Parashat Hashavua Study
Balak 5769/ July 4, 2009
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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center
Staff at Bar-Ilan
University. Inquiries and
comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Balaam, and the G-d of Israel
Balak, king of Moab,
did not fear that Israel
would attack him and seek to conquer his land, as they had conquered the land
of the Emorites in Transjordan and the kingdom
of Og in the Bashan.
When he saw that the Israelites, crossing the
land on the eastern side of the Jordan, had refrained from threatening Edom,
Moab, and Ammon, the king of Moab apparently concluded that the Israelites had
been forbidden, or were refraining on their
own initiative, from making war on peoples descended from Abraham:
the Edomites, who descended from Isaac’s son
Esau, and the Moabites and Ammonites, who descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot. What
then did the king of Moab
Balak's fear was that “this horde will lick clean all that
is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (Num. 22:4). He did not
fear that Israel would take
over Moab itself, rather he
feared that they would take over the surrounding area – the grazing lands east
and south of the agricultural highlands of Moab; therefore the imagery is
taken from shepherding motifs: “as an ox
licks up the grass of the field.” The
king of Moab told this to
the elders of Midian because of the symbiosis between the agricultural land of Moab and the shepherd tribes of
Midian. This symbiosis created an
economic and political equilibrium in the area east of the Dead
Sea, and this equilibrium was likely to collapse because of the
appearance of the Israelites on the scene.
The Lord, G-d of Israel
had prevented His people from attacking Moab,
but He had not precluded the possibility that Israel
by severing it from its surroundings. In
order to overcome this threat, a force was needed to counter the Lord, to
counter that mighty deity who had already shown His power and defense of Israel, both in Egypt and in the wilderness.
Who possessed such counter-strength?
Possibly the answer was to summon the master
magician Balaam from the city of Pethor on the
land between the two rivers (Naharayim, or Mesopotamia),
the leader in magic in the ancient world.
According to pagan logic, the presence of
many gods necessarily means that the strength of any particular one is limited;
gods, too, are subject to Fate, and an expert magician can have an influence on
them and their actions.
Did Balaam Fear the Lord?
In this context we can understand Balaam’s behavior towards
G-d. On the one hand, formally he obeyed
the Lord, yet on the other hand he consistently attempted to act contrary to
the Lord’s basic will. After all, Balaam
knew the Lord’s will, that His blessed people not be cursed and certainly not
be cursed in the name of the Lord. Nevertheless,
Balaam attempted to achieve professional success in his work as a magician, success
that would bring both prestige and monetary reward.
On the formal level Balaam obeyed the Lord’s
command and even subordinated himself to Him for the moment, calling Him “the
Lord my G-d” (Num. 22:18).
For only in this way, according to Balaam’s
pagan reasoning, could he maintain communication with the G-d of Israel and thereby, should he be favored with
good fortune, perhaps through his magic bend the fundamental will of the G-d of
On the other hand, Balaam knew that his powers, those of an
expert magician, were limited. His magic
was subordinate to the force of supreme Fate, and there was no assurance that
he would succeed, especially in confronting a god as mighty as the G-d of Israel.
Therefore Balaam protected himself from the
outset, repeatedly saying to Balak’s emissaries and later to Balak
himself: “I can utter only the word that
G-d puts into my mouth” (Num. 22:38).
Changing Place, Changing Fortune
As the story unfolds, Balaam comes to understand that he
will not be able to bend the Lord’s will. Nevertheless he trails after his
employer Balak, who each time chooses another vantage point overlooking the
Israelite camp; perhaps by changing location he will change his fortune, and by
sacrificing a bull and a ram on each of seven new altars he hoped that the
magical number seven would help him.
But, alas, all was to no avail, as Balaam said to Balak:
“But I told you:
Whatever the Lord says, that I must do” (Num.
Having understood what motivated Balak and Balaam, we still
must ask why the Holy One, blessed be He, played along with their farcical
game. Why did the Lord reveal Himself to
Balaam? Why did He not sever all contact
with the pagan magician?
