The Torah is full of kings: rulers of Israelites, pharaohs of Egypt, kings of empires, and many petty kings of small countries scattered around the Middle East. Out of all the kings of the small non-Israelite countries, the one I feel the most empathy for is a king of Moab named Balak.
Balak son of Tzippor saw everything that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab felt very intimidated on account of the people, because there were so many; so he felt hostile on account of the children of Israel. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:-3)
Balak (בָּלָק) = devastated, rendered uninhabitable.
King Balak may feel “devasted” at the sight of the Israelites because he already rules a diminished country. During the reign of the first (unnamed) king of Moab, the Amorites had attacked and conquered the northern half of Moab (Numbers 21:26). The kingdom of Moab that King Balak rules is a small land between Edom to the south and the Amorite kingdom of Cheshbon to the north.
In last week’s Torah portion, Chukkat, the Israelites marched north through the wilderness east of Edom and Moab. At the Arnon River, the border between Moab and Cheshbon, they turned west again, heading for the Jordan River and the “promised land” of Canaan on the other side.
Moses asked King Sichon of Cheshbon for permission to pass through his country on the way to the Jordan, but Sichon refused, and sent an army to attack the Israelites. The Israelites defeated his army and conquered his country, as well as the land of Bashan to the north. Then they camped on the “plains of Moab”, a stretch of land along the east bank of the Jordan that belonged first to Moab, then to the Amorites, and now to the children of Israel.
This week’s Torah portion, Balak, opens when King Balak sees the huge Israelite encampment, just north of his own territory. A confident and thoughtful king might feel relieved that the Israelites had skirted his own country and conquered his enemy instead. He might make inquiries, and learn that the Israelites had asked permission to cross through the land of Cheshbon peacefully, since their real destination was Canaan. He might realize that the Israelites are, in fact, no threat to the present kingdom of Moab.
But Balak is consumed by anxiety. The Israelites are so powerful, they must be a threat! Balak knows his own army could never defeat them. So he decides to resort to magic. He sends delegates to Bilam (sometimes spelled Balaam in English), an independent operator with a reputation as as sorcerer. The delegates pass on their king’s message:
Hey! A people went out from Egypt, and hey! It covers the sight of the land! And it has settled in front of me! So now please come curse this people for me, because it is too vast for me. Perhaps then I will be able to strike a blow against it and I will drive it out from the land. Because I know whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is accursed. (Numbers 22:-3)
Classic commentary argued that since Balak asks for a curse against the people of Israel, rather than for a blessing for his own people, he must have an evil nature. I think Balak is not evil, but merely frightened. Confident people believe they can achieve things; frightened people feel powerless.
King Balak believes Bilam is a powerful sorcerer who can change the fate of nations. But Bilam is actually a prophet. He tells Balak’s delegates right away that he can only say what God tells him to (and he uses the same four-letter name of God as the Israelites). The next morning, Bilam reports that God told him the Israelites are blessed, so he cannot go and curse them.
But Balak cannot bear to give up the idea of being rescued by magic. He assumes Bilam is making an excuse, and tries again with higher-ranking delegates and promises of “very much honor”—i.e., ample remuneration—if he will just come and pronounce a curse on those Isralites. Finally Bilam does come to Moab. Balak’s first words to him are questions:
Isn’t it so that I certainly sent for you, to invite you? Why didn’t you go to me? Am I really not able to honor you? (Numbers 22:37)
Thus Balak inadvertently reveals his own insecurity. Meanwhile, Bilam has just lived through a harrowing experience involving an angel and a talking donkey (see my post Balak: Prophet and Donkey). He snaps back:
Hey! I’ve come to you now. Am I really able to speak anything? I must speak the word that God will put in my mouth. (Numbers 22:38)
The truth could not be plainer. But does King Balak believe Bilam? Of course not. He is too anxious about the horde of Israelites, too desperate to look at any facts.
Bilam, who likes the idea of being “honored” with silver and gold, goes along with Balak—just in case God changes its mind. Balak takes Bilam to three different spots overlooking the Israelite camp, and at each place, he builds altars and sacrifices animals according to Bilam’s instructions. At each place, Bilam goes off by himself, then returns to King Balak and recites a poem extolling the Israelites.
Bilam’s second poem includes the line: There is no magic in Israel. (Numbers 23:23) Unlike Balak, the people of Israel do not need to believe in magic, because they know God is blessing them.
I think God is also blessing Balak and Bilam in this story. After all, the army of Israel is not attacking Moab. And Bilam gets to be the mouthpiece of God, and even work his own name into the poetic prophecies. But neither man is getting what he has fixated on, so neither recognizes his own blessings.
After the third time Balak and Bilam go through their routine, the king of Moab finally gives up on magic.
Then Balak’s nose burned in anger toward Bilam, and he clapped his hands [in despair]. Balak said to Bilam: I invited you to pronounce a curse on my enemies, and hey! You repeatedly blessed them these three times! So now, run away back to your own place. I said I would certainly honor you, but hey! God withheld honor from you! (Numbers 24:10-11)
Looking from the outside, it is easy to see that King Balak should have been patient and avoided making assumptions or taking any action against the Israelites. But things look different from the inside.
I felt powerless for the first forty years of my life. Like Balak, I thought my adversaries could only be thwarted by someone else, someone who did have power. And like Balak, I did not believe anyone could bless me and make me stronger. I remember how in the middle of anxiety and insecurity, it was almost impossible to be patient and rational. Doing something, anything other than direct confrontation, seemed better than standing there like a target for misfortune. And once you start doing something irrational, it is hard to stop.
How can we face apparent threats with equanimity? How can we avoid being “devastated”? The clue in the Torah is that there is no magic in Israel; the people who know they have God’s blessing do not seek magic.
Our task is to cultivate a habit of feeling blessed. I try to do this by consciously noticing small blessings throughout the day, from the daylily blooming in my garden to the smile on my husband’s face. What practice do you cultivate?