From Balaam and His Ass by Rembrandt, 1626. Wikipedia.
This week’s Torah reading of Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) is named after the king of Moab, who sets its plot in motion. Its true protagonist, however, is the prophetic hit man Balaam, who fatally accepts Balak’s commission and proceeds to listen to his royal client rather than to the source of his genuine prophecies—who is of course the Lord.
I confess I’ve always had a soft spot for Balaam and could not see why the ancient rabbis were so unkind to him. In talmudic literature he is always “Balaam the wicked,” described as a one-eyed man with a limp and a crooked soul. But if you compare him with, say, the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who likewise put a bit of himself into any commercial work he did but also had a fatal weakness for the lure of fame and fortune, Balaam seems completely our contemporary.
Upon closer examination, however, the rabbinic tradition is itself ambivalent, torn between recognizing Balaam as a genuine prophet and denigrating him not just because he isn’t a Jew but because he exploits his gift to attack Israel.
Let’s start at the beginning. At the end of the previous week’s reading, Moses leads the Israelites out of the Sinai desert and into what’s now Jordan, where they are attacked by some of the local tribes. The Israelites, with God at their back, promptly demolish the opposing armies and conquer their land. When Balak hears what has happened to his mighty neighbors, he panics.
Confronted by an adversary who can’t be defeated by conventional means, Balak turns to unconventional warfare. He sends a delegation to the prophet-for-hire Balaam, seemingly a sort of wizard who can curse on demand. But Balaam’s powers don’t come from magic spells or demonic forces; they come from the Lord Himself. And that’s where things get complicated:
And God came to Balaam and said, . . . “You will not go with [Balak’s emissaries]; you’ll not pick off this people,
for it is blessed.”
And Balaam rose in the morning and told Balak’s ministers, “Go to your land,
For the Lord has refused to let me go with you.”
The messengers leave, but they’re under the impression that the decision not to come with them is Balaam’s, not the Lord’s. Naturally, Balaam will soon be asked to change his mind.
This confusion is at the heart of Balaam’s problem. He keeps saying that his actions are up to God, but everybody else hears that they’re up to him. Worse, Balaam seems to exploit, and even to foster, this confusion, as in his overly terse summary of the Lord’s message above. So what is it that Balaam wants? It must be more money, more ego gratification. This, Balak’s men are happy to provide.
The contrast with Joseph, whose prophetic powers in Genesis also prove useful to powerful men, is instructive. Joseph asks the dignitaries with whom he’s been temporarily imprisoned in Egypt to remember him upon their release, but they don’t—until circumstances change and Pharaoh has need of him. Then, coming to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, he declares categorically that it is not he but the Lord who can discern its true meaning.
It would have served Balaam well to take a page from Joseph’s playbook and make absolutely explicit that the cursing will be the Lord’s doing. Since he hasn’t made it clear enough, Balak sends a larger delegation, consisting of higher-ranking officials. After his repeated token demurral Balaam tells the messengers to wait a night in case God has changed His mind. But this time he adds a caveat:
“If Balak should give me his whole household full of silver and gold I could not transgress the word
Of the Lord my God to do either a trifle or a great deed.” . . .
And God came to Balaam that night and told him, “If it’s to call on you that the people came, get up and go with them.
But only the deed I tell you shall you do.”
And Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his ass and went with the ministers of Moab.
But it irked God that he was going and an angel of the Lord stood planted in the road
as his prosecutor.
And he was riding on his ass with his two boys, and the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing planted
in the road with his sword drawn in his hand
and the ass turned from the road and walked into the field,
but Balaam beat the ass to turn it to the road.
This scene repeats itself twice more, revealing another of the confusions in the story: the Lord seemingly permits Balaam to go with Balak’s ministers and then gets annoyed when he does. Seeking to explain God’s apparently contradictory behavior, the 13th-century sage Moses Naḥmanides suggests that when the messengers come the second time, the Lord gives Balaam the benefit of the doubt that they want something different from him, and therefore tells Balaam he can go. But Balaam rises in the morning and accompanies them without making it crystal-clear that he will not be doing any cursing of Israelites, so the Lord is irked: Balaam is letting it be thought that He has changed his mind. Performing a miracle, He opens the donkey’s mouth to demonstrate exactly how little Balaam, with his much-vaunted prophetic gift, can actually see:
But the Lord opened the ass’s mouth and it said to him,
“What did I do to you that you beat me these three times?”
But Balaam told the ass, “Because you fooled with me!
Had I a sword in my hand just now I’d have killed you.” . . .
And the Lord uncovered the eyes of Balaam
And he saw the angel of the Lord standing planted in the road with his sword drawn in his hand
And he bowed his head and he prostrated himself on the ground. . . .
