Editor's note: The HuffTorah is an overview of the Torah reading of the week, which is found in the Book of Numbers 22:2-25:9, and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. Read the full text of Parshat Balak in interlinear Hebrew/English.
Balak, the king of Moab, sees everything Israel has done. He sees the fate of the Amorites. His people become sick with fear. Balak fears them too.
The king hopes to be able to attack Israel in a weakened state. So he sends for help. He sends for Balaam, a prophet with the power to bless and the power curse. He sends the elders of his area, great men of Moab and Midian, with all the latest tools of all the blackest magics to recruit Balaam into his dark service.
The elders deliver Balak's message, but Balaam bids them wait till morning for his decision; he must first speak with God.
As soon as he's out of earshot of the elders, God says to Balaam, "Who are these people?"
So Balaam tells God about Balak and the black magic and the Israelites who need cursing.
God, of course, tells Balaam not to go with these people. "And don't curse that nation. And don't bless them. They are already blessed."
Balaam tells the elders to return to their king, that God won't let him go because they aren't important enough. Balak, of course, sends a distinguished delegation in response, telling Balaam to please not refuse this time. "It will be worth your time," they say. "Balak will honor you awesomely."
Again, Balaam bids them wait for morning, so that he may speak with God.
This time, God tells Balaam that he may go with the dignitaries if he feels their offer will be profitable. "But still, you must only do what I say," God adds.
Questions: Why does God need to ask Balaam who the people with him are? Why does God tell Balaam to not bless the Israelite nation? Why does Balaam tell the first group of elders that they are not important enough for God, when God didn't say that? Why does God tell Balaam he may go if the trip will be profitable?
In the morning, when he finally goes, trailing the delegates on his donkey, God's head hangs low. God is angry with Balaam. God puts an angel in the middle of the road to block the prophet's way.
The donkey sees the angel, with sword in hand, and immediately turns from the road and walks into a field. Balaam beats the donkey. He gets back on the road.
Now, God places the angel on the path between two walls. There's no where for the donkey to go, so it pushes up against the wall, crushing Balaam's leg. The prophet beats the donkey again.
The angel of God wedges itself in a very narrow place, leaving no space for the donkey even to turn. So the donkey stops and lies down. Again, Balaam beats the donkey.
That's enough for God, who opens the donkey's mouth so that it may ask: "Why do you keep hitting me? What have I done?"
"You embarrassed me, donkey. Would that I had a sword, you'd be dead."
Again, the donkey speaks and asks: "I'm your faithful donkey, am I not? Have I ever done this to you?"
"No," Balaam replies and is silent and stares until his eyes open wide, and he sees before him the armed angel of God. He falls on his face while the angel asks, "Why did you beat your donkey? I've come to stop you since you journey against God. Your donkey saved your life by turning away these three times. I would have -- should have -- killed you but for this poor animal."
"Oy! I have sinned. I did not see you there. I will turn back if I must."
"No. Go. But speak only the words God tells you to speak," the angel replies.
So Balaam goes, and Balak greets him at the outermost edge of his outermost city. "Was my offer of honor not enough the first time?" the king asks. "Why have you delayed so long?"
"Be happy I'm even here," Balaam says. "It's not as if I can say what you want me to say anyway."
They go on their way, and Balak slaughters animals for Balaam. Later, in the morning, after seeing some of the people, the prophet tells the king to build him seven altars and prepare seven rams and seven bulls for him. Balak does this. The two of them offer one bull and ram on each altar. Balaam tells Balak to wait with the offerings while he goes for a walk with God.
"Say this to Balak," God says, and whispers in his ears.
So Balaam returns to Balak and says: "You have brought me here to curse Jacob, to curse Israel. But how? How does one curse that which God has not cursed? How does one wreak wrath that God has not wrought? I see these people, and I know these people dwell alone. Who can count them? Who may? Let me die as they would: righteously."
Outraged. Balak can't believe his ears: "What have you done? I brought you to curse them, and you've blessed them! How could you?!"
"Can I say that which God does not give me the words to say?"
So Balak brings Balaam to another lookout. Here, they can see only part of the people. "Curse just some of them for me, will you?" the king asks. So they set up the seven altars and make the 14 offerings and Balaam tells Balak to wait there while he goes for a walk.
