“Whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.” Balak, king of Moab, foolishly attributes this ability to a diviner named Balaam. The reader knows otherwise.
The irony is obvious. Balak, the foolish king of Moab, is unaware that the ability he attributes to the diviner Balaam is actually in the power of God alone, Israel’s God. Furthermore, God has promised Israel that whoever blesses them will be blessed and whoever curses them will be cursed. Balak is trying to get a prophet-for-hire to curse Israel. He thinks the power of blessing and curse lies within Balaam’s reach. But in attempting to curse Israel, Balak is cursing himself, since the real power of blessing and curse operates through God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:3).
Balak’s plan is doomed from the beginning. Who will win, the God of Israel or the Babylonian diviner? Whose blessing is greater? Whose curse is more terrible?
Balaam is not as foolish as Balak. He seems to know quite a bit about Adonai, God of Israel, perhaps as part of his professional knowledge of all the gods of the surrounding nations. And God chooses to use this polytheistic prophet as a vessel of genuine prophecy.
What Balak intends for curse, God will turn around into blessing. Death will become life. Doom will become hope. This is the meaning of redemption and the Balaam story shows how God’s way is to bring life from darkness.
Moabites sick with fear about Israel (2-3), Balak summons Balaam, a Babylonian diviner (4-6), Balaam inquires of God whether to curse Israel (7-11).
Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) sees the Balaam story (Numbers 22:2-24:25) as coming from an independent source. Friedman (The Bible with Sources Revealed) sees the Balaam story as the product of the E source (a priest from the Northern Kingdom, prior to the destruction of Samaria). It’s connection to the larger Numbers story is two-fold. First, it occurs on the steppes of Moab, the final location of Israel before entering the land. Second, in chapter 31, Balaam is specifically named as having been in league with Israel’s enemy, Midian.
The Balaam story raises questions it does not answer. Is Balaam good or bad, a diviner who comes to be taught by God or a schemer who seeks a way to defeat God? The reference to Balaam in chapter 31 as being in league with Midian offers a sort of resolution to the question, but why is the answer given so much later in the text and why isn’t Balaam’s role in opposing Israel more clearly explained? Numbers 31 is actually from the P source, not originally connected to the Balaam story as we know it from E.
The likely answer is that in ancient Israel Balaam was a well-known figure. The text as we have it does not tell us all that the ancient audience knew about this Babylonian diviner. With the benefit of only partial knowledge, we can only speculate about the full involvement of Balaam in opposing Israel.
Most likely, he was simply a prophet for hire who believed in all the gods of the Near East. Though he speaks as if he is loyal to Adonai, God of Israel, this is in fact merely his piety toward any and all of the gods. A polytheistic diviner would take all gods seriously. The fact that God would work with a person like Balaam is not an indication of his approval of magic, divination, and the like (see Deuteronomy 17:10, 14). Rather, God shows his universal kingship when he subverts foreign institutions, bringing good through evil.
Milgrom shows carefully the unity of the narratives of the Balaam story, how the poetry reinforces what is said in the prose. The Balaam narratives are a careful work of literary artistry presenting the unfailing covenant love of God for Israel in the double form of prose and poetry.
“But surely the word I will speak to you, that you must do.” This is the definition of the true prophet, one who hears the divine will and delivers it to the people. Ironically, Balaam, who is not a true prophet, will deliver the word God wants him to, even though his motive and plan is to do otherwise.
God has a “word” that will be carried out in the world. For the people of Israel, it will be a word of blessing, to bring them good and not harm. Though Balak hires Balaam to curse, the foreign seer is smart enough to know this cannot happen. He will have to get Israel to bring harm to itself. Therefore, Balaam will deliver poems about Israel’s blessing, poems which still resonate in the Torah as some of the most hopeful words within it. But there is a hint in the text, in the P account in Numbers 31, in which we find Balaam in league with Midian, that this foreign seer had a hand in manipulating Israel to break the covenant.
The story coming in Numbers 25 — in which Moabite and Midianite women seduce some Israelites and lull them into worship of foreign gods — seems to have been the result of a plot by Balaam. Torah does not directly make that connection, but it seems a fair deduction from the elements of the story we do possess.
