Why do King Balak and the prophet Bilam behave badly in this week’s Torah portion, Balak?
In the book I am writing on moral psychology in Genesis, I examine the text for emotional impulses and character flaws that result in immoral behavior. Three of the character flaws I found in Genesis also explain the poor ethical choices of Balak and Bilam.
Balak, the king of Moab, is alarmed after the Israelites have conquered the Amorite city-state of Cheshbon on the northern border of his kingdom. He sends dignitaries to Bilam, who lives by the Euphrates River, with the following message:
“And now please go curse these people for me! Because they are more numerous than we are. Maybe I will be able to nakeh them and drive them out from the land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:6)
nakeh (נַכֶּה) = strike down, break, beat down. (A form of the root verb nakah, נָכָּה = strike, hit, beat, destroy.)
Balak’s emotional reaction to finding a horde of strangers camped across his border is fear, naturally enough. But when he tries to address his fear he makes two mistakes. One is that he assumes the Israelites will attack Moab next. The truth is that the Israelites are on their way to Canaan, and conquered Cheshbon because the king of Cheshbon refused to let them pass through his land. They are not interested in attacking Moab, which lies to the south, before they continue their journey northward. But it never occurs to Balak to see if he can find out why the Israelites attacked Cheshbon.
His other mistake is that he tries to hire Bilam to curse the Israelites, instead of to bless the Moabites. King Balak could just as well ask Bilam to make Moab look invulnerable to the Israelites, or to make the Israelites seek peace.
But Balak only thinks in terms of war, in terms of kill or be killed. He tries to arrange the mass destruction of the people camping across the Arnon River from Moab even though they have made no hostile move against him because he lacks imagination.
He is not the only one in the Torah with this character flaw. In the book of Genesis, Noah fails to talk God into saving innocent animals and children from the flood because he cannot imagine talking back when God speaks to him.1 Jacob masquerades as his brother Esau and lies to Isaac, their father, because it does not occur to him that Isaac might intend to give two blessings, one to Esau and a different one to Jacob.2 Shimon and Levi lie to the men of Shekhem and then massacre them because nobody in their family thinks of a polite way to refuse an invitation by the ruler of Shekhem.3
An inability to imagine better alternatives leads many human beings to follow their worst impulses: callous resignation for Noah, greed for Jacob, and violence for Shimon and Levi. The same lack of imagination makes Balak respond to his fear of strangers by trying to make it easier to kill them.
On the other hand, people who often exercise imagination can become unable to think outside the box when they are gripped by an overwhelming emotional reaction. A psychological complex can overwhelm one’s more rational self; perhaps Balak, Shimon, and Levi had complexes that made them react to trouble by lashing out violently. We cannot tell from the text of the Torah.
Bilam and the Moabites
When King Balak’s delegation arrives at Bilam’s house, God visits Bilam in a dream and tells him not to go to Moab, because the Israelites are blessed. In the morning Bilam tells the Moabites that God will not let him go with them.
Then Balak sends back a more impressive group of dignitaries, and the promise of a rich reward. Bilam already knows that God will not let him curse the Israelites, but this time he prevaricates:
“If Balak gave me what fills his house, [all the] silver and gold, I would not be able to cross the word of God, my God, to do [anything] small or large. But now please stay here overnight again, and I will find out again what God will speak to me.” (Numbers 22:18-19)
That night God tells the prophet he may go to Moab, but when he arrives he must do whatever God tells him to do. Bilam accompanies the Moabites without telling them God’s caveat, giving them the false impression that he will curse the Israelites and earn his pay.
Why does Bilam string along the Moabites? The clue in the text is that he has named a high price for his services: all the silver and gold in Balak’s house. His motivation for going to Moab, and his character flaw, is greed.
Greed was also Abraham’s motivation in Genesis when he passed off his wife Sarah as his sister, hoping to cheat the king of Gerar out of a high bride-price.4 If the Torah told us about what Bilam and Abraham learned from their parents or from earlier experiences, we could guess why they are greedy enough to brush aside ethical considerations. But the Torah only presents the two men as they are.
Bilam and the donkey
Next God tests Bilam by placing a divine messenger in his path, an angel that only Bilam’s donkey can see. Twice the donkey swerves twice to avoid the angel. The third time, when the way is too narrow, she lies down underneath Bilam and refuses to move. All three times Bilam angrily beats his donkey.
