Numbers 23&24 Balaam continued: Israel and America
It is virtually impossible to binge watch six hours a day for four days in a row, first the Republican Party Convention in Cleveland last week and then the Democratic Party Convention in Philadelphia this week, go to the cottage in between, fulfill one’s day-to-day obligations and appointments as well as write a daily blog. The biggest temptation is to drop the line you have been following and switch to the rich source of material in each of the conventions. I will write about them in more detail, but initially only through a biblical lens.
In my last blog, we were near the end of Chapter 22 of Numbers. The angel of the Lord had just told Balaam: “Go with these men, but the word I will speak to you-that you shall speak.” Balaam went with the messengers of Balak. When Balak greeted Balaam, he also rose up on his high kingly horse and remonstrated Balaam for not coming in response to the previous two summons. Not something likely to endear Balaam to Balak! Balaam then replied: “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.” I am merely the vehicle for God’s voice, he insists.
After making a sacrifice together, the next morning they went to overlook the encampment of the Israelites, or, at least, part of it. Balaam asks Balak to obtain seven bulls and seven rams to sacrifice on each of seven separate altars. Was this the voice of God instructing Balak through Balaam? After the burnt offerings are made, Balaam insists he has to go off alone so that God might perhaps reveal Himself to him. Then, of course, the details of the sacrifices could not have come from God. And who does Balaam run into by chance? God. So Balaam tells God about the sacrifices he made on the seven altars. Rashi writes that this chance meeting by day meant that, “God appeared to him with reluctance and with contempt.” Meetings between man and God are deliberate events, not chance encounters. God decides when and where to reveal Himself, usually on a mountain top. Further, Balaam was clearly competing with the three patriarchs of the Israelites in building seven altars, as many as Abraham (4), Isaac (1) and Jacob (2) altogether.
When Balaam returned to Balak, he noted that he, Balak, had asked him to curse (מֵהַרְרֵי) the Israelites. (This is the weak sense of curse, the verbal exercise in damning another and not the strong sense, pronouncing that the Israelites were already damned.) Jacob was to be cursed and then the wrath against Israel was to be invoked. Jacob was the old name of the Israelites. They had been reborn as Israel. Why would one be asked to lay a curse on a people that no longer went by that name? And how would cursing the house of Jacob result in invoking God’s wrath against the Israelites? Did Balaam recognize the paradox that God had put into his own mouth? What he uttered was like the trick utterance of a Delphic oracle? Balaam most likely did not understand, but certainly, Balak would not have had a clue.
Then Balaam asks Balak a question. How could I do it? Not how could I lay a curse upon a people that no longer goes by that name. But how can I curse the house of Jacob when God has not cursed them? And if they are not cursed and God is not angry with them, who am I to invoke God’s wrath? Rashi has another fascinating interpretation.
Even when they deserved to be cursed, they were not cursed, [namely,] when their father [Jacob] recalled their iniquity, [by saying,] “for in their wrath they killed a man” (Gen. 49:6), he cursed only their wrath, as it says, “Cursed be their wrath” (ibid. 7). When their father [Jacob] came in deceit to his father [Isaac], he deserved to be cursed. But what does it say there? “He, too, shall be blessed” (ibid. 27:33). Regarding those who blessed, it says, “These shall stand to bless the people” (Deut. 27:12). However, regarding those who cursed, it does not say, “These shall stand to curse the people” but, “These shall stand for the curse” (ibid. 13), for He [God] did not want to mention the word ‘curse’ in reference to them [the people]. — [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 12, Num. Rabbah 20:19]
Rather than invoking God’s wrath, it was the wrath of Isaac that should have been directed towards Jacob, his deceiving son, but, instead, it was the wrath itself that was cursed and the house of Jacob had been blessed. Just as Isaac had been saved from Abraham by offering an animal as a sacrifice, so Jacob had been saved from being cursed because God cursed Isaac’s wrath and thus turned it into a blessing. The turning of something into its opposite had been adumbrated. In other words, though, I have been summoned by you, Balak, to curse the Israelites, they have already been blessed by God, so any curse I utter will be transformed into a blessing. Israeli exceptionalism is being invoked. “God bless America” is the rite that usually comes at the end of every speaker’s invocation after they spoke at the Democratic Convention.
As virtually every commentator has noted, the choice over the last two weeks has been between an America that had been cursed (Donald Trump’s portrait), a nation that lived in fear and terror, weak and torn apart, threatened from without and from within, to repeat, a nation cursed, versus the Democratic vision of a nation blessed and not cursed, the home of the free and the brave and not of cowering, fearful and frightened citizens. Will America, will Israel, be a nation that dwells alone, that remains an exceptional witness to a divine aspiration for humanity, or will it be like other nations that succumb to their fears? Or is the only thing really to fear, fear itself? When listening and watching the Democratic Convention, you cannot help but feel that you are at a very ritualistic mass Bible meeting, one conducted to try to lift a curse that has befallen America, versus the portrait being conveyed by an itinerant snake oil salesman that the nation is indeed cursed and only he can save it, versus a religious revival movement of counting one’s blessings and playing those blessings forward to raise everyone up in a tide of hope.
Balaam too has been sought out to curse a nation, but all his utterances are belied by the reality, that the nation is blessed. And so, though he would spread his curses, his curses would only reveal how blessed is that nation, mostly by being free of demagogues and megalomaniacs like him. You cannot govern a nation or sow a field with an ox looking only at the black soil yoked to a donkey braying into the wind. It is only from the mouth of the donkey, not the bellowing of a bull, that we will hear the words of the Lord. Yoking the two together will mean that the field will not be plowed and the braying and the bellowing will drown out the voices of one another.
