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D'var Torah: Chukat-Balak

There's a lot to cover in the Torah reading today. This is a combined parashah that has plenty of events to cover; some of the most interesting events in the Book of Numbers occur in these two parashiyot.

With parashat Chukat we come to a kind of watershed in the story of the Israelites' forty-year sojourn in the desert. Somewhere in this sidra the Torah jumps from telling a tale that takes place just two years after their dramatic escape from Egypt to one that describes events some thirty-seven years later. About events that occurred during the intervening years the Torah is silent. But it does appear that the events early in this sidra occurred soon after leaving Egypt, and the events described later occurred close to the time of the conquest of Canaan. Where, exactly, should we draw the line?

The classical commentators (Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and others) place the fortieth year after the departure from Egypt at the point where Miriam's death is mentioned.

The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. (Num. 20:1)

Ramban and others place the incident of the failed scouts' mission and the rebellion of Korach and company at Kadesh in the second year following the Exodus. Abravanel provides a more specific picture.

The ten sedarim [divisions, of Numbers] can be divided into two sections. The first part consists of the first five sedarim, narrating all the trials and tribulations of their desert wanderings [Bamidbar to Korach]. And the second part, consisting of the remaining five sedarim, recounts what happened to them in the wars they encountered when they reached inhabited areas [Chukat to Masei]. (Commentary to Bamidbar, Introduction)

This statement makes it appear that Abravanel believed the 37-year lacuna immediately followed the description of the rite of the red heifer. The inclusion of this rite here, instead of in Leviticus, where it would seem to belong, is itself very interesting. I offer this conjecture: After the disaster of the scouts' false report, God condemned the people to remain in the wilderness until every person who had experienced slavery in Egypt died; that none would remain to enter Canaan. Then, during the "dark years" of which the Torah is silent, virtually all of the 600,000 men plus women and the "mixed multitude" who left Egypt in the exodus were to die. The ashes of the red heifer were needed to prepare a special liquid that would be used to purify those people and objects that came into contact with the dead.

Then we come to Numbers 20:1, which, according to the commentators, signals the passage of those 37 or 38 years. A new generation of Israelites, one that has not known slavery, has replaced the old. But how does the Torah describe their behavior? They appear to act very much like their forebears in reverting to the complaint about leaving Egypt (see, for example, Num. 20:5 and Num. 21:5). As their parents complained about the lack of water, so did they (Num. 20:2–5; compare to Ex. 17:2–3), and they even grumbled about the manna (Num. 21:5; compare to Num. 11:4–6).

Later, a seemingly innocent request by the tribes of Reuben and Gad to settle the land to the east of the Jordan (Numbers 32) evokes a strong response from Moses that seems excessive: He compares this request to the revolt of Korach and his associates. It's possible that this was not an over-reaction, however. Moses could have been reacting to his sense that these tribes were seeking to remove themselves from the obligation of participating in the conquest of Canaan, implicitly repeating the sin of the scouts in parashat Shelach Lekah.

Now the Israelites are massed at Kadesh, which we are told is located on the border of Edom. Moses seeks safe passage along the "King's Highway," a trading route that extended from Ezion-geber (present-day Eilat) through Edom, Moab, and Ammon, east of the Jordan. This next attempt at entering Canaan was to be from the east, rather than from the south. Moses' request for safe passage is denied by the king of Edom. Rather than forcing the issue, and even though the refusal was accompanied by a show of force by the Edomites, the Israelites avoided Edom by traveling southeast to Ezion-geber and then north, following the "Way of the Wilderness of Edom" skirting Edom's borders to the east. Why didn't the Israelites try to force the Edomites to allow them passage? They certainly were not hesitant to use force on other nations that tried to prevent their passage. Since the Edomites were descended from Esau, God forbade any use of force.

Turning away from the direct route through Edom to Moab added several more months to their journey and gave rise to the Torah's remark, "But the people grew restive on the journey." (Num. 21:4), and gave rise to more complaints against Moses. This resulted in God's punishment by a plague of poisonous snakes.

What route did the Israelites really take? According to the description of their journey in this sidra, they traveled to Mt. Hor, where Aaron died, and the high priesthood passed to his son, Eleazar. This event took place in the fifth month of the fortieth year. After the period of mourning passed, they traveled southwest to Ezion-geber, and then turned north. But in Numbers 33, we read a somewhat different account of their itinerary.

In parashat Chukat we have reached the end of the people's grumbling. Indeed, the two instances of complaining, the lack of water and the manna, are the last complaints we hear. It seems that the Israelites are finally becoming focused on their conquest of Canaan. But they still have one major obstacle to overcome: Balaam.

The story of Balaam appears very much like a folk tale that was simply inserted into the narrative at this point. Of course it relates directly to the story here; the Israelites are now camped at Moab's border preparing to cross the Jordan. But the story does not directly involve Israel at all; it appears that they are totally unaware that these events described in this story are happening. The king of Moab, Balak, wanted to ensure that his kingdom would not be overwhelmed and destroyed as his neighboring kingdoms were. Interestingly, he uses the very words that Pharaoh used in describing how the large numbers of Israelites threatened the country.

