Tzvi Novick

On Balaam and the Varieties of Prophecy

Balaam's Ass (Regensburg, ca. 1400 - 1410; Wikimedia Commons)

The connection between parashat Balak and its haftarah, from Micah 5-6, is immediately obvious: The prophet Micah adduces the story of Balak and Balaam as evidence of God’s care for Israel (6:5). But the haftarah continues past this reference to a stirring conclusion, where the prophet, adopting the rhetorical power of the first person, asks: “With what shall I approach the Lord, bow me down before God on high?” (6:6)  Not, says the prophet, with sacrifices, with yearling calves or the gift of one’s firstborn.  Rather: “It has been told you, human, what is good, and what the Lord seeks from you: nothing other than to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk prudently with your God.” (6:8) In itself, this contrast, between ritual and morality, looks like a prophetic commonplace, though expressed with unusual trenchancy.  But read in conversation with our parashah, it becomes a key to unlocking something fundamental about the nature of prophecy, and of service of God.

Balaam insists time and again that he can only speak what God puts into his mouth.  Saddled with this mantra, he becomes a figure of ridicule. God can just as easily put words in the mouth of Balaam’s ass, and indeed he does, opening the ass’ mouth so that it can reproach Balaam. But we must ask: Isn’t Balaam right? Surely he should in fact speak only what God puts in his mouth!

Balaam is a bit like Korah: He makes grandiloquent declarations that blur the line between the true and pious and the self-serving. One cannot deny that a prophet should only speak what God tells him. But there are different ways to receive God’s message. One way: God can literally (literally) provide words for the prophet to speak. This is prophecy in the mode of dictation, that leaves nothing for the prophet to do but open his mouth. Prophecy of this sort is black and white; it is simple. It is close to magic in its automaticity. Balaam defaults to this sort of prophecy because it absolves him of responsibility; he is just God’s mouthpiece. He likes prophecy by dictation also because—so at least he thinks—it is subject to manipulation through something like magical means. If he can build just the right altars, if he can offer just the right kind and number of sacrifices, then he may be able to manipulate God into putting into his mouth the words that he wants to speak.

But prophecy can work in a different way. Balaam sees this, if only in a brief flash, at the end of his story. “And Balaam saw that it was good in the Lord’s eyes to bless Israel, and he did not, as in previous times, go in search of omens. … And the spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his theme and he said: The word of Balaam, son of Beor, etc.” (Num 24:1-3; NJPS modified) Here, Balaam leaves aside his omens, his magic. He puts his mind, instead, to considering what God desires, and he conforms himself to this desire. This time, God does not put words in his mouth. It is not that Balaam speaks of his own accord; the spirit of God—which appears here in the story for the first and only time—moves the prophet. But prophecy in the spirit is not like prophecy by dictation. Though prophecy in the spirit is indeed from God, the words belong to the prophet. In this framework, divine agency doesn’t preclude human agency, but fosters and magnifies it. It is for this reason that in this prophetic speech, unlike his previous ones, Balaam identifies himself by name as the speaker.

The Torah famously distinguishes between Moses’ prophetic capacity and that of other prophets, in Numbers 12: “When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. … With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord.” (Num 12:6-8; NJPS) One might be inclined to map this distinction onto the one in our parashah, to correlate Mosaic prophecy with the prophecy of dictation, and ordinary prophecy with prophecy in the spirit.  But I think this inclination is mistaken; I think these distinctions are different. The one in Numbers 12 concerns the clarity of prophetic vision, while the one in our parashah concerns prophetic agency.

Indeed, reading the Torah holistically, we learn from our parashah that Mosaic prophecy cannot be prophecy by dictation. Prophecy in its ideal form, so the story of Balaam teaches, does not occur through dictation. For prophecy of this sort, God could as well use an ass, and the miracle would be the greater for it. True prophecy—prophecy that makes the speaker a prophet, rather than a magician—comes only from actively searching out what God wants. And what is true for prophecy is true, as Micah teaches, for divine service in general. It is all fine and good to offer sacrifices. God does, after all, command sacrifices. But sacrifices are simple. They are recipes. They are a step removed from magic. They do not, in themselves, engage the whole person. What God seeks, more fundamentally, is justice and kindness.  These concepts are complex. There is no instruction booklet for doing justice and loving kindness. One can only accomplish these things through discernment, through careful noticing, through proactivity.

The final line of the haftarah is among the more famous verses in the Bible, and I think it is often understood to offer a vision of the “simple Jew.” The poshute yid doesn’t do heroic deeds; God wouldn’t call on him to offer his firstborn, like Abraham did. But he is a kind person, a fair person. He conducts his business honestly; he gives charity to the poor. This interpretation of the verse is appealing (even though it is shaped in part by a construal of the word הצנע as “humbly,” against what is probably the plain sense of the word in its biblical context, “prudently”). But the juxtaposition to our parashah teaches that there is nothing simple about this way of life. Precisely this way of life, like prophecy in the spirit, demands engagement of the mind, really seeing what is happening outside oneself, taking responsibility for one’s choices. It is not a coincidence that the great voices of social justice in our tradition are the prophets. The ideal form of prophecy, prophecy in the spirit, arises precisely from the dispositional features that enable other-directed engagement with the world.

About the Author
Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on law and ethics in early rabbinic literature, and on pre-medieval liturgical poetry.
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