What a treat and a break in the action we get in today’s portion. It’s part fable, highly literary. Why? What does it mean? What’s it here for? Doesn’t this have the feel of those odd, airy, mysterious scenes between major scenes within Shakespeare? As we consider the text itself, we should keep these questions in mind, along with possible answers that can, in turn, help us get to the core of the text’s meaning and its intent and purpose.
One point at the outset: most commentators have a very negative perspective on Balaam. I do not. Let’s look at the story and see where you end up on that.
I. Read 22:2-9. We need to break through this complex text to find meaning. What’s going on?
A. What does Balak see that Israel had done to the Amorites that frightened him?
(They certainly easily moved through their territory. Was he fearful they would do the same to him, or attack and harm him? Was it their numbers? (“It hides the earth from view.”) As a pagan, was he simply afraid of God and the Divine power that drove this people forward, along with His values so opposite to his own?)
B. Why was he reaching out to Balaam to help?
(Was this mostly about going to a magician reputed in the neighborhood to be effective in blessings and curses to try to resist this force, curse it, defeat it? He needed some counter-force, likely of a magical or supernatural sort. Did he know Balaam had a relationship with God and think he could use him to sway God to divert against Israel, or perhaps even defeat them?
Or did Balak think that Balaam was a follower of a regional god, perhaps El, and that Balaam, as a diviner, would recruit that god to help Balak defer or defeat these people?)
C. Since Balak believes Balaam has the power to effect blessing for those whom he blesses, why didn’t he simply ask for a blessing for his own people, rather than the obsession with cursing Israel?
(This is what narrow interest and hate of others can lead to; they cause one to be blind to one’s own most important interests and focus instead on having an enemy and hurting him.)
D. What could it have meant to the elders of Moab and Midian that Balaam said his answer depended upon what and how God instructed him? (We see references to El as well as HaShem throughout, which has provoked quite a lot of commentary and scholarship. We won’t go that deep into the details of all that, but suffice to say that it is fascinating in many instances that it’s HaShem he's talking about.) What does it mean to you? And how did this come to pass, that a local diviner would look to HaShem for guidance?
(Balak may have thought that this was his path to getting a change of direction from this mysterious God-figure.
More fundamentally to us as readers of the story: don’t we go quickly to the possibility that this is here because the text is ultimately about God as the universal Ruler?
Even Balaam looks to God; the magician that Balak calls is dependent on the word of God. It may be that the portion is here, in part, to show a victory of HaShem over the other gods and a recognition of that victory through the acquiescence of Balaam to HaShem. This is to say that we go beyond an awareness just of El or even Elohim, to get to HaShem (which, as you’ll recall from our earlier discussions of God’s names goes from a broad notion of a divine being, first, to one aware of divine justice, and then, to the more intimate sense of a caring God who exhibits and brings mercy.
Or, put another way, there is the notion of a consolidation of all these impressions of the Divine, including ideas from outside of the people Israel, that can be brought into a single position. This position is one in which the God of the Israelites not only blesses and protects them, but also stands as the universal force that will be available to, and be recognized by, others to whom God’s sovereignty will spread and be ultimately acknowledged .
In other words, this suggests that the word of God will not only affect the Promised Land and those in covenant who will reach that land directly, but it also points to that day when all will serve God. Why else would the Bible or we (or God) care about whom Balaam blesses?)
II.Read 15-22. After first refusing Balak’s emissaries, Balaam sees that they come back and offer great riches. He defers to God Who appears to permit his going so long as he follows the Divine command. Yet, when Balaam proceeds to go the next morning, God is incensed. What gives?
(Is this a matter of God permitting free choice but being disappointed when a bad choice is made? Could it be that God saw a change of heart in Balaam as he was going with the men, perhaps with different and less worthy intentions?)
III. Read 23-35. A great story! Questions/Impressions.
A. Don’t we continue to have some doubt about Balaam’s intentions? (Surely, this obstacle suggests that God might have been unsure, or otherwise thought it advantageous or necessary to create this obstacle as well as the miracle of a talking animal to have a transforming effect on Balaam?
B. Other impressions?
1. A donkey can have better understanding than a human being who is at the moment blind to, or at least deficient as of yet in, God’s ways. That Balaam would strike and possibly kill a donkey that had loyally served him from the beginning shows a deep values deficiency.
2. A sword in the hands of a fool, an angry one at that, is an especially dangerous thing.
3. God talks through a magician AND a donkey, suggesting an all-encompassing Divine force in the universe. If an angel becomes visible to an ass and not to Balaam, Balaam must surely be humbled. Indeed if Balaam would strike an ass that had heard and was following an angel, surely he’d be careful in future. This would be especially so, given the fact that the animal he struck unjustly had not only served him for so long but also has likely saved him by stalling his assailant. Balaam now sees and hears!
