Balak, the Moabite leader, holds a parley with the Midianites and the Amalekites, and other enemies of Israel, and they decide to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam lives on the far side of the Euphrates, and so Balak sends a contingent out to visit Balaam and to persuade him to come with them to curse Israel. Balaam invites the party to spend the night, and tells them that he will sleep on it, deciding what we will do in the morning, after consulting with God. God tells Balaam not to curse the Israelites, and in the morning, Balaam sends them away. Balak decides to send a much bigger and more impressive embassy to Balaam, who informs the dignitaries that he can only do as God permits. But after sleeping on it again, God tells Balaam to accept their invitation and go with them.
We now encounter a theological conundrum as God appears to change His mind. If God dwells in Eternity, how then can this happen? If God permits Balaam to journey with the embassy back to Moab, why then does he send an angel to oppose his journey? The rabbis of the Talmud suggest that it is all in Balaam's attitude. They interpret Balaam as one who gets all of his sorcerous powers from God and yet yearns to use them wickedly. When God allows Balaam to follow the dignitaries back to Moab, Balaam (according to the rabbis) was thrilled, thinking he would get the chance to destroy the Israelites with his sorcery. In order to check his misaligned enthusiasm, God sent an angel to interfere with Balaam's journey.
Balaam rises early in the morning, and saddles his donkey, and rides upon the donkey while two male servants accompany him on foot. The rabbis note that Balaam had servants, and yet he saddled his own donkey. This shows his eagerness to begin his journey (the rabbis also imply that Balaam had a sexual relationship with the donkey, but that might just be too gross to contemplate). In order to check that enthusiasm, God places an angel with a sword in the middle of the road. The angel is invisible to the men, but the donkey sees it, and she turns off the road to avoid the angel. Balaam beat the donkey to try to get her back onto the road.
Later, they are travelling through a narrow path between two fenced-off vineyards, the angel brandishes a sword and blocks their way. In avoiding the angel, the donkey crushes Balaam's foot against the fence. Balaam, enraged, beats the donkey even harder. Finally, the passage narrows, and the angel blocks the path a third time. In resignation, the donkey lies down before the angel. Balaam loses his temper, beating the donkey with a stick.
The donkey speaks to Balaam, and asks him: "What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?" [Numbers 22: 28]. Balaam replies that he feels mocked by the donkey, and that if he had a sword, he would kill the donkey. The donkey appeals to Balaam: "Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?" [Numbers 22: 30]. Once Balaam acknowledges the donkey's loyalty, God opens Balaam's eyes, and gives him the power to see the angel with the sword.
As Balaam lies prostrate before the angel, the angel tells him: "Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me: And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive." [Numbers 22: 32-33].
Balaam offers to go home and abandon his journey, but the angel tells Balaam to continue, but to only say the words that God provides for him to say.
The rabbis of the Talmud have a lot of problems with this story. God speaks to Balaam, and yet the rabbis understood that they themselves lived in a post-prophetic era where God no longer spoke to people. Balaam is a gentile, and a sorcerer, and a wicked man by their reckoning.Why, then, would God speak to this person (and not to them)? Also, the rabbis were rational enough to be uncomfortable with fantastic things like talking animals. They interpret the donkey's speech as God speaking out of the donkey's mouth. Balaam is having a Divine vision, and in the vision, the donkey speaks (as an animal might talk in a dream).
The Talmud mentions the mouth of Balaam's donkey as one of the things created last, at twilight on the Sixth Day of Creation. [Pirkei Avot 5: 6].
I'm very fond of Balaam's donkey. She's a lot more human than anyone else in this story.She's funny and sweet and very endearing. Jewish feminists rightly point out that there are few females in the Bible who have speaking roles. It is hardly flattering that one of the great female characters in the Bible isn't even human, but a donkey.
When the company reaches Moab, Balak and a host of dignitaries come out to greet Balaam. Three times, Balak sets up a sacrifice of seven altars, with a bull and a ram sacrificed on each altar, and each time, Balaam fails to curse Israel. The last time, Balaam in an ecstatic trance, recites the following:
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows. He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee. [Numbers 24: 5-9].The first line of this is recited in the Jewish liturgy whenever one enters a synagogue.
Balak, furious, dismisses Balaam, who delivers the following parting shot:
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly. Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city. And when he looked on Amalek, he took up his parable, and said, Amalek was the first of the nations; but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever. And he looked on the Kenites, and took up his parable, and said, Strong is thy dwellingplace, and thou puttest thy nest in a rock. Nevertheless the Kenite shall be wasted, until Asshur shall carry thee away captive. And he took up his parable, and said, Alas, who shall live when God doeth this! And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish for ever. [Numbers 24: 17-24].The passage says that Balaam went home, and yet, the Book of Numbers later reports that the "sin of Peor" (which I will deal with next week, even though it starts in this Torah portion) was designed by Balaam, and later, in the Book of Joshua, it is reported that Balaam was killed by the Israelites.