Parsah Balaak: A Few Noodles Short of a Kugel
2015 S.H. Parker

Our story, the War of the Seven Nations, actually starts in last week's action packed episode, Chukkat.

The 40 years are up. The slave generation has died off. Only Moshe, Joshua and Caleb remain of the generation that left Egypt.

Israel heads north, stopping at Kadesh (Kadesh Barneah) in the wilderness of Zin. Notice the location of Kadesh just south of Beer-Sheva.

Miriam dies and is buried at Kadesh (Bamidbar 20:1).

We get the second version of Moshe bringing water from a rock at Meribah. In this version, he strikes the rock instead of talking to it. "But, that's another story."

Moshe sends a negotiating team to Edom (east of their encampment, east of the Jordan Rift valley) to arrange passage through Edom (20:14 ff).

 וַיְמָאֵן אֱדוֹם, נְתֹן אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, עֲבֹר, בִּגְבֻלוֹ; וַיֵּט יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵעָלָיו.  20:21 [But] Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; wherefore Israel turned away from him

In other words, Israel declines combat (after all, there is a family relation -- Edom is descended from Esau -- though you wouldn't realize it from Edom's behavior here) and marches back west and north (see 21:4).

Aharon dies (okay, now the generation that left Egypt is gone).

Starting in chapter 21, Israel fights Arad (21:1). Our text does not say it but Israel looses this fight. But, Israel has to take on Arad a second time at Hormah (again, just south of Beer-Sheva). Israel defeats Arad in this second encounter. Then Israel soundly defeats the Amorites (21:13 ff) -- the Amorite tribes inhabit the area north of Ein Gedi including Jerusalem, Hebron, and Lachish (Joshua 10:5) -- and then Bashan (21:33-35).

Note the order of Israel's battles and the locations on the map. Arad is northwest, west of the Dead Sea, near Beer-Sheva. It is on the wrong side of the Dead Sea for the traditional route of entry in the land. The Amorites occupy the territory north of Arad. Edom is south of Moab and Bashan is north of Moab.... It really looks like somebody didn't ask for directions at the oasis (and is wandering around in a big circle) because to fight these battles, Israel already had to be in the land.

This brings us to Balaak, king of Moab (Bamidbar 22), my subject today.

As our sedrah begins, Israel has been on a tear, defeating a series of nations (that is, city-states) and is approaching Moab, traveling south from Bashan. 

Balaak, "saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites" (22:2) and immediately calls for the seer Bilaam.

Well, not immediately, first he kvetches to the elders of Midian. Never mind that Midian is two nations south, that is, several hundred miles and several weeks walk away. (Friedman, The Bible With Sources Revealed, argues that the references to Midian were added to the story later to reconcile a problem that will come up in chapter 25, with Baal Peor and Peor.)

So, Balaak "sent messengers [מַלְאָכִים - 'angels'] to Bilaam." He doesn't mobilize his army. He doesn't call up his citizen soldiers. He doesn't build fortifications. He doesn't ask Midian, or anyone else, for military assistance.

He doesn't negotiate with Israel.

He calls for a sorcerer.

Am I the only one who thinks this nuts?

Granted, Israel has just defeated the Amorites, big time (21:21 ff), and Balaak's predecessor fought the Amorites, apparently not doing so well.

In other words, Israel defeated a nation that previously defeated his own. So maybe Balaak figures "if they beat them, they'll beat me."  In some twisted sense, "defeating in war" being obviously transitive, he might have reason to fear, though why he doesn't even try to negotiate passage is a mystery to me, and fear he does:

 וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם, מְאֹד--כִּי רַב-הוּא; וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 22:3 And Moab was very afraid of the people, because they were many; and Moab was overcome with dread of the children of Israel.

I can understand that. But, were it me, I'd draft every able bodied man I could find, hire mercenaries, send emissaries to negotiate, build fortifications, make alliances ... I'd run and hide, but call for a witch doctor? I mean, seriously, this guy is totally unhinged.

The Prophet

 וַיִּשְׁלַח מַלְאָכִים אֶל-בִּלְעָם בֶּן-בְּעֹר 5 And he sent messengers unto Balaam the son of Beor

By the way, Bilaam was a historical character.