Then God opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Bilam: “What have I done to you that hikitani these three times?” And Bilam said to the donkey: “Because you made a fool of me! If only there were a sword in my hand so that now I could kill you!” (Numbers 22:28-29)
hikitani (הִכִּיתַנִי) = you struck me, you hit me, you beat me. (Another form of the root verb nakah.)
Why does Bilam beat his donkey? It would have been more ethical for him to investigate her unusual behavior (not to mention her sudden gift of speech). But Bilam is overwhelmed by his angry impulse because of another character flaw: pride. King Balak’s men were probably watching the first two times the donkey swerved. He believed his donkey’s behavior made him look like a fool who could not control his own mount.
In the book of Genesis, Cain also becomes infuriated when his pride is hurt. He is the first person to make an offering to God. After he has laid out the fruits of the soil he has labored over, his brother Abel offers an animal from his flock. God accepts Abel’s offering but ignores Cain’s. Cain is humiliated, and God cautions him:
“Why did you become hot-with-anger,
and why did your face fall?
“Isn’t it true that if you do good,
[there is] uplifting?
“And if you do not do good,
wickedness is crouching like a beast at the door,
and its craving is for you.
“But you, you can rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)
Cain loses his temper and kills Abel. He is unable to rule over his pride and stop himself from succumbing to wickedness.
When Bilam is infuriated by pride, God does not caution him directly, but instead lets the donkey speak.
Then God opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Bilam: “Aren’t I your donkey, that you have ridden on from long ago until this day? Am I really accustomed to doing this to you?” And he said: “No.” (Numbers 22:30)
At least Bilam is honest at this point, recognizing that his donkey does not deserve to be beaten. Once he has answered “No”, God lets him see the divine messenger, who scolds him for beating the donkey and adds: “Hey, I went out as a accuser.” (Numbers 22:32)
Bilam concludes that God sent the angel to oppose his journey to Moab in the hope of being able to curse the Israelites.
And Bilam said to God’s messenger: “I did wrong because I did not know that you were stationed to meet me on the way. And now, if it is wrong in your eyes I will turn back.” (Genesis 22:34)
Turning around at this point would make Bilam look even more foolish to the Moabite dignitaries, but now Bilam is willing to swallow his pride. The divine messenger tells him to go to Moab anyway, but say nothing except what God tells him. He does, and finds himself blessing (giving good prophecies about) the Israelites three times. King Balak pays Bilam nothing, and the reformed prophet heads home.5
In this week’s Torah portion, Bilam makes two ethical errors: he deceives someone because of greed, like Abraham, and he strikes an innocent party because of pride, like Cain. But his bad deeds are not as bad as theirs. Bilam only deceives the king of Moab, whereas Abraham both deceives the king of Gerar and puts Sarah in a dangerous and compromising position. Bilam only beats his donkey, whereas Cain murders his brother. And Bilam admits he was wrong and repents.
We all have negative emotional impulses sometimes. Whether these impulses lead to unethical behavior often depends on our individual character flaws, which may be the result of psychological complexes. But early in the book of Genesis, God promises Cain that even though it is difficult, we can learn what our complexes are and rise above them.
May we exercise more imagination than Balak, so we can think of better alternatives than lashing out at others. And if we become overwhelmed by greed or pride, may we recognize it, temper it, and admit when we did wrong, like Bilam.
- Abraham persuades God to refrain from burning up Sodom if there are even ten innocent people in the city. Moses persuades God to give the Israelites a second chance after they worship the Golden Calf. But Noach is silent. After God has spoken to him, all the Torah says is: And Noach did everything that God commanded him; thus he did. (Genesis 6:22)
- Genesis 27:1-28:4.
- Genesis 34:8-29.
- Genesis 20:1-18.
- In a later Torah portion, Mattot, Moses orders a war of vengeance against the Midianites of Moab, who had invited the Israelites to make offerings to their own god. The Israelites kill every Midianite male including the five kings of Midian, “and Bilam son of Beor they killed by the sword” (Numbers 31:8). The Torah does not say why Bilam was there, but Moses says that the Midianite females seduced the Israelite men “according to the word of Bilam” (Numbers 31:16).