Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Balak – Bamidbar (Numbers): 22 – 25: 9

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Balak – Bamidbar (Numbers): 22 – 25: 9

Yisrael’s exploits and adventures (including the surprise attack of the Canaanite King of Arad, who defeated Yisrael) in the last Parasha, terminated with victory over the Amorites, which caused Balak, King of Mo’av (Moab) quite a concern. He therefore solicited the services of Bil’am (Balaam) son of Be’or the Midianite sorcerer, who was commissioned to put a curse on the people that constituted so great of a threat to the Moabite monarch. ”Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field… there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me… for they are too mighty for me” (22:4,5), says Balak. In other words, ‘these numerous multitudes are liable to devour my land and my people, just like a hungry ox would green grass in a field. There are so many of them, that they cover every visible part of the land.’ The “face of the earth” or the ‘visible part’ is rendered here as “the eye of the earth.” The imagery of the “eye” (which has many and varied uses), is not utilized in this case for that which sees, but rather for that which is seen. Since the very theme of the Parasha centers on Bil’am’s visions, it only stands to reason that sight and eyes are mentioned frequently. Thus, in the beginning of chapter 24 we read that Bil’am “lifted his eyes”… and said about himself: “Balaam the son of Beor has said, and the man whose eyes are open has said the words of Elohim, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling, with uncovered eyes” (literal translation, vv.3,4,16). Interestingly, the term for ”he whose eyes are open” is “sh’tum ey’na’yim.” With a slight modification “shatum” becomes “satum,” making it “that which is covered, or not revealed” (e.g. Ez. 28:3). Truly, Bil’am’s assurance about his inherent ability to ‘see’ is more than questionable. This is demonstrated very graphically in the episode with the she-ass, when it was only after YHVH “uncovered the eyes of Bila’m” (22:31) that the latter was able to see what his animal had noticed so clearly.

The meaning of the name Bil’am, just like Par’oh’s (ref. Parashat Miketz, Gen. 41 – 43), happens to be appropriate and relevant to its bearer, as it contains the letters that make up “bela” (b.l.a, bet, lamed, ayin), which is to “swallow or swallow down.” “Frequently this word is used as a symbol of destruction and ruin: Lam. 2:2, 5:8; Isa. 3:12; 49:19 etc.” [1] In Psalms 52:4 “devouring words” are “divery bela.” Balak’s intention was just that. He intended for Bil’am’s words to become a source of destruction for Yisrael. The Theological Wordbook Book of the Old Testament goes on to say that “bela” and “am” [making up the name “Bil’ am”] mean “destruction of a people” which accords with his reputation as a charmer and a conjurer.” Albright believes that its origin is from the Amorite “yabil’ammu,” meaning, “the (divine) uncle brings.” [2]

“Come now therefore, I pray, curse [“ara”] me this people… for I know that he whom you bless is blessed and he whom you curse is cursed” (22: 6), is the essence of Balak’s assignment for Bil’am. When the latter quotes the former (in 22: 11), he uses “kava” for “curse.” Hebrew is replete with verbs having to do with “cursing.” The most common is “kalel” (k.l.l, kof, lamed, lamed) which stems from “kal” meaning “light” and “easy,” inferring “of no esteem,” with its primal meaning being therefore, by default, “no blessing.” However a.r.r (alef, resh, resh) and k.v.v (kof, vet, vet), which are used in this narrative, are more ‘dynamic.’ “On the basis of the Akkadian “araru,” the Hebrew arar is to snare or bind, and the with the Akadian noun irritu being a noose or a sling. Brichto, following Speiser, advances the interpretation that the Hebrew “arar” means to bind (with a spell), hem in with obstacles, and render powerless to resist. Thus the original curse in B’resheet (Genesis 3:14, 17 ‘cursed are you above all cattle’ and ‘cursed is the ground for your sake’( means you are banned/anathematized from all the other animals and condemned be the soil on your account. Kavav connotes the act of uttering a formula designed to undo its object. The most frequent use of this root relates to the incident involving Bil’am and Balak. Certainly the ‘magical’ belief and intent of Balak is prominent here.” [3] Both a.r.r and k.v.v are used throughout the Parasha, denoting that the issue at stake is steeped in witchcraft. Several other terms found here verify that fact. In 22:7 the elders of Mo’av and Midian come with “divinations – “k’samim” - in their hands.” Again, in 23:23 we read the words that YHVH puts in Bil’am’s mouth: “There is no enchantment in Jacob and no divination – “kesem” – in Israel.” And thusly “it shall be said to Jacob and to Israel what YHVH has wrought” (literal translation, italics added), and not that which the diviners and sorcerers have uttered. Therefore “when Balaam saw that it pleased YHVH to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments [“n’cha’shim”], but he set his face toward the wilderness” (24:1).

