Israel and America: Numbers 23 & 24 – Balaam continued

Numbers 23&24 Balaam continued: Israel and America


Howard Adelman

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

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.