Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Balak 5767

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, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Balaam’s Ass

 

Prof. Amos Frisch

 

Department of Bible

 

 

The story of Balaam raises many questions.  Indeed, if we had to identify a passage that is replete with difficulties and quandaries, we would point to the story of Balaam’s ass.   Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel devoted to the story of Balaam’s ass ten of the fifteen questions which he raised regarding the entire reading of Balak.  Here we shall present three questions which to us seem central to the story of the ass:

1)       In the story of the ass, “an angel of the Lord placed himself in his way as an adversary” (Num. 22:22), to obstruct Balaam in going to Balak.  Does this not contradict the Lord’s words the night before, explicitly giving Balaam permission to go:  “If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them” (Num. 22:20)?

2)       The story of the ass concludes with the angel instructing Balaam, “…you may go with them.  But whatever I command you, that you shall do” (Num. 22:20).   What was added by the incident of the ass, if in the end we return to the same point at which we started?   What would have been lacking in the plot had this story not been included?

3)       In the story of the ass, we read about an amazing miracle:   “then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth” (Num. 22:28), a miracle which the Sages included in their list of ten things that were created at twilight on the eve of the Sabbath (Avot 5.6).   Having observed that the story of Balaam’s ass did not advance the plot in the least, the question arises:   why was this great miracle performed?  To what use was it?

Let us begin with a homily that appears rather far-fetched.  In response to the ass’s words to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times [Heb. shalosh regalim]?” (Num. 22:28), the Midrash says:   “the ass hinted to him:   you wish to eradicate a nation that celebrates three festivals [Heb. shalosh regalim] a year” (Tanhuma, Balak 9).   It should be noted that later the angel repeats this enumeration twice more:   “Why have you beaten your ass these three times?” (Num. 22:32), and “when the ass saw me, she shied away because of me those three times.   If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed while sparing her” (Num. 22:33).  We note that the expression “three times” (Heb. shalosh regalim) is thrice repeated in the story of Balaam’s ass.

Here is an even more far-fetched homily, not relying on a play on words but merely on the similarity of numbers:   “Why did he see fit to advance towards him three times before making himself manifest to him?   These were hints about the patriarchs” (Tanhuma, Balak 8). [1]   The reader might wonder whether any combination of three is supposed to call to mind the patriarchs!

These homilies, however might contain a clue to understanding an additional function played by the story, other than that of presenting the figure of Balaam as inconsequential, on the one hand, [2] and presenting the faculty of speech as being in the hands of G-d, on the other. [3]   Bible scholars (and before them, the Sages), have pointed out similarities between the story of Balaam’s ass and the story of the binding of Isaac, [4] even suggesting that the story of Balaam’s ass be viewed as its mirror image.   Precisely through the similarity of the two stories one notes the sharp contrast between the two figures – that of Abraham as opposed to that of Balaam. [5]

We would like to present the relationship between Balaam and his ass – who does him good, while he wishes to kill her – as paralleling the relationship between Balaam and the people of Israel. [6]   The homilist drew a connection in form between the ass’s complaint, “you have beaten me these three times (Heb. shalosh regalim),” and the three pilgrimage festivals (also shalosh regalim in Hebrew); we shall show an internal connection within this week’s reading.  The enumeration of the three times that Balaam strikes his ass is directed at what Balaam does to the Israelites (as stated by Balak):  “instead you have blessed them these three times” (Num. 24:10) – blessings that at the outset were planned to be curses.   As for the expression “that you have beaten me (Heb. root h-k-h),” which precedes it – that is directed at the original plan whose realization Balaam was summoned to assist:   “perhaps I can thus defeat them (Heb. root h-k-h) and drive them out of the land” (Num. 22:6).

What does the story of Balaam’s ass contribute to the overall plot?  On Balaam’s way to curse the people, an attempt is made to hint to him that his intentions are evil and not desired by G-d, even though he was given permission to go.   This hint is conveyed not only by the angel confronting him, but also by means of the confrontation between him and his ass.  Only when he finally sees the angel, does Balaam understand his position – the spiritual perceptiveness of his ass is greater than his own; moreover, all that he thought it was doing wickedly, it had intended for his benefit, while he in his stupidity and evil-heartedness wished to kill it.  Is he incapable of drawing a lesson from the things that happened to him with his ass and incapable of asking himself whether indeed there is any justification in the harm that he is on the way to inflict on the Israelites?

The theme of blessing and curse appears throughout the story of Balaam, and it also is prominent in the Abraham narrative, including the story of the binding of Isaac, [7] whose clear connection with the Balaam narrative was mentioned above.   Abraham’s status in the world is connected with the subject of blessing and curse:   “I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (Gen. 12:3).  All of mankind are blessed because of Abraham’s merits, [8] yet the king of Moab was searching for a person of whom he knew “that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6), and commissioned him to curse Abraham’s people.  In this context, the Lord’s words to Balaam are significant when He answers him:   “Do not go with them.   You must not curse that people, for they are blessed” (Num. 22:12).

