The inversion of God’s will in the Balaam story (a d’var torah on Balak)

Andy Oram
8 July 2017

The portion of the week with the story of Balaam is one of the most neatly packaged Torah portions of the whole year. It is basically one narrative from beginning to end. Only the story of Korach fits better with the beginning and ending of the portion.

But the portion is labeled not after its most prominent character, Balaam, but the Moabite king who hires him, Balak. The technical reason for this label is unremarkable: like other portions, it’s taken from the first word of the text. But it is also appropriate in a literary and sociological sense to label the story after Balak, because his fear and plotting form the driving force behind the whole story.

Before we start the portion, some context is necessary. The Israelites have been passing through various lands settled by other peoples on the way to Canaan, and have been refused passage in a couple places. But instead of meekly retreating and going around a different way, as they had in other cases, the Israelites have fought and defeated two standing armies.

Suddenly, then, all the kings in the area are taking notice of the Israelites. This was their 1967 moment in the Torah. They appear unbeatable. Everyone in the Middle East fears the band of wanderers—400,000 men by legend, along with women and children—and their potential power.

So as our portion starts, the king of the Moabites reaches out for help in the one way he knows: magic. He tries to hire a local shaman named Balaam to curse the Israelites. It seems that Balaam does have the gift of prophecy, for he consults with God and rejects the emissaries.

The crucial message in this Torah portion is signaled by a statement made by Balak to Balaam now (Numbers 22:6): “Those whom you bless are blessed and those whom you curse are cursed.” Anyone well-versed in the Bible will immediately recognize a correspondence with the famous words uttered by God to Abraham (Genesis 12:3): “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you.” But see the critical difference in the statements attitude toward the ways of the universe.

God reserves for himself the power to bless and to curse. And his promise turns out apt in many instance. For instance, King Ferdinand of Spain expelled the Jews along with the Muslims in 1492, and although it seemed like Spain was the pre-eminent power in Europe at the time, the decision actually marked the beginning of a 500-year cultural and economic decline.

In contrast, Balak cannot imagine any power in the universe greater than Balaam. Balak’s attitude sums up human hubris as civilization has evolved and the predicament we have gotten ourselves into, thanks to our conviction that nothing can push back against any action we choose to take. Balak is sure of what he’s getting for his money, and perhaps Balaam does indeed have a supernatural power to bring good or evil. Yet God has a few tricks to play on Balak.

When the king perseveres in his recruitment, God allows Balaam to go attempt the curse. Now comes one of the most famous and memorable moments in the Jewish bible, the encounter between Balaam and his donkey. Three times the donkey stops on his way to the meeting with Balak, and three times Balaam hits the donkey—prefiguring the three times Balaam will try to smite the Israelites with curses. After the third blow, the donkey opens its mouth to protest.

This is a rather starting event in Bible stories. Talking animals are not part of the standard Jewish tradition. They’re redolent of pantheism, a sense of spirits occupying all the earth, that’s quite pagan. Only one other animal talks in the Bible (the snake in the Garden of Eden). Something extraordinary, therefore, is meant by this unprecedented turn of events. What God is doing, by bringing speech from this sluggish, dull beast, is indicating to Balaam that God can put any words into any mouth he chooses.

The set-up for the donkey incident is a bit messy. As Balaam begins his journey to meet Balak, the text reports that God got angry. But he had just told Balak to undertake the mission, warning him that God would put the proper words into his mouth. So we can’t assume the anger is directed at Balak—more likely, the passage just means that God wants to make his point once again. This also explains why, during its first three appearances, the angel with the sword appears only to the donkey and not to Balaam.

Balaam turns out here to be less prescient or less prudent than he seemed before. Instead of pondering the meaning of his animal’s sudden loquacity and the admonishment it hands him, Balaam starts to argue with his donkey, which is never a productive activity. Quite possibly, Balaam is anxious for a variety of reasons: he senses he is doing something wrong, he isn’t sure whether he can carry off the ambiguous mission, and he feels generally out of control—so he takes out his conflicted feelings on the animal. Finally God opens Balaam’s eyes and he sees the angel. The angel repeats the donkey’s rebuke and, underlying the message of the talking animal, reiterates that God will give Balaam words to speak.

The rest of the story follows a formula: Balaam goes to three different places, trying three times to curse the Israelites and blessing them instead. His third, most effusive and prophetic blessing, culminates in a return to God’s promise to Abraham, restoring its proper agency: “Those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are cursed.”

At this point, Balaam remounts his faithful donkey and walks out of Jewish history, but that’s not the end of the portion. Directly following this glorious affirmation of the goodness of the Israelites, Moabite women enter their camp and fornicate with them, requiring Moses to punish many men with death.

Then a priest named Pinchas finds an Israelite having sex with one of the women and kills them both. Not a great moment for modern Jews who believe in tolerance, especially interfaith relations.

But when we read this portion in the synagogue, we don’t have end here. We also have a Haftarah with a more uplifting message at the end. This portion comes from the prophet Micah, who recalls the blessing of Balaam and ends with Micah’s beautiful list of the three things God demands: to issue just rulings, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Walk humbly—what a contrast with the hubris expressed by Balak and Balaam! And a fitting wrap-up to the Balak story.

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