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Torah Commentary
Balak (June 22, 2013)

Rabbi David M. Posner

IN THE SIDRAH BALAK (Numbers 22), the Moabite king Balak, fearing the Israelites who are advancing in his kingdom’s direction, engages the prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel. Balaam agrees and sets forth on his ass, who eventually is given the gift of speech. Ultimately, Balaam’s attempt to curse is reversed, as instead he says, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your tabernacles, O Israel.”

At the very beginning of this sidrah, Balaam is introduced as a prophet from the city of Pethor on the Euphrates River, in the land of Amo. The place names Pethor and Amo actually are known from Akkadian cuneiform texts. And coming from a city on the Euphrates, Balaam lived in an environment that was just perfect for prophecy and ripe with soothsayers.

In fact, there is one particular letter — written in Akkadian, from the Babylonian city Mari on the Euphrates — that specifically mentions seers who went into battle along with the troops. Balaam was just such a seer.

But there is something more mysterious and more profound. When requested by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Israelites, Balaam says, “Even if Balak gave me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go against the order of Yahweh my God in anything.” This is a most incredible statement because the sentence reveals the possibility that non-Israelites — and not just Israelites — also revered Yahweh, the God of Israel. Were this not the case, then Balak never could have referred to Yahweh as “my God.”

Is there any further evidence that this might have been the case — that non-Israelites in the ancient Near East also may have worshipped Yahweh? The answer to that question is no.

But with this one verse, we are left wondering. And that’s all we can do.

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