Balak: From Night to Day

April 13, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Posted in Balak | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on June 22, 2010.)

Balak, the king of Moab (whom this Torah portion is named after), sends messengers to ask Bilam (spelled Balaam in English) to curse the hordes of Israelites who are camping in Moab on their way to Canaan.

Because I know whoever you bless will be blessed, and whoever you curse will be cursed.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:6)

King Balak thinks of Bilam son of Beor as an effective professional sorcerer, but actually Bilam is a prophet, who knows he can only say the words God puts in his mouth.  He also knows he’s so good at his job, he can count on God speaking to him the night Balak’s messengers arrive.

And he said to them:  Spend the night here tonight, and I will bring back to you whatever God speaks to me.”  (Numbers 22:8)

In the morning Bilam reports that God refuses to let him go and curse the Israelites, but he fails to mention that God has already blessed the Israelites.  So the king of Moab sends higher-ranking men, who promise Bilam he can set his own price for the cursing job.  Bilam mentions he’d like a houseful of silver and gold, and checks in with God again that night.  This time God tells Bilam he can go with the men, but reminds him he can say only what God tells him to say.  In the morning, Bilam saddles his donkey without a word, giving Balak’s men the impression that the cursing will take place as requested.

The donkey, however, is no ordinary beast.  Three times Bilam’s donkey sees an angel in the middle of the road, and refuses to go forward; the first time she runs into a field, the second time the road lies between walls and she presses Bilam’s foot against the stones, and the third time the way is so narrow she kneels and lies down in the middle of the path.  Each time Bilam, unable to see God’s angel, beats his donkey.  After the third beating, the donkey talks back.

And the she-donkey said to Bilam: Am I not your she-donkey, upon whom you have ridden all your time until this day?  Have I really been in the habit of doing thus to you?

And he said: No.

Then God uncovered the eyes of Bilam, and he saw the angel of God standing in the road, and its sword was drawn in its hand.  Then he knelt down, and he bowed down to his nostrils.  (Numbers 22:30-31)

le-apayv = to his nostrils

charon apo = his hot nose, i.e. his anger

This is the key moment.  Up to this point, Bilam could hear God, but he could not see.  Now he can see God’s angel, and he kneels and prostrates himself like his donkey.  He even puts his nose in the dust, symbolically surrendering all his anger.

Up to this point, Bilam could speak with God at night.  After he has humbled himself, first to his donkey and then to the angel, he comes to Moab and finds he is able to speak with God in the daylight, and even behold prophetic visions.

His new humility also increases his honesty; as soon as he meets King Balak, he warns his employer that he can speak only the word God puts into his mouth.

Of course all three times Bilam attempts to curse the Israelites, God makes praise and blessings come out of his mouth.  After the third attempt, Bilam launches into pure unsolicited prophecy.  Bilam credits this ability to his experience of seeing the angel on the road, describing himself as … the strong man whose eye was closed … the one who hears the speech of El, who beholds a vision of Shaddai, who has visions from having prostrated himself, and whose eyes were uncovered.  (Numbers 24:3-4)

Personally, I resent being humbled by my donkey.  All too often I set off on what I think is the right path, assuming I can do what I want—only to find that my body refuses to carry me.  I get angry at its apparent perversity: the pain in my neck, the limits on my energy.  I start to beat myself up in my mind, then remember that anger doesn’t help.  I realize, again, that I have to trust my body, which has its own reasons.  Who knows, if I learn enough humility, maybe someday my eyes will be uncovered and I’ll see some equivalent of an angel in the road!  But I’m not planning on it.  It’s enough to learn how to get along with my faithful donkey whom I’ve been riding all my life.



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