Well, as you can imagine, Balak did not respond favourably to what he had been told by Balaam, that the Israelites were indeed blessed. “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them!” (23:11) Balaam responded: “What the Lord puts into my mouth that I must take care to say.” (23:12) In other words, the bully of an ox had been made to speak like the braying of a donkey that spent its life in loyal service to another.
Balak did not give up. Three times he had summoned Balaam to come to him. Now he would summon Balaam a second and a third time to curse the Israelites.
וקבנו לי: לשון צווי, קללהו לי:
But Balaam continued to bray like a donkey, revealing, in spite of himself, what a blessed nation the Israelites were and Americans are. The Israelites bred prophets. The Midianites bred a famous soothsayer, Balaam. “For there is no divination in Jacob and no soothsaying in Israel.” (3:23) Soothsayers are oracles who read the equivalent of tea leaves and claim to see the future and curse the present. Diviners and fortune tellers, they are false prophets for they do not point to failures in the present that will result in tragedy in the future, but rather claim that the present is a tragedy. A soothsayer may claim that only he can transform a disaster into a rosy future. A soothsayer is a mountebank, a con artist, a reader of crystal balls, but in this satire worthy of Jonah, this soothsayer reveals himself as a he-ass, a teller of truths while intending to utter curses, but, and this is the irony, the truth told by a soothsayer will turn into a curse. People will believe they are so blessed that they become arrogant and insensitive to their failures.
Balaam praises and describes the Israelites as rising (from their impoverished state) “like a lioness (See Malbim) and raises itself like a lion. It does not lie down until it eats its prey and drinks the blood of the slain.” (23:24) The nation does not just destroy its enemies; it cannibalizes them. It does not just defeat the enemy; it commits atrocities against them. Balak asks Balaam rhetorically: “You shall neither curse them nor shall you bless them?” (23:24) Balaam now rebukes Balak: “’Everything the Lord speaks that I shall do” (23:25) without recognizing what an unwitting, what a witless, diviner he really is.
Well Balaam, in braying like an ass and blessing rather than cursing, saw himself as being favoured by God. He even gave up divination convinced that he had become a true prophet. But you had to know he was not. Because he turned “his face toward the desert,” (24:1), not the promised land, toward a past of idol worship rather than a future as a self-governing nation. Just as his face turned toward the desert, he raised his eyes from staring at the dirty soil beneath his feet. What did he see? The Israelites were blessed as a people and as a nation. Rashi describes the malevolence in his heart as follows: “an evil eye, a haughty spirit, and greed mentioned above (22:13,18). – [Avoth 5:19, Mid. Tanchuma Balak 6, Num. Rabbah 20:10]”
Margaret Atwood in Morning in the Burned House (“In the Secular Night”) wrote:
There is so much silence between the words,
you say. You say, The sensed absence
of God and the sensed presence
amount to much the same thing,
only in reverse.
Balaam said, “The word of Balaam the son of Beor [the beast] and the word of a man with an open eye.” (24:3) What is the word of the man with an open eye compared to the word of a man who prays with his eyes closed? Balaam is like the man who stands in the synagogue and, while everyone is praying with their eyes closed, he has one eye open looking around. Instead of participating in prayer, he looks sceptically upon the others or, not very differently, looks to see and use what he sees rather than presenting himself naked before God. You say. You say. Balaam says. And Balaam says. His words belie any possibility of embracing silence and hearing, and not just mouthing, the words of God. Words cannot bridge that silence. What Balaam utters is meaningless to himself. His words ring hollow because they are hollow, because there is no narrative behind them. They will mean the reverse of what they say. And what we heard over the last four days were stories and not just words, stories of individual Americans and a story of America itself. And the principal story of Hillary herself.
She began with expressing thanks to her daughter, Chelsea, for an introduction that conveyed how Hillary’s words as a mother had served as an anchor for Chelsea’s whole life, providing a grounding for her own understanding of life and its challenges. Hillary gave thanks to her own mother for insisting at the age of four that she not wallow in self pity but go out to face the mob with their harsh words and insults. L’dor va’dor. From generation to generation.
And with Bill? In different words from Margaret Atwood:
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
A fish hook
An open eye.
A hook into an open eye. Balaam uttered “the word of the man with an open eye,” not the words of a many with both eyes open, as one who hears God and sees the vision, as one who may be stricken, but one who gazes at the world and sees its faults and does not focus his other eye on himself in a continuous series of selfies. Hillary and Bill had been linked together with language, sometimes false language that treated her as a fish caught by Bill with a hook in her eye. They had been through great troubles and tribulations. But they rose above it, helped by the waves of love so apparent in that convention, the waves of love that rise like the ocean tides and can never be mistaken for false sentiment. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (24:5) “Water will flow from his wells, and his seed shall have abundant water; his king shall be raised over Agag, and his kingship exalted.” (24:7)
Balak was incensed with Balaam’s words. Balaam protested: “I was just uttering God’s words. I was not responsible for my actions. I was just a conduit. And Balaam prophesizes what the Israelites will do to the Moabites. But it is a false prophecy for from the Moabites will emerge Ruth, one of the great, if not the greatest, prophet in all of Israel. Verses 15 and 16 repeat:
He took up his parable and said, “The word of Balaam, son of Beor, the word of a man with an open eye.
The word of the one who hears God’s sayings and perceives the thoughts of the Most High; who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen yet with open eyes.
So Balaam hears God’s words with one eye open and later will understand them when he is cast down and finally both eyes will be opened and he will be able to see the world freed up from his own mindblindness. A ruler shall come out of Jacob, but that ruler will descend from the loins of Ruth, a Moabite. Balaam envisions war throughout the Middle East as each nation is ravaged in turn by Israel. It is an apocalyptic vision, not a vision of Israel serving as a light unto the nations.
With the help of Alex Zisman