depicted in art, or are they powerful Heavenly guardians with the hybrid qualities of various majestic beasts?

Ultimately, we may never know the true appearance of the Cherubs. Perhaps they are not even concrete entities, but rather metaphorical devices or prophetic visions, like the Divine Chariot is often interpreted to be. Whatever the case, we may just have to rethink the way we commonly draw the Ark of the Covenant and its Cherubs.