And the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with these worthies. However,
Only the speech I’ll speak to you, that’s what you’ll speak.”
When Balaam arrives with the ministers before the king, it seems that he has finally learned his lesson. Balak asks him why he did not come the first time and he replies:
Look, I’ve come to you.
Now, am I capable of saying just anything? The word that God puts in my mouth—that’s what I’ll speak.
But it doesn’t stick. Once again Balaam’s optimism—or, better, his desire to feel important—gets the better of him and, instead of leaving it at that, he tells Balak to offer an elaborate series of sacrifices as part of a ritual that will induce God to appear.
Here Balaam seals his own fate. He’s been told repeatedly by the Lord that there will be no curse, but he still acts as if the Lord might change His mind. And here, too, is proof that God is entirely within His rights to be peeved. As Naḥmanides surmises, Balaam keeps implying that the Lord might in the future allow him to curse. What results is the beginning of Balaam’s downfall.
Balaam, now standing with Balak on a hill overlooking the Israelite camp, is overtaken by prophecy. He lets loose not with curses but with the first of a series of blessings, manifestly demonstrating what he has been trying to obfuscate: that he is not in any way somebody whose curse curses and whose blessing blesses; he is a vehicle being driven by Someone else.
How shall I curse what God has not cursed
And what shall I rage where the Lord has not raged?
For from mountaintops I see it and from hills I perceive;
They are a people who dwell apart
And are not reckoned among other nations.
Astonishingly Balaam goes through this routine several times, having an increasingly enraged Balak bring more sacrifices followed by the uttering of more blessings until finally the jig is up.
And Balaam saw that it was good in the eyes of the Lord to bless Israel, . . .
And Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel
Residing according to its tribes.
And the spirit of God was upon him
And he took up his parable and said:
“The declamation of Balaam son of Beor
And the declamation of the plug-eyed man: . . .
How good have your tents grown Jacob
And your lodgings Israel,
Like brooks they flow,
Like gardens on a river bank,
Like tents the Lord has pitched,
Like cedars over water.”
Balaam’s prophecy continues like this for the remainder of Numbers 24, and then he and Balak part without ceremony.
Just how divided the rabbinic tradition is about Balaam may be measured by the fact that Jewish worshipers quote one of these blessings every morning upon entering the synagogue. How many Jewish prophets can you say that about, let alone non-Jewish ones?
In the course of all this, Balaam has mentioned something about giving Balak advice, but we don’t know what it is until later. The answer comes in Numbers 31, after a battle between Israelites and Midianites:
And they made war upon Midian as the Lord commanded Moses and killed every male
And the kings of Midian they killed on their corpses, . . .
And Balaam son of Beor they put to the sword.
And Moses said to them: “Did you spare all the girls?
They themselves were with the sons of Israel on the word of Balaam
To cause offense against the Lord over the business with Peor,
And there was a plague in the community of Israel.”
Moses—the ultimate exemplar of a true servant of the Lord, long-suffering and ego-less—here provides the justification for Balaam’s execution. The prophet, we are led to believe, has advised the Midianites—allies of the Moabites—to have their girls entice the Israelite men and then lead them to worship the pagan deity Baal Peor, as is described at the end of this week’s reading. Sure enough, what follows is a binational orgy of idolatry and promiscuity, bringing the wrath of God down on Israel.
In sum, Balak is correct that normal military means will not defeat his new enemy; but he is wrong to think he can harness supernatural means against this enemy when it is protected by the Lord Himself. As for Balaam, he knows better: the way to get at the Israelites is to get God angry at them, and the way to do that is to make them sin. Alone among the Gentiles, this prophet knows the trick.
Or thinks he does. In the final analysis, Balaam can indeed channel the Lord; but he never takes on the moral responsibility that comes with his power. His reason for plotting with the Midianites against the Jews is never made clear. The rabbis tend to present him as an out-and-out anti-Semite, but I see something more specific. Unlike Moses, who is “more humble than any man on earth,” Balaam can’t stand how unprofessional the Israelites have made him look in front of Balak, and if he can’t deliver the goods by cursing he tries to do it some other way, losing sight of the fact that he’s been putting his client ahead of his gift and thereby sealing his own doom.
And Balaam does look foolish—not, however, because of Israel but because he never levels with Balak and his courtiers about the limits of his abilities. As a contemporary wandering Jewish minstrel and Nobel laureate once remarked, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” Balaam tries to serve two masters and winds up with even his one eye shut, food for dogs on a heap of kings.
As the Ethics of the Fathers warns, getting close to rulers can be dangerous. Serving the King of Kings can be especially dangerous, but at least the rules are clear. In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man can get himself into a lot of trouble.