“Uncovering the  ‘Layers’ in the Biblical Narrative”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Although the opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, seem straightforward, the nuanced text contains several subtle messages.

The parasha opens with the rather innocuous statement that Balak, the son of Tzipor, saw all that Israel had done to the Emorites.

This refers to the battles reported in last week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, in which the Children of Israel vanquished the Emorites led by the great King Sichon, the most powerful regent at that time. At the same time, the Israelites defeated Og, the powerful king of Bashan, and his kingdom.

The fact that scripture in the opening verse of parashat Balak, identifies Balak simply as the son of Tzipor and not the king of Moab, implies that the Torah regards the hostile actions of Balak toward Israel as personal, rather than reflecting his duties as monarch or king.

The verses that follow reveal even more. The Torah states, in Numbers 22:3, וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם מְאֹד כִּי רַב הוּא, וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, Moab became very frightened of the people [of Israel], because they were numerous and Moab was seized with dread because of the Children of Israel. The commentators see this as an arrogant refusal on the part of Balak to acknowledge the miraculous conquests of Israel, or to attribute Israel’s success to G-d. In fact, it implies that Balak himself was so filled with hatred for the Jewish people that it led his judgment astray. Any clear-minded individual would have immediately recognized that the success of the Israelites was primarily due to Divine intervention. There was no way that a nation of recently-released slaves could so soundly defeat the two most powerful regents on the face of the earth.

Had Balak not been driven by his antipathy toward Israel, he would have quickly concluded that his nation was not at all endangered by Israel. After all, when Moses had previously approached the Moabites to allow the Israelites to pass through their land, and their overtures were rejected, the Israelites simply marched around the land of Moab and made no move to attack them (as reported by Jephthah in Judges 11:18).

The Moabites and Ammonites in particular should have been eager to help Israel as the miserable former-slaves left Egypt and rushed toward the Promised Land, because the Moabites and Ammonites owe their very existence to the People of Israel. After all, it was through Abraham’s intervention that their ancestor, Lot, was saved from Sodom. Even though they turned a deaf ear and refused to help His people, the Al-mighty commanded (Deuteronomy 2:9 & 2:19) that Moab and Amon not be harmed. Balak who was blinded by his rabid hatred of Israel, was unable to see this at all, and was determined to defeat Israel by any means possible.

It was not only Balak who refused to acknowledge G-d’s Hand in Israel’s success. The Da’at Sofrim points out that scripture reports, וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם מְאֹד , that the entire nation of Moab was terribly frightened of the People of Israel. Just like their king, Balak, the Moabite people were not frightened of G-d who went before Israel and defeated all their enemies. Instead, they saw Israel as a purely mortal nation who happened to be successful in battle. Had they been afraid of G-d, they never would have tried to undermine Israel by cursing them, seducing them or by hoping to defeat them militarily.

Scripture records that the Moabites were afraid of Israel and were seized with dread because of them. They therefore turned to the elders of Midian, to secure their help, and were particularly hopeful that their famous prophet, Balaam, the son of Beor, would agree to curse the People of Israel, and defeat them spiritually.

The Torah reports that Balak, the king of Moab, sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, who resided in Pethor, to summon Balaam, saying: Numbers 22:5, הִנֵּה עַם יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, הִנֵּה כִסָּה אֶת עֵין הָאָרֶץ, וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב מִמֻּלִי, “Behold! The people has come out of Egypt; Behold! It has covered the surface of the earth and it sits opposite me.” The Torah, in Numbers 22:6, continues, וְעַתָּה לְכָה נָּא אָרָה לִּי אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה כִּי עָצוּם הוּא מִמֶּנִּי, אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה בּוֹ, וַאֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן הָאָרֶץ, So now–please come and curse this people for me, for it is too powerful for me; perhaps I will be able to strike it and we will drive it away from the land.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his brilliant exposition of this episode found in Chemdat Yamim, notes the unusual construction of the phrase, אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה בּוֹ,–-which opens with the first person singular verb, אוּכַל–“oo’chal,” and ends with נַכֶּה–“nakeh” a first person plural verb. In effect, Balak says to Balaam, perhaps I will be able, together with you, to defeat Israel.

Rabbi Filber cites the Midrash HaGadol, in the name of Tanchum the son of Chanilay. The Midrash asks: What were Balaam and Balak likened to at this moment? In fact, they were like two butchers, one who knew how to slaughter, the other who was skilled in cutting meat and butchering it properly. The slaughterer said to the butcher, “I will slaughter the animal and you will butcher the meat and together we will prepare the meal.” Said Balak to Balaam, “You curse the people and I will attack them with the sword, and together we will eradicate them from the world,” as it says, וַאֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן הָאָרֶץ, I will chase them from the land.

Balak knew well that as long as Israel is the subject of Divine protection, he would never be able to defeat the Israelites by sword. He therefore devised a dual attack on Israel. First Balaam will strike Israel’s spiritual protection, by cursing them or by causing them to lapse ethically. Only then, will Moab and Midian together physically attack Israel and chase them from the land.

The textual nuances that are found in the opening verses of parashat Balak reveal many new insights about Balak that are not readily apparent to the superficial reader. Although this text seems particularly nuanced, the truth is that most of the Torah’s verses have many “layers” that can be analyzed in a similar fashion.

Students of the Bible need to be keenly aware of the different levels of study as they read the scriptural messages. Experienced students will soon discover that with the proper skill and effort, layers of a story can often be exposed and revealed, uncovering many underlying factors that are at play in the Biblical narrative.

The subtle messages revealed through the textual nuances of parashat Balak are particularly important because they uncover the true anti-Semitic character of Balak, and the true nature of the battles, both physical and spiritual, that Balak wished to wage against the Jewish people.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shivah Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Sunday, July 5th, 2015, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av that will be observed on Saturday night and Sunday, July 25th and 26th. Have a meaningful fast.