Israel Drazin

The strange tale of Balaam

Chapters 22–24 in Numbers tell the tale of Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet whom the Moabites summon to curse the Israelites. The Moabite king, Balak, sees the advancing Israelites and feels he lacks sufficient forces to defeat them. Like many ancients, he thinks that a seer’s curse will weaken the Israelites and make it possible for Moab to defeat them. The story contains many obscurities. Some items raise basic theological questions, such as the first one.

The Babylonian Talmud Baba Bathra 15a poses the following question and answer: “Who wrote the Scriptures? Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Balaam and Job.”[1] Why doesn’t the Talmud ascribe the writing to God? Is it suggesting that Moses wrote the five books on his initiative?

There are different views concerning Balaam among the ancient commentators. In most rabbinic literature, he is pictured as “Balaam the wicked,” as in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin So too, in the Ethics of the Fathers (5:22), there is the following statement: “The disciples of Balaam the wicked inherit Gehinnom (Hell) and descend to the pit of destruction.” But the Midrash Sifrei describes Balaam as a prophet and a good man. This is also the opinion of Midrash Tanhuma. “God raised Moses for Israel and Balaam for the world’s peoples.”

Midrash Numbers Rabbah suggests that Balak and Balaam needed each other to accomplish their foul mission. The Midrash states that King Balak was a greater diviner than the prophet Balaam. Balak could see the places where the Israelites would worship the idol Baal (Numbers 25:3), but Balaam knew how to make the Israelites worship the idol by building seven altars.

Don’t the midrashic statements that Balaam was a prophet contradict the view of the poet Yehuda Halevi that non-Jews are inferior to Jews and can never reach their level, even if they convert?

Doesn’t it support Maimonides’ understanding that God created all humans with the ability to think and all can use their intelligence and even be prophets?

The plot in this tale is the hiring of Balaam to curse the Israelites. The story seems to say that had God not forced Balaam to bless the Israelites, his curse would have succeeded. Do curses, blessings, and prayers work? Does the Torah take the position that people have this power? Were there rabbis who believed this?

Rebecca, in Genesis 27, persuades her son Jacob to steal her husband Isaac’s blessing, which he intended to give to Esau. He does so. When Esau heard what Jacob did, he was so hurt that he swore he would kill him. Isaac’s reaction was that despite the blessings being given unintentionally, he could not delete or change them. Is this episode saying blessings work? Do later events in the Torah confirm this?

When people go to their houses of prayer, synagogues, churches, and mosques and pray for things, do the prayers have miraculous effects?

There were ancient sages like Nachmanides and Gersonides who were convinced that people who knew how to manipulate the forces of nature could make black and white magic happen. Others, like the rationalist Joseph ibn Kaspi, a follower of Maimonides, contended that when these acts succeed, they only do so because the people are moved psychologically.

If we accept the Maimonidean view, we need to interpret the Balaam and other tales contrary to the literal wording of the Torah texts.

Verse 22:7 states that Balak’s messengers came to Balaam with kesamim in their hands. What are kesamim? The word literally means “tools for wizardry” or, according to Abraham ibn Ezra, “sorcerers.” Why would Balak need to bring the magic tools or other sorcerers to the greatest sorcerer in the area?

Rashi suggests that Balak feared Balaam would be reluctant to curse the Israelites and say he lacked equipment. This insight will prompt readers to interpret the later relationship between Balak and Balaam more deeply. Balak must repeatedly do all he can to persuade Balaam to curse the Israelites. In 22: 40, for example, he wine dined him.

Why did God first command Balaam not to go with Balak’s emissaries (Numbers 22:12) and then permit him to “go with them” (Numbers 22:20)?

Numbers Rabbah states: “From this, you learn that a man is led in the way he desires to go. At first, Balaam was told, ‘You shall not go.’ But when he persisted in his desire, he was allowed to go. Therefore, it is written: ‘and God’s anger was kindled because he went.’”

Is this midrashic interpretation saying that God interferes with natural law? Or should we understand that God was not controlling Balaam? He realized at first that he should not curse the Israelites, but then changed his mind?

Many Bible commentators accepted the literal wording of the Torah that God interferes with nature.

Rashi states that God allowed him to go if he would be paid for his work.

Nachmanides maintains that God prohibited Balaam from cursing the Israelites because the nation was blessed, but Balak insisted. So, God informed Balaam: if the new emissaries came to fetch you knowing that you cannot curse the Israelites, you may go with them. But you have to tell them that you cannot curse the Israelites. However, Balaam was so anxious to go that he didn’t inform the messengers. They thought that Balaam had God’s permission to curse Israel. That is why God became angry with Balaam.

Sforno suggests that God told Balaam that if the messengers called upon him simply for counsel, he could go with them, but he had to caution them not to curse the Israelites.

Chazkunee imagines God saying: If they were foolish enough to return to you with the same request after I told you not to go with them, then go, and they will see that it will be to no avail.

Verse 22:22 states that Balaam left on his journey with two young boys to help him. Abraham also went on his trip in Genesis 22 with two young helpers. What do we derive from this comparison?

Some other questions raised by this biblical episode are: What is the nature of a curse? What are its powers? Does God become angry? The Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 4a, b and Sanhedrin 105b) suggests that Balaam could curse because “he was able to determine the exact hour of God’s anger.” Isn’t this applying a human emotion to God, something a supreme being could not have? Isn’t it nonsense to suppose that God gets angry at a foreseeable time?

In the Torah, we find prohibitions concerning cursing parents (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9), judges (Exodus 22:27), the deaf (Leviticus 19:14), and, of course, cursing God. But aren’t curses merely words? Do words have mystical or psychological powers? What is the meaning and purpose of the prayer found at the end of the Amidah, recited three times a day: “Let my soul be silent to those who curse me” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 17a)? How do we explain the Torah’s use of curses, especially in Deuteronomy 27:15–26?

The story of Balaam’s talking ass has perplexed commentators throughout the ages. But it isn’t the first time we encounter a talking creature in Scripture. In Genesis 3:1–5, we find a talking snake in the Garden of Eden. Rabbi Yissachar Yaakovson, in his Meditations on the Torah (p. 242), comments: “The Torah tells of two animals that communicated with man. Here the ass addressed her master to save him. The snake addressed Eve to persuade her to sin. This destructive influence of an animal is counterbalanced in the present portion by the act of Balaam’s animal. The snake causes the man to open his eyes—to his disadvantage. The ass causes Balaam to open his eyes—to his advantage.”

What point is Yaakovson making? Many people take the biblical story of Balaam’s furious argument with his ass literally since the simple meaning of the Bible indicates that these unnatural events actually occurred. However, the Jewish rationalist Bible commentators interpret the incident allegorically or metaphorically. Abraham Ibn Ezra states in the introduction to his biblical commentaries that whenever a scriptural occurrence is contrary to nature, the reader should understand it as a figure of speech or a parable. This was also the view of others, such as Maimonides and Gersonides.

Many ancients taught their lessons using parables because stories are interesting and easy to remember, and even if the listener can’t grasp the lesson immediately, when he thinks of the story, even years later, the lesson sinks in.

[1] The Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, The Soncino Press, London, 1935, page71.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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