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The story of Balaam and his talking ass (a jenny, actually) is perhaps the single story in the Bible that just about everyone in the western world knows something about. Prophet for hire, talking ass, failed curses, annoyed king. When a story is so familiar, it can sometimes be challenging to come up with something new to discuss, but the Balaam story has so many features, finding a topic is not so difficult. The figure of Balaam has been one of the bad guys of Judaism for at least a thousand years—maybe more, he is the archetype for every anti-Jew plotter who has populated our persecuted history. Why is he said to be evil? The story in this parashah doesn’t really make him out to be so bad, actually, so we need to dig a little. I found a possible explanation for Balaam’s ill repute in the very first verse—it holds our parashah’s main theme. The Balaam tale is all about seeing and Balaam is evil because his vision is turned completely inward.
First, the name Balaam itself can be viewed in terms of an interpretation of its sounds. The name sounds like it could be related to the word bela (bet, lamed, ayin), which means “to swallow up, devour” and am, “people.” We read Eicha on Tisha b’Av, now only a month away, where the word bela is used to mean “destruction or ruin” (Lam. 2:2; 5:8). We can also find it elsewhere in the Tanakh where it also means “destruction” (cf. Isa. 3:12; 49:19). Psalms 52:4 uses the term divrey bela where it means “devouring words.” Balaam, then, is a bela am, “destroyer of a people.” The Talmud paints a different image using his name. We are told in Sanhedrin 105a that the name comes from belo am, “without a people,” implying that Balaam gave no nation his allegiance—so in modern terms he was a sociopath—had no regard for anyone other than himself and was unable to see and thus understand the morals and ethics of the societies he interacted with.
There are so many references to “seeing” in the whole story that I will spend a few minutes pointing out a number of them. Here are some examples from Ch. 22:
and continuing in Ch.23, when Balaam visits the places from which he is to proclaim his curses, there are plenty of additional allusions to seeing. For example,
This imagery continues in Ch. 24, in verse 2, verse 3, twice in verse 4 (verse 5 is Ma Tovu), and in verses15–17 there’s an incredible passage, part of Balaam’s parting shot at Balak after Balak fires him, that includes, “The word of Balaam ... word of the man whose eye is true... and beholds visions from God. Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled... what I see for them... what I behold.”
But wait just one minute—Balaam speaks big, but does he really get it? Actually, the point of the whole story is that Balaam never really does see anything on his own—only his ass did, and that makes him the butt (sorry for the double entendre) of the mockery that the Torah employs so well in denigrating him as a seer (one who sees—a see-er). His ass sees what he doesn’t; God shows him what he should see; even Balak has to point out what Balaam should see.
The rabbis of the Mishnah also recognized the imagery of vision in this story. Pirke Avot says:
Whoever has the following three traits is to be counted among the disciples of our forefather Abraham; whoever, on the other hand, possesses three other traits belongs to the disciples of the wicked Balaam: Those who have a good eye, a humble disposition, and a meek soul are among the disciples of our forefather Abraham; those, however, who possess an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul are among the disciples of Balaam. (Avot 5:19)
Another very clever detail in the tale is the ass’s use of rhetorical logic. The ass engages Balaam in a brief, logical argument: her master has punished her without justification; hasn’t she always behaved properly in the past? Balaam has to acquiesce to her unassailable logic. The humor here is totally unmistakable. There are also references here to an adversary angel: le-satan lo (an adversary against him, Num. 22:22; 32). The whole story is an extended polemic against the powers of a seer who becomes completely ineffective when opposed by God.
All of these characteristics are indicative of a folk legend which over time and repetition accreted elaborations and became a story with ethical, cultural, and historical value, so we can view this story as a very early midrash—so early, in fact, that it got included in the Torah.
After Balaam blesses the people and gets dismissed by Balak, seemingly unpaid, we read about the consequences for the Israelites when the Moabites exploit the Israelites’ weakness: sex. We later learn that it actually was Balaam who told the Moabites about this weakness (Num. 31:16). Seduction leads to cohabitation, cohabitation leads to idolatry, idolatry leads to another plague, and the plague compels the high priest Eleazar’s son, named Phinehas, to take matters into his own hands—not following Moses’ orders—and kill a fornicating couple who apparently has somehow gotten into the Tent of Meeting. The plague is checked, having claimed 24,000 victims.
This is a very unsettling ending for a parashah; they almost never end on a negative note, so commentators claim that this very negative stopping point was intended to show that one’s blind zealotry cannot ever be fully rewarded. Thus this week’s Torah adventure pauses in a disquieting cliffhanger, so you need to come next week to learn how the story ends.
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