The fascinating story of Balak and Balaam’s failed attempts to curse the Jewish people is found in this week’s parasha.
Dr. Shula Laderman, lecturer in Judaism in the Arts at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, discusses the strange story of the talking donkey. Her commentary is accompanied by a painting from the renowned artist Avner Moriah. What happens when a sorcerer, a king and a donkey take center stage?
Balak king of Moab fearing defeat at the hands of the Israelites asked Balaam, a heathen prophet, to curse them. God appeared before Balaam, warning him against doing so, and Balaam refused to go. Balak persisted and sent still further delegations to Balaam with promises of great wealth, but still Balaam refused. Finally, after Balak’s third approach: “ …Balaam saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries. But God was incensed at his going so an angel of the Lord placed himself in his way as adversary. He was riding on his she-ass with his two servants alongside when the ass caught sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand. The ass swerved from the road and went into the field and Balaam beat the ass to turn her back onto the road” (Num. 22:21–23). Although Balaam did not see the angel, the ass was aware of him and left the path so as not the face him: “…Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick” (Num. 22:27). At the third stroke the ass opened her mouth and cried out to Balaam, and then God “uncovered” his eyes and he was able to see the angel.
Why did the angel appear to the ass before Balaam could see him? Why was the ass given the miraculous ability to speak to Balaam?
In his painting for this parasha Avner Moriah visualized the very instant that the she-ass was about to go down under Balaam when, turning her head toward him, she began to talk, saying: “Look I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you…” (Num. 22:30). Balaam was about to strike her yet again when God enabled him to see the angel, dressed in white with big white wings, a drawn sword in his hand pointed at the ass. The angel is bending forward toward Balaam and, according to the text, is repeating the same question that the ass voiced so miraculously. The angel told Balaam that God was not pleased with his journey but would allow him to continue on if he would speak only the words that God would put in his mouth.
Clearly everything that occurred in this episode happened by God’s will. Balaam had to come to realize that the God of Israel has sovereignty over the entire world. In proof, the ass saw God’s angel before he, Balaam, was aware of him and God made an ass open her mouth and speak. By the same token, Balaam had to apprehend God’s power and understand that he was to speak only the words that God allowed him to say.
“In the morning Balak took Balaam up to Ramoth. From there he could see a portion of the people” (Num. 22:41). Here we come to the upper scene in the painting. Traveling with Balak, Balaam climbed to the top of the brown-colored hills. From there, the two men could see the Israelite camp with its round-topped tents arranged around the Tabernacle, whereupon Balaam exclaimed: “As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights, there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations (Num. 23:9). And later: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling, O Israel” (Num. 24:5). Seeing God’s cloud above the Tabernacle against a pink dream-like sky, Balaam declared: “No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel. The Lord their God is with them” (Num. 23:21).