Balak Numbers 22:2-25:9 Soothsayer

Balak Numbers 22:2-25:9 Soothsayer


Howard Adelman

Is it serendipity that last night I listened to Donald Trump address the Republican Convention in Cleveland and this morning I write on Parshat Balak? Is it serendipity that Balak starts out on his journey to confront and curse the Israelites in a plagiarized passage from Genesis? “Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey,” rather than allow his servant to do so. (Genesis 22:3) “Balaam rose up in the morning and saddled his donkey,” rather than allow his servant to do so. (Numbers 22:21) Donald Trump has stolen the party of Abraham Lincoln and made it his own.

Donald Trump started his four-day journey to accept the nomination of the Republican Party as its candidate for president of the U.S. with a speech by his wife, Melania, which she insisted to a reporter just before she delivered her talk that she had written it “with as little help as possible.” The speech plagiarized, of all people, Michele Obama, the wife of the current president of the U.S., Barak Obama, whom Donald Trump curses at every opportunity.

Melania: “From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect.”
Michele: (2008 Democratic Convention) “Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values — like you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do, that you treat people with dignity and respect.”
Melania insisted: believe me, I know my husband.

This is reality TV, a story of ghosts, and ghostwriters in this case. Unlike when Donald himself plagiarized an op-ed of his rival Ben Carson just after the latter left the campaign in March, in this case the item was not written by the same ghostwriter but by an employee of the Trump organization. In March, the large chunks of overlapping text promised to treat Americans living in territories and commonwealths with greater equality and fairness. It was about policy and performance. Melania’s plagiarized text was about the formation of character and deeply held values – hard work, that your word is your bond and the obligation to treat others with dignity and respect when throughout the campaign for the nomination, Donald Trump demonstrated that he could and did treat his rivals with anything but dignity and respect, including Ted Cruz’s father and wife, an instance which came back to haunt Donald on Wednesday night when Ted Cruz made his non-endorsement speech.

There is no expectation that politicians write their speeches or their own op-eds, or that their wives do. There is some expectation that what is said, however, reflects reality, that the policies articulated and that the character attributed are to some degree valid. But when the plagiarizer claims to have written her own speech and it is subsequently revealed that the writer belonged to the Trump organization and not even the campaign, an illegal contribution, when the content of the speech, and that of all his children’s speeches, was about a capacity for hard work, that your word is your bond and that you treat everyone with dignity and respect jut at the time when Donald Trump’s own ghost writer of his best- selling book, The Art of the Deal, was revealing that Donald was not an example of a hard worker, was not an example of a man whose word was his bond, was not a man who treated everyone with dignity and respect in the way that the video collage of testimonials about Donald tried to present him at the beginning of last evening.

Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal:
The New Yorker, 25 July 2016, Jane Mayer, “Trump’s Boswell Speaks.”

The efficient hard worker “a fugue of failure, a farce of fumbling”
a man with “no attention span”
Your word is your bond “Trump has the ability to convince himself that
whatever he is saying at any given moment is true,
or sort of true, or at least ought to be true.”
“He lied strategically. He had a complete lack of
conscience about it.”
“I play to people’s fantasies…People want to believe
that something is the biggest and the greatest and
the most spectacular.”
“I call it truthful hyperbole,” an innocent form of
exaggeration. – and it’s a very effective form of
The man who repeatedly questioned Barak Obama’s
birth in the United States in the face of all the
evidence, lied by claiming his father was born in
New Jersey, a child of Swedish parents; he was born
in the Bronx to German parents.
A man who treats others with “a ham-fisted thug who had unsuccessfully tried to
dignity and respect evict rent-controlled and rent-stabilized tenants
from a building that he had bought”
known for “his willingness to run over people,
a man who would “like people when they were
helpful,” when they were loyal, and then “turn on
them when they weren’t. (Read Roy Cohn, the old
tiger of the Un-American Activities Committee who
served as Trump’s lawyer and confidante.) It wasn’t
personal. He’s a transactional man – it was all
about what you could do for him.”
I know; believe me, I know a man with “a stunning level of superficial
knowledge and plain ignorance”
nobody knows how corrupt and crooked the system is
better than me”
Trump, of course, made his fortune using donations
to politicians
A generous man As for all the testimonials of his anonymous
donations to individuals, which seem to be so widely
known, “in the past seven years, Trump has promised
to give millions of dollars to charity, but
reporters for the Washington Post found that they
could document only ten thousand dollars in
donations.” Perhaps this is the deepest reason he
does not want to release his tax returns.

