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Drash on Parashat Balak 2018

Drash on Parashat Balak 2018

Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism
East Kew, Victoria

I am referencing this time a unique and special Chumash (Torah commentary) – the first comprehensive commentary ever to have been composed entirely by a collection of over 50 women scholars (published 2007). Many years ago the women Rabbis and students at the Leo Baeck College in London ran some wonderful conferences called ‘The Half-Empty Bookcase’ and this Chumash, along with the significant and insightful literature now being produced by scholars around the world who happen not to be male, is a major step in starting to balance the bookcase, and thus broadening and enriching our understanding.

It is very rare to find extra-biblical evidence of Torah events, but the story of the prophet Bilam ben P’or, around who the portion hangs, is also mentioned in an extensive extra-biblical context, on a plaster wall inscription at Deir Alla, east of the Jordan river, not far from where the story is set. It is suggested that this may be the site of the biblical ‘Sukkot’, and the nearby river could be the Yabok which Jacob crossed on the way back to his brother and parents (and where he is renamed Yisra’el). Bilam is a renowned prophet – and, notably, a prophet who, though not Israelite, recognises the voice of God (‘El’ and ‘Elohim’), and knows God as YHVH and Shaddai, and this is clear both from the biblical and archaeological accounts. 

In last week’s portion Chukat (which in some years is combined with this one), Israel defeats King Arad the Canaanite, and then Kings Sihon and Og. Their reputation goes before them and Balak, King of Moab, fearful that he will be next, sends for Bilam to curse the Israelites.

Initially, when King Balak’s messengers approach Bilam to undertake his mission and he asks God, the answer is ‘No!’ (22:12). When more important messengers are sent (with more money), Bilam asks again – and is this time apparently told ‘You can go – but you can only say what I tell you’ (22:20). However immediately after this, we learn that God was incensed when Bilam did saddle his donkey and set out (22:22), and sent an adversary angel which initially his donkey could see but he (the great see-r) couldn’t!

Bilam’s donkey – wiser than her master, who becomes angry and beats her - is a female. Perhaps this is connected to the idea found for example in Proverbs 1:20, that chochmah is female (‘Wisdom raises her voice… in the squares, … she calls and speaks out’). But it could have the opposite intent (even the lowest of the low – a female donkey – can see more than this renowned and highly paid ‘see-r’)! At any rate it is the donkey who sees the Messenger of God, rather than Bilam. God opens the donkey’s mouth to converse with Bilam. ‘Am I not the ass who has carried you all these years? Do I usually stop like this?’

And finally God opens Bilam’s eyes so that he too can see the angel. Then Bilam says to the angel ‘If you still disapprove, I will turn back’, at which point the angel says ‘No, you should go with them – but only say what I tell you’ (22:34-35). Looking down at the impressive Israelite encampment stretched out below them, Bilam delivers four powerful speeches in praise of the Israelites to an increasingly frustrated and angry King Balak. A verse from the third oracle is forever familiar because the Rabbis adopted these words, spoken by a non-Israelite prophet, to commence every morning service: ‘Ma tovu ohaleicha Ya’akov – mishk’noteicha Yisrael – How good are your tents, O Jacob, your habitations, O Israel’.

But the portion contains an even greater irony than his ass seeing the angel before Bilam does. Immediately after Bilam is dismissed by King Balak, unpaid, we return to the Israelite camp, that Bilam described, with God’s words, in such glowing terms – only to find that it is not so at all! Perhaps also concerned about the Israelite’s reputation, and taking matters into their own hands, Balak’s Moabite (and Midianite) women are depicted as enticing the Israelite men to turn away from God and worship their god, Ba’al B’or. We are told that God then punishes the Israelites with a plague which kills 24,000 of them. But the story focusses on a particular Israelite man who takes a Midianite woman into his tent – in flagrant contravention of the instructions – and the zealous priest Pinchas impales the two in rage. Only then is the plague stopped. This sorry episode highlights the ‘dangerous (exotic, different) foreign women’ who the men are told to avoid, which is a particular motif of the later book of Proverbs, and, it must be admitted, a warning commonly heard through much subsequent Jewish history as well! 

What of Pinchas and his violent action? It appears that he is acting to protect God, and gets the message across to the men, and in next week’s portion, named after him, Pinchas is rewarded for doing so, with his family being awarded a ‘covenant of priesthood for all time’.

Dinner Table Questions: Did God really want Bilam to go to praise the Israelites all along?

Is there a message here that, though things looked rosy from afar, it was an illusion?

And was Pinchas’ violent extra-judicial killing justified by the result – he stopped the plague?

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