D’var Torah, Balak, 5772: Balaam: A Case Study in True Prophecy

By Kristine Garroway

This week’s Torah portion centers on the story of Balak, King of Moab and Balaam, a foreign prophet. In Numbers 22:3 we learn that Israel had become numerous, which made the Midianites and Moabites nervous. Balak wished to wage war against Israel, but needed a “go” sign before engaging them. He sought out Baalam to curse the Israelites because he knew that whomever Baalam cursed would be cursed and whomever he blessed would be blessed (Numbers 22:6). Unfortunately, when Balak sent for Balaam, he did not get the favorable prophecy he wished for. Balaam wound up blessing, not cursing Israel, uttering the famous line: Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notechah Yisrael, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5).

Who is Balaam and why did Balak think he could—and would—curse Israel? These questions can be answered from a number of perspectives: Balaam’s profession, extra-biblical sources, and finally, his actions.

Balaam: Job Title and Extra-Biblical Sources

The text describes Balaam’s profession in a vague manner. He is a non-Israelite hailing from Trans-Jordan who curses and blesses people. Based on his interactions with God, we can assume he is a prophet. But this does not tell us much about him. Our next stop is the extra-biblical materials. From these we learn of a seer named Balaam, son of Beor, who prophesizes about the end of the world. The text in question hails from the plaster walls of a wayside shrine at Deir ‘Alla, Jordan (ca. 840–760 BCE). It references knowledge gleaned from El and the Shaddai gods. These titles recall God’s biblical epithets El, Elohim, and El-Shaddai. The Deir ‘Alla text presents Balaam as a prophet who divined future events based on information gleaned in visions from the gods. While it is impossible to say with absolute certainty that the Deir ‘Alla Balaam is the same as the biblical Balaam, his mode of operating, as will be discussed momentarily,is seemingly in accord with that of the biblical Balaam.

Balaam’s Actions

We learn something about Balaam’s methods of prophecy, that is, his actions, in response to each of Balak’s requests (Numbers 22:11; 23:11; 23:27; 24:10–11). In each response, Balaam inquires of God after constructing altars. He does this at three different places: Bamoth-baal, (Numbers 22:41–23:9), Pisgah (Numbers 23:14–26), and Peor (Numbers 23:27–24:9). In Numbers 24:1 we learn an additional piece of information: Balaam had been seeking omens to make his predictions. What kind of omens did Balaam seek? The text is unclear, perhaps intentionally so. However, a brief tour of biblical prophecy demonstrates that omens were sought in many different ways.

The Actions of a Prophet

In Deuteronomy 18:10–11, the people are warned not to practice augury, soothsaying, divining, sorcery, casting spells, consulting ghosts, and inquiring of the dead. However, this very admonishment hints that these activities were practiced.1 Most of these terms lose something in translation and the differences among them are lost on the modern ear. However, there are significant differences among them. For example, augury refers to the prediction of omens and signs, often through bird patterns. A snake charmer is not one who plays an instrument to charm snakes, but one who interprets the trails made by snakes, or alternatively, the snake-like patterns that oil droplets make in water. A diviner is one who seeks to ascertain the will of God, and a sorcerer is one who wishes to change the will of God. These last two terms are particularly relevant to Balaam’s story, and we will revisit them in a minute.

Seeking omens was one means of communication with the divine realm; other means of communication also were open to the prophet. Knowing how to access God was important for prophets because humans depended upon them to accurately convey the will of God. Thus, knowing who was a true prophet was of the utmost importance. Deuteronomy 18:15–22 explains that a true prophet is one who speaks the word of the Eternal: a false prophet is one who utters an oracle that God did not command him to utter, who speaks in the name of foreign gods, or whose word does not come true. How could one obtain the word of the Eternal? One way was through omens, another through the Urim and Thummim. These two items, along with the choshen mishpat (the High Priest’s breast piece of decision) functioned as an Ouija board of sorts. The choshen mishpat contained the names of all twelve tribes of Israel (Exodus 28:21). When the Urim and Thummimwere cast, certain letters on the stones would be illuminated (see Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 31b). It was the task of the High Priest to decipher the letters to arrive at the (correct) answer. In addition to the Urim and Thummim,prophets also sought the Eternal through visions, dreams, and prayer.

Balaam’s Actions Revisited

Looking again at Balaam’s actions, we find that what Balak wants him to do, Balaam simply cannot do! The first time Balak requests he curse Israel, Balaam (following God’s directive) responds “no!” (Numbers 22:13). However, Balak refuses to take “no” for an answer, and thinks he can change Balaam’s prediction if he offers him more money (Numbers 22:17). When Balaam eventually goes to meet Balak, the outcome is not what Balak expects. Balaam still does not curse Israel. It appears that Balak should have hired a sorcerer, one who can change the will of God. Instead, he has hired a diviner, one who ascertains the word of the Eternal. The positive ending to the story (from Israel’s perspective) emphasizes that divination is acceptable because it does not seek to alter the will of the Eternal; sorcery, on the other hand, is unacceptable as its aim is to manipulate God’s word.

Balaam is a true prophet of God; one who seeks God’s will and, despite all the pressures around him, accepts what God reveals to him.

In our modern scientific society, by and large we do not engage in the kinds of magical practices discussed in this portion. But maybe we remember (and may still adhere to) customs based in magical practices or superstition. When we say “ptoo-ptoo-ptoo” to prevent something from happening, when we throw a new mother a baby shower after the baby is born, when we wear a hamsah, or when we remember talk of relatives who threw salt over their shoulders to ward off evil spirits, we recognize that our rich tradition grows and develops with fluidity, incorporating many elements of Jewish life and the culture in which we live.

1. While condemned, it seems as if the Bible presents a mixed opinion. The Israelites themselves engaged in these practices: Joseph had a silver cup for “reading snake charms” (Genesis 44:5, 15) and King Saul inquires of the dead (I Samuel 28); Manasseh sets up various and sundry practices (II Kings 21:6) and Josiah abolishes them (II Kings 23).

Kristine Garroway received her Ph.D. from HUC–Cincinnati in 2009 and recently joined the faculty of HUC-JIR Los Angeles as visiting assistant professor of Hebrew Bible. Her research concentrates on children in the ancient Near East and the Deuteronomistic Histories.

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One Response to “D’var Torah, Balak, 5772: Balaam: A Case Study in True Prophecy”

  1. avatar

    Finally! a commentary that does not condemn Balaam as an evil person. This is my Bat Mitzvah portion and it seems that every commentator says that he is this terrible satanic crazy fake prophet that tries to go against God’s word for money! He actually is just doing what God told him to do! Thank you so much for giving a commentary that goes by the text.

    Can you recommend other things to read that have a similar point of view?

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