Perhaps the Lord did this to show His might in comparison
with the deception of magic, in order to teach that which is self-evident to us
today but which the pagan world of those times still needed to be taught,
namely the essential difference between gods in a polytheistic religion and the
Lord, the true G-d. (In our post-modern world, perhaps the gap between fiction
and truth is once again not self-evident.)
What Does the Story Teach?
Apparently there is another theological point to the story,
another reason for the seeming participation of the Holy One, blessed be He, in
the game: to bless Israel.
Reading Exodus and Numbers, as well as Moses’
admonishments in Deuteronomy, gives the impression that the Israelites who were
taken out of Egypt
were a nation of sinners and complainers.
One could however, take a different perspective, bearing in mind that
these events occurred over the course of forty years.
There is an element of:
“I accounted to your favor the devotion of
your youth, your love as a bride – how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a
land not sown,” as the prophet Jeremiah says in hindsight (Jer. 2:2).
In the generation of the wilderness, when
Moses repeatedly reproves the people, it is fitting for praise of Israel to be voiced precisely by an outside
figure, not one of Israel:
“Let the mouth of another praise you, not
yours, the lips of a stranger, not your own” (Prov. 27:2).
A stranger, setting out with fundamentally
hostile intent, is the one to sing in the name of the Lord praise of Israel in the
wilderness. His praise regarding the
present would later be complemented by Moses, close to his death, in the
blessings for the future in Canaan, appearing
in Parashat Ve-Zot ha-Berakhah (Deut. 34).
What Balak failed to understand was ultimately understood
by Balaam: that the Lord, G-d of Israel is indeed unlike any of the gods in the
pagan pantheon; He is not influenced by magic, rather His attitude towards His
people Israel is determined
by the religious and moral behavior of Israel.
“How fair are your tents, O Jacob” (Num.
24:5) is the precondition for “Like palm-groves that stretch out, like gardens
beside a river … they crouch, they lie down like a lion, like the king of
beasts; who dare rouse them?” (Num. 24:6-10).
Balaam, Phase II
It seems that Balaam, after being fired and sent packing by
Balak for having disappointed the ruler, continued to maintain his relations
with Balak’s partners, the elders of Midian.
They turned to him not to work magic, which had failed, but to give
practical advice on how to weaken Israel, and
this Balaam was ready to give. Although
the Israelites were neither in Moab
nor in Midian but in the territory they had conquered from the Emorites,
nevertheless the borders between these nations were not shut. Thus the elders
of Midian could initiate meetings between sons of the Israelites and daughters
of the Midianites and Moabites. In
addition, Israel might well
have had commercial dealings with their neighbors in the Transjordan
that led to social connections, as described picturesquely in the legends of
Idolatry was often accompanied by sexual
acts, and one could well imagine that these relationships involved the practice
of harlotry dedicated to Ba’al Peor – a hypothesis which can neither be proven
How Does the Story End?
Chapter 24 concludes Balaam’s dealings with Balak:
“Then Balaam set out on his journey back
home; and Balak also went his way” (Num. 24:25).
This is a fitting conclusion and a happy
ending: Balaam failed in his attempt to
This was the conclusion of the Torah reading
according to the ancient custom in the Land of Israel, but according to our
tradition the Torah portion of Balak also includes the episode of Ba’al
Peor, concluding with a verse about calamity:
“Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand” (Num.
25:9). However in reading the Torah one
generally follows the principle, “Do not stop in a dangerous situation”
(Eccles. 8:3), and therefore one does not conclude with evil events.
So why did Jewish communities decide to
conclude Balaam’s lofty blessings with this story of calamity?
Perhaps the answer lies in the very
question. The portion of Balak in
its present form teaches us that while the Lord did turn Balaam’s curse into a
blessing, we must be careful not to rejoice too soon.
Everything still depends on our own actions,
and if we do not behave properly then, Heaven forefend, the blessing can turn
back into a curse. “How fair are your
tents, O Jacob” depends entirely on us.