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Israel: Leper or Light Unto the Nations? Part 1: The Whole World Against Us


One of the most arresting passages in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) occurs in the 23rd chapter of the Book of Numbers.

The stage is set in Numbers 22. The Israelites, on their way to the Promised Land, have camped out in the plains of Moab—in what is now Jordan, just across the Jordan River from what is now Israel. They’re a vast multitude, and Balak, king of Moab, sees them and is deathly afraid.

So Balak summons a Moabite prophet, Balaam, and asks him to “curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me….” Balaam eventually agrees, but with the proviso that “the word that God putteth in my mouth, that I shall speak.”

In Numbers 23:9, referring to the people of Israel both in the singular and the plural, Balaam pronounces:

For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.

This, then, is not a “curse” but something God has put in Balaam’s mouth. Yet it seems to imply some sort of splendid isolation, a separate and unique fate.

Yet other, no less resonant statements in the Bible suggest that Israel’s destiny is very much connected to that of other peoples. In Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6, God says Israel’s mission is to be “a light unto the nations”; and in Isaiah 60:3: “And unto your light, nations shall walk, and kings unto the brightness of your rising.” In Genesis, God tells Abraham three times, and Isaac once, that “In thee shall all nations [or 'families'] of the earth be blessed.”

That theme—or contradiction?—of splendid isolation while having much to offer other peoples runs throughout Jewish history, and is very much present in Israel today.