Will the Real Balaam Please Stand Up?

Balak, Numbers 22:2−25:9

D'Var Torah By: Beth Ellen Young

This week's Torah portion introduces a new character, Balaam, son of Beor. Balaam is presented as a prophet-for-hire who is called upon by rulers to curse their enemies and help them prevail in military battles. This method of battle preparation may seem far removed from current times, yet Balaam has a lot to teach us about how we view others.

Balaam is first introduced when he is sought out by messengers from Balak, a Moabite leader, to curse the Israelites. Balaam is presented as a prophet who can accomplish this, as Balak instructs the messengers to say, "Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed indeed, and whomever you curse is cursed." (Numbers 22:6)

Balaam's response is somewhat surprising; he says no. He invites the men to stay overnight and uses this time to consult directly with God. In the morning, Balaam reports, "Go back to your own country, for God will not let me go with you" (Numbers 22:13). From this scene, Balaam appears to be a God-following, and perhaps God-fearing, prophet. There are subsequent requests from Balak to curse the Israelites and Balaam finally consents, only after he both receives permission from God and receives assurance from Balak that he has the power to speak freely. This is necessary since he can only "utter the words that God puts in my mouth" (Numbers 22:38).

Balak brings Balaam to three different lookout locations from which to curse the Israelites, and each time, Balaam speaks a blessing for the Israelites - much to the frustration of Balak!

So far, Balaam is a fairly one-dimensional character who serves as a truthful speaker of God. But Balaam is a bit more complicated as we dig deeper into the Torah portion. First, there is the incident with the talking donkey. In this story, a messenger of God is placed in front of the donkey but is visible only to the donkey-not to Balaam. Three times the messenger attempts to attack Balaam, and each time the donkey reacts quickly and saves his master from danger. God allows the donkey to speak. T t hen Balaam's eyes are opened; seeing the messenger of God, he understands the mistake he made in striking and not praising the donkey. At the end of the scene, a remorseful Balaam says to God's messenger, "I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back." (Numbers 22:34).

From this part of the narrative, we learn more about Balaam's character traits. He is presented as having limited insight, but capable of admitting mistakes and learning from them. Perhaps he is a little quick to anger when things don't go as he expects, but he can be calmed down.

The story of Balaam's blessing of the Israelites ends with the prophecy "a scepter comes forth from Israel; it smashes the brow of Moab" and the subsequent triumph of Israel over the other nations of the land. With this, Balaam heads home, as does Balak, who cannot be happy with the outcome of his attempt to curse the Israelites.

There is at least one more side of Balaam that is hidden in this week's Torah portion but emerges a few chapters later. Immediately following the verse that Balaam set out on his journey home, we learn that the menfolk of Israel have profaned themselves by entering into sexual relationships with the Moabite women and worshipping their god. This behavior leads to a plague against the Israelites that leaves 2,400 people dead.

Biblical commentators enjoy making connections between two stories that are next to one another. However in this case, the connection between the two stories is found within the Torah in Numbers 31, where we learn that the Israelites kill the five kings of Midian and Balaam (31:8). It is not immediately explained why Balaam is killed, yet a few verses later we read that it was Balaam who, "induced the Israelites to trespass against Adonai in the matter of Peor, so that Adonai's community was struck by the plague" (Numbers 31:15-16). Apparently Balaam is more than a do-good prophet, but also an instigator of behavior that God clearly condemns.

The commentators delve into the text to draw out the evilness of Balaam. In Pirkei Avot, Balaam is presented as the foil character for Abraham, "Whoever possesses these three things, they are of the disciples of Abraham, our father; and [whoever possesses] three other things, they are of the disciples of Balaam, the wicked." (5:19)

While the commentators see Balaam as only wicked, I find the multi-faceted understanding of Balaam important to maintain. In the Torah text, he is not all good, nor is he all bad. He is human. He is an individual with conflicting desires who behaves differently in different situations. Perhaps this is Balaam's lesson to us.

One of the gifts that the Torah gives the world is multi-dimensional characters. The Israelite leaders consistently have flaws and act in ways that challenge us. They remind us of our own humanity and that of those around us. Humans are multi-dimensional, messy people. Balaam gives us another taste of that. Here is someone who is working with an enemy of the Israelites, but he is not one-dimensional.

It can be easy to recognize complex personalities in the ones we love - and harder in ones who we do not understand or seem to be opposed to us. Balaam reminds us of their complexity as well. The commentators have painted Balaam as fully wicked, but I challenge us to see Balaam, like Abraham, as human - and bring this awareness into our thoughts and feelings about those in our own lives.

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