Balaam as a He-Ass – Numbers 22

Balaam as a He-Ass – Numbers 22


Howard Adelman

Understanding Balaam can be a very valuable clue to understanding Donald Trump and the danger he poses. If you are uninterested in biblical exegesis, skip the rest of this week’s blogs. They simply justify the interpretation and the character of Balaam that I use to draw the analogy with Donald Trump.

Rashi, the great mediaeval interpreter of Torah, wrote the following:

“Why did God bestow His Shechinah on a wicked gentile?” [The answer is] so the nations should not have an excuse to say, “Had we had prophets we would have repented.” So He assigned them prophets, but they breached the [morally] accepted barrier, for at first they had refrained from immorality, but he [Balaam] advised them to offer themselves freely for prostitution. — [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 1, Num. Rabbah 20:1]

In Rashi’s analysis, Balaam indeed received God’s shechinah. Why does God reveal Himself in all His glory to a wicked, indeed evil, gentile soothsayer? What is Balaam’s function in God’s plan? Rashi provides a rationale. To the legitimate question of why would God ever choose such a wicked man to be the voice of prophecy for other nations, his only answer is that they could not say we have become wicked because you gave the Israelites prophets but neglected us. Clever! As is usually the case, Rashi is extremely inventive with his interpretations. Making Balaam a prophet removed the excuse of the gentile nations, blaming their desertion of the universal code of morality on God’s failure to give them a prophet. As will be seen, I argue that Balaam was wicked but was not a prophet, except in a very ironic sense.

Look at Rashi’s conclusions on reading the text. Balaam was evil. But Balaam was indeed a prophet. God did choose him. In the only time God provided a gentile nation with a prophet, God deliberately gave them a wicked man. Why? So they could not blame their immorality on the excuse that they lacked a prophet. Sound fishy? Sounds far fetched? Condescending to the gentile nations? But if this is not the case, why would Balaam be chosen to be God’s spokesperson in blessing the Israelites? But did God really choose Balaam? Was Balaam really a prophet? Did Balaam even really bless the Israelites?

Balaam was a vehicle. But for what purpose? Not because God chose him to be a real prophet. But for the sake of the Israelites, not the gentile nations. Because of the stubborn willfulness and failure to acknowledge the true prophets they already had, God instead gave the Israelites a soothsayer who would play on their self-confidence, on their successes and consequent excesses, and verbally lead them further astray by flattering them, by appealing to their sense of superiority. God did not choose Balaam as a real prophet but as a vehicle to demonstrate the Israelite attraction to the misguidance of an evil soothsayer. The role he served was to educate the Israelites, not the gentile nations, to make them skillful in understanding. Balaam in his mouthing the prophesy of Israelite superiority served, in fact, to let them allow their sense of superiority to mislead themselves and believe they could ignore God’s commandments.

Nevertheless, one must admit that Rashi’s interpretation is brilliant. But why might a soothsayer of the enemy, a leader of an enemy nation and an enemy to Israel, have a broad appeal and undermine the morale and strength of the Israelites by pronouncing them strong? That was the direct effect of his blessing the Israelites. They became arrogant. They strayed from the ways of God. The discontented Israelites were susceptible to an appeal that promised their desires would be fulfilled and their own fears stilled if they too fell under the spell of Balaam’s depiction of themselves as all powerful and unbeatable.

That is the overarching thrust of the story. Balaam serves God’s purpose as a lesson to and for the Israelites. But that, of course, is not why Balak chose Balaam even if the outcome might be more beneficial to him than he ever intended or thought. Balak asked, “please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Only then will there be a possibility that they can be driven from the land.” And Balak goes on to flatter Balaam: “for I know that whomever you blessed is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 21:6) What an irony! For in his blessing lies a curse. And the curse would really have been the blessing for the Israelites.

How did the Moabite and Midian aristocracy approach this son of a beast to lead them “With magic charms in their hands.” Rashi suggests two possible interpretations. In the first, they did it so Balaam could not refuse them with the excuse that he lacked the magical tools to take up the leadership. In a second interpretation, it was a test. If Balaam accepted the use of the magic they offered, then he would be worthy of becoming their leader and prove that he has bought into their program. But if he refused, then he would be unworthy of the request of those aristocrats anyway. Pretty good. But Rashi was evidently dissatisfied with both interpretations because he never came down on one side or the other.

