Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Balak 5769/ July 4, 2009

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Balak, Balaam, and the G-d of Israel


Menahem Ben-Yashar


Massuot Yitzhak


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. [1]   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, [2] 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 fear?

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 harm Moab 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 Euphrates, [3] from the land between the two rivers (Naharayim, or Mesopotamia), the leader in magic in the ancient world. [4]   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). [5]   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 Israel.

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. 23:26).

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 [6] 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 the Sages. [7]   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 nor disproved. [8]

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 curse Israel.   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. [9]   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.


[1] See Numbers 21:21-38

[2] See Deuteronomy 2:2-22.

[3] See Joshua 13:22.  On Pethor, see Y. Ef`al, under Pethor, Encyclopedia Mikra’it 6, 1972, pp. 638-639.

[4] See P. Arzi, under Keshafim, Bavel ve-Ashur, Encyclopedia Mikra’it 4, 1963, pp. 352-356.

[5] Similarly the polytheistic king Cyrus presents himself as a loyal servant of the Lord (Ezra 1:2), even though the Cyrus declaration indicates that he view the Babylonian deity Marduk as the supreme god.

[6] See Numbers 31:16.

[7] See Sifre Numbers 131, pp. 170-171 in the Horowitz edition, as well as Talmud Sanhedrin 106a; Jerusalem Talmud, loc. sit. 10.2, 88d.

[8] See Y. Licht, Commentary on Numbers [22-36], Jerusalem 1998, p. 47.

[9] See Rema on Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 138.1.