From the man who repeatedly urges his listeners to “believe me,” from the man who has systematically cultivated a reputation for plain speaking , for transparency, for a man touted as running and managing everything with textbook efficiency when the Trump Convention put on display a mixture of clever and creative endorsement, of self-advertisement, especially when his own clones, that is, children, spoke, combined with a totally clumsy lack of professionalism and behaviour that seemed to belie the claims even more than the revelations of Donald’s ghostwriter.

Of course, when Trump insists he wrote his own autobiography, we can all recognize that this is simply part of his lifelong self aggrandizement, the puffing of a “one-dimensional blowhard” with “an insatiable hunger for ‘money, praise and celebrity.’” Trump presents himself as a man of truth when he is revealed to tell a half dozen lies a day on average. In fact, the whole Convention has about it the sense of the Big Lie, the repetition of slandering an opponent as a crook, a liar and a felon in spite of the investigations that showed otherwise. This is the same way he treated his competitors for the nomination, many of whom turned 180 degrees and then lined up behind him when he won. Such allegations seem relatively threadbare, relatively vapid, like the wisp of smoke representing the ghost in the machine, Gilbert Ryle’s euphemism for René Descartes’ philosophical concept of the mind, for a body in which there actually, in this case, has no mind, only an insatiable appetite.

When there is neither accuracy nor authorship, we know we are dealing with a soothsayer rather than a prophet. This is why Donald Trump is relevant to understanding the story of Balaam. As Anthon St. Maarten, the psychic celebrity, wrote, “Being a soothsayer of a tribe is a dirty job, but someone has to do it.” A soothsayer is known for appearing to be blunt, brutally honest, a diviner who exposes other’s lies, a man of frankness, honesty and integrity, an oracle and pseudo-prophet, but is, in fact, a man full of self-deceit and self-delusion, a man who offers panaceas and supposedly rejects political correctness, who professes to tell the truth, but would not recognize the difference between a true statement and an outright lie. A soothsayer is a person whose true intentions are revealed in the repeated words and actions of the people who follow him like a herd.

The Amorites had been defeated, literally wiped out. Their lands have been laid waste, the very meaning of Balak. The Moabites feared they would be subjected to the same result, ignoring the fact that the Amorites were only eliminated when they committed aggression against the Israelites. So Balak, son of Zippor, the King of the Moabites, ran to the Midianites for assistance, in particular, to Balaam, son of Beor, the Aramaic word for beast. The story is not about the Moabites, for they were afraid, irrationally so, and from the Moabites would arise the prophet Ruth, just as Naaman would arise from the Ammonites. The real problem was the Midianites. God ordered the Israelites to vex and “smite them.” (Numbers 25:17) They were led by a soothsayer, a man, as the Mishnah teaches, with “an evil eye,” “a haughty spirit and an over-ambitious soul.”

If Balaam is allowed to become the leader of the American nation, allowed to be the leader of both the blue and the red states, if Balaam is allowed to lead the union of the Moabites and the Midianites, will the prophecy of Psalm 55:24 come true, that God will bring them down “to the nethermost pit, men of blood and deceit who shall not live out half their days?” What happened to Balaam when the Moabites called on this Midianite to curse the Israelites? What happened when the toadies in the Republican Party ran to Donald Trump and asked him to run and build on his popularity as a soothsayer to lead a movement and take over the control of the Republican Party? God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people [Israelites] because they are blessed.” (Numbers 22:12) So Balaam rejects the entreaties of the elders of the Moabites and the Midianites. But Balak and the elders would not take no for an answer. They sent delegation after delegation, each one more noble than the last, to entice Balaam to come forth and lead a war to deal with their allegedly ferocious enemies that they believed were out to crush them. Purportedly, Balaam could not resist the will of the people and eventually agreed to go forth and curse the Israelites.