Balaak sends both Moabite and Midianite elders (despite the long distance relationship):

Bilaam tells the messengers to stay the night and in the morning he will let them know what He has to say about going to Moab to curse Israel. Bilaam needs and will not act without God's permission. Sensible fellow. So far.

Now we find out something very interesting about Bilaam. God speaks to Bilaam (22:9, 10, 12 inter alia). God "speaks" to only one other prophet, Moshe Rabbenu. God appears to other prophets, comes to them. And, for all other prophets, God comes to them in dreams or visions. But God does not "speak" to any but two: Moshe and Bilaam. (Or, more precisely, Torah uses the term "speak" only in reference to these two. So Torah sees Bilaam as different from other prophets.)

Rashi has no problem with this. In fact, Rashi does not even comment on God "talking" to Bilaam. He simply notes that "The Divine Spirit rested on him only at night, and the same applied to all gentile prophets." (By contrast, Moshe speaks to God face to face and at any time of day.)

There are midrashim that denigrate Bilaam as a mere sorcerer or as someone who misused the gift of prophecy (e.g., Midrash d'Rav Tanhuma). And, as we are about to find out, Bilaam does have a different view of the "use" of prophecy than we do. Prophecy was Bilaam's livelihood. But we are still left with the simple fact that God did not merely appear (i.e., in dreams) to Bilaam but talked, conversed, with him.

And, on account of Bilaam's intimate relation with God, his words, his blessing and curses, need to be taken very seriously.

So, Bilaam sleeps on it. God says "No."

Bilaam dutifully reports to the princes of Balaak (yesterday, they were elders) that, on God's orders, he will not go with them and curse Israel.

Apparently the messengers did not hear the whole message for, when they report to Balaak, they say only that: "Bilaam refuses to come with us." They leave out כִּי מֵאֵן יְהוָה, "because God refuses" permission to go.

Balaak, not taking "no" for an answer, sends higher ranking dignitaries but still takes no military or diplomatic action. And, this time, they come with promises. They promise "very great honor."

Bilaam has already been told, definitively, "no" but instead of sending the servants (עַבְדֵי -- looks like the messengers who became elders who became princes are now "servants") away:

וַיַּעַן בִּלְעָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-עַבְדֵי בָלָק, אִם-יִתֶּן-לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ, כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב--לֹא אוּכַל, לַעֲבֹר אֶת-פִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹהָי, לַעֲשׂוֹת קְטַנָּה, אוֹ גְדוֹלָה. 18 And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak: 'If Balak would give me his house [I presume Balaak's house was a palace, so, even if small, still a residence of significant size] full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the LORD my God, to do any thing, small or great.

OMG! Bilaam is negotiating. He wants a house full of silver and gold. It is no longer "I can go if God says I can go" but "I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord but, as long as we're talking about it, just how much is it worth to you?"

So, he asks them to stay the night. He will inquire of God, again.

וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל-בִּלְעָם, לַיְלָה, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִם-לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם; וְאַךְ, אֶת-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ--אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה. 20 And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him: 'If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do.'

Translation: What is it about "No" you didn't understand? Okay, boychick, you wanted gold and silver, you made your bed, so just as you said, you will do exactly what I tell you.

But this is really a test, as we see two verses later (22:22): "God's anger flared up because he [Bilaam] went."

Just what is wrong with this guy? He talks to God. He doesn't just "receive the word," he has two way conversations (not face to face, like Moshe, but personal, direct discussion). He knows he can do only what God allows him to and acknowledges this -- more than once. Yet, after being told emphatically "No," he not only entertains the emissaries a second time, he extorts -- sorry, he "negotiates" -- them for a major payment, a palace's worth of gold and silver.

Some "prophet." 

Sometimes, you just have to wonder about the folks God chooses to associate with.

I mean, seriously, God's taste in friends raises some real questions. Or is it proof that love really is blind?

You know, Balaak and Bilaam deserve each other. Both of them are completely 'round the bend.

The Jackass

So God is ... miffed with Bilaam. Bilaam should know better.

So God sends a messenger to be an adversary (לְשָׂטָן - "for a satan," i.e., adversary), to stand in his way.

