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B'Midbar/Numbers 22:21 And Balaam arose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab.
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Although the story of Balaam itself starts at the beginning of the parasha, when King Balak of Moab is frightened by the Children of Israel camping on his borders and summons Balaam to come and curse them, this verse starts the familiar narrative in which Balaam has a conversation with his poor faithful donkey after he has beaten her three times. This episode often raises the question, "Why wasHaShem annoyed with Balaam for going with Balak's princes when He Himself had told him that he could go?". The three verbs in the short verse are all in vav-conversive constructions to denote single completed events in a narrative stream. Although they have other words with them, they demonstrate the haste with which the journey started: , the Qal 3ms prefix of , to arise; , the Qal 3ms prefix of , to bind up, gird or saddle a beast; , the Qal 3ms prefix of , to go or walk.
As our verse relates, Balaam got up early, saddled his own donkey and set off with the princes of Moab to answer Balak's summons. He was obviously in a hurry! The Sages of the Talmud discussed whether it was quite proper for Balaam to saddle his own donkey, rather then have one of his servants do that for him.Ibn Ezra1 maintains - "he told someone to saddle it for him" - that Balaam did instruct a servant, but the text gives us no such warrant. On the contrary, the early discussion links Balaam's story with that of Avraham when he had been instructed to sacrifice his son Yitz'khak on Mt. Moriah: "A Tanna2 taught on the authority of Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar: Love disregards the rule of dignified conduct. [This is deduced] from Avraham, for it is written, 'And Avraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass' (B'resheet 22:3). Hate likewise disregards the rule of dignified conduct: [this is deduced] from Balaam, for it is written, 'And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass' (B'Midbar 22:21)" (b. Sanhedrin 105b).
In the previous verse, HaShem spoke to Balaam, telling him, "If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them" (B'Midbar 22:20, JPS). Balaam had clearance to go with Balak's messengers - the word being the masculine plural construct form of the noun , prince, noble, commander or chief - so why did the angel have to appear and cause the donkey to get beaten? The next verse tells us that HaShem was angry: "But G-d was incensed at his going; so an angel of the L-RD placed himself in his way as an adversary" (v. 22, JPS). The commentators sense an answer in the word - with.Rashi comments, "'with the princes of Moab' - His heart was like theirs, equally." Mizrachi3 adds, "Scripture indicates that he was with them in spirit as well as in action; he was just as eager to curse Israel as they were to have Israel cursed." The Sforno takes that a step further and explains, "Balaam did not go because others were leading him, as in 'And he arose and followed her' (2 Kings 4:30); rather he went as an interested party and as one who was attempting to defy the will of G-d, the Blessed One". How do we know that Balaam was defying G-d - surely we cannot deduce all that from the word 'with'?
RabbiHirsch notices what Balaam says, or - more importantly - does not say, to the Moabite princes. "Balaam rose up in the morning and went - keeping silence - with the princes of Moab. Without giving them any explanation at all, more, implicitly agreeing to their mission, he went with them." Essentially, Hirsch is suggesting, Balaam went under false pretenses, for he did not make any effort to explain to them the conditions that HaShem had placed on him: "Only the word that I shall say to you, you shall do" (v. 20).
TheRamban turns this into the answer to our question: Why was HaShem annoyed with Balaam? "What Balaam did wrong was in not telling them that, this time as before, he would only go on condition that he not curse the Israelites, and that he would even bless them if G-d commanded him to do so. Balak had made it clear that all he wanted was for Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam was so intent on going that he did not say anything to them. They took his silence as consent and assumed he would do as they wanted. In practice, he allowed the Moabites to conclude that G-d had changed His mind (cf. v. 12) and had given him permission to curse the Israelites." When all is said and done, this amounts to mis-representing G-d; a challenge that G-d cannot leave unanswered.
Balaam's enthusiasm to answer Balak's call, resulting not only in the three powerful oracles that G-d gave blessing and prophesying over Israel, but Balaam's unofficial advice to Balak so that the women of Moab "induced the Israelites to trespass against the L-RD in the matter of Peor, so that the L-RD's community was struck by the plague" (31:16, JPS). The prophet Isaiah speaks of those who do iniquity, whose hands are defiled with blood: "Their feet run to evil, and they hasten to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; devastation and destruction are in their highways" (Isaiah 59:7, NASB) and the father figure in Proverbs warns against sinners: "My son, do not walk in the way with them. Keep your feet from their path, for their feet run to evil, and they hasten to shed blood" (Proverbs 1:15-16, NASB). The phrase "feet that run to evil" is a common thread in these verses and is one of the six things that the L-rd hates: "feet that run rapidly to evil" (Proverbs 6:18, NASB). HaShem was angry with Balaam not only because he purposed to disobey G-d for his own gain, but because he was rushing to do it.
Balaam remained an archetypal figure of evil into New Covenant days. Peter speaks about those who follow Balaam's example, "Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing" (2 Peter 2:15, ESV) or, worse, lurk in the church, entrapping believers in wrong behaviour "But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality" (Revelation 2:14, ESV). We should be wary of those who might lead us or those for whom we are responsible astray. But how are we to recognise them? Yeshua explains: "For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:43-45, ESV). We have to be prepared to look at the lives of the people around us and check that the fruit they are bearing is kingdom fruit.
It is a simple matter of obedience - Yeshua defines the question: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you?" (v. 46, ESV) - what are we doing? Dan Juster writes, "Generally speaking, if we do not sense the Spirit drawing us into effective service for our Lord Yeshua and His Kingdom, we need renewal to know that compelling presence in our lives that motivates us to fruitfulness." As Rav Sha'ul said, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23, ESV). Not only is there no law against this fruit, but it is a sign for all to see that "those who belong to the Messiah Yeshua have put their old nature to death on the stake, along with its passions and desires" (v. 24, CJB). What makes us different? That our feet don't rush to do evil and that instead we bear the fruit of G-d's Spirit, Yeshua living in us. This will be clearly seen by those around us and will be "the aroma of Messiah to G-d among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life" (2 Corinthians 2:15-16, ESV). Balaam brought only the aroma of death. May we bring life every day into our world!
1. - As quoted by Michael Carasik
2. - A Tanna was one of the pre-rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah, from approximately 10-220 CE. The name means 'repeater' and emphasises that the Tannaim repeated or taught what they had been taught; they were faithful tradents of the earlier tradition, without the explanation and extension that the Amoraim ('sayers' or 'explainers') were to bring in the following generations. The Tannaim, often anonymously, carried tradition - ritual, praxis and prayer - from the earliest years of the Second Temple, possibly as far back as the Babylonian Exile.
3. - A super-commentary on Rashi's Torah Commentary, by Elijah Mizrachi of Constantinople, 1455-1526 CE, the Grand Rabbi of the Ottoman empire.
Further Study: 2 Peter 2:17-21; John 13:12-20
How can you bring life to someone that you know today? Ask the L-rd, by
His Spirit, to make you smell richly of the Kingdom of G-d and His new
life in Messiah and see what He will do!
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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© Jonathan Allen, 2013
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.