There’s an old saying: “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” This week’s Torah portion, Balak, offers a timeless example.
The Midianite prophet Balaam is on speaking terms with God. The Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 20:1) advises, “You find that all the distinctions conferred upon Israel were conferred upon the nations. In like manner He raised up Moses for Israel and Balaam for the idolaters.” But Balaam’s position as a prophet raises many questions.
While GOD’S OTHERS deals with Balaam at length, let’s look at one incident that borders on fable. The Israelites encamp on the steppes of Moab ready to conquer Canaan (Moab is to be left alone). Balak, king of Moab and leader of the Midianite confederation, nonetheless fears Israel. He tells the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (Num. 22:4).
Balak sends a group of elders to Balaam asking him to come and curse Israel. Balaam tells them to stay overnight; he will summon God (prophets generally don’t do this) and find out what God wants. God’s instruction is simple. Don’t go. Israel is to be blessed, not cursed. The elders return to Balak empty-handed. That should end the story, but it doesn’t.
Balak sends a more august group to Balaam, who tells them that even for a house full of silver and gold, he could not go with them unless God says he can. This may represent a not so subtle way of negotiating a large fee. Ephron the Hittite makes a similar statement to Abraham when the patriarch seeks to purchase a piece of land and a cave in which to bury Sarah (Gen. 23:15). And so Balaam requests that these emissaries, too, spend the night so he can seek God’s instruction.
What part of “no” does Balaam not get? But here we face an intriguing puzzle. God now tells Balaam okay, go. Balaam saddles his old, faithful ass and begins his journey. But now God is incensed—perhaps because Balaam kept seeking His permission to go to Balak. Here, the old adage of being careful for what you wish comes into play.
A malach (messenger; angel from the Greek) bearing a sword blocks Balaam’s way. Balaam can’t see the messenger, but his ass can. The ass swerves this way and that, mashing Balaam’s foot into a wall in the process. Furious, Balaam threatens the ass. God permits the ass to speak and explain the situation. Then God opens Balaam’s eyes so that the man who can “see” everything can see the messenger who wants to kill him. Balaam concedes his error and offers to turn back, but the messenger tells him to go to Balak. God has plans for Balaam and indeed, Balaam blesses Israel four times in front of the perplexed Balak, who also cannot take “no” for an answer.
The satiric picture of the great Midianite prophet too blind to see what his ass can not only makes us laugh but also gets us thinking. So many people remain blind to the obvious for reasons of greed, faith or ideology. May our eyes—and theirs—always remain open.
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