An interesting encounter forms a prelude to Bil’am’s oracles about Yisrael. As he is about to walk with Balak’s messengers (“mal’achim”), “the angel – “mal’ach” - of YHVH stood in the way as an adversary – “(le)satan” - against him… with his sword drawn in his hand (22:23,32). Juxtaposing “mal’ach” with “satan,” in this particular context may allude to YHVH’s supremacy over all powers and to the control He exerts over them to the point of using them (simultaneously and/or intermittently) for His own purposes, much like using the mouths of a pagan diviner to bless and the mouth of a donkey to talk.

However, the would-be prophet, unlike his she-ass, is unaware of YHVH’s messenger. When the animal is forced to divert from the path and to put its master in what appears - to him - as a compromising situation, Bil’am loses his temper and strikes the ass with his staff (22:27). What ensues is the most improbable dialog between a man and his donkey. Thus, Bil’am not only finds himself mishandled physically, he also has to deal with his own unjustified anger and express regret to a vindicated beast. And as if this is not enough, when his eyes are opened, he is the one who is seen as the blind fool who incurs a rebuke from the angel: “And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I would have slain you, and saved her alive” (22:33). Bil’am forthwith admits to being wrong, and only then is given permission to “go with the men,” while at the same time he is warned to utter only that which YHVH will speak to him (ref. v. 35). In the dialog between Bil’am and his she-ass, the latter justifies her conduct by asking (rhetorically) if she had ever caused her master any trouble “as a rule.” “A’has’ken his’kanti?” is the question. “Sachen” (, samech, chaf, noon) in this context is “customarily or habitually.” In other words, “has it been my custom (to so treat you)?” The root, however, also means to “be of use, benefit or service,” as indeed the she-ass had been in the past, and even more so in this particular case, acting as a tool in the hand of YHVH.

Three times in this text we encounter the phrase, “three times” (22:28,32,33). The word for “times” here is “r’galim” (“regel” singular). “Time” as referred to here is “an occurrence, event, or occasion.” The much more common phrase is “pa’am” (a word we briefly looked at in Parashat Tetzaveh, Ex. 28; 33, where we noted that it means, among other things, “pulse or beat”). “Regel” on the other hand, is the word for “foot.” It is evident that both “pa’am” and “regel” connote movement, which of course is an indication of the passing of time, but also, and especially in the case of the latter (“regel”), point to a purposeful advance such as walking. Since walking assumes an arrival, and arrival points to a specific destination (a place), we are led once more to the conclusion that in the Hebrew mind there exists an interrelation between time and place (as we have already observed when we examined “mo’ed” - appointed time in Leviticus 23, Parashat Emor). It was Bil’am’s crushed “regel” (“foot” in 22:25) which prevented him from arriving at his destination, thus perhaps prompting the usage of “r’galim” for “times,” rather than “p’amim” (both in the plural). Note that at the end of Parashat Chu’kat we met the spies that Moshe had dispatched (21:32), who were called “m’raglim,” again of the root r.g.l, not to mention “ragal,” which means “slanderer” (e.g. Ps. 15:3), thus taking us back to our protagonist.