Is this a needed strengthening of Balaam? Is it suggestive in some way of the strengthening of the people in the wilderness, or is it at least a nice corresponding reality with one who comes from another world? It may give a sense of how others will come to hear the voice of God and have God’s spirit come over them.)
IV. Let’s read the first two statements that Balaam makes when Balak expects a curse but Balaam speaks as directed by God. Read 23:7-10; 18-24. What do we learn in these blessings?
(A. In the first, we see that these people are separate, and that they are numberless and upright. Balaam seems to see basic characteristics that God expects in the people.
It’s certainly instructive that Balaam desires to share the fate of dying “the death of the upright.” This is a quintessential goal of this text, to be sure. As Ramban writes, this would mean that he would have spent his days in goodness and then would share in the portion of eternal life.
Further, Balaam is again constrained not to go against the word of God.
B. In the second, we see that God is not capricious as most ancient gods were, not part mortal in a changeable way. Balaam is bound to follow God’s word and bless as He blesses. God stands forever behind the covenant and supports the people and will defend them and attack for them, as would a wild ox with its horns. There is no augury or divination that is acceptable, or will work here with them. This is “what God had planned.”
This is so important, in my mind, and valuable, to get both God’s words on who and what these people are, as well as a statement of this truth from a leading figure from the “other world.”)
V. Now let’s read the famous blessing in 24:5-9.
A. Did you notice that Balaam is not looking out in the way he did before - as he did for omens in the previous blessings - but rather directly to where Israel is encamped? And that rather than God’s word being put in his mouth, the spirit of God was put upon him? General thoughts about why, and what this means?
(We’re about to encounter the most comprehensive blessing. These words are so important they have become a key part of Jewish liturgy. We have a sense that Balaam is at his keenest here, as a “man whose eye is true,” one who beholds visions from the Almighty, “prostrate but with eyes unveiled.” From verses 15-16.)
B. Now what do these images connote: fair tents, palm groves that stretch out, gardens beside a river, aloes planted by God, cedars by the water, roots with abundant water, boughs that drip with water, their king is above, and their kingdom is exalted?
(This connotes order and modesty in human organization, a condition that is fruitful and bountiful (both spiritually and in material need), access to all that nourishes life, healing from God, strength, with God-blessed leadership, a sense that those who bless these people will be blessed and those who curse them will be cursed.
As we think back to those first notions of organized community in this book, isn’t this where God would want it to go? This is surely an account of the “right-situated” community, as well one could say, of a person or indeed of the soul.)
VI. Balaam concludes with a vision of ultimate victories in 15-25. These are both immediate victories as well as victories that will come at a later time - with a variety of possibilities, including the Jewish people over time, King David, Jesus, and the global mission of our God to be Sovereign of the world. It’s beautiful text. You should read these verses and will benefit from them.
VII. A. As a preview to the last verses in the portion, though, I want to look at two verses that almost snuck by, verses 27 and 28 of chapter 23. This is where Balak had Balaam prepare for the third “curse.” What does it warn of?
(Peor! This is a place of the worship of Baal-Peor, notorious to the lure of sexual license. Oh-oh.)
B. Read 25:1-4. In the wake of these beautiful blessings that we’ve just discussed and the truth in them, what has now happened, and why?
(This reminds us that whatever progress we make, however blessed we are, whatever view of us that God holds or that is expressed of us by people who speak for God, we are human and we are subject to straying and falling to temptation, to evil. We’ll learn more about this in the next portion, including a difficult discussion about Pinchas (Phineas), the one who takes it upon himself to impose consequences for this “whoring.” But we leave this lovely story, both delighted at the steps forward, at the hope and the strength, as well as worried about how fragile it all is and aware of the slippery slope where we are always prey to falling. I believe God intends that we walk and live with that worry.
We see in chapter 31 after a battle with the Midianites that Moses raises the idea that Balaam had somehow induced the people to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor. Did he? Did that just become part of the lore? Was this partly to place the blame some other place, at least in part? Some combination? We’ll consider this more when we get to that portion.
Also, one reflects again on the idea that this people is separate. Obviously they’re not so separate that they aren’t tempted to, and fall prey to, whoring with the local god and pagan ways. I raise all this now to make the point that this waywardness is complex, raises many issues and possibilities, and is meant, I think, to be part of a worry that God intends to weigh us down so.)