2008-07-02 / Religion Column

Abraham and Balaam are a study in contrasts

RABBI LEWIS J. ERON Community Chaplain

Parshat Balak Num. 22:2-25:9

A talking donkey, an angel with a sword, a greedy seer, and a nervous king- what else does one need for a charming fairy tale? Not much more, but add little imagination, a good ear for folk memories, a bit of history, a sense of humor and a connection to a living spiritual tradition and what comes out is something remarkable. This literary recipe makes the story of Balaam, the seer from Mesopotamia hired by Balak, King of Moab, to curse our ancestors as they passed his kingdom an intriguing and moving narrative.

This story touches us in a number of ways. Liturgically, every time we enter a synagogue we remember the words Balaam used to bless the Israelite nation, much to the consternation of his employer, Balak. "How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel" (Numbers 24:5). Spiritually, Balaam's descriptions of Israel as the nation that dwells alone (Numbers 23:9) has helped us accept and understand our unique history as a people. Historically, as of now, Balaam is the only character in the Torah who appears in sources outside of the Bible. In 1967, Dutch archaeologists uncovered a late eighth/early seventh century BCE fragmentary Aramaic wall inscription in Tel Deir Alla that recounts another event in Balaam's life.

On a deeper level the story of Balaam connects the Exodus and Wandering experience with the paradigmatic story of Jewish faith and destiny, the story of the Binding of Isaac. Balaam's encounter with God, his journey to the mountain for sacrifice and blessing and his pronouncement of God's blessing tracks in significant ways Abraham's journey to Mount Moriah, the sacrifice he offered and the blessings he received there. The story of Balaam confirms the Torah's understanding that God's promise to the patriarchs was more than the gift of a parcel of land. It asserts that God's declaration to Abraham that his descendants will be both blessed and be a source of blessing to all people comprises God's fundamental commitment to Am Yisrael, the people of Israel.

Balaam like Abraham comes from Mesopotamia. He, too, not only accepts YHVH as his God but also, like Abraham, related to the Eternal in an almost friendly, informal manner (Numbers 22:9-20). When called by God, both Abraham and Balaam rise in the morning and saddle their donkeys (Genesis 22:3; Numbers 22:21). They both take along two companions (Genesis 22:3; Numbers 22:22). Both stories involve miraculous beasts (see Avot 5:6)- Abraham's ram which was caught in the thicket (Genesis 22:13) and Balaam's talking donkey (Numbers 22:28). In both accounts an angel appears to steer the protagonists from a dismal fate (Genesis 22:11-12; Numbers 22:31-34).

Most importantly, both stories conclude with God's words of blessing to Abraham and his descendants. At the end of the story of the Binding of Isaac, God reconfirms the blessing given to Abraham at the beginning of their journey together- the promise of a great people through whom and in whom all nations will be blessed (Genesis 22:17-18; cf. Genesis 12:1-3). This blessing forms the kernel of Balaam's three utterances concerning Israel that so dismay Balak. In the last benediction Balaam reiterates God's promise to Abraham that those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse Israel will be cursed (Numbers 24:9).

Though similar, Abraham and Balaam are not alike (see Avot 5:19). Abraham is God's faithful servant, obedient to God's will. Balaam is God's ambitious employee who uses his position to gain honor and wealth. Although both men successfully past the test God set upon them, the nature of God's test underscores their fundamental differences, which allow Abraham to receive God's blessing and force Balaam to deliver it.

Abraham grounds his relationship to God upon the promise that God will establish a people dedicated to God's service. Abraham seeks no personal reward, and the Jewish tradition measures the wealth he and Sarah bring with them in the number of souls they brought to the One God. Therefore, God tests Abraham by asking him to offer his son Isaac, the physical symbol of future promise, on God's altar. Abraham accepts the challenge. Although Abraham did not physically sacrifice his son on the altar on Mount Moriah, he willingly offered Isaac and, in an extended sense, all of his descendants to whatever demands God's service requires.

Balaam, on the other hand, works as God's spokesman and enjoys the riches and prestige this position offers him. He blesses those whom God blesses and curses those whom God curses. God tests Balaam to see if he would give up treasure and honor by refusing to curse Israel as Balak, the king of Moab, requested. Balaam barely manages to pass his test (Numbers 24:12-14), and leaves Moab empty-handed. Descriptions of Balaam's base and avaricious nature in rabbinic literature rest on Balaam's unsuccessful search with Balak and find a spot from which God will inspire him to curse, rather than bless, the Israelites, and, thus, faithfully relate God's will and return home laden with Balak's gifts.

God rewards Abraham's willingness to follow God's demands by granting him a blessing. Balaam, however, receives a lesser reward. God allows him to fulfill his obligation, seemingly in spirit of his desire, to be a faithful transmitter of God's blessing for Israel.

Yet, in terms of the Torah narrative, Balaam's three benedictions advance Israel's mission in the world. Only Abraham and, perhaps, Isaac, heard God's blessing on Mount Moriah. Balaam, however, had in his eyes the dubious honor of broadcasting God's blessing of Israel to all the nations. After all the miracles, wonders, struggles and victories, Balaam, proclaiming God's words from the hill overlooking the Israelite camp, declared that God's intentions for Israel were far greater than merely planting them in the land of Canaan. Israel, the Jewish people, was to be a means for God to bless all nations of the world. Thus, God's special relationship with us, the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the descendants of the people Moses lead out of Egypt, requires us not only to pursue a unique destiny among the nations but to bless and be a blessing for all people in God's great world. . leron@lionsgateccrc.org

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