Commentary for Balak

4 Jul

In chapter twenty-one of Numbers (read in last week’s parshah), we learn about three wars that the Israelites fought during their journey to the Promised Land. The first is the war with the nation of Arad, who heard that the Israelites were coming their way, and so they attacked them, taking hostages. The Israelites prayed to God to deliver Arad into their hands, vowing to forgo the loot that normally would have been their pay. God answered their prayers, and the Israelites held up their end of the bargain as well (Num. 21:1-3).

Then the Israelites came upon the border of the nation of Emor. “Israel sent messengers to Sichon, king of the Amorites, saying: ‘Let me pass through your land. We will not turn off into fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king’s highway until we have crossed your territory (Num. 21:21-22).” Rather than accept the Israelites’ offer of peaceful transit and vow not to use any of Emor’s resources, Sichon decided to attack them instead. The two nations fought, and in the end, the Israelites were victorious, and camped themselves in the Amorite cities while they recovered. (Num. 21:23-32).

After that, as the Israelites marched on, they were confronted by the army of Og, King of Bashan, but God delivered them into the Israelites’ hands, and the Israelites took possession of Og’s land as well (Num. 21:33-35).

This week’s parshah starts out with the making of another conflict: “Balak, son of Tzipor (King of Moab), saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous, and Moab dreaded the Israelites. Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field (Num. 22:2-4).” To try to give his nation an edge in a war he believes is coming, he hires the wizard Balaam to curse the Israelites.

The way we interact with the world around us is influenced by our perception of that world. If our own perceptions do not match up with the reality, this can often lead to making mistakes. In this week’s parshah, Balak makes two major mistakes. The first is his belief that a war with the Israelites is inevitable. Although the Israelites started none of these fights, Balak still believes that the Israelites intend to attack his country. Furthermore, the text records the particular incident that set him off as being the war with the Amorites. “Balak, son of Tzipor, saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites (Num. 22:2),” but what Balak perceived was not the reality, for if it was, he would have known that Israel had offered to pass through Emor peacefully, without even using any of its food or resources. In fact, Israel never had any intention of entering his land, as Judges 11:18 explicitly states that on their journey into the Promised Land, “they never came into the border of Moab.” Whether he was acting on incorrect information or if he was attempting to force the facts to fit into his own perception of the world, we do not know, but what we do know is that his incorrect perception leads to his utter humiliation front of his court when Balaam blesses Israel instead of cursing them, and curses Moab to boot.

Balak’s second mistake is his inability to accept God’s power and God’s role in the Israelite victories. How could a powerless charlatan possibly hope to curse a people protected by God? God decides to prove his power to Balak by controlling Balaam each time he tries to curse Israel, and blessing them instead.

One question that is commonly asked regarding this incident is why God felt the need to control Balaam’s speech at all. If God is omnipotent, then surely Balaam’s curses would not be able to circumvent God’s protection! Does God really care so much about how Balak perceives the world? Astruc says that it is not just Balak’s perception of things at stake, but the whole world’s. If Balaam were to curse the Jewish people, and then some disaster were to befall them, others might perceive this as proof that Balaam is more powerful than God, even though the events in question are completely unrelated (and would come to ignore the fact that God would be the One causing a disaster to befall Israel as punishment for their sins). God might be invisible, but that does not mean that God is not there, and as we learn from Balak, it is a major mistake to overlook God’s influence in the world.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: