If Torah portions had thematic titles instead of using a word near the beginning that’s easy to spot, this would not be Parashat Balak but Parashat … Balaam. (You knew that.) This week, I want to look at the comparison that rabbinic literature famously makes between Balaam and Abraham.
In Genesis 22, when God tells Abraham to go and offer up his son Isaac, and in Numbers 22, when Balaam departs with the dignitaries, both of these gentlemen are up early and go to the stables themselves:
“Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey.”
וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם אַבְרָהָ֜ם בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַֽיַּחֲבֹשׁ֙ אֶת־חֲמֹר֔וֹ [Gen 22:3]
“Balaam got up in the morning and saddled his ass.”
וַיָּ֤קָם בִּלְעָם֙ בַּבֹּ֔קֶר וַֽיַּחֲבֹ֖שׁ אֶת־אֲתֹנ֑וֹ [Num 22:21]
The midrash points out that, even though both of them were heavy hitters and would have had servants to handle the animals, each of them was so eager to get started that he did this task himself — Abraham to obey God’s command even though it meant killing his son, and Balaam to get the money that he would earn for cursing the Israelites.
The match between these two phrases is not quite perfect; as we’ll see in a moment, however, there may have been other reasons why rabbinic literature chose to make this comparison all the same. The two not quite perfect matches are these:
• Abraham gets up early [וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם] and saddles a donkey [חֲמֹר֔וֹ].
• Balaam just gets up [וַיָּ֤קָם] and saddles an ass [אֲתֹנ֑וֹ].
The NJPS translation nudges them closer, translating Abraham’s ḥamor as an “ass” just like Balaam’s aton. (Warning! Don’t try to dictate “Balaam’s ass” into Microsoft Word; he’ll end up riding on three asterisks.) I’m no zoologist, but apparently the English words donkey and ass do refer to the same animal. My Hebrew lexicons seem to think that אתון and חמור do as well.
There are other people who saddle their own donkey — a ḥamor like Abraham’s — yet the rabbis did not compare Abraham to them as far as I’m aware. One was Ahithophel, who in 2 Samuel 17 tries to help King David’s son Absalom seize power. When he realizes his advice has not been followed and the coup will fail, Ahithophel saddles his donkey [וַיַּחֲבֹ֣שׁ אֶֽת־הַחֲמ֗וֹר], rides home, and hangs himself (2 Sam 17:23).
There’s a similar case in 1 Kings 2. Even though it sounds far away in the Bible, it’s really part of the same story. Shimei had scorned and insulted David when the king was escaping Jerusalem; now, some of his slaves have escaped, so he saddles his donkey [וַֽיַּחֲבֹשׁ֙ אֶת־חֲמֹר֔וֹ] and goes to try to catch them (1 Kgs 2:40). Bad mistake! King Solomon had put him under house arrest, and this was Solomon’s excuse to kill him.
Both of these high-level men saddled their own donkeys, as Abraham did, yet we compare him to Balaam, not to them. One doubts that Ahithophel and Shimei communicated with God on a regular basis, but Abraham and Balaam did. In fact, there are other things besides prophecy and animal handling that link Balaam with Abraham, and specifically Numbers 22 with Genesis 22.
• each of them took “his two servants” with him [שׁני־נעריו אתו/עמו]
• encounter with an angel of YHWH [מלאך־י׳הוה]
• each must not do “anything” [מאומה]
• each has the word “he took him up” [ויעלהו]
For me, the likeness that clinches the deal is one that does not occur in the story of the Akedah, but it does feature prominently in the beginning of the Abraham story, to which Genesis 22 is the bookend. The whole reason Balak goes to the trouble of hiring Balaam is expressed in the message he sends him:
I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.
כִּ֣י יָדַ֗עְתִּי אֵ֤ת אֲשֶׁר־תְּבָרֵךְ֙ מְבֹרָ֔ךְ וַאֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּאֹ֖ר יוּאָֽר [Num 22:6]
And indeed, at the conclusion of this episode, Balaam acknowledges the opposite, saying of Israel:
Those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are cursed.
מְבָרֲכֶ֣יךָ בָר֔וּךְ וְאֹרְרֶ֖יךָ אָרֽוּר [Num 24:9]
This, of course, is just what YHWH promised to Abram at the beginning of his story:
I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.
וַאֲבָֽרֲכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר [Gen 12:3]
In Gen 12:2 Abram is promised that his descendants will become a great nation, and that is exactly the situation that confronts Balak and prompts him to hire Balaam. So the mere fact that both Abraham and Balaam saddled their own animals to ride off and do a task was not the only thing that was prompting the midrash to compare them.
These stories are written in a way that makes them look very similar despite the great differences in time and plot between them. Were they written that way deliberately? The Sifrei quotes Deut. 34:10 to assert, “‘Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses’—in Israel no prophet like him ever arose again, but outside Israel a prophet like him did arise. And who was it? Balaam.”
You can see that comparison from the Sifrei between Balaam and Moses quoted at great length in Nahmanides’ comment on Num 24:4 in this week’s parashah. Nevertheless, I think it’s Balaam and Abraham that the Torah wants us to compare.