The Edom Mountains, that bordered the Moabite Kingdom.
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
This week we read the fascinating story of Balak, king of Moab, who was afraid of the Jewish nation encamped adjacent to his country. He was so afraid that he took the far-reaching step of sending his land’s dignitaries to the great magician, Balaam the son of Beor, who lived on the banks of the Euphrates River and was known for his tremendous powers of blessing and cursing, and pleaded with him to curse the People of Israel.
It is interesting to note that in 1967, Dutch archeologists uncovered a temple in Deir Alla in Jordan.
They found an etching on its walls telling the story of the magician Balaam the son of Beor and quoting his prophecies of doom.
After Balaam experienced a divine revelation instructing him not to go with Moab’s dignitaries, and not to curse the People of Israel, he refused to go. But when another delegation came of even more respected dignitaries and pleaded with him to curse the Children of Israel, he experiences another revelation allowing him to go with Moab’s dignitaries, while insisting that he would be unable to curse the nation.
Balaam arrives at a mountain of Moab and looks out onto the camp of the People of Israel. He tries to curse the nation, but instead of curses, he finds himself uttering blessings, as he had been told he would.
Balaam’s blessings/prophecies are written in lofty prose. They contain praise for the People of Israel and prophecies about its future, but he was obviously unable to utter any curses.
Balaam tried to curse the People of Israel three times, and three times he failed. After Balak discovered that Balaam did not have the power to curse the nation, he is deeply disappointed. With uninhibited rage, he banishes Balaam from Moab back to his home. Moments before his departure, Balaam utilizes his last chance and delivers an additional speech/prophecy.
These speeches/prophecies of Balaam’s are very interesting.
Their style and content make Balaam’s opening words seem less significant, but we should pay attention to the fourth speech, which Balaam begins with the following: “The word of Balaam, son of Beor, the word of a man with an open eye.
The word of the one who hears God’s sayings and perceives the thoughts of the Most High…” (Numbers 24:5-16) We understand the essence of Balaam by the fact that he refers to himself as “perceives the thoughts of the Most High,” meaning he who knows what God thinks. The situation in which these words are spoken makes them particularly absurd. How can this man, who had tried to curse the People of Israel three times, contrary to what he had specifically been told, “perceive the thoughts of the Most High”? Balaam, who scarcely knows his own thoughts and cannot manage to get out the words he wants to say and ends up saying the opposite of what he had intended, claims to know God’s thoughts? We do not mean to make fun of Balaam, but rather to compare him with another man – Moses. Moses led the nation from Egypt up to the entrance to the Land of Israel; Moses ascended to Mount Sinai, where he experienced a revelation in which he received the Torah.
But he does not refer to himself as one who “perceives the thoughts of the Most High.” His message is different.
In the book of Exodus, we read that Moses appeals to God with the following: “And now, if I have indeed found favor in Your eyes, pray let me know Your ways, so that I may know You…” (Exodus 33:13) Moses does not claim to know everything. He does not think that he has discovered the secrets of the universe and God’s motives. Moses admits to not being all-knowing, and from this perspective of humility, he wishes to know more.
When the Bible presents us with various personalities, it wants us to learn from them. It offers us hints as to whether this is a positive personality from whom we should learn how to act or a negative one from whom we should learn how not to act. Moses is a positive character. Why? Because he is modest. He admits that he has much to learn and know.
Balaam is a negative character, because his pride makes him crazy; because he cannot admit his weakness.The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.