6 Tamuz 5774
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Balak: Blessings and curses
by Daniel Pinner
Jewish history began on the day that “Hashem said to Abram, Get yourself out from your country and from your homeland and from your father’s house, to the Land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Leaving his birthplace, tearing himself away from everything that was known and familiar when he was 75 years old and starting out on a journey to an as-yet-unknown destination, demanded such great faith and was so difficult that it was one of the ten tests with which God tested Abraham (Pirkei Avot 5:3, Avot de-Rabbi Natan 33:2, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 26 ).
Abraham passed this test, and God continued: “I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you I will damn, and in you will be blessed all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).
The Targum Yonatan paraphrases this blessing: “I will bless the Kohanim (Priests) who will spread their hands in prayer and bless your children, and Bil’am (Balaam) who curses them, I will curse – they will kill him by the decree of the sword, and in you will be blessed all the families of the earth”.
464 years later Balak, king of Moab, would send his messengers to Bil’am, the non-Jewish prophet who lived some 700 km (435 miles) to the north in Aram. Balak, whether consciously or subconsciously, tried to emulate this blessing in his words to the prophet-for-hire: “Now go and curse this nation for me – because it is greater than me – maybe I will be able to smite it and drive it out of the country; because as I know, he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you damn is damned” (Numbers 22:6).
If Balak knew of God’s blessing to Abraham and its wording, then this message to Bil’am is surely rank cynicism. And if Bil’am knew of God’s blessing to Abraham – which he may well have done, being a prophet who hailed from Aram, Abraham’s birthplace – then his acceptance of Balak’s parody of God’s promise to Abraham is even worse.
Indeed, the Midrash quotes Bil’am as saying to Balak, “We are both equally ungrateful: had it not been for their father Abraham, then Balak would never have existed, as it says ‘And it happened when God destroyed the cities of the plain [of Sodom and Gomorrah] that God remembered Abraham and He sent Lot out from the midst of the turmoil’ (Genesis 19:29). Had it not been for Abraham, Lot would not have been saved from Sodom, and you are descended from Lot! And had it not been for Jacob their father, I myself would not be in the world, because Laban only had sons in Jacob’s merit… He that damns, damns himself; for thus it is written, ‘he who curses you I will damn’” (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:19).
Bil’am knew only too well which nation he was going against and what the implications of his attempted attack were. He was, after all, a prophet on the level of Moshe himself (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20; Tannah de-Vey Eliyahu, Eliyahu Zuta 10; Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers 765 et. al.).
Some 20 years after the episode with Balak and Bil’am, after the prophet Joshua had led us in conquest of the Land of Israel and apportioned it among the twelve Tribes, Joshua delivered his farewell address to the nation in Shechem (Joshua 24). Inter alia, he recalled those events: “Thus said Hashem:…Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, arose and fought against Israel, and he sent and called to Bil’am son of Beor to curse them. But I did not deign to listen to Bil’am, and he blessed you with a blessing – and thus I saved you from his hand” (vs. 9-10).
And almost a millennium later, at the time of the return of the exiles from Babylon, Persia and Media to the Land of Israel, Nehemiah reminded the nation of how Moab “hired Bil’am against it to curse it, but our God reversed the curse into a blessing” (Nehemiah 13:2).
The inference is that Bil’am really did have the power to bless and to curse – which was why King Balak had called on him in the first place: “…as I know, he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you damn is damned” (Numbers 22:6). We can speculate: for a regional king to speak like this, how many historical precedents did he have to rely upon? How many nations had Bil’am already blessed and cursed, how many battles and wars had he already won and lost for other kings, in order to build up so solid a reputation?
No record seems to exist, neither in Jewish sources nor in outside sources, of anything that Bil’am had done previously. Yet the fact that a king would call on his help from so far away implies very strongly that Bil’am had a formidable history.
It is also worth noting that both when God addressed Bil’am (Numbers 22:9-12, 20) and when His angel addressed him (31-35), he was not particularly fazed. Now the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 45:7) points out that Manoah feared that he and his wife (Samson’s future parents) would die because the angel appeared to them (Judges 13:22), whereas Hagar related with equanimity to the angel who appeared to her (Genesis 16:7-13). This was because it was Manoah’s first ever encounter with an angel, whereas Hagar, who had lived for so many years in the tent of Abraham and Sarah, was already accustomed to seeing angels.
Evidently this was not Bil’am’s first encounter either with God or with His angel.
And yet, in spite of this, when Joshua wrote the history of his era (“Joshua wrote his Book and the final eight verses of the Torah” – Bava Batra 14b), he recorded that “the Children of Israel killed Bil’am son of Beor, the magician, by the sword” (Joshua 13:22).
The Talmud picks up on Joshua’s wording. “‘Bil’am son of Beor, the magician’ – a magician?! He was a prophet! Said Rabbi Yochanan: He began as a prophet and ended up as a magician” (Sanhedrin 106a). Rashi comments on this, “When he set his eyes on cursing Israel, prophecy was taken from him and he became a magician”.
Let us see the context in which Joshua described Bil’am as “magician”. Joshua was already “old, advanced in years” (Joshua 13:1), and he had already led the conquest of great parts of the Land of Israel. Chapters 13 to 21 of the Book of Joshua delineate the borders of the Land of Israel, the internal borders of the territories of the twelve Tribes, the Cities of refuge, and the Levite Cities.
Chapter 13 defines the borders of trans-Jordanian Israel, the areas which had been settled by Moab and which are currently occupied by the Kingdom of Jordan. “Moshe had given to the Tribe of the children of Reuben, according to their families, and their border was from Aroer…and all the cities of the plain, and the entire kingdom of Sihon, king of the Amorites…whom Moshe had struck – him and the princes of Midian: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, rulers of Sihon, who dwelt in the Land; and Bil’am son of Beor, the magician, the Children of Israel had killed by the sword” (Joshua 13:15-22).
The fact that Joshua slips this historical detail in at this juncture tells us something important. When settling the Land of Israel, when defining its borders – remember our enemies who fought to prevent us from entering our Land, and remember how we dealt with them!
And understand that those who fight against us, even if they acknowledge the One true God, even a prophet among them, are to be killed.
When Joshua led us across the River Jordan into the Land of Israel, he followed a sound military strategy. He began by conquering Jericho, on the border of Israel, then proceeded to Ai, and by conquering those two cities he subdued the entire Jordan Valley. He then proceeded to Shechem, which controls a strategically invaluable mountain pass, and which by extension controls the north of the country.
He then advanced southwards, and it was there, in the battle for Gilgal, that Joshua, needing extra hours of daylight to complete the battle, “said in the eyes of Israel: Sun in Gibeon stand still, and Moon, in the Valley of Ayalon! And the sun stopped, and the moon stood still, until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies… The sun stood still in the midst of the heavens, and did not begin moving towards sunset for a whole day” (Joshua 10:12-13).
Though the Tanach does not indicate when exactly the battle for Gilgal and the miracle of the sun standing still occurred, the Midrash (Seder Olam Rabbah 11) records that this miracle occurred on the 3rd of Tammuz.
(In memory of Naftali Frenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah Hy”d, who were buried side-by-side in Modi’in on the 3rd of Tammuz.)