Balak, Balaam and the Israelites– Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Moab is the mountainous tract of land on the east side of the Dead Sea currently in Jordan. In the Torah, Moab was the product of incest of Lot with his oldest daughter. (Ammon was the product of incest of Lot with his youngest daughter.) (Genesis 19:37-38) King Sihon, the ruler of the warlike Amorites, drove the Moabites south of the river Arnon. It is there that God renewed his covenant with the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land and it is there that Moses died.

Before the Israelites took on the Canaanites, they made sure their rearguard was protected and, without entering Moab, “they traveled through the wilderness, skirted the land of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon.” (Judges 11:18) The Israelites conquered Sihon’s Amorite kingdom.

It is no wonder that the Moabite king was wary of the Israelites even though they were distant cousins and spoke a variation of the same Semitic language. Further, not many years earlier, the Egyptians conquered Moab (the huge statue at Luxor erected by Rameses II lists Moab as a conquest in the 13th century BC). It is possible that the Moabites regarded the Israelites as an advance guard for the Egyptians. “Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt; behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me.” (Numbers 22:5) However, the Israelite God had forbidden an Israelite conquest of Moab. The Israelites merely wanted safe passage across the Moabite territory.  

Balak was the king of the Moabites. He feared for his own kingdom given that the Israelites had defeated a much more powerful enemy. In fear and dread, he called together the elders of Midian. Needing divine help, Balak summoned the prophet Balaam telling him that the Israelites were arrayed against him. He asked Balaam to curse the Israelites who were too mighty for Balak, for whomever Balaam blessed is blessed and whomever Balaam cursed is cursed.

Balaam asked God’s counsel. “God said unto Balaam: ‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed.’” (Numbers 22:12) When Balaam refused Balak’s request, the latter sent his envoys a second time promising Balaam great honours. This time, without even consulting God, Balaam outright rejected the entreaties of the plenipotentiaries of Balak. The latter upped his game and for a third time sent a request carried by the most honourable members of his kingdom promising great rewards and requesting that he curse the Israelites. Once again, and without consulting God, Balaam not only rejected the request but clearly stated that he could not and would not accede to the request for ALL the gold and silver in the kingdom. However, he did agree to seek instructions from God and invited his guests to stay overnight. Thus, he revealed his weakness. He had already been given clear instructions by God.

“And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him: ‘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.’” (Numbers 22:20) Balaam did as he was told and mounted his ass in the morning to travel to see Balak. The three incidents with the ass followed. Except, something came in between. God had initially given his conditional permission. But then, “God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the LORD placed himself in the way for an adversary against him…”(22:22) If God permitted Balaam to go in the first place, why did He get angry when He did. Why did His angel get in the way of the ass?

23 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.

24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a hollow way between the vineyards, a fence being on this side, and a fence on that side.

25 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; and he smote her again.

26 And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.

27 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff.

Three times the ass refused to go forward, first going sideways into the field, then crushing Balaam’s leg against a wall when the ass tried to squeeze forward and a third time the ass simply squatted on his haunches. Each time Balaam beat his ass, but to no avail.

30. And the ass said unto Balaam: ‘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?’ And he [Balaam] said: ‘Nay.’

The ass said that she did not deserve a beating. Balaam contended that she did because he had been humiliated, so much so that if he had had a sword, he would not just have beaten the ass; he would have killed her.

31. Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face.

32. And the angel of the LORD said unto him: ‘Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? Behold, I am come forth for an adversary, because thy way is contrary unto me;

33. and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times; unless she had turned aside from me, surely now I had even slain thee, and saved her alive.’

The ass had turned away from the angel with the sword and saved Balaam’s life.

34. And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD: ‘I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me; now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back.’

35. And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, ‘Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.’ So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.

Balak now felt humbled rather than humiliated. If you want me to, he said to God, I will return and abandon my mission. N0, God, said, go forth and repeat only the words I tell you to say.

Why did the ass see the angel but Balaam did not? How could an ass speak and Balaam not be taken aback? And why three incidents in which the opportunities for the ass to move grew narrower and then impossible to traverse? Why did Balaam finally see the angel after he struck the ass three times? What is the meaning of the ass’s reprimand of Balaam? Why, when God instructed Balaam to only say what God told him, did the instruction have to be repeated at least three times?

Assuming that critical theory is correct and that the story of Balaam and his ass is an insertion into an older story, the questions still remain. It is not as if the contradiction between the two tales did not stand out.

One explanation is that the second story of Balaam and his ass was needed to cut Balaam down to size, to expose him, not as a trusted prophet of God who happened not to be a Hebrew, but an individual not able to see an angel that his ass could see. Balaam, the famous foreign prophet, was totally incapable of understanding God’s intent, only his words. Hence, he was cruel to that ass and needed the message to be reinforced a second time.

But why? One further explanation: the two stories belong to two different periods of the history of Israel, as attested by the linguistic differences, the first to a confident, imperial, universalist and humanist period of David and Solomon and the second to a xenophobic inward gazing Israel of the Second Temple Period.

I suggest that there is more to the juxtaposition of the two tales. The first is a tale in the old manner of a prophet who hears and is instructed by God and is willing, even in the face of a royal command, to do God’s bidding. The second is a satire of the first tale, akin to the Jonah story, in which Balaam, the interpreter of dreams who can hear oracles and prophesy, cannot even see what an ass can see. He who would disobey his king cannot now even get his ass to obey him. How would or could he ever have the strength of character to curse a nation that had just defeated the most powerful king in the region or, in turn, be worthy of blessing that nation?

There was a dynamic change; Balaam learned that he was ignorant, that he was human-all-too-human and could finally understand why he had to obey God’s orders. This issue is not simply the different cultures that may have been the source of the two stories or the contradictory intentions of the two stories when they are parsed apart, but the meaning when the two are conjoined. Balaam learns his lesson from his own ass which he was ready to kill.

Three times Balaam is asked to go on a mission for the king. Three times Balaam urges his ass to go forth and beats the ass when she does not. Now, three times will Balaam be asked by the king to curse the Israelites as the two stood together on the height overlooking the Israelite encampment. Three times did Balaam offer a sacrifice, even though Balaam clearly told the king that he could only speak the words God put into his mouth. Three times in three different locations Balaam blessed them instead.

“How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom the Lord hath not execrated.” (23:8) The second time, “Behold, I am bidden to bless; and when he hath blessed, I cannot call it back.” (23:20) But the third time, the spirit of God came upon him, Balaam’s eyes were opened and instead of being a ventriloquist’s puppet, he said, “How goodly are they tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel.” (24:5) “God who brought him forth out of Egypt is for him like the lofty horns of the wild-ox; he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows.” (23:8) Further, Balaam reversed the target and said that anyone who cursed the Israelites would themselves be cursed. Even when that enemy was his own king.

Balaam thus was transformed from a reputed prophet, but one who could not see God’s messenger nor refrain from beating his ass out of frustration, and became a true prophet who cursed the enemies of Israel. Further, he could now truly prophecy.

“I watch him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh; there shall step forth a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab, and break down all the sons of Seth.” (24:17)

But there was a cost to the Israelites as well. They intermarried with the Moabite women and began to worship Baal as well. Thus, what turned around and cursed Balak when he wanted the other cursed, now turned around and cursed the Israelites who had been blessed by an Other.

The Israelites had still not learned to take responsibility for themselves even though they had travelled in the wilderness for forty years – even as a foreigner had moved from celebrity but not divinely inspired prophet to one humiliated and proven an ass by his own donkey and then into a redeemed prophet who was inspired by the spirit of the Lord and could engage in true prophesy.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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