Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Balak

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Balak 5758/1998

Balaam and His Ass: The Significance of the Story

Jonathan Jacobs

Bible Department

The amazing story of the encounter of Balaam and his ass with the angel of G-d raises many questions.[1] This is generally held to be a story within a story, a self-contained interlude. The story opens and closes with similar turns of phrase: "When he arose in the morning, Balaam ... departed with the Moabite dignitaries" (22:21); "So Balaam went on with Balak's dignitaries" (22:35).

In terms of G-d's command, the interlude with the ass contributes nothing to the development of the plot, insofar as the same command that Balaam received before setting out--"You may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do" (22:20)--is repeated at the end: "Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you" (22:35). What, then, is the object of the story and what does it contribute to our understanding of the weekly portion? This question was posed by Abarbanel (from his commentary on Balak, question 19):

Why did the angel of the Lord accost Balaam's ass along the way? For his message to him was essentially no different from what the Lord had said to Balaam, namely, "If these men have come to invite you, ..." Indeed, the angel himself said to him, "Go with the men." Thus his appearance seems to be of no purpose.

Through a literary analysis of the episode we shall try to discover what the story of the ass contributes to the plot. The story can be broken down into three scenes, according to the number of participants in each scene. Scene 1, verses 22-27, has three actors: the angel, Balaam and the ass. Scene 2, verses 28-30, is a dialogue between the ass and Balaam. Scene 3, verses 31-35, presents a dialogue between the angel of the Lord and Balaam.

The first scene (22-27) unfolds gradually:[2] thrice the angle of the Lord appears, each time in a different place, and thrice the ass sees the angel. Each time the animal's response is more extreme, making Balaam progressively more angry:

I. A) The angel of the Lord stood in the way

B) When the ass caught sight of the angel of the Lord,

C) the ass swerved from the road;

D) and Balaam beat the ass to turn her back onto the road.

II. A) The angel of the Lord then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards.

B) The ass, seeing the angel of the Lord,

C) pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Balaam's foot against the wall;

D) so he beat her again.

III. A) Once more the angel of the Lord moved forward and stationed himself on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve right or left.

B) When the ass now saw the angel of the Lord,

C) she lay down under Balaam;

D) and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.

The first time Balaam beat his ass only in order to return her to the road. The second time he continued to beat her because she pressed his leg against the wall. By the third time he became enraged and beat her in great fury. Viewed from the outside, these events ostensibly reveal the supremacy of the human being over the beast, the person beating the animal and dominating it. The reader, however, knows what Balaam does not know, namely, the reason the ass acts the way she does. The scene begins with anger--"But G-d was incensed at his going" (22:22)--and concludes with anger--"and Balaam was furious" (22:27). The Lord's wrath, however, is justified, while Balaam's is not.[3]

The second scene (28-30) describes an ironic interchange between the ass and her master. The naive question of the ass, "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?" shows that it does not occur to her that her master has not seen what she has seen. Balaam's response, "If I had a sword with me, I'd kill you," underscores the irony, for the ass is standing in front of the sword drawn by the angel of the Lord (22:23), while Balaam threatens her with a sword which he does not have in his hand.

Rashi remarks on this verse: "He was going to slay an entire nation by the words of his mouth, but to kill this she-ass he needed a weapon of war!" The response of the ass, "Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?" further emphasizes Balaam's inferiority in comparison to his ass. The ass has not yet said explicitly what she saw and why she behaved as she did. Balaam, in his monosyllabic answer, "No," comes off looking like a person who is confused, embarrassed, and mocked.

The third scene, a dialogue between the angel and Balaam, further contributes to the idea that Balaam is inferior to his ass. Let us compare the reactions of Balaam and of his ass to seeing the angel:

22:23: "When the ass caught sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with drawn sword in his hand, the ass swerved from the road and went into the fields."

22:31: "He saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground."

The ass reacts as a person would: she sees danger and swerves off the road. Balaam responds as a prophet would to a vision of G-d: he bows down. But the prophet Balaam does not perceive the angel of the Lord until after his simple ass sees him.

The question that the angel addresses to Balaam reiterates what the ass said to Balaam:

22:28: "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?"

22:32: "The angel of the Lord said to him, 'Why have you beaten your ass these three times?'"

The word- for- word repetition of what the ass said emphasizes the point that the ass was fully justified in her complaint against Balaam. The angel's question is cynical and humiliating: have you failed to see what your ass saw? The angel proceeds to insult Balaam further by asserting that his ass saved his life: "If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her." Indeed, upon hearing the angel's words, Balaam must admit, "I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way" (22:34).

The first scene hints at Balaam's degradation by the implicit comparison between the acts of the ass and Balaam's response. The second scene explicitly mocks Balaam through the words uttered by the ass. By the end of the third scene, Balaam himself acknowledges his inferiority and ignorance.

As we noted at the outset, this story does not further the plot. At the end Balaam finds himself in the same place as at the beginning: He has received a divine command to go with Balak's men, on condition that he say what the Lord tells him. Thus it appears that the point of the story is to ridicule Balaam the magician in comparison to his ass: Balaam seeks to curse an entire nation, but even his ass surpasses him in her abilities. The story has another purpose: to teach Balaam, and the reader, that speech and sight are in the hands of Heaven, not of man: "Then the Lord opened the ass's mouth" (22:28); "Then the Lord uncovered Balaam's eyes" (22:31).

[1] Cf., for example, A. Rofeh, Sefer Balaam, Iyyunim ba-Mikra u-ve-Tekufato I, Jerusalem 1980, pp. 21-26, 54-57.

[2] Zakowitz ascribes the story to the literary form of "three and four," three revelations to the ass, and a fourth to Balaam. Cf. Y. Zakowitz, Al Shelosha ve'al Arba'ah: Ha-Degem ha-Sifruti Shelosha ve-Arba'ah ba-Mikra, Jerusalem 1979, pp. 100-109.

[3] For a discussion of whay G-d goes back on what He had said at the outset, see N. Leibowitz, Numbers , Jerusalem 1996, pp. 304-310.