Talking Donkeys and Non-Jewish Prophets

 Dear Rabbi:

As a Jew I think of myself as someone “special” in that I am one of the “Chosen People” who has a relationship with G-d that is above anyone else. At least that is what I surmised based on my religious “training”. As part of this way of thinking, I thought the Almighty communicates to Jews in a more direct way than any other religion. For that matter, was it unfair to think that the G-d that I worship is somewhat above or at least “different” than those of other religions?

After reading today's parshah, Balak, my thoughts have completely changed. By the way, why is the parshah named Balak, should it not be entitled “Balaam” for is he not the central character in this week’s parshah?

The parshah is somewhat unique in that it concentrates entirely on the Israelites confrontation with the people who inhabit Moab and does not have any real side story that is not related to the Moabites. It starts off with the King of Moab, Balak, summoning the prophet Balaam so that Balaam would put a curse on the Israelites and prevent them from defeating Moab.

In the First Aliyah, I get my first clue as to Jews not being the only ones that have a special relationship with the Lord when in response to the emissaries from Moab asking Balaam to come back with them to meet with Balak, we read the following in Numbers 22:8-9:

“He said to them, "Lodge here for the night, and I will give you an answer when the Lord speaks to me." So the Moabite nobles stayed with Balaam.

G-d came to Balaam and said, "Who are these men with you?"

So we see immediately that Balaam does have the ability to communicate with the Almighty and G-d does respond to this person. G-d tells Balaam that he cannot curse the Israelites because they are blessed and further tells him not to go to see Balak, and Balaam obeys this command.  

Balak does not give up and sends higher dignitaries to try and persuade Balaam to come and help Balak in his upcoming war with the Israelites. In the Second Aliyah Balaam again says something that leads me to think that we as Jews are not alone in our worship of G-d, when in Numbers 22:18 Balaam states the following:

“Balaam answered and said to Balak's servants, "Even if Balak gives me a house full of silver and gold, I cannot do anything small or great that would transgress the word of the Lord, my G-d.”

Balaam acknowledges that the entity that we worship is also his G-d as well, yet Balaam is not a Jew. There is a strange ending to the Second Aliyah in that G-d tells Balaam that he can go with the emissaries but that Balaam can only speak the words that G-d instructs him to say. The reason I say this is strange is because in the Third Aliyah at Numbers 22:22 we are told the following:

“G-d's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.”

Why does G-d get angry after telling Balaam he can go? Then we have the very strange depiction of the she-donkey being given the ability to speak to Balaam after it is beaten by Balaam for not going forward. The she-donkey has the ability to see G-d’s angel before Balaam is allowed to see the angel, which adds to the mystery of what is going on between Balaam and the Lord. My guess is that in case Balaam had other ideas rather than convey the word of G-d to Balak, this was the means by which the Lord convinced Balaam not to vary from the script he was going to give him.

The parshah goes on to show that every time Balak asks Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam only goes on to bless them instead as he was commanded to do by G-d. Not only does he bless the Israelites, his prophecy goes on to predict the end of days and the coming of the Moshiach. This is extraordinary considering that Balaam is not part of the Jewish religion. Why does G-d give this much authority to Balaam?

The parshah does not end with Balaam departing but shows that the Israelites in the desert were again not responding to what was being asked of them by G-d. They take up with Moabite women and begin worshipping their gods, which brings out G-d’s anger at them yet again. 

I must say that every time I read a parshah I catch something I did not realize before. The most critical moment in the Seventh Aliyah comes when Phinehas kills an Israelite that was flaunting his lust with a Midianite woman which stops yet another plague that G-d brought against the Israelites. I always thought that Phinehas did this on his own impulse yet in Numbers 25:5 I read the following:

“Moses said to the judges of Israel, "Each of you shall kill the men who became attached to Baal Peor.”

In a sense he was just following the order of his leader, which apparently pleased G-d and stopped the plague. Live and learn,


Dear Mordecai

I love the scene with the donkey. I think you've answered one question about the incident, what its theological purpose is for being there, but why did G-d put it there?

I think Balaam is given so much authority by G-d as a way of demonstrating that prophets are chosen by G-d. They are not prophets because of their own effort and talent. Balaam lacked virtues, but prophecy still rested on him. 

I wonder whether Phinehas was rewarded by G-d for obedience. That is what you claim. However, He rewards him for zeal, going beyond the command. That we will learn about in next week's parsha.