The ass sees the satan (adversary). Bilaam does not. The ass heads for the road's shoulder to avoid the messenger. Bilaam hits the ass.

The messenger moves to a new location and the ass avoids it by pressing against a wall, hurting Bilaam's foot. Bilaam whacks the ass again.

The messenger moves again, to a place where the ass cannot get around. The ass stops and lays down. Bilaam whacks the ass a third time. Finally, the ass has had enough and complains,

מֶה-עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ, כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי, זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים 22:28 'What have I done unto you that you have hit me these three times?'

And Bilaam gets into an argument with the ass until

וַיְגַל יְהוָה, אֶת-עֵינֵי בִלְעָם, וַיַּרְא אֶת-מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה נִצָּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וְחַרְבּוֹ שְׁלֻפָה בְּיָדוֹ; וַיִּקֹּד וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, לְאַפָּיו. 31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face.

Finally! The jackass has seen it all along. The prophet, the man who converses directly with God, not so schmart. Actually, not at all.

The end of Bilaam's story, of course, is that he blesses Israel and gives us the opening prayer of the morning service, when he finally speaks entirely on his own:

מַה-טבוּ אהליךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל. 5 How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!

(All curses on Israel should be so.)

And, after Bilaam apologized, the donkey really did milk it for all it was worth....

(Okay, this is not actually in our text.)


Bilaam's ass presents some interesting issues for Biblical literalists.

If you claim that the Bible is literally true, how do you account for a talking jackass? Long before the Tannaim, the Rabbis had established the principle that God does not violate the laws of nature (they're more than happy to deviate from this principle when it suits but it doesn't, for some reason, suit here).

To reconcile the dissonance between "God does not violate 'Natural Law''' and "jackasses cannot talk," some early commentators claim that Bilaam's ass was created, along with a few other natural-law violations, just before the universe was set in motion. In this way, the ass was created before "Natural Law" was established. Of course, if that is the case, Bilaam's ass violates everything we know about the life expectancy of jackasses. 

It seems to me that literalists either have to accept talking asses or asses that live for hundreds or thousands of years. No, literalism is most difficult to defend (also see Rashi and note Rashi's comment on בראשית ברא.)

It seems just so much simpler to realize that: "This parashah contains what may be the only comic passage in the Torah" (Etz Chaim introducing the parshah).

What is "comic?" Bilaam, the second greatest prophet in Torah, a man who converses directly with God and who, therefore, can be safely assumed to have knowledge of the Divine will, a man with a great reputation for his wisdom cannot see what the jackass can. So, yes, it is entirely appropriate to ridicule this great man by comparing him, unfavorably, to a jackass. (Is this story the first recorded indictment of the sophisticated, the worldly wise?)

The commentators in the Etz Chaim summarize the underlying morality tale (p.894):

The story's most memorable feature is the talking donkey. Here, as in so many tales in folklore when animals behave like humans, it raises questions: "What does it mean to be human? What makes us different from other animals?" Seeing the angel blocking the path, the donkey can recognize, better than Balaam does, that what they are setting out to do is wrong. Human beings should have the capacity to know right from wrong. When temptation and weakness blind us to the wrongness of what we are doing, we are no better than dumb animals.

I think, however, this is modern reading and that the point of the story is somewhat simpler. If you have heard God (whether you believe or not is irrelevant -- the Rabbis tell us that the most fundamental mitzvot are so clear that just hearing them, you know they're right; see "Commandment"), then you know there is right and there is wrong. And you know the difference and any damned jackass, seeing the right, can do what is right.

Israel, both individually and collectively, are frequently in this position throughout Torah. Torah never hides Israel's shortcomings (in fact, I think, especially in the literary prophets, overstates them; the purpose may well be to get Israel's attention perhaps, as Kaufman argues, much of the prophetic finger pointing actually accuses Israel's political leadership, not the people as a whole - the archaeological evidence that Israel was not rigorously monotheistic until after the destruction of the first Temple notwithstanding). So, Israel, or its leaders, frequently stand in for Bilaam -- that's the joke, going forward: we are Bilaam.

Nevertheless, the point of the story is that "It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth require of thee" (Micah 6:8) and any damned jackass can see it.