Balak: Prophet and Donkey

July 5, 2017 at 9:53 pm | Posted in Balak | 4 Comments
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Bilam appears to be a sorcerer who can bless and curse people, but he is actually a prophet who transmits God’s blessings and curses. Bilam’s donkey1 appears to be an ordinary domestic animal, but she actually knows more than Bilam.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Balak, King Balak of Moab is alarmed by the large Israelite camp on his border. He sends messengers to Bilam, whom he thinks is a professional sorcerer, with this request:

“Now come, please, curse for me this people, because they are too mighty for me. Then perhaps I will be able to strike them and drive them out from the land; for I know whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:6)

God has used Bilam as a prophet so often that Bilam believes he can count on God to speak to him during the night (presumably in a dream). So he tells Balak’s messengers:

“Remain here overnight, and I will bring back to you whatever God speaks to me.”  (Numbers 22:8)

That night, God tells Bilam:

“You shall not go with them.  You shall not curse the people, because it is blessed.” And Bilam got up in the morning and said to the officials of Balak: “Go back to your own country, because God refused to permit me to go with you.” (Numbers 22:12-13)

Bilam fails to mention that God has already blessed the Israelites. When the messengers report to their king, they fail to mention God at all; they simply say:

“Bilam refused to go with us.” (Numbers 22:14)

King Balak assumes Bilam refused only because he did not expect to get paid enough, so he sends a larger and higher-ranking group of officials. His second message promises Bilam:

I will honor you very impressively, and anything that you say to me I will do; just come, please, curse for me this people. (Numbers 22:17)

This time Bilam suggests the payment he would like: the king’s house full of silver and gold. In other words, he wants as much wealth and/or as much honor as a king. But he is at least honest enough to add that he cannot do anything that contradicts God’s command. Then he asks the messengers to stay overnight while he checks with God.

And God came to Bilam at night, and said to him: “If the men came to invite you, get up, go with them. But only the word that I speak to you, shall you do.” And Bilam got up in the morning and saddled his she-donkey and went with the officials of Moab. (Numbers 22:20-21)

Bilam’s silence in the morning is dishonest, since it gives Balak’s messengers the impression that the cursing will take place as requested.

And God vayichar af because he [Bilam] was going, and a messenger of God manifested itself on the road as an accuser for him. (Numbers 22:22)

vayichar (וַיִּחַר) = and he/it became glowing hot.

af (אַף) = nose, nostril.

vayichar af (וַיִּחַר אַף) = and his nose burned: an idiom meaning “and he became angry”.

God gives Bilam permission to go to Moab, but God is angry when he goes. Perhaps God disapproves of Bilam’s lying by omission, or of his greed for a payment he is unlikely to receive.2

Three times a messenger of God (i.e. an angel), manifests on the road to Moab. Who sees the divine apparition? Not Bilam, the prophet and would-be sorcerer; not his two human servants; but only his donkey. Bilam has only heard God’s voice at night, but his donkey sees God’s angel in broad daylight.

Each time Bilam’s donkey sees an angel with a drawn sword in the middle of the road, she refuses to go forward. The first time she runs off 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 lies down in the middle of the road. Each time Bilam beats his donkey, unable to see the reason for her behavior. The third time, the Torah describes the beating:

…and she lay down underneath Bilam, and Bilam vayichar af and he beat the she-donkey with the stick. (Numbers 22:27)

Then god opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Bilam: “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?” And Bilam said to his she-donkey: “Because you made a fool of me!  If only there were a sword in my hand, I would kill you now!” (Numbers 20:28-29)

Bilam has been beating his donkey out of pride. With his servants and possibly King Balak’s officials watching him, he wants to look as if he is in control of his animal. In fact, his donkey is in control of where Bilam goes, and the donkey sees God’s messenger—with a sword in its hand, ready to kill Bilam!

by Rembrandt, 1626

And the she-donkey said to Bilam: “Am I not your she-donkey, upon whom you have ridden all your life until this day?  Have I really been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he said: “No.” (Numbers 22:30)

The donkey says “all your life”, not “all my life”, even though the average life-span of a working donkey is 15 years in developing countries (a category that applies to all countries in biblical times). While Bilam’s age is not given in the story, he is a man who has developed a reputation, so he is too old to have been riding the same donkey his whole life.  The donkey’s words are a clue that the donkey is not just a talking animal; she also represents a part of Bilam.

Though he enjoys hearing God speak in the dark, Bilam is only a human being, and he cannot do anything without his animal: his body. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Bilam rides a she-donkey; in Biblical Hebrew, the word nefesh, which means both an individual body and the soul that animates the body, is feminine.

