This week’s Torah portion features a talking ass, a bad guy who won’t get the point, and a not-very-low-key condemnation of intermarriage.
So, it’s busy. I’m going to leave for next year the murderous intermarriage condemnation. That’s not because that theme is unimportant; it’s very important, but the Bible’s complicated interaction with the idea of Israelites marrying non-Israelites is not what grabbed my attention this week.
But the talking ass and the bad guy who won’t get the point? That’s some interesting stuff right there.
If you turned on a Top 40 radio station in 1999, you couldn’t avoid this song:
Okay, so I know lots of people don’t like that song, but tough. It’s catchy and has a pretty great hook, and makes great use of a sample of the guitar from “More More More.” And, while we’re at it, some of the lyrics are almost wildly inscrutable: “My sticky paws were into making straws out of big fat slurpy treats/An incredible eight-foot heap.”
Inscrutable lyrics, a great hook…sounds like an ancient near eastern prophecy! How’s that for a tie-in to parshat Balak, which is all about Balak trying to more or less force the non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, to bless his efforts to defeat the Israelites?
To expand on the recap: parshat Balak is in the book of Numbers, which, after a census, spends a whole lot of its time telling stories about a period of years in which the Israelites are said to have lived in the wilderness, moving from place to place, not entering into the land of Israel itself because of their recalcitrance. Story after story centers on Israelite complaints against Moses and Aaron. By the time the reader gets to Balak, the story has come to a point where the Israelites are said to be moving from one ancient near eastern kingdom to another. In each new territory they enter, they try to obtain passage along a road with the promise that they will not despoil the land in which they are traveling. In each territory, they are rebuffed, often leading to wars which the Israelites win.
The Israelites, as Balak begins, arrive at Moab and seek passage, promising again not to despoil the land. King Balak of Moab has, however, received word of the Israelites’ travels, has learned of their numbers, and refuses passage. Knowing the Israelites’ numbers, Balak seeks assurance that he’ll defeat the Israelites when he meets them with his army. So Balak turns to a non-Israelite prophet whose activity is even reported outside the Bible (in the Deir Alla inscription): Balaam son of Beor.
Balaam’s reputation is such that Balak recognizes that those whom Balaam blesses prosper, so Balak sends messengers to Balaam multiple times, offering Balaam fabulous wealth if he will bless Balak. Balaam insists that this is not how it works, stating that Yahweh tells him who will prosper, and refuses the first demand for him to see Balak. Balak sends another set of messengers. Balaam again wants to decline the invitation, and Yahweh appears to Balaam and tells him to do only what Yahweh commands. But Balaam gives in to Balak’s second set of messengers, saddles his ass (notably, a female donkey), and sets off.
This wasn’t what Yahweh told him to do, and so an angel appears to the donkey to frighten it and trap Balaam. Eventually Balaam starts to whip the donkey, the donkey steps on his foot, and Balaam keeps whacking away until the donkey talks — I said there was a talking ass — and explains, in essence, “Uh, dude? I’ve served you loyally, and you should trust me here — there’s a freaking angel with a sword in the middle of the path!” Balaam finally sees the angel, has a “whoops!” moment, and is told to continue on his journey but only to say what Yahweh says he should say.
This leads to a series of misadventures. Balak gives Balaam a hard time about not being willing to take his money. Balaam has Balak set up altars and offer sacrifices, and says, in essence, “I’ll talk with Yahweh and we’ll see what he says.” Yahweh causes Balaam to return as a prophecy a blessing for Israel — not Balak. This begins a series of shleps from one high place to another, with Balak setting up altars and offering sacrifices to obtain Balaam’s blessing. Each time, Balaam comes back with a blessing for Israel, not for Balak. After three go-arounds of this, Balak sends Balaam on his way, dropping his effort to get a blessing — in essence, a prophecy from the god worshipped by Israel — promising that he will triumph over Israel.
So, first: let’s remember that the Bible is often pretty weird, and this story is a great example of that.
Second: rabbinic midrashic tradition twists this story around and makes Balaam an unsympathetic character attempting curse the Israelites, but instead blessing them against his will. That’s not exactly how the plain sense of the biblical story goes: Balaam is instead portrayed as attempting to avoid Balak’s entreaties, and constantly adds provisos that he can only say what Yahweh tells him to say.
Third: this story has some interesting present-day resonances, which is what grabbed my attention when I read it this year. Of late, there has been quite a bit of outrage on the part of the Christian Right, accusing various members of the U.S. Democratic Party of antisemitism. At the same time, Christian Right and various U.S. Republican Party politicos have expressed sentiments that can safely be called antisemitic themselves.
Take, for example, this tweet from a Trump campaign official:
And that is to say nothing of the fact that the President’s closing campaign argument used antisemitic tropes.
So the irony here, then: non-Jewish conservative politicians crying antisemitism, and even claiming personal offense as though they were personally targeted by antisemitism, while trading in antisemitism when beneficial to them.
Nothing quite says being like Balak quite like trying to appropriate the blessings and curses piled onto others for one’s own benefit, propriety be damned.
Sticky paws making straws out of big fat slurpy treats, piled eight-feet deep indeed.