On Asses Galore – Contempt versus Hatred: Balak, Numbers 22:2−25:9

This morning is a time for fables rather than facts, for fabulism rather than fatalism, for feelings rather than arguments. In the criticisms of my blogs on detention, there was one critique that I did not take up. I was accused of hating Trump, of being so biased I could not get the measure of the man. I cannot prove the absence of hatred and bias with facts and arguments, even if for many those would be sufficient. I will try fiction and the imagination.

This week’s parashat begins with a surrealistic mixture of history and creative invention. (For the historical Balaam, see my colleague Professor Carl Ehrlich;s excellent article, “Balaam the Seer: From the Bible to the Deir ‘Alla Inscription.” https://thetorah.com/balaam-the-seer-from-the-bible-to-the-deir-alla-inscription/ Balak was the King of Moab. The Alawites and Edomites had been defeated by the Israelites as the latter prepared to cross into the Holy Land from the eastern side of the Jordan River near Jericho. Fearful of their growing power and record of victories, and unwilling to share the land with them, Balak summoned the famous Midianite prophet, Balaam, to curse the Israelites, thereby allowing his forces to overwhelm them and drive them out of the region. As Balak stated to Balaam, without grasping the irony of what would unfold, “he whom thou [Balaam] blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.” (Numbers 22:6)

In the drama that follows, there are four main roles beside the supporting cast. Balak is an archetypal authoritarian figure, fearful of losing his position and intent on defeating his real and imagined enemies. He does not come across as a fanatic or blood thirsty beast. Lacking any deep-rooted evil, he does not call for the extermination of the Israelites, only their expulsion from the land. He comes across as a leader who is simply a wily, self-interested and self-absorbed egocentric.

This seems uncontentious. So are the characteristics of the Israelites who have become tough sabras as a result of 40 years in the wilderness. Though they have numbers on their side and a stream of military victories, they are also fickle, give in easily to hyperbolic visions of the ferociousness of their enemies, and quite flaky in their relationship with their God. However, though important to the story, they seem to have been relegated simply to the role of unwanted massive migrants creating deep fears among many Moabites and their leader.

Balaam is something else altogether. He not only seems to be the main figure, but one whose character has been interpreted in a myriad and often opposing ways over the millennia. Focusing on one of only two opposing conceptions, in much of the Rabbinic and especially New Testament literature (Jude 11; 2 Peter 2:15; Revelations 2:14), he is portrayed as a man greedy for money and honours, Machiavellian in his diplomacy and quite full of himself. He is the prophetic identical Midianite twin to Balak, the Moabite king. In a very opposite portrayal, among some rabbinic commentators, he is viewed as a would be somewhat naïve peacemaker, though in both cases, he is seen as intemperate in the treatment of his ass.

It is that ass who can see angels and hear angels and even talk who is the most interesting character, even though the ass plays only a short role in the tale. But it is one full of significance.

The action in the tale begins when Balak decides to summon Balaam, who is a very famous diviner, to curse the Israelites so that his forces can defeat them.  Balaam consulted God on whether to go with the emissaries sent to fetch him. (So you thought that Moses was the only one who spoke to God!) God instructed, “Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed.” (Numbers 22:12) Balaam obediently said no to the messengers of Balak saying that he was instructed not to go, but without telling them the reason – that the Israelites were blessed, an omission which initiates the controversy over his character.

A new, more prestigious and more numerous delegation came to Balaam a second time. They pressed him again, promising him great honours this time if he cursed the Israelites. He refused them again even if offered enormous wealth. But he did invite them to stay the night, promising he would ask God again. Was the invitation to stay a result of Middle Eastern hospitality or a devious plan of Balaam to have his cake and eat it too?

God duly appeared and advised Balaam: “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.” (22:20) The emissaries did not call on him again. When they woke up, Balaam had saddled his ass prepared to return to Balak’s palace. Did God say that Balaam could go as long as he was summoned once again by Balak’s emissaries? Or did God tell him he could go on condition that he only spoke the words that God gave him? Or did God instruct him to go?

Thus begins the opening of Act II of the drama. There is an apparent paradox. The text states that God was angry because Balaam obeyed the summons. But had God not told him to go as long as he only said the words that God put in his mouth? Why was God angry? Because there were two conditions: 1) that he was requested a third time, and 2) that he only speak the words that God put in his mouth. Just as he dropped part of the explanation to the emissaries why he could not go, he now seemed to have put aside the first conditions in God’s instruction.

Did that mean that he really wanted the honours and the wealth and setting that condition aside was both opportune and convenient? Or did he conveniently or unconsciously ignore the condition because he did not want to miss an opportunity to play an important role in history in making peace or war?

As Balaam proceeded, the ass on which he was riding saw an angel with a drawn sword standing in the way. The ass went off the path and veered into the field only to receive a beating from Balaam. The ass proceeded again and when it was in a narrow place between fenced vineyards, once again the same angel appeared to block the path. With no field to veer off into, the ass ended up crushing Balaam’s foot against a wall. Again, the ass was smacked by Balaam.

At a place where the path was so narrow and where there was no way to even shift sideways, the angel blocked the way again. This time the ass just flopped down. Balaam hit the ass again. But the ass spoke up. “What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?” (22:28) I saved you from the angel’s sword and this is the way you treat your long serving ass?