When Bilam answers his donkey with the word “No”, he both recognizes the truth and humbles himself before the animal he rides.

Then God uncovered the eyes of Bilam, and he saw the messenger of God standing in the road, and its drawn sword was in its hand.  Then he knelt down, and he bowed down le-apav.  (Numbers 22:31)

le-apav (לְאַפָּיו) = to his nostrils, to his nose. (A form of af.)

Bowing down to his nose is an idiom for making a full prostration, indicating his humility and submission before God’s messenger. But it also implies Bilam is surrendering his own “hot nose”, his own anger.

Then God speaks through the divine messenger and explains that the donkey saved Bilam’s life three times. If the donkey had not shied away from the angel, God would have killed Bilam—but spared the donkey.

After that humbling experience, Bilam becomes a better prophet. He is more direct and honest; as soon as he meets King Balak, he warns his employer that he can speak only the word God puts into his mouth. And now God speaks to Bilam in the daylight, and even gives him prophetic visions.

Of course all three times Bilam attempts to curse the Israelites, God makes praise and blessings come out of his mouth. And his employer, King Balak, is enraged.

Balak, vayichar af at Bilam …and Balak said to Bilam: “To curse my enemies I called you, and hey! You kept on blessing them, these three times!  So now run away to your own place! I said I would honor you impressively, but hey! God held you back from honor.”

King Balak dismisses Bilam rudely and without payment. But Bilam no longer seeks honor from other people. Now he knows that seeking wealth or fame blinds him to God’s message, and he is a prophet.  He responds to Balak only by pronouncing another prophecy—one that includes Israel defeating Moab. Then, unrewarded by either wealth or status,

Bilam got up and went and returned to his own place. (Numbers 24:25)

*

Personally, I resent being humbled by my donkey.  All too often I set off on what looks to me like a rewarding path, assuming I can do what I want—only to find that my body refuses to carry me. My chronic pain increases and my energy flags. If I try to whip my body into doing my will by drinking too much coffee, for example, my body starts lying down underneath me.

These days I find myself getting a “hot nose” less and less often, thank God. I am trying to pay attention to my own donkey. I am slowly giving up my desire for recognition and honor, knowing that I am still blessed with the ability to do my calling, as long as I listen to both my God and my donkey.

Who knows, if I learn enough humility, maybe someday my eyes will be uncovered and I’ll see a messenger of God in the road! But I’m not planning on it.  It’s enough to learn how to get along with this faithful donkey whom I’ve been riding all my life.

1  “Donkey” and “ass” are two words for the same species of equine animal. In Hebrew, a she-donkey, or jenny, is an aton (אָתוֹן).

2  According to Ramban (3th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman or Nachmanides), God was angry at Bilam for leaving without telling Balak’s messengers everything God had said, and for hoping that he might be able to curse Israel after all.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in June 2010.)

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Haftarat Vayeishev—Amos: No Prophecy Allowed

December 21, 2016 at 11:16 pm | Posted in Amos, Jonah, Vayeishev | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), and the haftarah is Amos 2:6-3:8.

The doom of other countries is easier to read about than the doom of your own. So the book of Amos opens with God’s proclamations against the kingdom of Israel’s neighbors Aram, Philistia, map-amos-ch-1-2Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Judah. In each prophecy, Amos mentions a wicked deed the state committed, followed by the war-related punishment that God will bring down upon it.

I can imagine Amos’s audience in the kingdom of Israel nodding at the well-deserved punishments predicted for other countries, many of which their own king, Jereboam II, attacked in the mid-eighth century B.C.E. Then Amos’s introductory formula for the next prophecy names Israel. This week’s haftarah begins:

            Thus said God:

            Because of three revolts of Israel,

                        And because of four, I will not accept it:

            Because of selling the innocent for silver,

                        And the needy for the sake of a pair of sandals. (Amos 2:6)

The first revolt (or transgression) against God in Amos’s polemic against the Israelites is selling people into slavery merely out of greed. In the Bible parents are allowed to sell themselves or their children—but only to fellow Israelites, and only in order to pay off debts.1 Selling someone to an outsider, or for any reason other than debt, is unacceptable.

In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver, to a caravan bound for Egypt. Their only reason is that they hate him. Later they suffer for this bad deed.

The book of Amos goes on to list four other revolts against God by Israelites:

           Mauling the head of the powerless in the dust of the ground,

                      They stretch the path of the needy.

