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A prophet and a donkey — again

Moses and Balaam seem to have little in common, but they both overcome personal ambivalence to speak God's truth (Balak)
Balaam blesses Israel (Numbers, Chapter 24). Published 1877. Woodcut after a drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (German painter, 1794-1872)
Balaam blesses Israel (Numbers, Chapter 24). Published 1877. Woodcut after a drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (German painter, 1794-1872)

At the end of Deutronomy, we reach the end of Moses’ life and we see the great mourning of the people at this immesurable loss. In this context, the Torah tells us:

וְלֹֽא־קָ֨ם נָבִ֥יא ע֛וֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל כְּמֹשֶׁ֑ה אֲשֶׁר֙ יְדָע֣וֹ ה’ פָּנִ֖ים אֶל־פָּנִֽים׃

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom the LORD singled out, face to face. (Deuteronomy 34:10)

On this tragic verse, Sifrei Deuteronomy (357) comments that while there was never a prophet like Moses in Israel, there was in fact one among the nations:

And there shall not arise in Israel again a prophet such as Moses”: But among the nations, there did arise. And who was he? Balaam the son of Beor. But there is a difference between the prophecy of Moses and the prophecy of Balaam. Moses did not know who was speaking to him, and Balaam did know, viz. (Numbers 24:16) “The speech of the hearer (Balaam) of the words of the Almighty.” Moses did not know when He would speak to him until He did so. Balaam did know, viz. “and the knower of the knowledge of the Most High.” Moses did not speak with Him unless he was standing, viz. (Deut. 5:28) “And you, here, stand with Me.” And Balaam spoke with Him when he was fallen, viz. (Num. 24:4) “The vision of the Almighty shall he see, fallen and his eyes uncovered.

This seems like an odd place to find comfort. Balaam is not generally well loved in rabbinic texts. Pirkei Avot 5:9 describes him as an evildoer whose descendants will inherit Gehinom. In Sanhedrin 105a, he is named as one of only four prominent commoners who have no share in the world to come. Why, then, compare him to Moses?

As it turns out, this parsha parallels him to Moses by connecting him to one of the most difficult stories and confusing stories that we have of Moses’s life. In Exodus 4:20, after God has finished telling Moses to go speak to Pharaoh and tell him to free the Israelites, Moses gets on his donkey to go to Egypt. While he is on his way, something shocking happens:

וַיְהִ֥י בַדֶּ֖רֶךְ בַּמָּל֑וֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁ֣הוּ ה’ וַיְבַקֵּ֖שׁ הֲמִיתֽוֹ׃

At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him and sought to kill him.

Why does God try to kill Moses? It is entirely unclear, but since immediately after this verse Tzipporah curcumcises Moses’ son, commentaries from Midrash Rabbah to Rashi and Ibn Ezra and Seforno all suggest that it was because Moses had neglected the mitzvah of circumcision. Moses, on the way to speak the words that God had asked him to speak, still had to be held accountable for his own actions and inactions.

In our parsha, Parshat Balak, Balaam is invited by the king, Balak, to go curse the Jews. Balaam asks God’s permission to go, and God tells him:

וַיָּבֹ֨א אֱלֹקים ׀ אֶל־בִּלְעָם֮ לַיְלָה֒ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ אִם־לִקְרֹ֤א לְךָ֙ בָּ֣אוּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֔ים ק֖וּם לֵ֣ךְ אִתָּ֑ם וְאַ֗ךְ אֶת־הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־אֲדַבֵּ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ אֹת֥וֹ תַעֲשֶֽׂה׃

That night God came to Balaam and said to him, “If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do.”

Then, only two verses later, when Balam has saddled his donkey and is on his way, an angel of God attacks him:

וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֣ף אֱלֹקים֮ כִּֽי־הוֹלֵ֣ךְ הוּא֒ וַיִּתְיַצֵּ֞ב מַלְאַ֧ךְ ה’ בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ לְשָׂטָ֣ן ל֑וֹ וְהוּא֙ רֹכֵ֣ב עַל־אֲתֹנ֔וֹ וּשְׁנֵ֥י נְעָרָ֖יו עִמּֽוֹ׃

But God was incensed at his going; so an angel of the LORD placed himself in his way as an adversary. He was riding on his she-ass, with his two servants alongside,

Why does God try to stop Balaam from doing exactly what God had just told him to do? Again, it is unclear. Rashi suggests that what angered God was not Balaam’s actions but rather his desire — he desired to curse Israel. The angel that came to attach Balaam was, according to Rashi (following Midrash Rabbah 20:13), an angel of Divine Mercy. On his way to speak the words that God asked him to speak, he still needed to be held accoundable.

In Exodus 6:12, after he had already spoken to Pharaoh and to the Israelites, Moses describes himself as a person of uncircumsised lips, paralleling the uncircumcision of his son.

וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֥י ה’ לֵאמֹ֑ר הֵ֤ן בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֹֽא־שָׁמְע֣וּ אֵלַ֔י וְאֵיךְ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֣נִי פַרְעֹ֔ה וַאֲנִ֖י עֲרַ֥ל שְׂפָתָֽיִם׃

But Moses appealed to the LORD, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of uncircumcised lips!>

The reluctance Moses has to go speak God’s word parallels Balaam’s own ambivalence. When Balak’s messengers ask Balaam to go with them to curse Israel, Balaam first asks God what he should do. When God tells him not to go, in Numbers 22:13, he tells the messengers that he will not go with them. When other messengers, come, Balaam asks God again, and God tells him to go. It is only after God finally agrees that he sets out.

Balaam is different from Moses in many ways, and may not even be a good person. But he is like Moses in one important way: he is willing to overcome ambivalence to speak God’s truth. To speak truth they each had to face their own mortality and possibly their own sin. But nevertheless they speak. In his willingness to hear and transmit God’s message, Balaam becomes in his own way like Moses.

About the Author
Dr. Devorah Schoenfeld is Associate Professor in the Theology department at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches Bible, Judaism, Comparative Religion and Jewish-Christian Relations. Her book Isaac on Jewish and Christian Altars: Genesis 22 in Rashi and in the Glossa Ordinaria compares medieval Jewish and Christian approaches to the akedah, and she has also written on midrash, comparative theology, and dream interpretation. She is a member of Anshe Shalom Bnai Israel in Chicago and a student in the Executive Ordination Track at Yeshivat Maharat.
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