Indeed, at the end of the story of the ass Balaam finds himself back at the same point at which he began, but this is not a fault in the plot; rather, it shows a fault in Balaam.   An attempt was made from Heaven to teach him through that which was close to him, through his own ass, but he did not learn the lesson, rather he continued along his way with the intention of cursing the Lord’s people.  Moreover, the fact that nothing changed for Balaam actually serves to build the plot, teaching us an instructive lesson about his character. [9]

We asked whether the angel standing in the way to obstruct Balaam did not contradict his having been given permission to go on the mission, permission which Balaam received from the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself.  It could have been contradictory had the angel ultimately prevented him from going, but that was not the case; in the end, the angel allowed him to continue on his way, giving him the same instructions he had been told previously:   If you have been requested to do so, go; but you had better know that you will not be able to do or say whatever you wish.  The purpose of the angel’s appearance on the scene was not to prevent Balaam from going, rather it was to hint to him about the problematic nature of his plan.

What was the meaning of the great miracle that occurred?  Balaam sees but does not pay attention to the great miracle in his ass’s speaking; he is indifferent to the miracle, as if it were not something out of the ordinary. [10]   If in this story the ass represents Israel, then the miracle of its being able to speak parallels the status of the Israelites as a wondrous people, well-acquainted with miracles.   However, in the eyes of Balaam and Balak they are “a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view” (Num. 22:5) – not by a miracle wrought by the Lord, rather through their own self-liberation, and that is the source of the problem in the wake of which Balaam is summoned.

In the final analysis, three times Balaam will pronounce the blessings that the Lord puts in his mouth, and at prominent points in his declarations he will mention the blessing and curse with regard to the people of Israel (at the beginning of his first speech – Num. 23:7-8; at the beginning of the second one – Num. 23:21; and at the conclusion of the third – Num. 24:9).  In the second speech he will declare:  “G-d who freed them from Egypt” (Num. 23:22), in which regard the Sages noted how Balaam’s words corrected what Balak had said:  “a people that came out of Egypt”. [11]   In the end, Balaam turns out to bless Israel, but not because of his own understanding; rather, he blesses them involuntarily, his mouth, like that of his ass, being no more than a tool in the hands of the King of Kings.

                                                                                                                                   



[1] According to the homily, the differences in the amount of physical space left to Balaam in each of the three places where he encountered the angel represent the differences in righteousness of the descendants of the patriarchs:   the first place where the angel accosted him, leaving a “space on this side and a space on that,” stood for the sons of Ishmael and the sons whom Keturah bore to Abraham; at the second encounter, the space left on one side stood for the sons of Isaac:   “one side to curse – that is Esau”; the absence of any space stood for the sons of Jacob:   “He found no waste in them.”

[2] Cf., for example: J. Milgrom, Numbers (JPS Torah Commentary), Philadelphia 1990, p. 469.  It should be noted that Milgrom relies heavily on the Midrash in his discussion there.

[3] Cf. N. Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers), trans. A. Newman, Jerusalem 1980, pp. 297-298.

[4] We note three points of similarity:  the scriptural passages, “So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took  with him two of his servants, … and he set out”” (Gen. 22:3) // “When he arose in the morning Balaam saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries… with his two servants alongside” (Num. 22:21-11); the function of the root r – a – h as a leitmotif; the revelation of an angel who announces to the hero of the story something which appears to be a change from what he had been told at the outset.

[5] Cf. J. D. Safran, "Balaam and Abraham", Vetus Testamentum 38 (1988), pp. 105-113;

D. Marcus, From Balaam to Jonah : Anti-Prophetic Satire in the Hebrew Bible, Atlanta 1995, pp. 38-39. 

[6] The reader might wonder whether the ass is truly worthy of being thought of as representing or symbolizing the Israelites.   It turns out that in Scripture asses and donkeys, as well as other animals, were thought of more highly than they are in our day.  We note the following passages as examples:  “Issachar is a strong-boned ass, crouching among the sheepfolds” (Gen. 49:14), “Lo, your king is coming to you.  He is victorious, triumphant, yet humble, riding on an ass, on a donkey foaled by a she-ass” (Zech. 9:9).

[7] There, however, only the blessing appears:  “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes” (Gen. 22:17); “All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command” (Gen. 22:18).  Also compare the blessing that Isaac gives Jacob, father of the nation:  “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you; be master over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow to you.  Cursed be they who curse you, blessed they who bless you” (Gen. 27:29).

[8] Cf. especially Nahmanides on this verse:  “that the world be blessed on his account,” as well as U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, trans. I. Abrahams, Part II: Gen. vi 9-xi 32, Appendix: Abraham and the Promised Land, Jerusalem 1964, pp. 312-315.

[9] Cf. the assessment of Prof. David Henschke at the end of his study of the story of Balaam’s ass, where he talks about arbitrariness verses moral understanding, “thus remarkably sharpening the message that from Balaam’s point of view nothing had happened.  The flash of moral enlightenment that shone for a moment in the darkness of arbitrary existence did not shine for him; remaining blind, he returned to his way” (“What was Balaam’s Ass trying to say?” Daf Shavua   609 [Parashat Balak, 1998]).

[10] Cf. Tamar Wolf- Monzon, “‘Falling into a trance, but having his eyes open’-Transitions between points of view as a key to the compositional organization of the Balaam episode,” Beit Mikra  47 (2002), p.244.

[11] Tanhuma, Balak 14; also see Rashi on this verse.