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BALAK, NUMBERS 22:2−25:9
D'VAR TORAH BY: KRISTINE GARROWAY This week's Torah portion centers on the story of Balak, King of Moab and Balaam, a foreign prophet. In Numbers 22:3 we learn that Israel had become numerous, which made the Midianites and Moabites nervous. Balak wished to wage war against Israel, but needed a "go" sign before engaging them. He sought out Baalam to curse the Israelites because he knew that whomever Baalam cursed would be cursed and whomever he blessed would be blessed (Numbers 22:6). Unfortunately, when Balak sent for Balaam, he did not get the favorable prophecy he wished for. Balaam wound up blessing, not cursing Israel, uttering the famous line: Ma tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, mishk'notechah Yisrael, "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel" (Numbers 24:5). Who is Balaam and why did Balak think he could-and would-curse Israel? These questions can be answered from a number of perspectives: Balaam's profession, extra-biblical sources, and finally, his actions. Balaam: Job Title and Extra-Biblical Sources The text describes Balaam's profession in a vague manner. He is a non-Israelite hailing from Trans-Jordan who curses and blesses people. Based on his interactions with God, we can assume he is a prophet. But this does not tell us much about him. Our next stop is the extra-biblical materials. From these we learn of a seer named Balaam, son of Beor, who prophesizes about the end of the world. The text in question hails from the plaster walls of a wayside shrine at Deir 'Alla, Jordan (ca. 840-760 BCE). It references knowledge gleaned from El and the Shaddai gods. These titles recall God's biblical epithets El, Elohim, and El-Shaddai. The Deir 'Alla text presents Balaam as a prophet who divined future events based on information gleaned in visions from the gods. While it is impossible to say with absolute certainty that the Deir 'Alla Balaam is the same as the biblical Balaam, his mode of operating, as will be discussed momentarily,is seemingly in accord with that of the biblical Balaam. Balaam's Actions We learn something about Balaam's methods of prophecy, that is, his actions, in response to each of Balak's requests (Numbers 22:11; 23:11; 23:27; 24:10-11). In each response, Balaam inquires of God after constructing altars. He does this at three different places: Bamoth-baal, (Numbers 22:41-23:9), Pisgah (Numbers 23:14-26), and Peor (Numbers 23:27-24:9). In Numbers 24:1 we learn an additional piece of information: Balaam had been seeking omens to make his predictions. What kind of omens did Balaam seek? The text is unclear, perhaps intentionally so. However, a brief tour of biblical prophecy demonstrates that omens were sought in many different ways. Continue reading.
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