Balak, the king of Moab, seeks to hire Balaam, a wizard of great fame, to curse the Israelites so he can defeat them in battle. When the elders offer this invitation to Balaam, he tells them to wait so he can inquire God about the whole business. God tells him not to go with the Moabites, nor to curse the Israelites, since they are a blessed people. The dignitaries return to Balak, who sends another delegation. Again, Balaam inquires of God and this time He allows Balaam to go with them, but insists that “whatever I command you, that you shall do”.
Balaam prepares his donkey and proceeds. But God is furious at Balaam and sends an angel with a drawn sword. The donkey sees the angel waiting in the path and moves away from it, but Balaam beats it to force it to return. This happens again and again, until God causes the donkey to speak, chastising Balaam for his lack of gratitude or vision. Then God allows him to see the threatening angel.
When Balaam arrives, he warns Barak that we can only say the words that God puts in his mouth. They make a sacrifice and then Balak leads Balaam to a place where he can see some of the Israelite camp. Balaam builds seven altars and offers seven bulls and rams. God tells Balaam what to say, being a blessing that includes the famous description of the Jews: “There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations… May I die the death of the upright, may my fate be like theirs!”.
Balak is distraught that the seer he hoped would curse the Israelites blessed them instead, so he tries again from another position. A similar blessing emerges. Balak attempts a third time, which offers the blessing “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” At this final blessing, Balak sends Balaam back to his home. Before leaving, Balaam offers a fourth oracle, unrequested, predicting Israel’s victory against the enemy nations that surround it. He then returns home.
While encamped at Shittim, the Israelite men are enticed by Moabite women to participate in the idolatrous cult of Baal-Peor. Thus, a plague erupts among the Israelites, and God commands Moses to impale the leaders of the rebellion. Before he has a chance to carry out God’s grim decree, however, the priest Pinhas finds an Israelite man and a Moabite woman copulating near the sanctuary. Zealous on God’s behalf, he impales the two with a spear during their copulation, and his action stops the plague.
Questions for discussion
1- If Balaam is supposed to be the villain of this story, how come he is so pious at the beginning and insists on God’s permission before he goes to Balak?
2- Why is God furious with Balaam if He gave him permission to go?
3- What do you think of Balaam’s first blessing? Do you see this in modern Jews?
4- The Sages claim that when he failed to curse the Israelites, Balak sent his women to seduce them, being this plan the one that results. Can we see in this story a parallel to modern mixed marriages and assimilation?
Rabbi Mijael Even-David