By Israel Drazin


Commentaries on the biblical portion Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) answer many questions and explain the names of biblical portions, who was Balaam, the miracle of the speaking ass, what is Baal Peor, and much else.


Why did God name a biblical portion after the evil King Balak?

God did not name the biblical portions. After the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE and the return of a relatively small number of Judeans to Judea,[1] there were two major Jewish communities, one in Babylon and one in Judea. The two developed some different practices. One concerned the reading of the Torah. Both wanted the people to become familiar with the Torah. Judeans read the entire Torah during a three year cycle while Babylonians finished the Torah each year. Soon all Jews accepted the Babylonian model. The names were given to each Torah reading at that time based on the first significant word in the portion irrespective of whether the word referred to something good or bad.


Who was Balaam?

As usual, the Bible is somewhat obscure as to who Balaam was, whether he was a true prophet, and if he was good or bad. Sages differed on all these points. I describe the various views in my introduction to my and Stanley Wagner’s volume Onkelos on the Torah: Numbers. What would Maimonides say? Since Maimonides defined prophecy as a higher level of intelligence[2] and not as a divine communication, he could consider Balaam a prophet.

Ehrlich asks a practical question: isn’t it contrary to our understanding of psychology and history[3] that a king would seek help from an alien. Why did Balak select Balaam? Ehrlich suggests that Balak needed someone who knew about the Israelite God and worshipped him. Such a person could develop the best curse and make it effective because of his relationship with the Israelite God. Balaam came from Aram, where Abraham dwelt. Ehrlich proposes that the population of Aram had an understanding and relationship with the Israelite God in Abraham’s day and long thereafter. Even the Torah states that God spoke with Balaam. This is why Balak chose him.


Why is Bil’am’s name spelt Balaam?

This spelling is based on the Greek in the Greek Bible translation, Septuagint.


Why did Balak bring Balaam to see the Israelites to curse them?

It is clear throughout this episode that both the king and his seer felt that one cannot curse what one cannot see.


Why did God tell Balaam not to go curse the Israelites and then told him to go?

This seems to suggest that God changed his mind and it depicts God as fallible. Ehrlich explains that first God told Balaam not to curse the Israelites and later informed him that he can go as long as he blesses them.


What was the miracle of the ass speaking?

Readers may want to consider this episode as Balaam’s dream or his internal struggle, “am I acting like an ass?”

However one interprets the episode, readers might ask, shouldn’t something significant be revealed, especially if it is a miracle. Ehrlich: it was a dramatic warning to Balaam to be careful what he says: just as God has the power to make an ass speak, he can also make it (and Balaam) dumb.


Sages[4] say that Balaam’s speaking ass was a miracle prepared as a final act of creation. What are they teaching?

Most people understand that the sages were highlighting the significance of this miracle; it was so great that God prepared it long before it was necessary.[5] However, Maimonides mentions this midrashic statement in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:29 while discussing miracles.[6] He felt the sages were saying that what appear to be miracles is actually part of nature.[7]


Is Balaam belittling his skills when he praises Israel in 23:23 “There is no enchantment with Jacob or divination in Israel”?

Balaam was an enchanter and diviner. Was he declaring that divinations and enchantments do not work? No. This is an example of Scripture making an incomplete statement,[8] leaving it to readers to supply the ending: “There is no enchantment with Jacob or divination in Israel that can harm them.”


Why is ma tovu read at the start of synagogue services?

Balaam’s blessing of the Israelites (24:5) contains praise beginning ma tovu, usually translated “How goodly[9] are your tents Jacob, your dwellings Israel.” Jewish tradition placed this “blessing,” which is actually a statement, at the beginning of the morning service. Many people were perplexed: why place words of a non-Jew in the Jewish prayer book? Baruch Epstein answered with Maimonides’ teaching: The truth is the truth no matter what its source.[10]


What was the worship of Baal Peor (25:3)?

Baal means “lord” or “god” and peor “open.” Mishna Sanhedrin 6:7 states that worshippers of Baal Peor would defecate before their god. It isn’t reasonable to take this statement literally; no one would act in this way. Sages didn’t want to reveal what the worshippers did and were insulting them.[11] Many ancient pagans worshipped their deity by having sex before them; men served by opening a virgin’s hymen and women by surrendering it. This interpretation is supported by the Torah’s use of vayitzmed Yisrael l’baal peor; for vayitzmed means “coupling (before Baal Peor),” as in I Samuel 11:7. This helps us understand why Pinchas killed the man and woman who were having sex (25:8). He didn’t execute them because they had sex, but because they worshipped Baal with their sex act.


Does God become angry?

 There are many instances in the Torah where God is shown to be angry. Should we accept these statements as being literally true or are they designed to teach people that the depicted human behavior is wrong? God does not have human emotions and the Bible should be understood to teach that the described actions are not right.

[1] Israel was called Judea at that time since most of the people were from the tribe Judah. The name Jew is a shortened form of Judean.

[2] See Guide of the Perplexed 2:32-48, especially 2:48.

[3] Greeks, for example, called non-Greeks barbarians because virtually everything they said sounded like bar-bar-bar to them.

[4] In Genesis Rabba and Midrash Kohelet.

[5] This is difficult to understand. Why did God need to create this miracle millennia before it would be used? Couldn’t he create it when it would be needed? Also, what is so significant about this miracle that it needed to be created early?

[6] A careful reading of Maimonides’ Guide reveals his view that the world functions according to the laws of nature and miracles do not occur.

[7] Some people understand Maimonides’ statement that miracles are part nature and part supernatural.

[8] This phenomenon occurs frequently. It is called chesurei mechsera in Hebrew. Rashi mentions it from time to time.

[9] “Good” sometimes, as here and Genesis 24:16, is a metaphor for “beautiful.”

[10] Maimonides taught Jews the truths of the Greek pagan philosopher Aristotle.

[11] They did the same when they said that the pagans worshipped another god by throwing stones at it. Actually the pagans served their god by placing a stone near the altar showing they had come. Many Jews continue the practice by placing a stone on the graves of people they visit.