Nelly Shulman
Nelly Shulman

Sex and lies in Moab

At the beginning of weekly Torah portion, Balak, God visits Balaam and opens the conversation in a most cryptic way possible by asking the peculiar question, מִ֛י הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה עִמָּֽךְ “Who are these people with you?” Is not God supposed to know not only who are Balaam’s visitors but also everything that it is ever possible to know, and even beyond that?

Balaam, not to be outperformed, starts his answer in a circumvented way. Without saying directly who his guests are, he first explains that he received a message from the king of Moab. Proceeding to the message itself, he still does not reveal the identity of his visitors.

Some commentators explain that God uses this opening question to start the conversation politely. However, Rabbeinu Bachya disagrees with this opinion, offering a far more elegant insight into the meaning of this passage.

“We do not find anywhere throughout the Bible that God asked (as if He did not know). Except when the people whom God asked are wicked, and God gives them a chance to incriminate themselves by giving false answers, These provide God with the excuse to execute His judgment on them”.

Rabbeinu Bachya compares this episode with a passage in Bereshit where God asks Cain about the whereabouts of his brother Abel. Cain falls into the trap, starting to lie, and so does Balaam, who creatively renders the actual words of Balak.

Tanchuma Balak gives additional reason for God playing here a clever cop. Balaam has misled the people into practicing sexual permissiveness, and thus was misled himself, as it is said in Proverbs 28:10, “he who misleads the upright into an evil course will fall into his own pit”.

About the Author
Nelly Shulman is a journalist and writer currently based in Berlin. She is an author of four popular historical novels in the Russian language. She is working on the fifth novel in this series and on her first English-language novel, a historical thriller set during the Siege of Leningrad. She a Hawthornden Fellow and an alumna of the Nachum Goldmann Fellowship.
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