The angel of the Lord tried to block Balaam as he proceeded on his way riding his she-donkey. Upon encountering the angel, the donkey bolted into the field. Balaam beat the she-donkey to get it to return to the road. Caught between a fence and pressed against the wall, Balaam’s leg was caught and squeezed. Balaam hit the donkey harder. Blocked a third time in a narrow lane, the donkey crouched down and for a third time, Balaam beat it with a stick.

Then the donkey spoke. “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam replied: “You have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” (22:29) But, protested the donkey, “have I not always been loyal and done precisely what you wanted?” Suddenly God supposedly ended Balaam’s mindblindness, opened his eyes and he saw God’s angel. The angel had drawn a sword. Balaam bent down and prostrated himself before the angel. Balaam was remonstrated for beating the donkey. The donkey had served him loyally and, by veering off the road, had saved Balaam’s life. For if the donkey had gone forth, the angel would have slain Balaam and spared the donkey. But a bully never listens to the bullied, only to a bigger and more powerful bully.

Balaam backed off but went with the Moabite dignitaries to the border with the Ammonites. The message seemed clear. Balaam could not defeat the Israelites with only his Moabite and Midianite troops. Balaam was really not retreating. He needed the Ammonites to join his troops. The retreat was a ruse. He had altars built and got Balak to contribute more to sacrifice on those altars. Then once more he went forth. And once more God purportedly stopped him. And once more he returned to Balak mouthing what he said were God’s words.

“How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered? For from their beginning (my italics), I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations. Who counted the dust of Jacob or the number of a fourth of [or, of the seed of] Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his.” (22:8-10) Balak understandably felt betrayed. You agreed to curse our enemies and you praised them.

So a third time, Balak got Balaam to reverse himself by peering over at only a part of the Israelite army and from a distance. He offered Balaam even more rewards. And Balaam betrayed Balak a third time. “God is not a man that He should lie, nor is He a mortal that He should relent. Would He say and not do, speak and not fulfill?… He does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the Lord, his God, is with him, and he has the King’s friendship…There is no divination in Jacob and no soothsaying in Israel. (22:19; 21;23) Balak offered Balaam even more. And took him to an even greater height.

For the third time, Balaam blessed Israel. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! They extend like streams, like gardens by the river, like aloes which the Lord planted, like cedars by the water. Water will flow from his wells, and his seed shall have abundant water; his king shall be raised over Agag, and his kingship exalted. God, Who has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness, He shall consume the nations which are his adversaries, bare their bones and dip His arrows [into their blood]. He crouches and lies like a lion and like a lioness; who will dare rouse him? Those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed.” (23:5-9)

Balak, was in a corner. He had committed himself to fight the Israelites, but lacked the troop strength. He was in real trouble. Balaam fished Balak in. “If Balak gives me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of the Lord to do either good or evil on my own; only what the Lord speaks can I speak.’” (23:13) Read one way, it says since God is not on my side, even for all your money, I cannot go to war. But Balaam was just upping the ante once again. Pay me more money and possibly I can get God on my (not our) side. It is all Me, Me, Me. “Believe me,” he said. “I know.” I have an open eye that sees. Everything is transparent to me. Moab will be crushed by the Israelites – unless of course you can induce me with more incentives to lead you.

Balak panicked. Each went their own way. But the Israelites did not attack the Moabites. In fact, the Israelites began to intermarry with the Moabites. And participate in prostrating themselves before their gods, especially Baal Peor. There was now no limit to God’s wrath. “Moses, hang all the leaders of your tribes,” God raged. But one Israelite was not afraid and walked openly with his Moabite partner. Pinehas, son of Eleazar, Aron’s son, took a spear and stabbed both the young brash Israelite and his “shiksa” with the one thrust of that spear. And the plague that had been inflicted on the Israelites, killing 24,000, purportedly ceased.