Let me suggest a third option. The magic tokens offered were not just an enticement and a means of preventing Balaam from offering an excuse to cop out, and not just a test, for they were both. Not just both. For it is hard to believe that the Moabite and Midianite establishment would really understand why offering the magical tools to Balaam would really be so appealing. Excusing himself was no more than a guise, a misleader in the effort to make the best deal. Balaam signaled that he did not need their magic. He did not need their help. He could do it on his own. He was a lone wolf who needed no trinkets that did not belong to him. Sound familiar. It should. Balak needed Balaam. Balak needed a personality that would unite the two normally mutually antagonistic enemies. How else could they defeat a force that seemed supernaturally powerful. They needed a joint leader whose “strength was solely in his mouth,” in his power to use words to rouse the wrath of both peoples and thereby get them to be willing to take on the Israelites.

Balak sent a message to Balaam. “So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.” The reality will be the opposite. Whomever Balaam blesses is cursed. And whomever he curses is blessed.

What was Balaam’s answer? Let me think about it. Stay the night and I will give you my answer tomorrow. Then the story goes, “God came to Balaam.” Why is it written, “And God came to Balaam,” (טוַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים) and not “The Lord spoke…” (וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה)? See, for example, Number V:11. The latter is the usual expression. Or “the word of the Lord was revealed…” ()הָיֹה הָיָה דְבַר יְהֹוָה (Ezekiel 1:3) or Exodus 19:19, “The Lord said…” (וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה). In this portion, God came. But the text does not say, “And the spirit of God was upon…” (וַעֲזַרְיָהוּ בֶּן עוֹדֵד הָיְתָה) (2 Chronicles 15:1) In Exodus 16:20, it is written, “God came down…” “God descended…” Here it is simply written, “God came…”

As a contrast, turn to the prophet, Daniel, Book 9. God does not call, or call on, Daniel. Daniel beseeches the Lord. “And I turned my face to the Lord God. (גוָאֶתְּנָה אֶת פָּנַי אֶל אֲדֹנָי הָאֱלֹהִים) to beg with prayer, sackcloth and ashes.” (verse 3) Daniel prays, confesses his sins and praises God for all his wondrous gifts – the covenant and His loving-kindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments. Daniel humbles himself. The angel, Gabriel, approaches. What for? He says to Daniel, “to make you skillful in understanding.”

Compare this with Balaam. Balaam does not pray to God. Balaam does not beseech God. Balaam does not confess his sins. Balak’s messengers arrive. And the bargaining starts. “I couldn’t do what you want for all the money in the world,” that is, if what you wanted “transgressed the word of the Lord” whom Balaam calls, “my God.” This last should be a clear clue that Balaam is bullshitting in insisting that he cannot act unless he ensures that he has God on his side. For God is definitely not his God. “But stay overnight as my guests. I will take the request under advisement.”

And God came to Balaam. No prayer. No confession. No beseeching. God then spoke and asked a question. “Who are those men with you?” “Balak’s messengers,” Balaam replies. The people who have arrived from Egypt “covered the ‘eye’ of the earth.” Balak wanted me, Balaam, to curse the Israelites. Balak had asked Balaam arhali (22:6), to curse, but Balaam reports to God that he was asked to curse, kbali, the Israelites. Rashi notes the use of two different terms for “curse,” but merely adds that Balaam used the stronger, kbali, rather than the weaker term, arhali, for curse. Why would he use a stronger term if the latter and stronger simply implied more detail as Rashi suggested?

The difference resides in the word “strength,” but stronger does not mean “more detail.” There is a difference between saying, “a curse resided in the land,” or requesting that a curse be put upon the Israelites. The latter presumes that the Israelites are not yet cursed (that is why the term is weaker), but something must be done to make them cursed. The former suggests that Balaam was being asked by Balak to take the initiative and put a curse on the Israelites, a curse that was not there, while Balaam shifts the meaning. There is a difference between asking Balaam to actively ensure that the Israelites become cursed, that Balaam take responsibility for driving them out of the land. Counter-intuitively, kbali is stronger than arhali in that the curse is already completed and only needs to be recognized by a soothsayer. Then Balak would know he would be strong enough to drive them out.

arhali weaker Israel not yet cursed action required by a prophet Balak
kbali stronger Israel already cursed recognition needed by a seer Balaam

God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse (active but weaker sense) (תָאֹר) the people because they are blessed.” (22:12) In other words, God said that you, Balaam, cannot make them cursed when they are already blessed. So Balaam rejected the entreaties of Balak’s messengers. The messengers return, but come again and requested that Balaam pronounce that the Israelites are already cursed.

