“Balak the son of Zippor,” begins the Parshah that bears the name of the Moabite king, “saw all that Israel had done to the Emorite. And Moab was seized with dread because of the children of Israel.”
Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt; they cover the face of the earth, and they sit opposite me.
Come now therefore, I entreat you, and curse me this people, for he is mightier than me . . . for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.
Balaam tells them that he’ll give his response the next morning, “as G‑d shall speak to me.” “Do not go with them,” says G‑d to Balaam that night. “Do not curse the people, for they are blessed.”
Balak sends a second delegation of dignitaries “more numerous and more prestigious than these” with promises of even greater rewards. Balaam responds:
“If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the L‑rd my G‑d, to do less or more.
“Now therefore, I ask you, tarry you also here this night, that I may know what G‑d will say further to me.”
This time G‑d permits him to go: “If these men came to call you, rise up and go with them; but only that word which I shall say to you, so shall you do.”
Balaam arose in the morning and saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab.
G‑d’s anger burned that he is going, and an angel of G‑d stood in the way as an adversary against him. He was riding upon his donkey, and his two servants were with him.
The donkey saw the angel of G‑d standing in the way, his sword drawn in his hand, and the donkey turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the donkey, to turn her into the way.
But the angel of G‑d stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side and a wall on that side. When the donkey saw the angel of G‑d, she pressed herself to the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; and he struck her again.
When the angel further obstructs the way, forcing the animal to a complete halt, Balaam strikes her a third time.
G‑d opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”
Balaam said to the donkey: “Because you have mocked me; would there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you.”
The donkey said to Balaam: “Am not I your donkey, upon which you have ridden all your life to this day? Was I ever wont to do so to you?” And he said, “No.”
Then G‑d opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of G‑d standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed down his head and fell on his face.
“Why have you struck your donkey these three times?” the angel admonishes Balaam. “Behold, I went out to waylay you, because your path is perverse before me. . . . Had she not turned from me, I would now have slain you, and saved her alive.”
“If it is evil in your eyes, I shall return,” says a humbled Balaam.
“Go with the men,” says the angel. “But only the word that I shall speak to you, that you shall speak.”
A People That Dwells Alone
Balak comes to receive Balaam at Moab’s border, repeating his promises of honor and glory; Balaam reiterates that “the word that G‑d places in my mouth, that I will speak.”
The next morning Balak takes him to the Heights of Baal, from which the edge of the Israelite camp is visible. Balaam instructs him to build seven altars, and sacrifice a bull and a ram on each. Balaam then goes off to meditate.
“G‑d happened upon Balaam . . . and G‑d placed a word into Balaam’s mouth.” And Balaam begins to speak:
From Aram does Balak the king of Moab bring me
From the mountains of the east, saying:
Come, curse me Jacob
And come, provoke wrath upon Israel.
How shall I curse whom G‑d has not cursed?
How shall I evoke wrath against whom G‑d has not raged?
For from the top of mountains I see him
from the hills I behold him
It is a people that dwells alone
And is not reckoned among the nations.
Who can count the dust of Jacob
And number of the seed of Israel?
Let me die the death of the righteous
And let my last end be like his!
“What have you done to me!” cries Balak. “I brought you to curse my enemies, and, behold, you have blessed them altogether.”
But I can say only that which G‑d places in my mouth, replies the prophet.
Bidden to Bless
Balak suggests trying from a different vantage point, from which “you shall see but the utmost part of them, and shall not see them all. Curse them for me from there.”
They go to Sedeh Tzofim (“Lookout Field”). Again seven altars are raised and seven bullocks and seven rams are offered, and Balaam ventures out to meditate. Soon he returns with more divinely placed words in his mouth.
He took up his discourse, and said:
Arise, Balak and hear
Hearken to me, you son of Zippor:
G‑d is not a man, that He should lie
Nor a son of Adam, that He should regret
Has He said, and shall He not do?
Has He spoken, and shall he not fulfill it?
Behold, I am bidden to bless
He has blessed; and I cannot turn it.
He sees not iniquity in Jacob
And He perceives not trouble in Israel
The L‑rd his G‑d is with him
And the trumpet-blast of a king is among them . . .
For there is no enchantment in Jacob
And there is no sorcery in Israel
In time it is said to Jacob and to Israel:
“What has G‑d wrought?” . . .
“If you will not curse them,” says Balak, “at least don’t bless them!” Once again Balaam reminds him that he can only say what G‑d puts in his mouth.
The Goodly Tents
The king and the prophet make one more attempt, selecting yet a third vantage point from which to look upon the Israelite camp: “The head of Peor, that looks out towards the desert.” Again they build seven altars and sacrifice seven bullocks and seven rams.
Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding according to their tribes; and the spirit of G‑d came upon him.
He took up his discourse, and said . . . :
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob
Your dwellings, O Israel!
As winding brooks
As gardens by the river’s side
As aloes which G‑d has planted
As cedars beside the waters.
He shall pour the water out of his buckets
His seed shall be in many waters
His king shall be higher than Agag
And his kingdom shall be exalted.
G‑d brought him out of Egypt
He has, as it were, the strength of a wild ox
He shall eat up the nations his enemies
Shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.
He crouched, he lay down like a lion
And like a great lion; who shall stir him up?
Blessed is he that blesses you,
And cursed is he that curses you.
“I called you to curse my enemies,” cries Balak in anger, “and, behold, you have altogether blessed them these three times. Therefore now flee to your place; I thought to promote you to great honor, but G‑d has kept you back from honor.”
“Did I not speak also to your messengers,” responds Balaam, “which you sent to me, saying: If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of G‑d, to do either good or bad of my own mind, but what G‑d says, that will I speak”?
The End of Days
I see him, but not now
I behold him, but he is not near
There shall shoot forth a star out of Jacob
And a scepter shall rise out of Israel
And shall smite the corners of Moab
And rule over all the children of Seth . . .
And Israel shall do valiantly . . .
“Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place; and Balak also went his way.”
Promiscuity and Zealotry
Balaam failed to destroy them with curses; but the children of Israel could still bring calamity upon themselves with their deeds, as they now did when “the people began to go astray after the daughters of Moab.”
They called the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods.
A plague ensues, which kills 24,000; Moses orders those responsible to be executed. Still, the debauchery and idolatry continue, reaching their peak when
Behold, a man of the children of Israel came, and brought to his brethren a Midianite woman before the eyes of Moses, and before the eyes of all the congregation of the children of Israel; and they stood weeping before the doorway of the Tent of Meeting.
One man is moved to action:
Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it. He rose up from among the congregation, and took a spear in his hand.
He went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through—the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly—and the plague was halted from the children of Israel.