Balak: A Misunderstood King

When people read the Story of Balaam, they always focus on the Talking Donkey. I can’t understand why. The Torah Portion is named after me, King Balak of Moab, and, after all, talking donkeys are nothing unusual. I daresay, Reader, that you may have heard one or two, or several, mainly in politics, which we had in my day, as well, albeit in a minor, less dangerous form. And the fact is that the Donkey showed a great deal more intelligence than either its rider, hapless Balaam, or my several messengers, who keep returning to Balaam and offer him riches, only to be refused. The story reads like a fairytale, which it well might have been.

Let us examine the facts of the tale, eliminating Balaam—yes, yes, I know that he composed a few lines of poetry—quite a few, in fact—but only a smallish fragment made it into your prayerbook:

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob,

Your dwelling-places, O Israel!

Is that it? Is that all? I suppose that it’s a big deal when a pagan prophet’s verse makes it into an ethically monotheistic people’s prayerbook.

When I read it, I asked Balaam, “Why are you praising this pesky bunch of nomadic interlopers?”

“The God of Israel touched my heart,” he replied, getting all moony, “and I was inspired to write poetry on His behalf.”

“Not a great deal of poetry,” I huffed, “and after all, I was the one who hired you.”

“Are you going to pay me, Majesty?” he asked.

Can you imagine—he still believed that I was going to pay him for the non-curse which he did not deliver to the Israelites. The nerve of him!

Dear Reader, I hope that you will listen while I make my case. The fact is that Israel and Moab are related—we were originally produced by that—um—unfortunate liaison between Lot and his daughter. About that I can only say, “The less said, best said.”

Furthermore, Bible scholars, who know a great deal more about these things than I do, believe that the relationship between Moab and Israel was mixed—you either accepted us as neighbors, or you warred against us, often for most confusing reasons. I cannot figure out the points in our mutual history where you oppressed us, especially when we were living in peace. I hired Balaam in the first place because my god, Chemosh, ordered me to curse the Israelites. I think. How can one converse with a god of stone? And didn’t your God inform you not to take advantage of or destroy the weak?

When all is said and done, however, remember that the Torah Portion is named after me—not that foolish, greedy prophet; not the angel (though that would have been nice; I like angels), and certainly not the donkey. It is named after me, and why? Because, in my misguided attempt to curse Israel, I contributed to their legend—that of an unstoppable, eternal people. It’s not as though they will always be right, however. I can only pray to their God that they not oppress other nations.

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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