Balak Sends For Balaam

Frightened by the fall of the lands of the Amorites and Bashan, the kings of Moab and Midian, implacable foes for many generations, united for the purpose of a common attack upon the children of Israel. Balak, the newly elected king of Moab, had been put in charge of the plans. Thinking of the surprising victories of the outnumbered troops of the Jewish people Balak came to the conclusion that these victories could only be attributed to some form of magic. He believed that the only way to destroy the victorious Jews was to outdo them in magic by a spell stronger than theirs.

Balak, therefore, sent messengers to Balaam, the greatest magician of those days, asking him to come to Moab to curse the people of Israel who were threatening to overrun their lands.

Balaam knew that he could not do anything against G‑d's will, and he so informed Balak's envoys, even though his personal hatred of the Jews made him only too willing to follow the call.

However, Balak was persistent. He sent an even more imposing delegation of princes and nobles and promised Balaam more gold and silver. Balaam received the deputation with the respect due to their rank. Regretfully, he told them that even if Balak gave him a full house of gold and silver, he could not go against G‑d's command. He asked them, however, to stay overnight, because only at night was he privileged to receive Divine inspiration. During that night, Balaam had a vision in which he was informed that he might go with Balak's men, but that he was not to say anything save the words that G‑d would put into his mouth.

Balaam's Donkey

Balaam rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab. But G‑d was angry at Balaam's eagerness to do harm to the Jewish people, and He sent an angel to hinder his way, The donkey saw the angel of G‑d with a drawn sword, and she tried to evade him by stepping off the path. Balaam, who did not perceive the angel, got angry and hit the donkey in order to guide her back to the path. A little while later, the angel with the drawn sword blocked the way on a narrow vineyard path, fenced by walls on either side. Trying to avoid the angel, the donkey pressed herself close to the wall, thereby hurting Balaam's foot. Again Balaam hit the donkey. Now the angel placed himself squarely across the path where there was no chance of avoiding him, so this time the donkey lay down, refusing to move forward. Now Balaam was in such a rage that he savagely hit the donkey with his staff for the third time. At this moment, G‑d gave the donkey the faculty of speaking. The donkey asked the astonished Balaam why he had beaten her these three times. Her master, stupefied, though still in a rage, replied that he would have killed her, had he only had a sword handy. Yet while Balaam spoke, G‑d opened his eyes, and he saw the angel with the sword drawn in his hand. Balaam bowed in reverence. The Angel told Balaam that it was he who had blocked the way, and that Balaam had done an injustice to the donkey. Balaam excused himself, saying that he had not known that G‑d wanted to prevent his trip, and that he was ready to return. But the angel replied that he should continue his journey, remembering to say only that which G‑d would tell him.

Balaam's Blessings

When king Balak heard of Balaam's arrival, he went out to meet him and took the prophet up to the heights sacred to Baal. There they built seven altars, upon each of which they sacrificed an ox and a ram. Then Balaam went alone to a solitary place, hoping to receive the word of the L-rd. When he returned to the king, he had beheld a vision, and he felt inspired. He stood near his burnt-offering before Balak and the princes of Moab, and urged by an irresistible impulse, he broke forth into blessings. "How can I curse whom G‑d has not cursed?" Balaam (Numbers 23:8) exclaimed. He went on to praise the marvelous people which will never lose its identity among the nations of the world, and concluded with the words (Numbers 23:10): "May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his!"

Hearing Balaam's divinely inspired praise of Israel, Balak became angry at Balaam for blessing his enemies instead of cursing them. Balaam replied that he could say only what G‑d put in his mouth.

Again Balak prepared sacrifices, and Balaam waited for an inspiration to curse the Jewish people. However, G‑d put praise and blessings into his mouth. "G‑d is not a man that He should lie, nor is He a mortal that He should relent. Would He say and not do, speak and not fulfill? I have received [an instruction] to bless, and He has blessed, and I cannot retract it. He does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the L-rd, his G‑d, is with him..."

The last time Balaam took a full view of Israel's camp, he exclaimed "How goodly are thy tents, 0 Jacob, thy dwellings, 0 Israel! As valleys stretch out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes planted of the L-rd, as cedars beside the waters. Water shall flow from his branches, and his seed shall be in many waters; and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. G‑d who brought him forth out of Egypt is for him like the lofty horns of the wild-ox; he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows. He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up? Blessed be every one that blesseth thee, and cursed be every one that curseth thee."

Now Balak was really angry, and he ordered Balaam to return home. Before he left, however, Balaam told Balak that the only way to harm the people of Israel was to seduce them into sin. For only then would G‑d punish His people.

The kings of Moab and Midian acted upon this shrewd advice of Balaam. They arranged a big feast in honor of their idols and invited the children of Israel to participate in the ceremonies. Many of the Jewish people fell for this ruse and participated in these heathen celebrations. Amongst them was Zimri, a prince of the family of Simeon, who was not ashamed to let the entire Jewish community witness his evil conduct.