But prior to Balaam’s scheme to get Israel to harm itself, he will become a vessel for Adonai. God will take what is not holy, a prophet for hire, and bring beautiful words to his people containing a message of hope. Adonai has a word that he will speak, through whatever messenger he chooses. In the oracles of Balaam, God will foretell a good end for Israel. He will declare Israel invulnerable to magic and curse, a people destined to be blessed instead. Israel will dwell in a place of beauty and prevail over enemies all around. A great king will arise within Israel, as the words of Balaam will predict, and this tiny chosen nation will prosper.
Though the world seems cursed, God ultimately has in mind blessing. He can deliver that message even through a person like Balaam. The overall message is simple: things are not as they appear and God will not leave the world in the state of curse we see all around us. His will for redemption peeks through the gloom in the Balaam stories and promises hope for Israel and through Israel for the world.
First delegation to Balaam turned away (13-14), a delegation offers money (15-17), Balaam will take no amount of money (18-19), God allows Balaam to go (20).
The ambiguous nature of Balaam’s relationship to Israel’s God puzzles readers. Is he a good or bad character? In vss. 18-19 in particular, this Babylonian soothsayer sounds particularly like a devotee of Adonai, God of Israel. No amount of money could entice Balaam, so he claims, to run afoul of Adonai. In a later part of the story, Numbers 23:8, we see him declaring, “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed?” He seems quite loyal to Israel’s God.
The image of Balaam will change in the next scene of the story. He seems respectable, even regal in this segment of narrative, with two delegations from the king coming to solicit his services. But he will be shown to be quite human and flawed in the next vignette.
The story, coming to us apparently from the E source (a priestly writer from the Northern Kingdom prior to the Fall of Samaria), is about Babylonian magic versus the power of God. Balaam is iconic, a representation of the powers people believed to be available from a higher realm, powers over nature and even the gods. But in the Israelite worldview, there is nothing that is beyond God’s control and no power that can come close to manipulating him or anything he wills to happen.
“God’s anger was kindled because he was going.”
Sometimes, when we choose a path that is not good, God lets us walk it. Balaam had inquired of God at the beginning and the message was clear, “Do not go” (vs. 12, “you shall not go with them”).
But Balaam desired the payment and acclaim a job like this one would bring. So the second time they sent a party to him, Balaam said he would ask God again. This second time when Balaam asked, God said, “Go with them.”
Manipulation is part of our human nature. If we can, we will bend the will of the world to our own.
So it seemed to Balaam to be all good. Then, according to the bizarre story of the talking donkey, the celebrated soothsayer went on to destroy himself (his death is recorded in Numbers 31:8).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quotes a verse of Talmud, Makkot 10b, “Man is lead down the path he chooses to tread.”
Balaam’s downfall began when he looked for a way around an unchangeable truth (namely, the fact that God curses those who curse Israel). Trying to outsmart God, Balaam sought to look reverent while at the same time deliberately subverting God’s will. The text does not spell it out exactly, but it appears he sought to curse Israel surreptitiously (by inciting Israel to sin in the incident at Peor).
The fable of the donkey seems to be an old story, one out of step with the usual realism of the text, about the folly of opposing God’s will. As Isaiah would later say, “An ox knows its owner and an ass its master’s watering trough” (Isaiah 1:3). God’s kingship is obvious in nature and yet human beings foolishly seek to subvert the order of the universe. Being led down the path we choose to tread, we miss out on the harmony and meaning of life that could bring us peace.
Balaam sets out to divine about Israel (21), God is angry (22), Balaam’s donkey diverts from the invisible presence of the angel (23), donkey diverts a second time (24-25), the donkey sees a third time and stops (26-27), Balaam’s dialogue with his donkey (28-30), the angel informs Balaam the donkey has saved his life (31-33), Balaam submits (34-35), a chastened Balaam reaches Balak (36-38).
We cannot be certain why God said Balaam could go (vs. 20) and then was angry with him (vs. 22). It seems that though God was willing, he wished to display to Balaam how fiercely jealous he is for his people. He permitted Balaam to go but at the same time loathed what Balaam wanted to do.
Some hint of an answer may lie in vs. 32, that God did permit Balaam to go, but Balaam was overly eager to do so or was corrupt in his motivation. The JPS may capture the idea best in its translation of a phrase including a rare and somewhat obscure word: “for the errand is obnoxious to me.” This reading seems preferable to a less specific translation such as ESV’s “your way is perverse before me.”