God authorized Balaam to go with his guests, but tells him to only speak the words that God will give him. In the morning, just like Abraham, Balaam saddled his own she-donkey, not any donkey, but specifically a female one. Then God became angry at Balaam for going. But did God not just instruct him to go? Was he not simply obeying God’s will? Yes. But Balaam did not go only after he had reciprocated and entered a covenant to speak only the words God gave him. Balaam had accepted the instruction to go but not the condition that he would go but only to speak God’s words. God said he could go. Balaam did go, but on his own terms.

So God’s angel blocked his way. The angel was not there to instruct Balaam in the way of true understanding but to reveal that Balaam was incapable of such understanding. The donkey saw the angel, but Balaam, the seer, did not. The donkey then left the road to flee into the fields. Balaam beat his donkey to get her to return to the road. But the way was blocked again in the vineyards. Caught between the angel in front and a wall behind, the donkey pressed against the wall and, in the process, crushed Balaam’s leg.

Balaam’s crushed leg was a sign that he would never be able to walk in the footsteps of the Lord. Unlike Jacob who wrestled with the angel and lasted until morning and became Israel (Genesis 32:22-31), Balaam did no wrestling. Balaam never struggled. He simply believed that he had a direct transmission line to God. Jacob who actually wrestled with the angel suffered a twisted hip so that it would always be painful to walk in the path of the Lord. And Jacob would not release the angel even then, but insisted on being blessed. Balaam was simply determined to go forth and do his cursing.

Balaam beat his she-donkey again. Finally, fleeing down a narrow alley, the donkey crouched down. For a third time, Balaam beat his donkey, this time with a stick. And lo and behold, the donkey spoke. And she, not Balaam, uttered the words of the Lord. “What did I do to deserve this?” Balaam replies, “You have humiliated me. If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

The Lord spoke through the donkey. “Have I not served you loyally? Have I ever resisted going forward and cringed and crouched in fear?” Balaam agreed that she had not and with that acknowledgement, his eyes were open and Balaam saw what the donkey had seen all along, the angel blocking the road. Only then did Balaam bow and prostrate himself. God remonstrated Balaam, first for beating the donkey three times when the donkey was thwarting Balaam from going against God’s will and not entering a covenant with God to only utter His words. So God had a she-donkey do so. And that she-donkey, which Balaam had beaten three times, actually deserved Balaam’s thanks for the donkey had saved Balaam from God’s wrath for going ahead without committing to speaking only the words God gave him. Even a she-ass could do that.

So Balaam finally confessed. But did he admit to sinning? Did he admit to mindblindness? No, he just said that if I knew the angel with a sword was standing in my way, I would not have preceded. I recognize a greater power. I do not recognize the blindness within myself. If you are so upset, Balaam tells God, I will go home. I will return home, not because I realize I failed to obey you, that I failed to enter the agreement on offer. I returned home only because an angel stood in the way and physically prevented me from proceeding.

According to one of my readers, there is a saying in Hungarian that she had heard since early childhood: “’He just stood there and stared like Balaam’s donkey’ – which means a really dumbfounded, gobsmacked stupid reaction by a person.” Balaam is shown to be an ass, but a male one.

Let me conclude the analysis of Chapter 22 by comparing the following three passages:

12God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people because they are blessed.” יבוַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל בִּלְעָם לֹא תֵלֵךְ עִמָּהֶם לֹא תָאֹר אֶת הָעָם כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא:
20God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If these men have come to call for you, arise and go with them, but the word I speak to you-that you shall do.” כוַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים | אֶל בִּלְעָם לַיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה
35The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with these men, but the word I will speak to you-that you shall speak.” So Balaam went with Balak’s dignitaries. להוַיֹּאמֶר מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה אֶל בִּלְעָם לֵךְ עִם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְאֶפֶס אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תְדַבֵּר וַיֵּלֶךְ בִּלְעָם עִם שָׂרֵי בָלָק:

Verse 12: Don’t go. Don’t curse. Because the people are blessed.
Verse 20: Go with them; But the words I speak, that you do.
Verse 35: Go with them. But the words I speak, you speak.

Don’t go, then go but do what I say, then go but say what I say. Each time the command is more restricted, first about non-movement, then permitting going but only if Balaam does what he is told, and then, finally, go but Balaam can only repeat what God says. The soothsayer has been restricted to being a he-ass, uttering only what God tells him. Balaam tells Balak (verse 38) “Behold I have come to you, do I have any power to say anything? The word God puts into my mouth-that I will speak.”

Next blog: Chapters 23 and 24

Thanks to Alex Zisman for his help.


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