The extraordinary episode just experienced by Bil’am proves to be part of his preparation for speaking YHVH’s words, couched in four powerful prophetic oracles describing Elohim’s intended destiny for His people. “The three blessings are… differentiated in their relation to the time factor; the first one refers to the immediate present, to the generation of the wilderness facing him, the second to the immediate future, to the generation which would conquer the land, whilst the third concerns the distant future, to an era when wars and conquests will be no more and when the lion will lie down to rest after it has finished its task.” [4] However, there is also a fourth blessing, one which has not been solicited (as a curse) by Balak (24:14-19).

After uttering the curses-turned-blessings, the angry king commands his appointee to flee, adding the following: “I thought to promote you to great honor; but, lo, YHVH has kept you back from honor” (24:11). Stubborn and blind, Balak dares to make the statement, “YHVH has kept you back from honor” (“kept you back” being “mah’nah”, m.n.a, mem, noon, ayin, meaning “withheld”)! It is at this point that Bil’am, now as a persona-non-grata, offers to speak out what “this people [Yisrael] will do to your [Balak’s] people in the latter days” (24:14). What comes next does not please the Moabite monarch, but at the same time (surprisingly) does not incur his protest (perhaps because of the late date ascribed to it). At the end of a very significant prophecy pertaining to Yisrael and to some of its neighbors, the two men depart silently; one “to his place,” while the other is said to be “on his way” (v. 25). All the pomp and ceremony planned by Balak have just been deflated without as much as another word.

The story of a pagan enchanter and magician, who is commissioned by an equally pagan king to lay a debilitating curse on YHVH’s people, and whose mouth utters some of the most profound words regarding the very people whom he is called to curse, is rather curious and stands out in the Torah narrative. The addition the talking donkey episode makes for an even more intriguing text. “The dialog between the man and the ass, [as interpreted by some of the commentators] is the Torah’s scornful commentary on the imaginary powers ascribed to sorcerers, its mockery of human gullibility, in believing in the power of the magician to curse and subject the supernatural to his will.” [5] Thus, the story of the she-ass echoes that of Bil’am’s and his so called wonder-working abilities. But, if an ass can talk, so can a con man be made to speak out YHVH’s words, calling to mind what 1st Corinthians 1 has to say about those who are wise in their own eyes: ”I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. … Elohim has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise… [and] the things which are mighty; … and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence “ (vv. 19, 27-29). In the end, it is YHVH’s sovereignty that prevails far above any and all of man’s feeble attempts at controlling life.

The last section of the Parasha actually begins next week’s Parashat Pinchas. That which was not achieved by war or by sorcery is now being accomplished by seduction. [6] In 25:3 we read: “And Israel joined himself to Baal Pe’or.” In the former narrative, chapter 22:41, mention was made of Bamot Ba’al, the “high places of Ba’al,” as being one of the sites designated by Balak from which Bil’am was to curse Yisrael. Several places later, when Balak’s aspirations were not realized, he took the seer to Rosh (the “head of”) Pe’or (23:28). Thus we are introduced to both Ba’al and Pe’or earlier on; a premonition, as it were, to the tragic words: “And Israel joined himself [va’yitza’med – “clung”] to Ba’al Pe’or.” And is it a coincidence that Pe’or is similar to the verb “pa’or” (p.a.r, pey, ayin, resh), which means to “open wide,” such as is employed by Yisha’ya’hu (Isaiah) in 5:14: ”Therefore hell has enlarged herself, and opened [“pa’ara”, root p.a.r) her mouth without measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoices, shall descend into it”? Indeed the elders of the people were “destroyed before YHVH against the sun” (25:4). Here “destroyed” is from the root y.k.a (yod, kof, ayin), literally meaning to “dislocate or pluck out” from the roots. Thus, the leaders who did not take care to root out sin were now being “rooted out.”

1 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago,
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 New Studies in Devarim, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner
Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc.,
Brooklyn, N.Y
5 Ibid.
6 Gill Commentary, Online Bible