           A man and his father go to the [same] na-arah

                      For the sake of profaning My holy name.

           And on garments taken as security [for debts]

                      They stretch out beside every altar.

           And wine from fines they charged

                      They drink in the house of their god(s). (Amos 2:7-2:8)

na-arah (נַעֲרָה) = girl; a young woman old enough to marry who has not yet had a child; a female slave or servant.

Drinking in Ancient Greece

Drinking in Ancient Greece

The Israelites who revolt against God are the ones who victimize the innocent, the needy, the powerless, servants, and debtors. They disregard God’s instructions about the poor in order to accumulate silver and live in selfish luxury, indulging in dubious sex and lolling about drinking beside religious altars.  (Either they are worshiping an alien god, as Amos discovers in Bethel, or they are using a shrine built for making libations and animal sacrifices to God as if it were a private drinking hall.)

The wealthier Israelites ignore God despite everything God has done for them: bringing them up from Egypt (where the Israelites were the slaves), guiding them through the wilderness, and destroying their Amorite (i.e. Canaanite) enemies. Furthermore,

I raised up some of your children for neviyim,

                        And some of your youths for nezirim.

            Is this also nothing, children of Israel?

                       —declares God.

neviyim (נְבִיאִים) = prophets (singular= navi, נָבִיא). From the root verb niba (נִבָּא) = behave like a prophet, either by having ecstatic experiences of the divine, or by serving as a mouthpiece and translator for God.

nezirim (נְזִרִים) = nazirites; men and women who dedicate themselves to a period of sanctity during which they abstain from grooming their hair and from drinking wine and other alcohol. (See my post Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.)

The neviyim transmit God’s messages to the people. The nezirim set an example of inner strength, even in their youth, by holding themselves to a different standard for the sake of sanctity. God’s rhetorical question—Is this also nothing?—is designed to make the listeners agree that neviyim and nezirim are assets to the community.

drunk-womanBut the Israelites have rejected these human assets, making the nezirim break their vows and forbidding the neviyim to speak for God.

           But you made the nezirim drink wine,

           And you ordered the neviyim, saying: Lo tinavu!  (Amos 2:11-12)

Lo tinavu (לֹא תִּנָּבְאוּ) = You shall not prophesy!  Lo (לֹאּ) = not; tinavu is a form of the verb niba (נִבָּא).

Naturally the immoral, disobedient Israelites do not want anyone reminding them of their own wickedness.

Since the Israelites have rejected God’s gifts, God threatens to make Israel’s army unnaturally slow and weak. The obvious, though unstated, conclusion is that if an enemy army (such as the Assyrians) attacks, the kingdom will be unable to defend itself.

Amos continues God’s prophecy with a list of rhetorical questions, including:

            If misfortune happens in a town,

                        Did not God make it? (Amos 3:6)

This expresses the common Biblical belief that God controls everything that happens to human beings. Individuals are responsible for their own behavior, but nothing else; when bad things happen to them it is always a punishment from God for misbehaving. (The Hebrew Bible questions this ancient belief only in the book of Job.) Biblical writers applied a similar principle to collective behavior: if a whole country is vanquished, the reason is not that the enemy has superior military might, technology, or strategy, but rather that God is using the enemy’s army to punish people who have done wrong.

The Call of Amos, Petrus Comestor Bible Historiale, 1372

The Call of Amos,
Petrus Comestor Bible Historiale, 1372

By sending a prophet, God gives a country a chance to reform and avoid the divine punishment. In the book of Jonah, once the reluctant prophet finally prophesies in Nineveh, the people repent and the city is saved—even though Nineveh is the capital of the evil Neo-Assyrian Empire. Amos pauses in his list of rhetorical questions to remind his audience:

            Indeed, my lord God does not do a thing

            Unless He has revealed His confidential plan to His servants, the neviyim. (Amos 3:7)

Then Amos finishes his list:

            A lion has roared;

                        Who will not be afraid?

            My lord God has spoken;

                        Who will not prophesy? (Amos 3:8)

God’s voice is as frightening as a lion’s roar. When God speaks to the prophet, he cannot help but obey God by transmitting the message. Amos may be implying that God’s word, spoken by a true prophet, should be just as frightening. Then the Israelites could not help but repent and reform.

Yet the wealthy and powerful of Israel are so resistant to change that they order the neviyim to keep their mouths shut and go away.2 They would rather continue doing wrong and stay in denial than admit their wrongdoing and change their ways in time to avoid the conquest and destruction of their country.