God brings good out of Balaam’s errand, but out of jealousy for Israel he is offended by Balak and Balaam’s intentions and desires. This is the only negative scene about Balaam in the whole cycle of chapters 22-24. It is not until much later, after the Balaam cycle, that we find another negative portrayal of him: the intimation that perhaps Balaam lay behind the seduction of Israelite men at the hands of Midianite prostitutes (31:8,16). Even the later scriptures about Balaam are not all negative. In Micah 6:5, the prophet recalls that Balaam, under God’s power, refused to curse Israel.
The donkey story is an ironic comedy: the so-called seer cannot see what his donkey sees three times (with three iterations being a common device in ancient narratives). The fable-like nature of the story suggests it is a well-known tale passed down via storytelling. It stands out from the other narratives in Numbers in its departure from a realistic setting. The fantastical nature of the appearance of the divine messenger and the talking donkey do not fit with the way animals and the angel of Adonai are depicted in other texts.
NUMBERS 22:39 – 23:12
“Behold, a people dwelling apart; they do not reckon themselves among the nations.”
The Jewish people have a way of thinking about themselves, of regarding their condition in this world, that is unique and which powerfully sustains Judaism through centuries of tragedy. Israel is a nation with an internal sense of destiny and purpose. Israel is a people that believes it has a purpose.
Regarding the translation of Numbers 23:9, some Bibles render the second clause as “will not be reckoned among the nations” (JPS, NET, ASV). That is, they render the verb as a passive. However, the verb pattern is hithpa’el, a form that is usually reflexive (meaning the action is directed toward oneself). A better translation would be, “they do not reckon themselves among the nations.” This verse is about how Israel’s thinks of itself. It is about a conscious belief in the chosenness of the Jewish people.
It is not enough to observe that Israel is the only nation with a covenant relationship with God. Balaam’s observation is more profound. Of all the nations, this one, Israel, is different. This people is in a category alone. There are the nations and there is Israel. It is not merely that Israel has some uniqueness about it, but rather that Israel thinks of itself differently. This is a people alone, one that regards itself as something other, putting itself in a different category than other peoples.
It is dangerous to Moab and the Canaanite nations for that reason. This people has faith in its covenant and reckons itself separate, so it will triumph in faith and nations who stand in Israel’s way will not win. History has seen the Jewish people survive genocide, clinging tightly to the practices of Torah and prayer, despite seeming abandoned even by God. The Jewish people as a whole reckons itself as something other, as a people called to a destiny. The covenant promise sustains Judaism even through darkness and its light continues to shine even behind thick clouds.
Balak shows Israel to Balaam (22:39-41), Balaam prepares seven altars to God (23:1-3), God appears to Balaam (4-5), Balaam speaks God’s prophecy over Israel (6-10), Balak is angry (11-12).
Balak prepares for the soothsayer to speak with abundant ceremony, putting his hopes in a curse that will give his people victory over Israel in the coming battle. With expensive offerings and a lavish feast, he prepares. As part of the ancient belief in the power of magic and cursing, Balak brings Balaam onto a mountain to see the hosts of Israel marching. The place from which they watch Israel is called Bamoth-Baal, which means the high places of Baal. But Baal’s vaunted power will turn out to be nothing. Only Adonai, God of Israel will show up.
For his part, Balaam seems to have some specific knowledge about Adonai. He knows, for example, that seven is a number of significance to God and thus builds seven altars. But for all his appeasing and manipulating, he cannot cause Adonai to curse Israel.
The content of Balaam’s first oracle is theologically potent: God has not cursed this people. But rather, Israel is declared separate from the nations of the earth. That is to say, the nation descended from Abraham is categorically different, unique, in a position with God like no other nation. And the blessedness of Israel is to be envied.
The idea that Israel is “not reckoned among the nations” is a statement of unique election. Israel is the nation apart, like God’s firstborn child among all his children from all nations. God’s blessing to other nations comes through Israel. Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) notes that the ideal desire in the oracle (to be blessed as Israel is blessed) is from the Abrahamic covenant: the nations (families of the earth) will be blessed in Israel (Gen 12:3; 22:18; 28:14).
“God is not a man that he should lie, not a son of man that he should change his mind.”
God surely does seem like a liar and a capricious deity whose way is unpredictable. That is because we have difficulty differentiating between the realm of nature in which we live (what people often call “the universe”) and God who stands above it all.
Of course the reason we cannot differentiate nature from the Divine is simple: he is usually silent. Therefore what we experience of the universe tends to be cold, emotionless, relentless. We attribute these qualities to God.
The Moabites worshipped a cruel god. No doubt their natural view of religion convinced them that violence is the way of the gods. It is easy to fall into a belief like that.
