Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid of the horde of Israelites camped north of his border in this week’s Torah portion, Balak. (See my earlier post, Balak: A Question of Anxiety.) He hires the prophet Bilam to curse the Israelites so Moab’s soldiers can drive them away. Bilam warns the king that all he can do is say the words God puts in his mouth. Nevertheless, King Balak leads Bilam to three different vantage points, hoping for a curse each time. Instead, God makes Bilam pronounce three different blessings on the Israelites.
Here are the three vantage points where Balak takes Bilam to look down at the Israelite camp:
1) In the morning Balak took Bilam and he led him up to Bamot of Ba-al, and from there he saw the edge of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:41)
bamot (בָּמוֹת) = heights; high places used for Canaanite worship.
ba-al (בָּעַל) = ruled over, owned. (The noun form of this verb is also pronounced ba-al, spelled בַּעַל; it means ruler, owner, master; or the Canaanite god of weather and fertility.)
2) Then Balak said to him: Go with me, please, to another place from where you will see them. … Curse them for me from there. He took him to the Field of Tzofim, to the head of the mountain… (Numbers 23:13-14)
3) Balak said to Bilam: Go, please; I will take you to a different place; perhaps it will be right in the eyes of the gods that you will curse them for me from there. And Balak took Bilam to the Head of the Peor, the overlook over the face of the desert. (Nuimbers 23:27-28)
peor (פְּעוֹר) = wide open like a mouth. (The Head of Peor may be Mt. Nebo, which stands above the temple of Peor in Deuteronomy 34:6.)
Three Peaks: Version 1
In the 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch identified the names of these three locations with material prosperity, foreknowledge, and sexual morality. At each place, he wrote, King Balak was hoping a corresponding weakness in the Israelite people would provide an opening for Bilam to curse them. (Hirsch on Chumash.)
First, according to Hirsch, Balak takes Bilam to a high shrine of the Canaanite nature god Baal, who controls material prosperity. (For an agricultural people, prosperity does come from fertility and beneficial weather, Baal’s areas of expertise.) Balak hopes the Israelites can be cursed with poverty. But Bilam calls the Israelites a solitary people, which does not count itself among the nations… (Numbers 23:9). Hirsch argued from this that Jewish national survival, unlike that of other nations, does not depend on material prosperity, and therefore Israel remained blessed.
For his second attempt, Balak takes Bilam to the Field of Tzofim. Traditional commentary interpreted the word tzofim as soothsayers—seers who used magic to provide information and advice about the future. Hirsch wrote that at the Field of Tzofim, Balak hopes the Israelites have a weak spot when it comes to magical and intellectual advice about the future. Bilam returns and says: “Stand up, Balak!” (Numbers 22:18) His second blessing, according to Hirsch, tells Balak that the Israelites have a much higher level of wisdom than that of soothsayers.
For his third try, King Balak takes Bilam to the vantage point of Head of the Peor. For Hirsch, Peor means the worship of sexual immorality—probably because at the end of this week’s Torah portion, many Israelite men succumb to the seductions of local women who worship Ba-al Peor, and one Israelite man commits the ultimate sacrilege of having intercourse with a Midianite woman in God’s own Tent of Meeting. (See my earlier post, Balak: Wide Open.)
Nevertheless, Hirsch claimed that Bilam had to bless the Israelites a third time because of their sexual morality.
According to traditional commentary, when Bilam stands on the peak called Peor, he has a vision of the Israelite camp, and he notices that the openings of the tents are arranged so that nobody can see into another family’s tent, and sexual modesty is preserved. This is the traditional explanation for why Bilam’s third blessing includes the following verse (one that has become a standard part of Jewish morning liturgy): How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwellings, Israel!
By citing this extrabiblical tradition, Hirsch was able to conclude that the Israelites were blessed from the vantage point of sexual morality, as well as prosperity and foreknowledge.
The remaining problem with Hirsch’s three categories is that King Balak wants the Israelites cursed so that he can attack their camp and drive them away from his northern border. While poverty, short-sightedness, and/or moral problems might bring down a culture eventually, none of these ills would operate quickly enough for Balak’s purpose.
Three Peaks: Version 2
I think Balak’s three vantage points reflect different issues: mastery over the land, awareness, and satisfaction with life. If the Israelites are cursed in any of these areas, it will be easier for the army of Moab to send them packing.
The first location, Bamot Ba-al, also means “heights of ownership and mastery”. The Israelites have just conquered the territory north of Moab, but can they master the land and its people, so as to hold it?
Bilam’s first blessing not only calls the Israelites a solitary people, which does not count itself among the nations (Numbers 23:9), but also includes the rhetorical question: Who can count the dust of Jacob? (Numbers 23:10)
I think this blessing tells Balak that unlike other nations, the Israelites know they are blessed, and do not compare their possessions with any other nation’s. If God wills it, they will remain owners of the land east of the Jordan. If not, they are still confident they will take and keep the land of Canaan, because God promised it to them. They trust in God’s mastery, rather than their own.
Next Balak takes Bilam to the Field of Tzofim. When I consider the plain meaning of tzofim, “lookouts”, I think Balak is hoping this second vantage point will result in a curse that leaves the Israelites blind to any approaching danger, and therefore easy prey.
This time, the blessing that God puts into Bilam’s mouth includes these two verses:
There is no divination in Jacob, and no magic in Israel; what God accomplishes is told to Jacob, to Israel, at that time. (Numbers 23:23)
Hey, a people like a lioness arises, and like a lion it lifts itself up. It will not lie down until it devours prey, and drinks the blood of the slain. (Numbers 23:24)
In other words, the Israelites do not need magicians to reveal their future, because God tells them what God has arranged. In addition, the Israelites are as alert and fierce as lions when it comes to battle.
I daresay King Balak gives up on his idea of a pre-emptive attack when he learns how alert and aware the Israelites are. But he is still hoping for a curse, so he takes Bilam to the third vantage point, the head of the Peor overlooking the desert.
The name Peor does foreshadow the seduction of Israelite men into worshiping Ba-al Peor, probably through illicit public intercourse. But a peor, a wide open mouth, stands for all unrestrained desires. When your desire knows no bounds, you are always dissatisfied, and your life looks like a desert. The previous generation of Israelites complained repeatedly about the food on their journey. What if the current generation is just like them, and God is tired of their insatiable neediness? A reminder of a wide open mouth might encourage God to dictate a curse to Bilam.
Balak is foiled again, as Bilam recites a third blessing. After Bilam praises the tents and dwellings of the Israelites, he says God satisfies the people’s needs so their souls can grow like well-watered plants.
Like groves they stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like succulents God has planted, like cedars beside the water. Water pours from [God’s] buckets, and their seed is at the abundant water. (Numbers 24:6-7)
At this point, King Balak gives up on cursing the Israelites, and orders Bilam to go home.
Bilam has confirmed God’s blessing at all three of Balak’s vantage points. At the Heights of Ba-al, the Israelites are blessed with confidence in God’s mastery. At the Field of Tzofim, they are blessed with awareness. And at the Head of Peor, they are blessed with fulfillment of their desire to grow and flourish.
A person who has confidence, awareness, and fulfillment cannot be harmed by any curse. May we all be so blessed.