Today, when we face the degradation of the whole world due to climate change, including a high toll on human life, few people consider it a punishment from God.  Why blame an anthropomorphic deity, when it is so easy so see how human actions are causing our collective suffering?

Nevertheless, it is hard to change our actions. Many people today offer information about what is happening, and call for reducing air pollution and preparing for rising waters. Some individuals are responding by using less gasoline to travel—and no doubt when Amos prophesied, a few individuals responded by treating the poor and their own families with more justice, and their religion with more respect.

Yet when a whole kingdom, or the whole world, is threatened, the disaster can only be avoided or ameliorated by commitment and action on the part of the leaders at the top. In the book of Jonah, Nineveh would not have repented if its king had not put on sackcloth and issued his decree. In the book of Amos, King Jereboam II never reforms, and neither do his people. By 720 B.C.E. the Assyrian army had captured Israel and its capital, Samaria.

May a divine spirit open all of our ears and hearts today, and may all the leaders and influential people of the world become more like the repentant king of Nineveh than like the leaders of Israel in the time of Amos.

1See my post  Haftarat Vayeira—2 Kings: Dance of Pride. Even when someone acquired a slave as a payment of debt, the debtor’s kinsman was obligated to buy back his relative as soon as he could afford it, and after six years a master had to liberate an Israelite slave even without financial recompense.  In fact, the Torah says: And when you send him out emancipated from you, do not send him out with nothing. You must certainly provide him [with goods] from your flock or from your threshing-floor or from your wine-vat, which are blessings that God has given you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 15:13-14)

2 An example is given later in the book: Amatzyah, the priest of Bethel, sent to Jereboam, the king of Israel, saying: Amos conspires against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land cannot endure everything he speaks! (Amos 7:10) … And Amatzyah said to Amos: Seer, go with your spirit to the land of Judah, and eat your bread there, and prophesy there! But do not ever prophesy again at Bethel, because it is a sanctuary for the king and a royal palace. (Amos 7:12-13)

Haftarat Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets

February 24, 2016 at 10:21 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Kings 1 | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:31), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 18:1-39.

And Elijah said to the people: I am the only navi left for God, and the neviyim of the Baal are 450 men. (1 Kings 18:22)

navi (נָבִיא) = prophet. (From the root verb niba (נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God.)

neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = plural of navi.

The Hebrew Bible uses the word navi for two kinds of people: those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God whether they want to or not.

Moses by Ivan Kramskoy, 1861

Moses by Ivan Kramskoy, 1861

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses is the prophet who hears God directly, whenever God wants to speak to him. When God first speaks to him at the burning bush, Moses tries to turn down God’s mission, but later he gets used to passing on God’s words to Pharaoh and the Israelites. God also uses Moses to signal miracles, both by words and by raising his staff or his hand.  He is a full-service prophet, but he never goes into a prophetic ecstasy.

The book of Numbers/Bemidbar gives us an example of a non-Israelite prophet who does not rave in ecstasy, but hears and must obey God’s commands. First Bilam hears God’s words in dreams, but by the end of his story God is channeling poetic prophecies to him directly. (See my post Balak: Three Places to Be Blessed.)

There are also bands of Israelite prophets who go into an altered state and speak in ecstasy, but do not hear or convey God’s commands. In one episode in the first book of Samuel, King Saul sends messengers to seize David, whom the prophet Samuel has anointed behind Saul’s back.

And they saw a group of the neviyim nibim, and Samuel standing stationed over them. And the spirit of God came over the messengers of Saul, vayitnabu, even they. And they told Saul, and he sent other messengers, vayitnabu, even they. Then Saul sent a third group of messengers, vayitnabu, even they. (1 Samuel 19:20-21)

nibim (נִבְּאִים) = speaking in ecstasy; raving.

vayitnabu (וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they spoke in prophetic ecstasy; and they raved as if insane.

Next Saul goes himself in search of David.

And he walked there, to Nayot in Ramah, and the spirit of God came over him, even him, and he continued walking, vayitnabei until he entered Nayot in Ramah. Then he stripped off his clothes, even he, vayitnabei, even he, in front of Samuel, and he fell naked… (1 Samuel 19:23-24)

vayitnabei (וַיִּתְנַבֵּא) = and he spoke in prophetic ecstasy; and he raved.

The two kinds of neviyim could be easily distinguished; one kind quietly listens to God’s words and then speaks and acts like a rational person, while the other kind is overcome by God’s spirit and speaks and acts like a madman.