Balaam, seemingly unsurprised that his ass had addressed him, accused the ass of ridiculing him |(a possible clue that he was indeed a figure of ridicule) and threatened that if he had a sword, he would have killed him. The ass replied: “Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? Was I ever wont to do so unto thee?” (22:30)

What did this part of the story tell us about Balaam’s character? He was certainly impatient to move on. He was certainly insensitive to the feelings of the ass. As a diviner, he seemed to be oblivious that a crushed foot signalled not simply a delay in the journey, but future loss. (He was eventually killed by the Israelites.) And why was he not startled by his ass talking?

Then Balaam had an epiphany; he saw the angel. Balaam bowed down before him. This time the angel, not God, addressed him. “Hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I am come forth for an adversary, because thy way is contrary unto me.” (22:33) God seemed unhappy with the way Balaam treated his ass. Why did Balaam not wonder why he, to whom God talked directly, could not hear let alone see the angel but his ass could?

Balaam, as was his habit, misinterpreted the intent of the angel and promised to return from whence he came. All along, had he felt guilty about going? But the angel instructed, “’Go with the men; but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.’” (22:35)

When Balaam reached Balak, he told the king that he had the power then to say any words that God put into his mouth. Balak, of course, never clued in. And the rest, they say, is history. Balaam would not curse the people that God had blessed. But Balaam went further, He declared that the Israelites “shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” (23:9) He was challenging the Zionist dream of Israelites wanting to live as a nation amongst the other nations. In his antisemitism disguised as philo-semitism, the Jews were a separate and exclusionary people.

What a puzzling fable when an ass becomes the vehicle for ostensible redemption. Let us begin resolving the many puzzles by examining the character of the ass. Does the ass not remind you of another ass? Not Buridan’s ass who is a vehicle for philosophical speculation. If an ass, which is equally hungry and thirsty, is placed between a bale of hay and a bucket of water, which should he choose to do first, eat or drink? Aristotle, who was not fond of fables or prone to satirize, put a man rather than an ass in the middle to ridicule a Stoic explanation for why the earth did not rotate.  More simply, if the ass is between two equally delectable bundles of hay (or two dates – Al-Ghazali) equidistant from its mouth, does the ass turn left or right to eat? Whether it is a fable or not, whether ridiculing a physical theory, as in Aristotle, or a problem of rational choice, as with our Persian philosopher, the ass, especially one who speaks, is a sure sign that we are dealing with sarcasm if not satire.

What is being satirized? Think of another ass with which surely most of us are familiar – the gloomy loner, Eeyore, in A.A. Milne’s children’s classic, Winnie the Pooh.  Both Eeyore and Balaam’s ass are long-suffering. Buridan’s ass simply dies without any emotion. Eeyore, unlike the rest of the characters in Milne’s story, does not live in the Hundred Acre Forest in blissful happiness (and ignorance), but across the stream in the sad and boggy Gloomy Place. Balaam’s ass is resigned to carrying his heavy burden, made much heavier because Balaam was an ass.

But Balaam’s ass is different than Eeyore. The latter is burdened with his thoughts and the questions he cannot answer – Why? Wherefore? He is the philosopher not a philosopher’s illustration of an abstract puzzle (Buridan’s ass). Balaam’s ass, unlike Balaam, is the real seer. We know that because Balaam, even after he goes to Balak and blesses rather than curses the Israelites, seems unaware that logically his curse and his blessing were not only redundant, but meaningless if, indeed, God had blessed the Israelites.

In fact, Balaam seems incapable of any thought whatsoever since he never once picks up on the subtlety of God’s message to him. He is a mouthpiece without a headpiece. The mind of Eeyore as a philosophical ass is so clouded with thought that he cannot enjoy the bountiful life around him while Balaam’s ass, burdened with a human ass rather than thoughts, sees and hears clearly what is in front that no human, even a supposedly renowned seer, can see. At least until he has to prove that he is not totally blind.  To hide his sadness, Balaam is the clown in the biblical story, a figure of fun and a serious-all-too-serious version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote who also helplessly tilts at windmills. Balaam, blind to his limitations both before and after his epiphany, is a solemn comic figure like Eeyore, but a ridiculous character like Don Quixote. Look at the site gag of his sitting on his squatting donkey and whacking the ass to get up. Tears come to our eyes out of pity for the ass and our laughing until we cry at the real ass on the donkey’s back.

If Balaam is indeed a human ass, a figure of ridicule, he cannot be the Machiavellian plotter and greedy character that he is made out to be by many rabbis and New Testament writers. It is as if these interpreters lack a sense of humour. But especially the beatific liberal do-gooders. For that is the real object of this satire. Balaam truly believes that he can do Balak’s will as well as God’s at one and the same time. He, in his own mind, is the ultimate mediator, diplomat and deal-maker, someone who thinks he does not have to choose between the authoritarian figure who cannot and will not tolerate the arrival of the new migrants, and God’s will unequivocally on the side of these illegal immigrants. If Buridan’s ass cannot make a choice, Balaam is dumber, for he thinks he will not have to make a choice but, like a god, can reconcile positions that cannot be reconciled. If Eeyore is thankful if and when he is noticed, Balaam is incapable of noticing at all.

The difference between the blindness of Jesus, who in Mathew, rode on the back of a donkey into Jerusalem, and Balaam, who also rode on a donkey, but into Balak’s castle, was that Balaam still believed he could singlehandedly engage in diplomatic reconciliation while Jesus knew that he was a doomed figure, but one willing to sacrifice himself in the belief that such a sacrifice would serve peace.

Whether Donald Trump is Balak or Balaam, a would be political deal maker who is basically a stupid ass, how could I hate him? He is unworthy.


With the help of Alex Zysman


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