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Torah Commentary
Balak (July 4, 2015)

Dr. David M. Posner, Senior Rabbi Emeritus

OUR SIDRAH THIS WEEK, Balak, gives us a very unusual example of the prophetic function, as understood in the ancient Middle East. Balaam is a prophet from Pethor, on the river, in the land of Amo. The words “Pethor” and “Amo” are known from Akkadian cuneiform texts. Coming from a city on the Euphrates River, Balaam lived in an environment that was just perfect for prophecy and ripe with soothsayers. In fact, there exists one particular letter, written in Akkadian, from the Babylonian city Mari on the Euphrates, which specifically mentions seers who were sent along with troops into battle. Balaam was just such a seer.

But no ordinary seer was he. He was not the representative of any foreign deities. He himself 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.” So, his God is “the Lord” — Yahweh. Perhaps Balaam temporarily was attracted to the new religion brought from the desert by the Israelites. Or, consider the possibility — although there is no sure evidence — that Yahweh actually was worshiped outside of the Israelite nation. It’s a possibility!

For the ancient Rabbis, the figure of Balaam is most problematic. Because the Torah identifies him as a prophet of God and says little else about his motives, the Midrash on Balaam’s character is most elaborate. And as far as Balaam’s talking donkey is concerned, the Midrash has its own “field day” with the donkey!

Balaam was no fool. According to the Rabbis, he was brilliant. On an intellectual level, he was as brilliant as Moses. A genius! The Midrash says that he was the counterpart of Moses to the rest of the nations and that there never again arose a philosopher the likes of Balaam, the son of Beor.

Furthermore, Balaam, according to the Rabbis, is a pivotal figure in human history. Before Balaam’s time, the gentile nations officially maintained a certain standard of decency, out of the recognition that immorality was one of the reasons for the disastrous flood that destroyed the world in the time of Noah. We all remember that. But Balaam, who himself yielded to the lowest forms of lewdness, taught people how to indulge in immorality. In fact, the Midrash notes the following people who introduced novel ideas into the world — some for the better, and some for the worse:
  • Noah, who was the first to become drunk and initiate the practice of cursing others,
    when he cursed his grandson.

  • Abraham, who was the first person to display signs of old age, which he actually requested from God. He also pioneered in establishing free hotels for travelers.

  • Balaam, who innovated dens for gambling (among other evils) and residences for other things, too. You can imagine just what!
Now, three times does Balaam try to curse the Israelites and from three different vantage points. In a pathetic scene of desperation, he erects eight altars at each site and offers eight sacrifices, all in a furious and ludicrous hocus-pocus attempt to level his maledictions. The irony of the story is that even his poor, dumb ass has more intelligence than the brilliant master, as the tables are turned, and it becomes Balaam who makes an ass out of himself.

In so doing, Balaam becomes a paradigm — a classic example, a text-book case of the grand march of folly — of an assembly line of miscalculation, often led by people whom we assumed were so incredibly brilliant but who nevertheless succeeded in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by some remarkable act of stupidity.

How do people come to put their mistaken trust in the Balaam’s of our world?
It is a story that never ends.

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