Notes on Audio Clip 01: Mah Tovu
This is a traditional Jewish worship song based BaMidbar (Numbers) Chapters 22 through 24.
When the Iraelites were wandering in the desert after having been freed from 400 years of slavery in Egypt, they went into areas like Canaan (present-day Israel), Midian and Moab (present-day Jordan). Understandably, the peoples native to the area were worried by the sudden appearance of 2-3 million people whose G-d had wiped out in just a few minutes the armies of Egypt, the most powerful nation on the planet at the time.
(The book of Sh'mot/Exodus says that about 660,000 Israelite men left Egypt with their families and a "mixed multitude" of non-Israelites. Hence, 2-3 million is a somewhat conservative guestimate of the total population.)
Balak, was king of Moab and he had heard what had happened to the Amorites after the Israelites left Egypt. So, he hired Balaam, a Midianite prophet of the L-rd, to curse the Israelites. After some haggling back and forth, Balaam wound up declaring a blessing instead of a curse.
Many Christian scholars say that Balaam was a false prophet or that he practiced divination, i.e., communicating with demonic spirits. They mainly base this on the fact that he was not Jewish. But there is nothing in the Bible to support that interpretation. In BaMidbar 22:6 Balak says, "Now, therefore, please come, curse this people [the Israeilites] for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed."
In BaMidbar/Numbers 24:5, at the command of the L-rd, Balaam pronounced one of several blessings over the people of Israel:
Mah tovu, ohai-lecha Jaakov,
How good are your tents, Jacob,
Your tabernacles, Israel!
Although Balaam could not curse the Israelites because the L-rd had blessed them, he did, however, act against G-d. He told Balak (summarizing), "You can't beat them by cursing them because the L-rd blessed them. If you want to beat them, you will have to get them to go away from their G-d. Have them intermarry with your women, etc., and they will start following other [false] gods."
Ultimately, Balaam was executed by the Israelites for betraying G-d by giving this advise.
BaMidbar/Numbers 31:1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 "Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people [die]."
Numbers 31:7 They fought against Midian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and killed every man. 8 Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba--the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.