*

In this week’s haftarah Elijah is a navi in the tradition of Moses: he hears God while he is in his normal consciousness, he tells God’s words to other people, and he serves as a conduit for God’s miracles. He also thinks up a plan to achieve God’s ends.

The 450 prophets of Baal, on the other hand, are neviyim who induce an altered state of prophetic ecstasy in themselves.

Bronze figure of Baal holding thunder and lightning

Bronze figure of Baal holding thunder and lightning

 

At this time, the northern kingdom of Israel is ruled by King Ahab, who welcomes the worship of the Canaanite gods Asherah (a mother goddess) and Baal (a god of weather, especially lightning and rain). Ahab’s wife Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon, supports hundreds of prophets who serve these two gods, but wants to exterminate all the prophets of the God of Israel.

Since Israel under King Ahab views Baal as the god in charge of weather, Elijah warns Ahab that it will not rain again until he, the servant of God, says so. Then Elijah flees and hides east of the Jordan while Israel suffers three years of drought.

This week’s haftarah begins:

And it was much later, and the word of God happened to Elijah in the third year, saying: Go, appear to Ahab; then I will send rain over the face of the earth. (1 Kings 18:1)

When Elijah confronts King Ahab again, he requests a contest.

Now send, gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 neviyim of the Baal and the 400 neviyim of the Asherah who eat at the table of Jezebel. (1 Kings 18:19)

Instead of killing Elijah on the spot, the king arranges a contest between God and Baal. (The neviyim of the goddess Asherah drop out of the story at this point.) Ahab probably expects Elijah and the God of Israel to lose. After all, God will have only one prophet, Elijah; Baal will have 450. On Mount Carmel God’s altar is in ruins; Baal’s altar is in good repair. The winning side will be the one whose god who answers with fire; lightning is one of Baal’s specialties.

Once everyone has gathered at Mount Carmel, Elijah says:

How long will you keep hopping back and forth between two crutches? If God is the god, follow Him; but if it is the Baal, follow him!  And the people did not answer a word. (1 Kings 18:21)fire

So the contest begins.  Each side gets its altar, a bull to butcher, and a stack of wood. When each sacrifice is prepared, the prophets will call on their gods.  The Israelites agree that the god who answers by setting the wood on fire will be their god henceforth.

Elijah lets the neviyim of Baal go first.

…and they called in the name of the Baal, saying: Answer us! But there was no voice and there was no answer. Then they hopped around on the altar that was prepared. And at noon Elijah mocked them, and said:  Call in a louder voice! After all, he is a god. Maybe he is chatting, or maybe he is preoccupied, or maybe he is on the road. Maybe he is sleeping, and he will wake up.

And they called in a louder voice, and they cut themselves with daggers and with lances, as is their custom, and blood poured out over them. And noon passed, vayitnabu, until the time of the afternoon offering, but no one answered and no one paid attention. (1 Kings 18:26-29)

The neviyim of Baal did everything they could to work themselves into a prophetic ecstasy, but their speech sounded like insane raving—especially in light of Elijah’s mockery and the lack of response from Baal.

Then Elijah repaired the altar for the God of Israel, laid out his bull offering on the wood, and had twelve jugs of water poured over it, so everyone would see that no ordinary fire could burn there. Then he said:

Elijah and Ahab at Mt. Carmel, Zurich Bible

Elijah and Ahab at Mt. Carmel, Zurich Bible

God, god of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today may it be known that You are elohim in Israel and I am Your servant, and at Your word I did all these things. Answer me, God, answer me, and this people will know that You, God, are the god… And the fire of God fell, and it ate up the rising-offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and it licked up the water in the trench. And all the people saw, and they fell on their faces and said: God, He is the elohim! God, He is the elohim! (1 Kings 18:36-39)

Later that day, it finally rains.

And the winner is … not only the God of Israel, but also his rational navi.

Does this mean the bible prefers non-ecstatic prophets?  Not quite. The bands of raving Israelite neviyim are not criticized in either the book of Numbers or the first book of Samuel. There is nothing wrong with entering an altered state in order to experience God’s presence.

But experiencing God’s presence is different from hearing God’s words. A navi like Moses or Elijah hears God whether he wants to or not, and must keep his head in order to act on God’s words, whether he is passing on divine information, signaling a miracle, or, in this week’s haftarah, elaborating on a hint from God (Go, appear to Ahab; then I will send rain over the face of the earth) in order to make the right things happen.

May all of us who engage in religion remember that experiencing God in an altered state, or even in an especially good worship service, is not the same as serving God. To truly serve God, we must listen for the divine word or inspiration during our everyday lives, and think carefully before we act.

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