In the Torah portion that we read this week along with Chukat, we see the strange and almost comical interaction between Balak and Balaam. These names can be a little confusing, so just to clarify: BALAK gives our parsha its name. He is the evil son of ZIPPOR, the king of the Moabites, and he is—like Pharaoh before him and so many others after him—terrified of the growing power of the Israelites. And Balaam is a famous prophet, one who some say was second only to Moshe in the power of prophecy. Interestingly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that there is some historical evidence found in early fragments that Balaam really did exist, and that he was just as famous as this parsha leads us to believe.
There’s a little passage that lets us know how respected and powerful Balaam is. We read that, as Balaam is heading toward Ir-Moab, on the northern border of Moab, BALAK HIMSELF goes to meet him. Royalty typically would wait for those they summon, but Balak’s behavior shows great respect for the prophet. It also shows that Balak is aware of how much he NEEDS Balaam. (I don’t know if this reminds anyone of another passage in the Torah, but here I think of when Yitro approaches the camp of Moshe. Moshe himself goes to meet his father-in-law, a great sign of respect. And this is what happens here between Balak and Balaam.)
So, I hope that that sets the stage for what happens next.
Balak wants to hire Balaam to curse the Jews. He hopes to wage war against them, and he believes that a curse from the powerful Balaam might tip the scales in his favor. He frequently mentions how large the Jews are becoming. At one point, he notes that they are so numerous that they “hide the earth from view.” He’s worried.
Balaam doesn’t really want to curse the Jews. He knows that they are favored by God. God even TELLS Balaam not to curse the Jews, that these people are favored by God Himself. But I suppose it’s not easy to say NO to a prince, so Balaam does his best to create some delaying tactics.
Balak and Balaam try at least three times to curse the Jews. But, first, Balaam insists that they have to build an altar and make a sacrifice. Actually, he makes Balak build SEVEN altars and there they sacrifice seven bulls and seven rams. Imagine the power of this prophet—he is able to make a powerful prince and his minions build what must have been a pretty impressive set of structures to find a way to God’s voice. Does Balaam really believe that this will enable him to curse the Jews, or does he use this strategy—maybe a little like Aaron and the golden calf--to delay? Regardless of his reasons, the creation of these offerings—three times, remember—certainly increases the drama of the narrative. And each time Balaam is unable to curse the Jews.
The reader is not surprised because we have already witnessed conversations between God and Balaam where God instructs Balaam that, when the time comes, He will give him the words that he needs.
As you’ll hear, rather than curse, Balaam becomes a poet. And his poems praise the Jews. “How can I damn who God has not damned?” he asks, and Balak couldn’t be more frustrated. Another leader might have just had Balaam killed on the spot—after all, this is a kind of insubordination—but Balak seems to feel strongly that he needs the prophet. So, they repeat these attempts, and the praise only becomes more effusive and more frightening to the enemies of Israel. As Balaam says, “No harm is in sight for Jacob. . . . The Lord their God is with them.” He even obliquely disparages his OWN prophetic skills as he proclaims, “There is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel.” In other words, God speaks DIRECTLY to the Jews, whereas so-called prophets like Balaam need some kind of intermediate sign to be able to read the future. It’s ironic that he does this, because we have just witnessed that God DOES speak directly to Balaam. But, as you’ll hear, this section of the parsha is full of these kinds of misdirections.
Is this meant as humor? As a moral lesson? As encouragement to future generations of Jews? Take a look at this narrative and see what you think.