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us." (Ex. 1:8–9)

Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. (Num. 22:2–3)

While Pharaoh's solution involved enslaving the people, Balak was more inventive. His solution entailed getting the foremost gentile prophet of the time, Balaam, to curse the Israelites so that Balak's army would prevail in battle. The Bible narrates the story as a first-hand observer of the events that occur. And these events are truly puzzling, both in their description and in how Chazal interpret them. In the Talmud and in the writings of most of the classical commentators, Balaam is portrayed as the epitome of evil. What justification can we draw for this from Scripture?

First, it appears that, like few of the gentiles in the Bible, Balaam converses with God, as seen in these examples among many in the story.

God came to Balaam and said, "What do these people want of you?" Balaam said to God, "Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, sent me this message." (Num. 22:9–10)

That night God came to Balaam and said to him, "If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do." (Num. 22:20)

Second, Balaam appears to accept God's supremacy and his protection over the Israelites. He even makes that claim that the Israelites' God is his God.

Balaam replied to Balak's officials, "Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God." (Num. 22:18)

But throughout the entire narrative, Balaam comes across as a paragon of faith in God, consulting God at every step. However, there are some hints that all is not as well as it seems. We need to look at one odd statement here. After Balaam sends Balak's first delegation away, Balak sends another, and God tells Balaam "If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them." (Num. 22:20). But in almost the very next verse, we learn that

God was incensed at his going; so an angel of the Lord placed himself in his way as an adversary. (Num. 22:22)

God tells Balaam he can go, and then is "incensed" at his going? Something is missing here, and this is one of the statements that Chazal and commentators have pointed to as support for Balaam's villainousness. Ramban commented thus on this matter:

God's desire was to bless the people of Israel through the prophet of the gentiles. Bil'am should have told Balak's ministers explicitly, "I have been permitted by God to accompany you, but only on condition that I do not curse the people and that if God instructs me, I will bless them" ... Now Bil'am in his eagerness to go with them did not relate this message and said nothing at all. "When he rose in the morning, Bil'am saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries" [22:21]. as if he desired to do their bidding. God was angry at his going because had he told them, they would not have asked him to go. In addition there was the defamation of God in that his leaving, as if by God's consent, gave the impression that God had given permission to curse the people. (Commentary)

Ramban maintains that to this point, Balaam is still mostly okay, and that the episode with the angel and donkey is to point out to Balaam that he is not to mislead Balak into thinking that Balak will get what he wants. Balaam offers to return home, still a picture of obedience, but God tells him (through the angel) to speak only what he is told.

Rashi, following comments in midrash, reads into the words of the text all sorts of negative elements. After Balaam speaks to Balak's first emissaries, Rashi sees the following exchange between Balaam and God.

To the command of God, "Do not go with them," Bil'am replies, "Then I will curse them from here!" "You must not curse that people" says God, to which Bil'am answers, "then I will bless them." God says "They are (already) blessed," as one says of the hornet: "not of your honey nor your sting." (Commentary, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma)

Rashi continues to quote Tanchuma, which reads Balaam's response to the first group, "...the Lord will not let me go with you" (Num. 22:13) with self-centered, arrogant overtones.

We see from here his haughtiness, he didn't want to demonstrate that he was under the authority of God, but rather used a proud tone. (Ibid)

Rashi also seems to be reading Balaam's refusal to take on Balak's commission as simply a demurral, similar to middle Eastern negotiations where the seller names his price by saying that the named price wouldn't be enough. Balaam's words, "Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold." (Num. 22:18), according to Rashi, shows his "insatiable desire for wealth and excessive greed." This demurral, said Rashi, is Balaam's suggestion of the appropriate reward for his services.

According to Ramban's plain reading of the text, there is no justification at all in Scripture for stating that Balaam was evil. The explanations of Rashi, the writings of midrash, and the commentary in the Talmud all give reasons that are contrived, at best. After Balaam leaves Balak and returns to his own country, we hear of him in a later reading: in vs. 31:8, he is slain along with all of the Midianites, Moab's allies.

Along with their other victims, they slew the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword. (Num. 31:8)

Then there's the statement of Moses that Balaam somehow "induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor" (Num. 31:16)—but that was the Moabites, not the Midianites! Based on these passages in Numbers, Chazal maintained that Balaam's role in the Ba'al-Peor episode was that after he failed to curse the people, he told Balak how to morally subvert the Israelites. Other verses in later books that mention Balaam's role (Josh. 24:9-10; Mic. 6:5) do not refer to tempting the Israelites into worshiping Ba'al, although the passage in Micah could be hinting at such an interpretation.

Moses' statement that Balaam was responsible for the sin of Ba'al-Peor, where the Moabite (and Midianite?) women led the Israelites astray resulting in a plague that killed 24,000 people, is suspect. There are two issues that argue against Balaam's involvement. First, when he returns home, he returns to a place in Ammon, on the Euphrates, a location fairly distant from Moab. Second, the description of his death seems to be a gloss, added to the text of the narrative by a later scribe. Some scholars maintain that this statement is a polemic against Moses, who had a Midianite wife, and was inserted by Priestly authors; other cases of such polemicism have been identified throughout the Bible.

It's interesting that some of the words of this reviled gentile prophet ended up in our prayerbook liturgy.

How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24:5)

Maybe this guy just got a bum rap, and wasn't so bad after all.

July 2009

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