Num. 22:2 – 25:9
Rabbi Jack Luxemburg
This Torah portion is full of surprises. It is named for a pagan king, Balak, who ruled over Moab, a territory that is now part of modern-day Jordan. It introduces us to a complicated character, Balam, a soothsayer, and magician who is hired by Balak to curse our Israelite ancestors.
הִנֵּ֤ה הָעָם֙ הַיֹּצֵ֣א מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם וַיְכַ֖ס אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֑רֶץ עַתָּ֗ה לְכָ֤ה קָֽבָה־לִּי֙ אֹת֔וֹ אוּלַ֥י אוּכַ֛ל לְהִלָּ֥חֶם בּ֖וֹ וְגֵרַשְׁתִּֽיו׃
Here is a people that came out from Egypt and hides the earth from view. Come now and curse them for me; perhaps I can engage them in battle and drive them off.” (Numbers 22:11)
Balak fears that our ancestors will overrun his land, even conquer it. He want Balam to somehow diminish the strength of our ancestors so he can repel them, “drive them off”. Balam, the text suggests, is not satisfied with that limited goal. Both the Torah text and later commentators imply that Balam was ready, for reasons of his own, to curse the people of Israel into oblivion. (Midrash Tanchuma, Balak 5)
However, there is another surprise. Balam talks to God! Not the pagan god or gods of the Moabites that Balak, his patron, might invoke but the God, the God of the Torah, the very same God who is guiding and protecting our ancestors on their journey to the promised land of Israel. What are we to make of this character enshrined in our Torah – a pagan, someone seeking the demise of our people, haughty and deceptive (as portrayed in Midrash), and yet who prays to and speaks with God? (Numbers 22: 8-10) Who even refers to the God of Torah as, “my God”? (Numbers 22:18)
Perhaps one way to approach this puzzle is to ask why is this narrative … with many other surprises, including a talking donkey (!) who tries to dissuade Balam from his ill-considered attempt … why is it preserved in the Torah text? There may be several reasons.
One is to demonstrate that the God of Torah is a universal and accessible god, not limited to the boundaries of a particular people or land. Balak has enough insight to apprehend God, but not enough understanding to grasp God’s will regarding the people of Israel. While he refers to the God of Torah as his God, we see that his own vanity, greed and self-importance are really what he reveres the most.
Another reason might be that this narrative confirms that God protects Israel from any type of assault be it in the confrontation with other nations that seek to destroy the people of Israel, or in proposed contests with the gods of those same people. Whether the warfare is physical or spiritual, God provides protection. Despite all his efforts and all his power – which even the
Midrash assumes – Balam cannot thwart or manipulate the God of the Torah has he was believed to do to the gods worshipped by his pagan patrons.
A third reason, that occurs to me each time I read this passage, is that it is a cutting critique of the pagan world view. Read from a particular perspective, the narrative boarders on the farcical right up to the moment – after three furtive attempts to curse the Israelites – Balam finally opens his mouth and what comes out of it is a blessing rather than a curse. And it is a blessing so powerful and evocative of the wellbeing of our people that it is repeated in the synagogue every morning.
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)
But there is yet another reason that may explain why this narrative with all its surprises and unexpected twists is preserved. And that is how it stands in juxtaposition with the conclusion of the Torah portion.
וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בַּשִּׁטִּ֑ים וַיָּ֣חֶל הָעָ֔ם לִזְנ֖וֹת אֶל־בְּנ֥וֹת מוֹאָֽב׃
While Israel was staying at Shittim, the menfolk profaned
themselves by whoring with the Moabite women,
וַתִּקְרֶ֣אןָ לָעָ֔ם לְזִבְחֵ֖י אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֑ן וַיֹּ֣אכַל הָעָ֔ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲו֖וּ לֵאלֹֽהֵיהֶֽן׃
who invited the menfolk to the sacrifices for their god.
The menfolk partook of them and worshiped that god.
According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a), this was a set-up, suggested by a frustrated Balam to a fearful Balak who sent women to seduce the Israelite men, draw them away from God and from under God’s protection. These verses, and those following which detail the consequences of this unfortunate turn of events, constitute a cautionary coda to the story of Balam. While that story presents the power of God to protect the Jewish people, this coda tells the contrasting story – one of human weakness. Taken together, they constitute a cautionary and provocative tale — how human foibles and frailty can undermine God’s providence. Certainly something to ponder.