Parashat Balak

Rabbi Shelton Donnell & Esther Edelsburg

The story of Balaam, the heathen prophet sent by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites, is well known.  It is noteworthy for its many curious aspects.  There is the character of the central figure that speaks for itself in the hubris of his own words, “the prophecy of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened…” (Num. 24:4).  Then there is God’s role, who twice forbids the prophet to accompany the ministers, only to seemingly change course the second time.  And, of course, there is the whole story of Balaam’s donkey and the curse that turned into a blessing, and more…

“So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Petor, near the Euphrates River, in his native land.  Balak said: ‘A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me.  Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me.  Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land.  For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:4-6).  But God appeared to Balaam and said to him, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed” (Num. 22:12).  Balaam obeyed the Divine voice and refused to return with Balak’s delegation.  After some time, Balak sent to Balaam other officials “more numerous and more distinguished” than the first.  “That night God came to Balaam and said, ‘Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you’” (Num. 22:20).

First, we might ask if there is a contradiction in what God is saying here.  At first glance it appears so, but upon closer look we see that there is a difference between the words, “Do not go with them…”, suggesting with the same intention as the messengers (i.e. to curse Israel), and “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them…” – implying that he goes with them, but only on the condition that he says only what God tells him to say.

Second, what, really, was in Balaam’s heart?  Did he intend to curse Israel despite of God’s admonition to him?  According to the tradition (Babylonian Talmud,. Ber. 7a), yes!  No less than three times Balaam intended to curse the Israelites, yet blessings sprang from his lips, and in his fourth prophecy it was Israel’s enemies whom he cursed – Moab, Edom, Amalek, the Kenites, Ashur and Eber.  The curse could not stand against the will of God.

Even before Balaam opened his mouth to utter “the curse that turned into a blessing,” the famous story of Balaam’s donkey makes its appearance.

“Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials.  But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of ADONAI stood in the road to oppose him.  Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him.  When the donkey saw the angel of ADONAI standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand it turned off the road into a field.  Balaam beat it to get it back on the road” (Num. 22:21-23).

Then, all of a sudden, the miracle happened, “ADONAI opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?’  Balaam answered the donkey, ‘You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.’  The donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day?  Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?’  ‘No,’ he said” (Num. 22:28-30).

And more, “Then ADONAI opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of ADONAI standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.  The angel of ADONAI asked him, ‘Why have you beaten your donkey these three times?  I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.  The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times.  If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.’  Balaam said to the angel of ADONAI, ‘I have sinned.  I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me.  Now if you are displeased, I will go back.’  The angel of ADONAI said to Balaam, ‘Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.’  So Balaam went with Balak’s officials” (Num. 22:31-35).

This miracle is certainly well-known.  According to the tradition (Pirkei Avot 5:8), the donkey’s mouth was one of the ten miraculous things created during the last moments of Creation just as Shabbat was approaching at dusk at the end of the sixth day.  Despite this, the commentator Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel questions the need for this story.  For all its miraculous wonder, it does not advance the storyline at all, and the angel’s warning to Balaam is redundant.  Moreover, the angel could have communicated to Balaam without miracles and without the donkey having to speak at all.  The story is, indeed, all the more surprising because the Torah generally limits stories that are “miraculous.”  According to Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed II:42), the whole incident took place in a vision and not in the realm of reality at all.

So what might we take away with us from this conversation between Balaam and this donkey of his?  Three times the Torah says that the donkey “saw” the angel of God, while three times Balaam did not “see;” he did not understand the signs and reacted with violence.  There is a connection between Balaam’s inability to understand his situation and his violent response.  The biblical narrator mocks Balaam who speaks of himself as “one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty,” but who in reality is not even aware of what is around him and cannot see the warning signs that God sends his way.

Just as God opened up the donkey’s mouth and put words into it, four times God put words in Balaam’s mouth and made him bless Israel.  The comparison between the donkey and Balaam certainly does not favor the latter…

  1. In the midrash (Numbers Rabbah 20:12) it says: “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them… from this we can infer that people will be led in the direction in which they are inclined to go.”  What can we learn from this saying?
  2. When in your life have you experienced a “curse” turning into a “blessing”?


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