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Parashat Balak

July 9, 2008

By Diane M. Sharon, Ph.D.

Balak is a Moabite king who feels his sovereignty threatened by the numerous tribes of Israel as they wander in the wilderness towards the Land of Promise. Balak, along with a Midianite coalition, commissions a renowned Aramean prophet, Balaam son of Beor, to curse the Hebrew tribes to drive them away. What is this foreign prophet doing in the Hebrew Bible? The first words we hear out of his mouth invite the Midianite and Moabite embassy to wait overnight for his answer while he consults the God of Israel, whom he refers to by the Tetragrammaton – YHWH.

Here is the irony of a foreign prophet consulting the Hebrew God, and the further irony that God actually comes to Balaam in a dream, and forbids the prophet from cursing the people whom God has blessed. God’s universal sovereignty is affirmed in this story: God is the master of pagan as well as Hebrew prophets, the source of all clairvoyance and knowledge of the future, whatever the vehicle. Further, God’s power extends beyond the bounds of any single country, challenging a widely held belief that confined the power of ancient Near Eastern deities to their own borders.

This parashah is also concerned with whether language can confer blessing and curse. What is the source of power in language? Is it in the words themselves or is it in the Power behind the words, which is the God of Israel? This theme of the power of words is a key to Parashat Balak.

Balaam is a ‘seer,’ or clairvoyant, who can also foretell the future. But all the power of this pagan prophet is due to the grace of the God of Israel, who opens the eyes of prophets to see and the mouths of prophets to proclaim God’s word. How ironic, then, is the comic scene where Balaam attempts to accompany the delegation of Moabite and Midianite elders, and is thwarted by the balking of his donkey. Balaam the visionary is blind, and cannot see the angel of God blocking the way, but Balaam’s ass, whose eyes have been opened by God, is able see this miracle. Balaam the poet, the master of words, is reduced to beating a dumb animal with a stick. Midrash BeMidbar Rabbah 20:21 points out the irony that Balaam sets out to destroy the nation of Israel with words alone, but wishes he had a sword in order to destroy a recalcitrant donkey.

Then God opens the mouth of the donkey, who challenges her master. The ass speaks words put in her mouth by God, just as Balaam speaks words put in his mouth by God. The equation of Balaam to his ass is unmistakable. The equation goes further: Balak, King of Moab, is as impotent in his fury at Balaam as Balaam is at the donkey. How these caricatures of their enemies must have tickled ancient Israelite audiences! But Israel is not exempt from this critique by analogy: Even an ass can recognize the signs of God; Balaam and Israel cannot. Even a pagan seer knows he must do God’s will; Israel does not.

Balaam eventually goes along with the Moabite/Midianite embassy, performing rituals that will presumably enable him to curse the people, even though Balaam himself tells King Balak and his emissaries that he can only curse whomever God has cursed, and bless only those whom God has blessed. Eventually, to the chagrin of his patrons, Balaam blesses Israel with one of the most beautiful poems in the Bible, parts of which are used in our daily liturgy, the prayer Mah Tovu: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Num. 24:5)

God will not allow anyone else to curse the people that God has blessed. Parashat Balak comes after the episodes of the Spies and of the Korah rebellion, and precedes the apostasy of Israel at Baal Peor. The theological message of the story of the Parshat Balak and its position within the wilderness narrative is clear: God controls the power behind words. No outsider can curse whom God would bless. The only ones who can thwart God’s intention to bless and protect Israel are the Israelites themselves, who bring on their own failure by lack of faith and obedience to the word of God. May we all be blessed to use the power of words for good, and to see the messenger of God on the road before us.

Shabbat Shalom.


Diane M. Sharon, Ph.D., teaches at AJR is a member of the Board of Trustees.