“O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised,
and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”
Israel had been rescued from Egypt and was now traveling through the desert with Moses. They had become a people as numerous “as the sand of the sea.” For good reason, this worried the nations surrounding them and they plotted against the Israelites. King Balak of Moab was one of them. He paid Balaam to prophesy against the Israelites and to curse them, so that he might have an advantage over them. Three times, Balaam blessed them instead of cursed them. Frustrated, King Balak went away and devised another plan: seduction. He encouraged the women of Moab to intermingle with the Israelites and to lead them astray – to worship their gods. Sadly, it worked. Many of the Israelites turned away and worshipped Baal. It was here, at Shittim, that a plague–a curse– came from God, for punishment for their unfaithfulness. This plague killed many, and Israel purged the rest of the Baal worshippers from the camp as per God and Moses’ instruction. Here; at Shittim, they began to consecrate themselves. They listened to Moses final instructions and it was here that Moses told them to “circumcise the foreskins of their heart.” (Deut. 10:16) Moses also reminded them of their stubbornness and rebellion- and of God’s mercy. It was here that Moses died and Joshua became the new leader.
So what had happened between Shittim and Gilgal?
Between Shittim and Gilgal lies the Jordan River.
Now wholeheartedly following God, the Israelites left Shittim and He led them to the river. God miraculously parted the Jordan River for them and it stood in “one heap” as they crossed over on dry ground. This must have been similar to what their parents had seen many years ago when they crossed the Red Sea!
Crossing the Jordan River reminded them that God was keeping his promise of old to them.
After crossing the Jordan, they set up camp at Gilgal. There they consecrated themselves again and set up twelve stones for a memorial. Gilgal was now their new base and from there, they would move on to conquer and inhabit the Promised Land.
So what are we to remember? The blessing and the curse.
“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)
What lies between a curse and a blessing? A promise. God’s promise.
…”when you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. ” (Deut. 30:10-14)
There are many interesting parallels in this story. King Balak can be interchanged with Satan-looking for a way to deceive us. ‘Shittim’ can also mean our old sin nature. It is cursed. Nothing remains for us there but the wilderness and death. However, if we turn to God and take hold of His promise, He leads us to everlasting life. The curse is no longer on us, and only the blessing remains.
“But the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam; instead the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loved you. “(Deuteronomy 23:5)
It is no accident that, years later, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Just as He had made a way for the Israelites so many years ago, He made a Way for us. He turned our curse (Death) into abundant Life.
Further reading: Isaiah 43:2, Psalm 44, Deut. 30:1-10, Joel 3:18, Ezekiel 47:1
Note: ‘Shittim’ means “acacia trees”. Of interest, it is mentioned that an acacia could have been the burning bush Moses saw, and it is suggested that Jesus’ crown of thorns was woven from this abundant thorny tree.