Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Balak

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Balak 5759/1999

Did Balaam's Ass Speak to Him?

Prof. Yitzhak Levine

Combined Program in the Social Sciences

The story in Parashat Balak about the ass speaking, conversing and arguing with Balaam has aroused great wonderment even among believers and ridicule among skeptics. In response to the question of how the ass could conceivably have spoken when speech is a faculty that was given uniquely to human beings, the "ass's mouth" is listed in the Mishnah among the wonders created at twilight on the eve of the Sabbath (Avot 5.6).

Speaking, of course, is not merely a matter of producing sounds, but involves extremely complex psychological and intellectual processes. In his commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides explained this text as indicating that all the laws of nature were created by God. Likewise, all the miracles that happened to our ancestors and are recounted in the Bible were also "created" together with the universe and the laws of nature. Therefore, they are no more surprising than the very existence of the laws of nature themselves. Thus, according to the author of the passage in Pirkei Avot, that the ass spoke is no wonder. This is Maimonides' position in regard to miracles in general. However, as we shall see below, he had a different opinion regarding the ass speaking.

The ass speaking is but one in a series of problematic elements in the chain of events recounted in the story of Balak and Balaam, albeit the most perplexing. In the introduction to his commentary on Parashat Balak, Abarbanel lists twenty-five questions, twenty-one of them concerning Balaam and his ass. We cite several of his questions below:

Question 8: If G-d gave Balaam permission to go, saying to him, "If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them" (Num. 22:20), after he goes how can Scripture say, "But G-d was incensed at his going; so an angel of the Lord placed himself in his way as an adversary" (Num. 22:22); for did he not go by G-d's leave and at His word?

Question 10: Regarding the words, "The ass, seeing the angel of the Lord" (v. 25), how could it be that the ass saw the spiritual angel of the Lord with her eyes, when Balaam, the human and prophet, did not see him? And how could the ass see him, for Maimonides says [in Guide for the Perplexed], chapter 42.2, that angels can only be perceived in a prophetic vision?

Question 11: If seeing the angel of the Lord was a miracle, just as the ass's speaking was a miracle, what was the purpose of this miracle? For G-d does not work new wonders except when absolutely necessary, and we can find no other purpose here except for the angel talking to Balaam, and that could have been accomplished simply by his speaking to him; what need was there for the ass to see the angel and to speak at all?

Question 13: Regarding the angel's question to Balaam, "Why have you beaten your ass?" (v. 32), his response was clear, since she had swerved from the road, squeezed Balaam's foot against the wall, and lay down under him. Thus the angel should have asked him why he had gone to damn Israel and should not have taken him to task for beating the ass, since that had been legitimate.

Question 15: Regarding the angel saying, "Unless she had shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her" (v. 33), he should have said, "If she had not shied away from me." Furthermore, how could killing or sparing his life depend on swerving from the road; for if Balaam deserved to die for going on the errand, then even if the ass upon which he was riding were to swerve off the road that would not exonerate him. And if he did not deserve to die, why did the angel say, "you are the one I should have killed"? What had he done to deserve being put to death?

Question 17: How was it that the Moabite dignitaries accompanying Balaam, and his two servants alongside, did not see the angel? If the angel appeared in concrete form as a human being, as the mystics maintain, then they should have all seen him; and if the angel appeared in a prophetic vision, then how did the ass apprehend him?

Question 19: Why did the angel of G-d set out to intercept Balaam along the way? After all, he said no more to him than G-d had already said; for He had said, "If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do" (v. 20), and the angel himself said likewise, "Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you" (v. 35). Thus, the angel's coming seems to have been to no purpose.

Abarbanel's many questions can be answered if we assume that the entire event described here was but a dream, which Balaam dreamed the night Balak's second delegation of dignitaries came to call on him (vv. 15-17). Note that Balaam answered them as follows: "Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my G-d. So you, too, stay here overnight, and let me find out what else the Lord may say to me" (vv. 18-19). Balaam had also told the first delegation, "Spend the night here" (v. 8), i.e., wait and we shall see what the Lord will instruct me [in a dream] tonight.

We assume that Balak dreamed a dream twice, and the Torah relates only the second in great detail. Verse 20 should be taken as the general heading summarizing the results of the Lord's conversation with Balaam: "That night G-d came to Balaam and said to him, 'If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do.'" This general heading is followed by the specific contents of the dream, as it appeared in Balaam's consciousness.

The contents of a prophetic dream are generally clothed in the events of the dream, which are sometimes symbolic. For the most part these events are related to the life and imagination of the dreamer and, as far as we can understand the essence of prophecy, are apparently a blend of the pure prophetic message with the dreamer's thoughts and imagery. Thus, in verses 21 through 35 we are told in great detail all that happened in the dream, after the main gist of the message was relayed in the general heading of verse 20. The ass speaking, the disagreements between Balaam and his ass, the beatings that Balaam gave his ass, the deliberations between Balaam and the angel, and finally the substance of the prophetic message --all these were the details that made up the dream.

Where were Balaam's two servants during these discussions and events? Where were Balak's officials and dignitaries? Not in the dream! Only in the morning, when Balaam awakened and actually set out on his way, were they with him. Likewise, as regards the contradictory stance, as it were, of the Almighty (Question 8 above), only if one does not pay close attention to the structure of this description does it seem that G-d, after giving Balaam permission to go, was angry at him again, and then in the end He once again changed His mind and permitted Balaam to set out. But this only seems so if one does not distinguish the general heading (v. 20) from the details of the dream that follow. The inappropriateness of some of the angel's remarks as well, stem from the fact that Balaam was dreaming.

Why is the detailed content of the second dream relayed to us, and not the first? The Torah does not bother to relay unnecessary details or dreams that do not teach a specific message. Only this dream of Balaam's conveyed special lessons, as are brought out in various commentaries and homilies.

The theory that this was a detailed dream is based on analysis of the dream atmosphere from which stemmed all the perplexing questions raised by various commentators. Note that there are, in our opinion, several other passages in Scripture which essentially are the contents of dreams although the word "dream" is not explicitly mentioned.

The assumption that the story of Balaam and his ass was experienced in a dream, a prophetic dream of Balaam's, is consonant with Maimonides' view on this event as set forth in Guide for the Perplexed, especially Part III, ch. 52. Maimonides' opinion follows from his consistent assumption that alprophecy and all visions of angels and the like that are recounted to us by Scripture were experienced in a dream and were not things that actually took place in the external waking hours of reality, save for the prophecy of Moses. This argument is based first and foremost on an analysis of what is said in Numbers, chapter 12, and on his philosophical analysis of the essence of prophecy and the definition of the concept of an angel.

Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.