Portion of the Week: Prophetic Satire

Parashat Balak.

Balaam and the angel, painting from Gustav Jaeger, 1836.
Wikimedia Commons

Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) is named after a foreign king – Balak, king of Moab – but its chief protagonist is a foreign prophet, Balaam, son of Beor. This is such an unusual weekly portion in the Torah’s literary landscape that even the Babylonian Talmud emphasizes that Moses wrote both “his book” – i.e., the Torah – and Balaam’s story, rather than taking it for granted that readers would assume that the same author wrote the two texts.

Although Parashat Balak appears in the correct place in the chronological sequence – the eve of Israel’s entry into Canaan – the Israelites are its subject, but not its characters. Indeed, Moses is not even mentioned.

The portion’s hero, Balaam, gives the impression of being a guest from another story and this turns out to be true.

In Tell Deir ’Alla, on the eastern side of the Jordan Valley, archaeologists discovered an inscription dating to roughly the same era when the biblical stories of Balaam was presumably written. While the language of the inscription is similar to Hebrew, scholars are divided over just which language it is and to which people to attribute it. What is clear is that the central character mentioned in the ancient text is the very same prophet, Balaam: Indeed, it can be deduced from the inscription that he was a recognized prophet in the area, and for that reason was elected to star in our portion.

What is a foreign prophet doing in the middle of the Torah? Ostensibly, his trial and disgrace teach him about fear of God and love of Israel. However, the matter is more complex. The story begins when Balak, fearing a confrontation with Israel, invites Balaam – whose words were believed to have the power to influence reality – to curse Israel: “Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me; peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land; for I know that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed” (Numbers 22:6).

To his credit, Balaam initially rejects the mission. The Bible has a long account to settle with prophets who decide to serve a political regime in place of offering up God’s words. Balaam is the first prophet in the Torah to refuse to be a regime’s mouthpiece. Apparently, prophets – not just Israel’s – abide by an ethical code requiring them to limit their political commitments. Balaam seeks to consult with God, who, in rejecting Balak’s offer, instructs Balaam thus: “Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed” (Num. 22:12).

Balak persists, declaring, “For I will promote thee unto very great honor, and whatsoever thou sayest unto me I will do” (Num. 22:17). For his part, Balaam understands that Balak is referring to another element – besides commitment to the regime – that can sway prophetic ethics: money. “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold,” replies Balaam, “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do anything, small or great” (Num. 22:18). That night, God permits the prophet to join Balak’s emissaries, on condition that he remain committed to God, not to Balak. Balaam then embarks on this mission.

Here the narrative collapses. Biblical scholars believe that later editors introduced the next passage – about Balaam’s donkey – and that it is not part of the original narrative sequence. Indeed, something unexpected happens: Although he ostensibly authorized it, God is suddenly angry about Balaam’s decision to undertake the mission, and the prophet is presented as an obstinate, even ridiculous figure, not as a prophet loyal to God.

Balaam – described in the Tell Deir ’Alla inscription as “one who sees God” – cannot see what his donkey perceives: the angel of God standing “in the way for an adversary against him” (Num. 22:22), preventing the donkey from proceeding. Enraged, Balaam strikes the beast, who suddenly talks, uttering logical words of protest. After this amusing dialogue between Balaam and the donkey, the poor rider now sees “the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand” (Num. 22:31). The angel reminds Balaam to use only God’s words, and he resumes his journey.

The rest of the Balaam story is apparently a continuation of the narrative that was interrupted by the donkey episode. Whereas that story presented Balaam as a ludicrous personage, the first and final parts of the whole story show that actually he understands his role as prophet precisely, and that it is Balak who stubbornly refuses to comprehend the nature of that role.

The following situation is repeated three times: Balaam issues Balak instructions to prepare ritually for a speech that he, Balaam, will deliver, praising Israel in lofty terms. Balak is furious, and declares: “What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether” (Num. 23:11). In despair, Balak banishes Balaam, but not before the prophet delivers yet another speech – this time, about Israel’s anticipated defeat of the Moabites.

We thus have two stories about Balaam here: Both are Israelite satires on foreign heroes, but in each one the object of criticism and the points of contention are different. The donkey episode is a satire on the character of Balaam and casts the professional prestige attributed to him as a sham: Balaam is a fool, not a genuine prophet. Perhaps the donkey incident hints that only Israel’s prophets are genuine.

On the other hand, the main story that begins and concludes the Balaam narrative reflects high esteem for him. The fool here is Balak, who fails to understand two things: Israel’s status as a nation that is blessed by God and is invincible, and the role of the prophet who must faithfully convey God’s word without surrendering to political pressures or material temptations. Balaam expertly and consistently fulfills his role as a genuine prophet.

Apparently the main story teaches us that one does not have to belong to the people of Israel to appreciate that nation’s fine qualities, nor does one have to be an Israelite in order to be a representative of God – to be one “who heareth the words of God, and knoweth the knowledge of the Most High” (Num. 24:16).