The Torah calls us to believe in something we don not see on the surface. God is not like a human being. He is not capricious or cold, vindictive or violent. He does not lie. His promises are real.
To believe in these notions of a loving Divine Being requires great faith and complete honesty about the hidden face of God. We have to believe that the sun is shining even when clouds bring only darkness. The Torah promise is a bigger picture that brings us beyond what is apparent, bringing is past the boundaries of time, asking us to believe there is something above it all.
Where can we find a basis for such hope? Our hope is not merely in words, but the biggest clue is our own nature. The Being who made us must have imparted to us something of his/her own nature. And we ultimately do not want violence or death, but rather life, love, and beauty. So must God who made us in his image. Therefore, what is wrong with the universe must be something God will fix and we must be caught waiting for it, even though it likely will come long after our own lifetime.`
Balak calls Balaam to curse Israel a again (13-14), the Lord gives Balaam a message (15-17), Balaam’s second oracle (18-24), Balak’s dismay (25-26).
Balak tries again, bringing the soothsayer to a new spot, to see Israel from a different vantage. For his part, Balaam continues to demonstrate that he has specific knowledge somehow of Israel’s ways. He follows procedures for a burnt offering, a distinctive kind of Israelite sacrifice to be distinguished from typical Mesopotamian methods of offering animals. Mesopotamians usually brought meat inside the sanctuary, supposedly to be a meals for their gods (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary). Israelites burned the meat on the altar, indicating that the true God cannot be fed by humans.
In his second oracle, Balaam says that no sorcery will work against Israel (“there is no omen against Jacob”), that God is Israel’s king (“the shout of a king is among them”), and that Israel will be victorious with the strength of a wild bull and the ferocity of a lion (“it shall not lie down until it devours the prey”).
Israelite history is a testament to Balaam’s words, with this small people rising and enduring through the shadow of many empires just as God promised.
Historically, Numbers 23:19 has become part of the dialogue and/or disputation between Judaism and Christianity. The idea found in the New Testament that Jesus is a divine man, at once to be identified directly with God and at the same time differentiated from God, is categorically denied by a Jewish notion that divinity and humanity are completely separate. “God is not a man,” says Numbers 23:19. It seems to be a death blow to the New Testament doctrine of Jesus’ divinity. However, it is important to note that the verse has nothing to do with such controversies. Numbers 23:19 contrasts God’s perfect nature with the corruptible nature of humans, who can be bribed and persuaded to lie. As to the question raised by the New Testament, whether God might choose to unite with humanity in a manner known as “incarnation,” Numbers has nothing to say.
NUMBERS 23:27 – 24:13
“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”
At the beginning of the morning prayers, these ancient words grace the liturgy of Judaism, opening the thoughts of the worshippers with an ode to the beauty of the camp of Israel in the desert. The “Mah Tovu” prayer reminds those who recite it that divine blessing is upon the Jewish people. What used to be intended by the king of Moab as a curse has become a hopeful prayer for the Jewish people through the millennia.
What was the beauty Balaam saw? What made him utter, “How lovely”?
The Israelites then and now possessed a potential for bringing heaven down to earth. “Your threshing time will extend to the grape harvest,” promised the Torah (Leviticus 26:5). In other words, if you keep my Torah, said the Eternal One, you will be busy making flour and bread until it is time to make the wine. It is a picture of agricultural paradise, a land of plenty and people of promise. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy hold out the possibility of a land of peace, free from disease.
These particular promises did not come to pass because of human failure. But they still hover over the Jewish people. The earth is alive with the blessing of God and can be transformed in an instant. Balaam saw the long-suffering of God, the covenant that bound him to this people, the blessedness of the priestly people on the earth. Mah tovu, how lovely! As a prayer, Numbers 24:5, recited every morning in Judaism, gives us hope for the renewal of the earth and all its people.
Balak tries from another location (23:27-30), Balaam does not try to divine (24:1-2), Balaam’s third oracle (3-9), an angry Balak tries to send Balaam away (10-11), Balaam insists on saying what God tells him (12-13).
Balaam has learned not to seek omens (24:1), because he knows the only answers will be from Adonai who has told him he may only bless Israel. In other words, he does not expect a sign from any other god, but has learned that the true power (at least in this situation) is Adonai.
