This week’s portion centers on the attempt by the Moabite king Balak to thwart the advance of the Israelites through his territory during their march on the way to the conquest of Canaan. This anticipated arrival in the Promised Land is to be the fulfillment of the 40-year process inaugurated by the Exodus: the realization of the promises of property, prosperity, progeny, and peace.
The narrative reminds us that for every story of the arrival in and transformation of a “promised land” there is often a counter-narrative, the viewpoint from the perspective of those who may already have been residents in that same land. The expansion west of the United States during the 19th century, for example, is narrated very differently depending on whether the person telling the story is a native American or a mid-19th-century U.S. politician. One of the old Zionist slogans — “a land without a people for a people without a land” — also would have sounded very different from the perspective of those living in Palestine at the turn of the 20th century.
While the Torah has no illusions about Balak’s being a warm and compassionate ruler, his anxiety over the inexorable and apparently inevitable advance of the Israelites through his territory gives us some indication of the concerns of the native populations of that period. “Moab was alarmed because the Israelite people were so numerous” (Numbers 22:3), an echo of Pharaoh: “Look, the Israelite people are too numerous for us….” (Exodus 1:9). Unlike Pharaoh, who sought suppression through oppression, Balak turns to magic, inviting a pagan master of divination, Balaam, to curse the Israelites.
The power of Balaam to curse and to bless is assumed to be effective. Although “hired” by Balak, Balaam curiously defers to the God of Israel, telling the king that he can speak only what “the Lord my God” permits. And so to the great frustration of Balak, in each of the three times that Balaam attempts to curse Israel, he utters words of blessing instead. Even when dismissed by Balak, Balaam continues his prophesy, and this time he turns against the Moabite king: “A scepter comes forth from Israel; it smashes the brow of Moab…. Israel will be triumphant!” (Numbers 24:17-18).
What Balak sought was doomed from the start. Balak mistakenly believes of Balaam that “whom you bless is blessed indeed, and whom you curse is cursed.” But earlier in the Torah the text has God saying “I (i.e., God) will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you…” meaning it is God, not any human, that ultimately holds the power of blessing and dooming.
Among the revolutionary implications of biblical monotheism as noted by the scholar Yehezkel Kaufman is the (near) absolute repudiation of magic, divination, augury, and other forms of cosmic manipulation designed to influence or control God. “There is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel.” (Numbers 22:23)
Like Pharaoh, what Balak did not understand was that with the coming of the people Israel was the coming of the God of Israel: not one more among the other gods, but a new understanding of divinity altogether. This is a God that cannot be manipulated through offerings, incantations, and magical ritual. This is a people, according to the Torah, whose destiny is determined by that God alone. The talmudic slogan ein mazal b’Yisrael — colloquially rendered as “Jews have no luck!”— actually means “There is no zodiac constellation governing the fate of Israel (although the other nations are so-governed).”
The attempt by Balak to resort to magic suggests that, like Pharaoh, he does not realize that the “rules of the game have changed” although it does suggest he recognizes that military resistance is futile. Regrettably, Balak assumes there are only two choices: surrender or attack. Regrettably, this binary response to changing circumstances and geopolitical issues continues to inform much of the way in which contemporary Middle East nations interact.
But between “blessing” and “dooming” is a wide space — a space perhaps wide enough that more than one people can learn to live within its territory.