The absurd image of Balaam's donkey turning around and berating her master for thrice beating her makes this portion memorable. We learn that in so doing, the donkey is merely trying to save her own life:
When the ass now saw the angel of the Eternal, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.
Then the Eternal opened the ass's mouth, and she said to Balaam,"What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?" Balaam said to the ass,"You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I'd kill you." The ass said to Balaam,"Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?" And he answered,"No."
Then the Eternal uncovered Balaam's eyes and he saw the angel of the Eternal standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground. The angel of the Eternal said to him,"Why have you beaten your ass these three times? It is I who came out as an adversary, for the errand is obnoxious to me. And when the ass saw me, she shied away because of me those three times. If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her." (Numbers 22:27–33)
We can sigh with amusement or with resignation when tradition tries to account for this prophetic donkey in terms of a miracle executed before the seventh day of Creation. But there is a much more serious agenda at work in this portion.
Parables are unnerving experiences that are meant to change us, not to reassure us, as John Dominic Crossan explains in chapter three of The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story ([Polebridge Press: Sonoma, CA, 1988], pp. 52–60). Crossan provides two examples of parables in the Tanach: the Book of Ruth and the Book of Jonah. In both cases, normal expectations are turned on their heads. Jonah upends the prophetic tradition by fleeing his mission, and while the evil city of Nineveh repents beyond all expectations, Jonah ends up pouting. Here prophecy relates not to the accuracy of predictions but to repentence. The Book of Ruth actually attacks the postexilic call to abandon foreign wives and children. Ezra's decree (Ezra 9:1–2) that the people of Israel have gone to foreigners, among them the Moabites, and"have taken their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons," is directly countered by the repeated stress that Ruth is a foreigner, a Moabite, and the ancestor of both David and the Messiah.
Balak must be read in the light of Crossan's call to examine how our expectations of prophecy are overturned. Balaam goes against our first expectation, that a prophet described in the Torah is necessarily an Israelite. It goes against our second expectation, that a prophet should be holy. Indeed, Balaam is sufficiently evil that his death is singled out for mention in Numbers 31:8. And Moses blames him having others induce the Israelites to trespass against the Eternal (Numbers 31:16). Finally, we expect a prophet to be more perceptive than an ass, but in this story, Balaam is not.
The message of this portion is anti-prophetic, as it implies that anyone can prophesy, even an enemy of Israel like Balaam, and even his she-ass! So the people of Israel are not to prophesy. The argument is not that divination is false but that it is not permitted: we are meant to trust God and not try to control or foresee the future.
Prophecy has a long religious history, from the attempts in many pagan religions to read the entrails of sacrificed animals to predictions down through the ages that the end of days will come on a certain day. As Jews, we are challenged to find the deeper meaning of our esteemed prophets. They are not important because they foresee that the Temple would be destroyed but because they remind us of our deepest identity and truest calling. Religion is not about prognostication but about transformation. The prophets' gift has been to sustain a vision of when we will finally live our own calling: when the law will be written on our hearts, as Jeremiah eloquently expresses, in the words of God (Jeremiah 31:33–34):"I will put My Teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts. Then I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, ‘Heed the Eternal'; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall heed Me. . ."
We learn the lesson that we should not examine the pedigree of a prophet, be it pagan chief, four-legged animal, or swirling tea leaves. We need only examine our own hearts and see if they are awakened and enlivened in our quest for God.
The haftarah for this portion is the first layer of commentary. Micah uses the image of Balak and Balaam to illustrate his point that God will ultimately triumph. He argues that the people of Israel need to turn away from their reliance on military machinery and useless idols. Rather than hearing true prophets, they practice sorcery and heed soothsayers. When Micah reminds them,"My people, remember what Balak king of Moab planned, and how Balaam son of Be'or answered him" (Micah 6:5), the message is clear: God has a special relationship with the Israelites, but they must behave in a manner that is worthy of God's blessing.
Micah, the prophet, uses the anti-prophetic story of Balaam to illustrate the true purpose of prophecy—to encourage the people to reject what is superficial and false. Balaam offers up bulls and rams on successive altars as he attempts to heed the bidding of Balak, who hired him. Micah asks,"Should I come before God with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Would the Eternal be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?" (Micah 6:6–7).
He answers his own question as he urges the people to live up to their ideals with a simple prescription:"It has been told you, O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you—Only this: to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8).
When our Rabbis chose this haftarah to accompany this portion, they intentionally took us from the ridiculous to the sublime. The images in the parable of a talking donkey, a prophet-for-hire, and a frustrated king create the anti-prophetic message to which Dr. Ochs refers. But the haftarah gives us prophecy from a master, as Micah defines the essence of the religious quest:"to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."
Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,173–1,194; Revised Edition, pp. 1,047–1,067;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 937–960