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Balak… saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites (through defeating them). Moab became very frightened of those people… He sent messengers to Balaam… to Pethor, on the river saying to him, “… Come and curse this people for they are too powerful for me.” (22:2-6 - extracts)
Bilaam is held up as one of the archenemies of the Israelites. Many hundreds of years later, the prophet Micah exhorts the Israelites, ‘My People! Remember what Balak… plotted against you, and how He refuted Balaam’ (Micah 6:5). Indeed, Rashi consistently interprets the text against Balaam throughout his commentary on this Parasha, even in instances where the first-time intelligent reader would draw a more favorable impression. For example, where the text states simply that ‘Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw the Israelites…’ (24:2), he elaborates with, ‘he wished to incite the Evil Eye against them’. And before his death, Moses recalled this narrative as the reason for the Torah’s ban on friendly contact with the Moabites (Deut. 23:4-7).
The obvious question is: from their own points of view, their actions could hardly be seen as unreasonable…
As the Midrash (Tanhuma: Balak 3) explains and implies, Moab and Midian – traditional enemies – (see Gen. 36:35) – sank their differences, and allied against the perceived threat from the Israelites. Seeing Israel winning spectacular victories over better-armed and technologically superior neighbors, they worried that they might indeed be the next victims on the list. Seeking some way to save themselves, Moab hoped that the Midianites, among whom Moses lived when he fled from Egypt as a man, could supply the key to the strength of the Israelites. The Midianites replied that it was useless to go to war against them: they enjoyed His Contact, His Sponsorship and His Protection. It would be better to sever them from their source of success – namely their closeness to the Almighty – by cursing them and breaking that relationship.
And in so doing, Balak did not hire one of the local sorcerers (c.f. Deut. 18:14), but he sent his messengers on an expensive and time-consuming mission some 800 kilometers to the north - to Petor, in Mesopotamia (ibid. 23:5). For Balak, it seems, wished to use the greatest detailed expertise available – a prophet from the region of Abraham’s family (Gen. 24:4.10) – who was close to the very roots of the Israelite nation. Indeed, that was the place where Abraham himself had settled (ibid. 11:31) - until told by G-d to ‘go to the Land which I shall show you’.
So it appears that Balak and Bilaam embarked on a brilliant and unconventional scheme to save the nation of Moab. Nations might be sinners, but the Torah does not prevent them attempting to defend themselves – especially by a scheme that would avoid the deaths of any of their own fighting men…
A clue to the Torah tradition’s severe antipathy towards the Moabites may be found in looking at some of the machinations of some of the more recent arch enemies of the Jewish people. The following anecdote sums up the attitude:
One day during the early years of the Nazi regime, Rosenberg and Edelstein sat next to each other on a park bench. Rosenberg, numb with fear, was reading the local Jewish weekly - its details of the latest round of anti-Jewish arrests, disappearances, torture, and killings. Edelstein had another publication – Streicher’s Jew-hating ‘Stuermer’ – designed to arouse violent Jew-hatred amongst the ‘Aryan’ population. And as Edelstein got further into that infamous paper, he smiled more and more…
‘Edelstein! You read such a thing! And you gain pleasure from it?’
‘Rosenberg, you must understand. You read one thing about the Jews, but I read something else. Your paper shows you how the Nazis humiliate, spit on, and terrorize our people. I now find out that we run world finance, we live in palaces, we employ servants, we run motor-cars, we dictate the businesses and the professions of Europe and America… And in the not too distant future, we might even take the world over. And even those cursed Nazis are afraid of us…’
This anecdote shows brings out an important element relevant to the issue discussed. A careful examination of the text and its context suggests that Balak’s reason for hiring Balaam was not primarily national security. He did not ask Bilaam to bless Moab, but instead to curse Israel. He promoted the notion of self-defense as a cover to employ his hatred for the Israelites by attempting to destroy them – a tactic that leaders have used to win the support of local populations throughout history. In this case he tried to manipulate G-d to find the right moment to turn Him against His people.
Indeed the text implies that Balak himself did not seriously fear the Israelites. For it states (22:3) that ‘Moab’ - the general population, not Balak – dreaded the Israelites. Like many of the German population who were deluded by skilful propaganda, their leaders talked them into being scared of something highly unlikely to take place, for the following reasons. Firstly, the Moabites had already upset the Israelites – and got away with it – when they refused the Israelites passage on their way to the Holy Land, and they had to take a long detour to skirt Moab on the way to attacking the lands of Sichon and Og much further north (Judges 11:17). Secondly, Bilaam, the prophet would undoubtedly have been able to divine that the Almighty expressly forbade the Israelites to incite war against Moab (Deut. 2:9): ‘Do not harass Moab, and do not incite war against them… for I have given (it)… as an inheritance for the children of Lot’ (whose eldest son was Moab – Gen.19:37). And finally – the Israelites by then were geographically in the lands of Sichon and Og – further north. If they had not already attacked the Moabites the first time round, they would unlikely to make a special return journey, with the Holy Land lying in front of them for conquest.
As a footnote: today other socially acceptable covers are used to promote Jew hatred, and at the same time make it look respectable in Western society. Recently, I had a long conversation with an intelligent, well-educated American person, with strong Maronite Lebanese connections. She presented herself as a keen promoter of equal opportunities and multi-cultural education for all peoples in the Middle East. When gently quizzed, that meant ‘except for the Israelis’, who ‘did not have a right to lived in peace in their Promised Land…’
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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