This week’s portion is called Balak, after the name of the Moabite monarch who sought to bring doom on the Israelites as they approached the end of their forty-year journey from Egypt to Israel.
The narrative begins as the Israelites move north along the eastern edge of the land of Israel. As they approach the territory of Moab, through which they must pass, Balak and the Moabites fear that the Israelites will outnumber and overwhelm them. Unable to overcome the military discrepancy, Balak sends a request to an apparently well-known sorcerer named Balaam, who is believed to have the power to curse. Balak assumes that through the cursing (or more precisely, the casting of a spell of some sort) of Israel he will be able to defeat them.
Through a complicated series of interactions, Balaam finally arrives in Moab. However, he is unable to curse the Israelites, and instead ends up offering words of blessing each time he opens his mouth.
In many ways, the account of Balak is reminiscent of the confrontation between Moses and Pharoah prior to the Exodus. Like Pharoah, Balak suspects Israel because their numbers are so many. The fear is not over an actual threat posed by the Israelite population, but rather is one of imagined antagonism. In other words, both Pharoah and Balak assume that because the Israelites are numerous they will rebel and fight.
Another similarity between the two stories lies in the defeat of the rulers. Pharoah believes that through magic and oppression he can resist the power of God, who has decided to act to free the Israelites from slavery. The narrative of the ten plagues describes a series of punishments in which the alleged divine power of the Pharoah is whittled away until he stands exposed as just a man.
Balak also believes that there is a real power residing within the magic embraced by a sorcerer such as Balaam. And like Pharoah, Balak will end up defeated by the power of God, not by the Israelites. Balaam is also turned into one more man, who cannot do or say anything which God does not endorse.
The story of Balak seems to be about teaching that those believed to be gods, or to have supernatural powers, or to be capable of producing results through offering and incantation, are in fact not divine at all. In the ancient near east, the presence of divinity was believed to be within any number of people. The religious revolution of the Israelite tradition is to assert that there is only one God who created all that is, and who alone controls what transpires in the world.
The defeats of Pharoah and of Balak are thus not merely the vanquishing of hostile rulers; they are the symbolic subjugation of outworn and outdated religious beliefs.
Curiously, nowhere in the account of Balak and Balaam is there any mention of Moses. The confrontation over the power to bless or curse is carried out between two non-Israelites, surely an unusual circumstance. It is Balaam, and not Moses, who tells Balak “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad on my own initiative; only what the Lord speaks can I speak.” (Numbers 24:13)
Balaam thus becomes one of several biblical figures who, while not Israelites, recognize the sole sovereignty of God and act accordingly. In this way, Balaam embodies the universal dimension of Jewish religion: there is only one God over all creation, but one does not have to be within the covenant of the Jewish people in order to recognize or relate to this God. One only has to act ethically and responsibly towards God and towards one’s fellow human beings.
Perhaps, then, it is for this reason that one of Balaam’s prophecies has been incorporated into synagogue liturgy, in the opening morning prayer known as the “Ma Tovu”: “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.”