Balaam, A Prophet Of Contradictions


The concept of repentance is one of Judaism’s greatest contributions to religious thought. The concomitant idea, however, that the Eternal may experience a change of heart detrimental to the entire human project is troubling in the extreme. In this week’s Hebrew text, the first appearance of the word “satan” (often translated as “adversary”) is in connection with what Rashi calls “an angel of mercy,” sent to protect humans from spiritual harm, specifically Balaam from his own self-destructive tendencies. For it is from the human being, not the supernatural, that the destructive urge driving the narrative emerges.

A new nation — the Israelites — has erupted onto the scene; no obstacle seems able to stand in their way. And in Israel’s appearance, Balak, the Moabite king, sees a Divine threat. Uncertain that it can be vanquished solely by physical force, he sends messengers to enlist the aid of Balaam: the greatest gentile prophet of his time. Like Israel, whose true talent is verbal — in their case, Torah — Balaam chooses spoken language as his weapon in his spiritual battle against the Jewish people.

Candlelighting, Readings
Shabbat Candles: 8:12 p.m.
Torah: Num. 22:2-25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8
Havdalah: 9:19 p.m.

Balak’s messengers are invited to stay overnight while Balaam consults with God, who tells this “prophet of darkness” that he is unequivocally forbidden from saying anything detrimental about the Israelites, nor may he associate with the men Balak sent [Numbers 22:12-13]. Why, then, when more messengers, of higher rank, are sent by Balak, does Balaam not dismiss them outright? Does he really believe that, in the interim, God changed His order?

Ultimately God allows Balaam to accompany Balak’s messengers. After all, “In the direction one wants to go, there one is led” [Talmud Makkot]. This is not so much a concession as a means of luring Balaam to his own fate.

At the final confrontation between king and prophet, Balaam picks up the refrain: “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? From the tops of the rocks I see him [Israel]. Let me die the death of the upright, and may my end be like his.” Has contemplation of goodness softened Balaam?

Balaam piously concludes that “God is not a man, that he should lie; nor a human, that he should repent,” even though Balaam’s whole career, with its twists and gyrations, has been predicated on trying to change God’s mind for the worse.

Both prophet and king pursue a renewed campaign of sacrifices; they move around on the heights to gain different views of the Israelites. Possibly the Jews are more morally exposed from these perspectives. What is important to Balaam is that the object of his hatred be “seen” from its least favorable angle, rather than holistically. One last time, Balaam is taken to a post overlooking the wilderness in hopes that the desolate view will blight God’s intent.

But when Balaam glimpses Israel, he becomes possessed with the Divine spirit. Acknowledging the good in Israel, he professes to speak from authentic experience: “This is the utterance of one whose eyes are opened” [Num. 24:3]. From the mouth of this anti-Semite bursts forth the greatest tribute to the Jewish people: “Ma tovu! How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” [Num. 24:5-9]. Has the man finally repented?

One cannot fail to notice that no women are mentioned in this parshah until the climax. Then Balaam looks out and sees that Israel’s goodness lies in its greatest asset — its family life, the moral relationships between men and women. That is its blessing. But here, too, lies its greatest vulnerability. Balaam, by sending out Moabite and Midianite girls to entice Jewish men, will not need to pronounce a single curse. He advises Balak to send out a female force to bring Israel down.

While Balaam thinks to subvert divinity with secrets and magic rites, what he ignores is that he is up against a nation that has newly accepted the Torah.

The plain meaning of Balaam’s tribute to Israel uses “tents” and “dwellings” as a metaphor for family life; the rabbis have understood tents and dwellings to mean synagogues (prayer), and study halls (Torah). All Balaam’s blessings were turned into curses — except this one. The daily Jewish way of life of prayer, learning and mitzvot was the blessing that kept Israel alive.

Every morning when Mah Tovu is read in the synagogue, a verse from Psalms is inserted: “But as for me, my prayer is all to You… in a time of favor. O God, Let me be delivered from those that hate me.”

Thus is any destructive intent by Balaam negated. If there had been a moment of anger, the “time of favor” truly is the Jewish life that we have and appreciate, day in, day out.