His third oracle is a poetic appreciation for the beauty of the hosts of Israel. What is beautiful about the people camped in array on the plains of Moab? While there is appreciation in the poem for the natural beauty of the desert and the rows of tents, the true loveliness of the Israelite camp is something intangible: divine blessing. No enemies will prevail against them.
The words of 24:5 have become an important part of the liturgy of Judaism, a curse turned into a blessing. The verse poetically expresses the blessing promised to Israel by God, a blessing over the home and crops and family of the children of Israel. In the wilderness, they were even blessed in their tents while on the way to the land of promise.
These verses recited in modern times, in the long period of Jewish exile, remind us that the Jewish people are blessed in every place under heaven. 24:9 reiterates the Abrahamic promise: the one who blesses Israel will be blessed and vice-versa.
The reference to Agag is curious, since Agag is yet future to the time of Moses and Balaam (Agag will be the enemy of Israel in the days of King Saul). The Septuagint has Gog instead of Agag (Gog, the last days enemy of Israel from Ezekiel 38-39). Yet in the fourth oracle (24:15-19) there are other references to the time of Saul and David (“crush through the forehead of Moab”). The oracles of Balaam, then, look to the time of David’s kingdom and military victories as the height of Israel’s blessing.
NUMBERS 24:14 – 25:9
“I see him, but now now; I perceive him, but not near.”
So begins Numbers 24:17, often regarded as Messianic prophecy. Torah indicates that the subject of the prophetic oracle is not something in Balaam’s time, but much later. How much later? Israel will have a king, a star rising from Jacob, who will smite Moab and Edom. These two nations, though related to the people of Israel, opposed them in their time of trial in the wilderness. The future for Moab and Edom includes recompense.
The violent will encounter violence. The oppressor will end up oppressed. David fulfilled these prophecies and they most likely were intended to refer to him.
Nonetheless, the idea of a prophet seeing future events, combined with the common observation that events come around again in a recurring cycle, leads to an easy association with Messiah. This present world has oppressors and the violent rule on earth. Messiah is coming with a sword to put an end to all of that. But what should we think about a Messiah who comes with violence? Is this the kind of Messiah we want, one who slays enemies with a sword? What if we imagine something better, a Messiah whose “sword” works in some other way, in beauty and truth rather than bloodshed? When he comes, we will see.
Balaam offers another oracle to show the future (14), Balaam’s fourth, fifth, and sixth oracle (15-24), Balaam returns home (24:25), Israel sins with Moabite women and gods (25:1-3), God tells Moses to hang the leaders on a stake (4-5), Phinehas impales a man daring to consort in the sight of Moses (6-9).
Balaam has been fired, but he offers a prophetic glimpse into the future. Israel will have a king, a star rising from Jacob, who will smite Moab and Edom (David and, by extension, Messiah). Amalek, the enemy in the days of Saul, will perish.
The sixth oracle is obscure, some of the nations mentioned are hard to interpret. Later tradition interpreted the Kittim as the Romans. The idea is that Israel will continue as other nations rise and fall.
In chapter 25, the apostasy with Baal-Peor (the Baal of the region Peor), is nearly identical to the Golden Calf apostasy. Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) details the comparisons: idolatry, God slaughters the people in his wrath, and the Levites/ Phinehas are given sacred duties. The Israelites had sexual relations with the Moabite/Midianite women and began to intermarry. These foreign women involved the Israelites in worship of their gods at public festivals. Many have interpreted this as sacred prostitution (a sex act which is a fertility ritual), but there is no evidence that sacred prostitution was practiced in the Near East. 25:2 should be taken at face value (so Milgrom): the unions with the foreign women brought Israelite men to worship Moabite deities.
God tells Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and have them publicly impaled.” Why punish the chiefs of Israel for what some men have done? The JPS attempts to resolve this by taking “chiefs of the people” to mean the “ringleaders” of those who worshipped other gods (“take all the ringleaders of the people …”). This may be the correct understanding. It fits with the way Moses passes instructions along to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill his men who joined themselves to Baal of Peor.” On the other hand, perhaps God did say the chiefs (synonymous with judges) should be killed. But Moses knows the guilt the chiefs/judges bear for the failure of those under their oversight will disappear if they kill the guilty.
Was Moses interpreting God’s command in a more merciful manner or flagrantly disobeying? Meanwhile, we are never told that the judges of Israel even carried out Moses’ order. Is the act of Phinehas (impaling one couple who flagrantly violated God’s command) taken as a substitute to the order to kill those guilty? The story leaves many unanswered questions.