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Parashat Balak
July 4, 2015 – 17 Tammuz 5775 

Annual (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9): Etz Hayim p. 894; Hertz p. 669
Triennial (Numbers 22:39 – 23:26): Etz Hayim p. 899; Hertz p. 673
Haftarah (Micah 5:6-6:8): Etz Hayim p. 915; Hertz p. 682

 Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC


Balak, king of Moab, hears of recent Israelite military victories, and hires the seer Balaam to curse the Israelites. God warns Balaam not to take the job, but after Balak offers Balaam great riches, God allows Balaam to take the job as long as he does as God says.

While Balaam is riding his donkey, he strikes the animal three times when it refuses to move. Balaam only later realizes that it had stopped because it saw an angel of God standing in its way.

Balak greets Balaam and builds altars for sacrificial offerings, but is shocked when Balaam praises the Israelites. Balak and Balaam repeat the process in two other places, and each time, Balaam only is able to recite the praises that God places in his mouth.

Meanwhile, the Israelites cavort with Moabite women and sacrifice to the Moabite god. God kills 24,000 Israelites, a plague that ceases only after Pinhas, son of Eleazar the High Priest, stabs a conjugating Israelite man and Midianite woman.

Theme #1: Se7en

Balaam said to Balak, "Build me seven altars here and have seven bulls and seven rams ready here for me." (Numbers 23:1)

Scholars and commentators believe that this passage's focus on the number seven is anything but coincidence.

Why seven altars? To parallel the seven altars God accepted when built by the seven righteous leaders from Adam to Moses: Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. -- Tanhuma

The seven altars implies that Balaam said to God: The fathers of Israel built seven altars, and I have matched them all. Abraham built four, Isaac built one, Jacob built two, one in Shechem and one in Bet El. -- Rashi on 23:4

In particular he first of all had seven new altars built (the “high place of Baal,” as such, must have had an altar) which were not tainted by a cultic past (is perhaps the fact that seven new altars were built meant to be an overwhelming contrast to the fact that there was only one older “Baal” altar?). The main thing is that Balaam is now seeking an encounter with God in order to receive instructions as to what he should say. This transpires in the vicinity of the offering that is taking place, but apart from it, on a “bare height” where Balaam alone awaits and receives such an encounter on a higher position which is nearer heaven. -- Martin Noth, Numbers

Questions for Discussion:

The Tanhuma and Rashi provide similar yet contrasting theories on the meaning behind the seven altars Balak needs to build. To the Tanhuma, the number represents the seven people in the Hebrew Bible who built altars to prior to that point, and included in that number are three people (Adam, Abel, and Noah) who are not part of the Abrahamic covenant. To Rashi, the number represents altars built by our forefathers only. What lessons can be derived from either theory? Would it make more sense for Balaam to recall all the people, before and after Abraham, who had built altars in the service of God? Or would it make more sense for Balaam to recall the merit of the forefathers only? If we presume that Balaam is well-acquainted with the history of those who worship the God of Israel, does that change our opinion of him?

Noth further theorizes about the motivation for Balaam's desire for seven altars. If indeed he is focused on contrasting the worship of God with the worship of Baal, can this be seen more as a point he is making to Balak about the nature of the God of Israel, or a point he is making to God that he wants to understand and appreciate God's ways?

Theme #2: Pleading the Fifth

[Balaam] took up his theme, and said: From Aram has Balak brought me, Moab's king from the hills of the East: Come, curse me Jacob, come tell Israel's doom! How can I damn whom God has not damned, how doom when the Lord has not doomed? (Numbers 23:7-8)

Balaam's first prophecy starts with an explanation of why he cannot carry out Balak's command to curse the Israelites.

This steady insistence on God as the exclusive source of vision is complemented by reiterated phrase-motifs bearing on the disposition of blessings and curses. Balak sends for Balaam to put a hex on Israel because in his pagan naivete he believes, as he says to Balaam, that “What you bless is blessed/And what you curse is cursed”. … A whole series of changes is rung on the curse-blessing opposition, both in Balaam’s visionary verse and in the exasperated dialogues between him and Balak. The appropriate thematic conclusion is explicitly made by Balaam in the preamble to his first prophecy. … It is important that Balaam is a poet as well as a seer, for the story is ultimately concerned with whether language confers or confirms blessings and curses, and with the source of the power of language. -- Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative

The expression starts by saying, “come, curse me…”. Balak unwittingly invites Balaam to curse him. This teaches that he who curses, curses himself. -- Numbers Rabbah

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: Know now how many acts of charity I performed for you in that I did not become angry all that time, in the days of Balaam the Wicked; for had I waxed angry during that time none would have remained or been spared of Israel's enemies. And thus Balaam said to Balak, “How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I rage, when the Lord has not raged?” This teaches that for the whole of that time the Lord had not been angry.  [But normally] God is angry every day. -- Sanhedrin 105b

Questions for Discussion:

Alter states that Balaam’s lyrical skill is a key element of this story, as it creates a litmus test for whether language can truly impact someone else’s fate. What moments in history have turned on a single word or a single group of words? Are these simply coincidences, or a challenge to all of us to be precise and thoughtful with every word we say?

Numbers Rabbah echoes a familiar rabbinic idea of "measure for measure," in which biblical characters who commit wrongdoings are later punished in the same way or in a similar way that they themselves inflicted punishment. What are other cases of characters receiving a "taste of their own medicine"? Does the frequency in which it happens indicate merely a sense of irony, or a true warning to people who wish to deliberately hurt others?

Sanhedrin challenges us by stating that God has reasons to be angry every day. Are we accustomed to believing that this angry God shows up mostly in the Hebrew Bible, and that God's wrath is less (or, at least, is felt less) today? If God remains angry just about every day in our time, what issues make God angriest? Do we believe that God shows anger in our day and age?

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