“But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as an adversary against him.” (Num.22:22)
Much discussion has been levied against this passage. Balaam, according to a surface reading of the text, appears innocent and righteous in this affair. As humorous as the incident with the talking donkey is, it fails to address the confusion we, the reader, feel as we witness Balaam being rebuked for seemingly obeying God.
The Jewish sages, however, were not so incredulous as to Balaam’s treatment. After all, as we see later in the book of Numbers, the Gentile prophet met his violent end while fighting against God’s people:
“So they made war against Midian, just as the LORD had commanded Moses, and they killed every male…they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.” (Num.31:7,8)
Clearly, Balaam was not the vanilla-souled prophet that he attempts to portray himself as in our Parsha. The Midrash explores Balaam’s yetzer hara (evil inclination):
“And God said unto Balaam: ‘Thou shalt not go with them'” (Num.22:12). ‘Well then’, said Balaam, ‘I will curse them from where I am’. Said He: “Thou shalt not curse the people”. ‘In that case’, said Balaam, ‘let me bless them!’ Said He: “They do not need your blessing, for they are blessed”…Balaam did not tell them, ‘He has not given me permission to go and curse,’ but “The LORD refuseth to give me leave to go with you”…. (Numbers Rabbah, 20:10)
What is being portrayed in this midrash is the intent of Balaam that represents his inner man, which is quite different from the formal decorum and God-fearing speech with which he presents himself outwardly. This is not unique to Balaam, of course, but is a central aspect of the battle against the evil inclination. The Talmud also speaks of this:
“Rabbah bar Rav Huna said that Rav Huna said, or maybe Rav Huna said in the name of R. Elazar: It is testified to in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings that a person is walked down the path that they want to walk. In the Torah it is written, “Do not go with them” (Num. 22:12), and then it is written, “Get up and go with them” (Num. 22:20). In the Prophets it is written, “I am God who teaches you well, guides you in the path that you should walk” (Yeshayahu 48:17). And in the Writings it is written, “Though God mocks the scoffers, He acts graciously to the humble” (Mishlei 3:34). (Talmud Bavli Makkot 10b)
Sometimes, it can seem as though a person’s deeds and attitudes are unrelated. Everything is very random. One moment I do good, and am a good person. The next moment, perhaps, I am wretched and there is no good in me. I feel like Paul, who declares in Romans,
“I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom.7:21-24)
Is Balaam’s plight the plight of Paul?
Not quite. Paul is discussing the battle which every person faces who has an evil inclination (what Paul calls the “flesh”), or in Hebrew, the nefesh, with the Godly soul, or neshama (what Paul calls the “spirit”).
Balaam represents something distinct from the common struggle facing all men; he is representative of developed character.
God, in his chesed, is protecting Israel from the curses which Balaam (or anyone else) may wish to hurl towards Israel. But he is not going to protect Balaam from himself. Rather, He desires to teach Balaam something important about his own character, so that through the humiliation he is about to experience there can be an elevation and refinement of the man’s character. If he will allow it.
By resisting God’s grace towards him, and forcing his own will, Balaam destroyed his connection to God, setting in motion his own sentencing of judgment. The Midrash speaks of this as well:
“The Holy One, blessed be He, concealed from him the fact that his going would destroy him from the world and lead him to the nethermost pit…This implies that Balaam destroyed his soul by going, for when a man is on the way to commit a sin Satan dances encouragingly before him until he completes the transgression; and after he has destroyed him he informs him. In the same strain it says, “He goeth after her straightway, as an ox that goeth to the slaughter…till an arrow strike through his liver; as a bird hasteneth to the snare” (Prov.7:22). The Holy One, blessed be He, concealed his doom from the wicked Balaam until he had gone and destroyed his soul. When he had taken leave of his glory and realized the position in which he was, he began to pray for his soul, “Let my soul die the death of the righteous” (Num.23:10)” (Numbers Rabbah 20:11)
This analysis has troublesome implications regarding sovereignty and free will. But ultimately, we must recognize that, though God is certainly sovereign, He also most certainly (one could say) goes out of His way to make sure that there is free will being exercised in the course of deciding between right and wrong. Ultimately, what God does is yield to the strong will of the person, and steps aside, as it were, so that this may manifest, even if the path will lead to destruction. This is to preserve the dignity and free choice of the person.
The great Jewish sage Rabbi Hirsch gives us his thought on this matter in relation to Balaam, as related by Rabbi Elie Munk:
“The contradictory elements of Balaam’s personality should not be overly surprising, for there are elements of all aspects in each of us. To be sure, Balaam is not a friend of Israel, but he belongs to that group of people who, like Melchizedek, Job and Jethro, recognized the truth and reality of monotheism…However, although Balaam recognized HaShem, he did not add the qualities of character and morality to this recognition. That was the case because his recognition of HaShem did not receive its ultimate affirmation and direction from the revelation at Sinai. He acknowledged HaShem but that did not remove him from idolatry nor inspire him to follow HaShem’s commands – he was lacking the teachings of Sinai, the call to free-will service to HaShem.
And so, in his complex personality, Balaam is an excellent example of the need to channel the knowledge of HaShem through the purifying medium of the mitzvot, so that it can act effectively on one’s character. His instincts were not tempered by the discipline that only the Revealed Law can bring. He was a believer in HaShem – but not a Jew.” (Rabbi Elie Munk, “The Call of the Torah: Bamidbar”, pg.265)
Note: “His instincts were not tempered by the discipline that only the Revealed Law can bring.”
This again reminds us of Paul in Romans:
“What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Rom.7:7)
Balaam had great potential. He was supremely gifted. But in spite of his knowledge of God, he did not have salvation, because he had not been “tempered by the discipline that only the Revealed Law can bring.”
Many people seek to know correct things. They are told about Jesus, perhaps. They believe in him. They accept the message. Unfortunately for them, the message they receive also includes an ill-advised denigration of the Law of God, as though it is the antithesis of the grace found in the gospel: Like they are not inseparable.
A person who fails to place himself under the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and the mitzvot (the commandments) is a person who is living with the spectre of death like a shadow, chasing them throughout their days.
Like Balaam, who resisted the spirit of God, to have knowledge without a heart to obey is to pile up wrath upon oneself until the coming day of judgment. Right knowledge of correct doctrine will not avail a soul which has been destroyed by willful sin in the face of God’s chesed (kindness). You may say: “Surely not!” Paul said that His grace is sufficient for him! Indeed he said this.
But he also said:
“But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds.” (Rom.2:5)
This section of Romans, typically ignored by most Christians and pastors, clearly shows how Paul views sin and obedience in relation to salvation. Like Balaam, we can believe the right things about God all day long, but at the end of the day we are judged by what we do in relation to what we believe, not on what we believe.
To openly resist the revealed will of God is to invite destruction. Because God will let us have our way.
However, there is a key component that must be kept in mind, so as to not become overly despondent. The difference between Balaam and Paul, primarily, is in the relationship each had with Israel, not in their knowledge and understanding. Paul loved God and His people, whereas Balaam did not.
Balaam had great knowledge, but no affinity. No loyalty. Paul, on the other hand, could say this:
“I wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren…” (Rom.9:3)
Giftings, talents, pedigree, and opportunity are the market-tokens of fools. They all pale in the presence of a right relationship and perspective towards God’s chosen people. To cast oneself at odds with them is to invite the death angel to your door.