When the prophet returns, Balak is waiting with dignitaries. "What'd God say," he asks.
And Balaam says: "Listen, Balak! God is not a man like you. God does not lie. God blesses those people, and I do not take back those blessings. I cannot. God sees no evil among the Children of Israel. Even when they are rebellious, God is with them. God took them out of Egypt. They do not use sorcery. Even the angels ask, 'What has God done?' Even the angels are lower in God's eyes than these people. These people are as a lion: They will not lie down until they have eaten their prey."
"Ah! Stop! Don't bless them!" Balak is flummoxed.
"I told you," is all Balaam says.
"Fine, I will take you to another place. In the eye of God. You will curse them from there."
Balaam tells Balak to build the altars and offer the animals. Meanwhile, he understands that blessings are good in God's eyes. He does not try to walk with God. Instead, he focuses on the sins of the Israelites, hoping to find some way to discredit them. And he looks out over the people below him, his eyes trying to do the cursing, but changes his mind. He wishes to be like God. He wishes to bless the people. And he speaks out: "These are the words of Balaam, the prophet of God, who has the vision of God and the hearing of God. How good are your tents, O Jacob! How good are your homes, O Israel! They are like streams. Gardens. Spices. Cedars. Water will burst from your wells and flow toward your seeds. Your king will prevail over your enemies. You will live in our land. Whoever blesses you will be blessed. Whoever curses you will be cursed."
"Three times!" Balak is furious. "Three times! I call you to curse, but three times you bless them. I meant to honor you, but God has removed that honor."
"Didn't I tell you I would only say what God would have me say? Still, I will tell you what to do: Entice the Israelites. Let them sleep with your women."
Now, Balaam tells Balak about the end of days -- how his people and others around him will be destroyed by the people of Israel; how Israel will only grow stronger.
And Balaam leaves, and returns to his people. And Balak, too, goes home.
Questions: Why is God angry with Balaam for going with Balak's men? What's the significance of the seven altars? What's the significance of the dignitaries? Why does Balak take Balaam to curse the Israelites from "the eye of God"? Why does Balaam give Balak advice about harming the Israelites and then immediately after explain how they will ultimately prevail?
The Israelites sleep with Moabite women. The Israelites go to Moabite feasts and bow before Moabite gods. Before the god Baal-peor, especially.
God is pissed. He sends a plague, and tells Moses to gather the leaders and judge the idol worshipers and hang them before all the rest of Israel. While Moses speaks to the judges, an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman into a tent in full of all the people of Israel. Everyone watches.
Moses doesn't know what to do. He can't remember the law for this. And many people weep in front of the Tent of Meeting.
One of the sons of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the brother of Moses, remembers the law. He grabs a spear, approaches the tent and impales the immodest couple in a single strike.
The plague ends. Twenty-four thousand people have died, but the plague ends.
Questions: Why does is the violent zeal of one man rewarded with the end of the plague, considering that he took matters into his own hands and didn't wait for the court to rule?
Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection:
- Money, Religion, Leadership -- "Religious leadership isn't easy. Just ask any of the rabbis who attempt to address controversial issues within their institutions, take on the challenge of moral leadership and manage relationships with members. Or ask the prophet Balaam, the unexpected hero of this week's Torah portion." (ON Scripture - The Torah)
- Haftorah Balak -- In the supplemental haftorah, found in Micah 5:6-6:8, the prophet encourages the "remnants of Jacob" who languish in exile. (My Jewish Learning)
- Rashi on Parshat Balak -- The classic commentator in all his interpretive glory. (Chabad)
- The Animated Parshat Balak -- "What's a cartoon series without talking animals? Thank God the Bible includes a loquacious donkey." (G-dcast)
- The Nature of Bilaam's Prophecy -- "In the first prophecy, only hills and rocks are mentioned, in the second, an ox and a lion, but in the third, both plants and animals are used to great effect." (Canfei Nesharim)
- Transforming Doubt Into Wonder -- "This is the fearsome power of Balak and Bilaam, the ability to cause doubt and confusion. Yet, doubt is not always unhealthy. There is also holy, productive doubt, and that is the wonder that opens a person to new possibilities." (IYYUN)
- Additional sources and related texts compiled on Wikipedia.