By Nahum Gordon
“I see him, but not now; I behold him but not nigh; a star (kochav) will step forth (darach) from Jacob and a sceptre (shevet) will rise out of Israel and smite through the corners (paatei) of Moab….” Numbers 24:17; 1917 JPS translation.
With these disconcerting words Bilaam, the renowned Mesopotamian soothsayer, took his leave of Balak, King of Moab. It is a pity that the sceptical and unruly Children of Israel never heard his prophecy. Maybe he would have inspired them to have faith in their God and in Moses.
One Jew who was profoundly moved by the seer’s prediction was Rabbi Akiva. By the year 130 CE, Judeans had been sorely provoked by Emperor Hadrian, who had prohibited circumcision and ordered the creation of a shrine to Jupiter on the ruins of the Second Temple. Two years later, having witnessed the unexpected success of Shimon bar Kosiba’s rebellion (the third revolt) against the Roman Empire, Akiva acclaimed the Jewish commander as Bar Kochba – Son of a Star – and addressed him as King Messiah. R. Yochanan ben Torta scoffed: “Akiva, grass will grow out of your cheek (jaw?) bones and the son of David will not yet have come” [Talmud Yerushalmi Ta’anit 24a:1].
Yochanan proved to be correct. Liberty was short-lived. A desperate Hadrian turned to General Sextus Julius Severus, who had been fighting in Britain. Almost a third of the Roman army converged on Judea and exacted a terrible retribution. By 135 CE, 50 fortresses and 985 villages had been razed to the ground and 580,000 Jews had been slaughtered [Dio Cassius]. Severus’s scorched-earth policy has been described as genocide. Tradition says that the “Messiah” died on Tisha B’Av defending his last stronghold, Betar, 4 miles south-west of Jerusalem. Akiva was martyred. Hadrian expelled the Jews, renamed the province Syria-Palaestina, and renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina. Some historians trace the genesis of the Jewish Diaspora to this catastrophe. Jews did not taste freedom in their own land for another 1813 years. We are still waiting for the Messiah, whoever (s)he may be.
Among scholars, our verse is one of the most contentious in the Torah. Robert Alter writes “the meaning of the phrase ‘a star will step forth’ has defied interpreters.” The word Kochav can mean ‘star’ or ‘host’ or ‘army’. Darach can mean ‘steps forth’, ‘marches’, ‘tramples’, ‘rises’, or possibly ‘rules’ or ‘prevails’. Shevet can mean ‘sceptre’, ‘meteor’, ‘comet’ or ‘tribe’. Shevet recalls an even trickier verse, Genesis 49:10, which forms part of Jacob’s deathbed blessing for Judah. Paatei means corners, i.e. a human’s temples or the brow or forehead.
Rashi (1040-1105) thought that Moab’s nemesis was David [2 Samuel 8:2]. Ibn Ezra (c.1089 – 1167) agreed. Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (1085-1158), opted for the Messiah. Nahmanides (1194-1270) agreed – just as the Messiah would collect Israel’s dispersed from the ends of the earth, so could he be compared to a star which travelled from one end of heaven to the other. Abarbanel (1437-1508) thought that Israel would escape its astrological fate and arise. Some Christians maintain that our text foretells the star that heralded the birth of Jesus.
Ambiguity is exciting. Debate keeps our sacred texts alive. However, for Akiva, living under tyranny, such discussions were a luxury. Bilaam’s prophecy needed to be real and fulfilled immediately.
Nahum Gordon is a founder member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue