Sensing Balaam's Divine Moment: Prophecy as Poetry
Parashat Balak has many unusual features. It encompasses a complete story over three chapters, without legal or cultic texts interspersed. It contains humor—not a central feature of the Torah—which is used to put down a prophet who, unlike most authentic ones, is initially deficient in sight and in speech. (Notably, his she-ass has no problem with either.) And, of course, it finally includes stunning blessings for Israel, through the mouth of a pagan diviner who is both celebrated in an extra-biblical source and demonized later in the Bible as one who sought to lead Israel astray.
The Turning Point for Balaam
I will focus here on one key moment in the text’s final chapter: After several attempts to curse the Israelites at the bidding of Moab’s king, Balak—attempts that make use of elaborate rituals but fail to achieve their end of cursing Israel and instead result in blessings—Balaam has a new and overwhelming experience.
He realizes that the normal tools of his trade are powerless in the face of God, who desires something quite different from what Balaam has been paid to do, and he turns toward the wilderness (Num 24:1). The spirit of God comes upon him (24:2), and in this third series of poems, beginning in 24:3, he presents us with a new and remarkable set of passages. As before, Balaam blesses the Israelites instead of cursing them, but these final poems of blessing provide additional indications that what Balaam says is indeed God’s will.
These indications of the validity of Balaam’s prophecy emerge when we pay close attention to the language of the poems—including both the choice of words and their sounds and rhythms. Often, especially in drama, poetry, and music, striking vocabulary and the sound of language are utilized to signal to the audience that a profound change has taken place in a narrative. In music in particular, shifts in tempo, rhythm, harmony, and melody convey major changes in emotional content.
The Vocabulary of Prophecy
Balaam Finally “Sees”
In 24:1, Balaam first “sees” (וַיַּרְא), as he clearly did not before, that it is “good in YHWH’s eyes to bless Israel.” (This is a sharp contrast to 22:2, where Balak “sees” what a threat the Israelites posed.) The verb “to see” (ראה) frequently connotes prophetic insight in the Bible, and its use in 24:1–2 is accompanied by Balaam’s abandoning the ritual preparations he previously used to elicit revelation. This new insight seems to mark a shift in Balaam’s orientation, from attempting to elicit oracles (נְחָשִׁים) through the tools of his profession to truly perceiving God’s will.
The “Spirit of God”
Perhaps more significantly, for the first time in this narrative we hear about God’s ruaḥ, the divine rushing-spirit (24:2), which animates many of the heroes of the book of Judges (such as Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson) and several later prophets. While for most of the “classical” prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, prophecies are introduced as “the word (davar) of YHWH,” here we read that God’s ruaḥ came upon Balaam, harkening back to an early and widespread phenomenon.
Ancient Near Eastern and Greek texts attest to a kind of behavior known as ecstatic or mantic prophecy, in which a person is overcome by a divine force that is perceived as physical. It is not always benevolent, as indicated by the experience of Saul, who “rants-like-a-prophet”(וַיִּתְנַבֵּא) and is temporarily “changed into another man” (1 Sam 10:6, 10). But in Judges it can signal the onset of marked bravery and strength, or something akin to temporary madness, which would have been understood as sent by God.
The Prophetic “Utterance”
For the spirit of God to come upon Balaam, then, is for him to enter a state of temporary divine possession, which he then, through poetry, transfers to his hearers. This is manifest by the repeated use of a single word in 24:3–4 and 15–16: נְאֻם (ne’um), “utterance.” More often than not in the Bible, נְאֻם (ne’um) caps a prophetic declaration, and it is almost always attributed God. While in this case the “utterance” is attributed to Balaam, the usual association of this term with divine speech suggests that here, too, it conveys a divine revelation.
The Rhythm of Prophetic Poetry
Immediately after Balaam is infused with the “spirit,” his language breaks into an unforgettable rhythm:
נְאֻם בִּלְעָם בְּנוֹ בְעֹר
וּנְאֻם הַגֶּבֶר שְׁתֻם הָעָיִן
נְאֻם שֹׁמֵעַ אִמְרֵי אֵל
אֲשֶׁר מַחֲזֵה שַׁדַּי יֶחֱזֶה
נֹפֵל וּגְלוּי עֵינָיִם
Utters Bil’am the son of Be’or
utters the man of the open eye
utters the hearer of Godly sayings
who envisions the vision of Shaddai
fallen, but with eyes uncovered
In this passage, even before Balaam gets to his remarkable blessings for Israel, the audience is swept up in a wave of sound. Recent research demonstrates that poetry activates areas on the right side of the brain, linked to memory and emotion—reactions similarly stimulated by music. It also appears to induce a state of introspection in the hearer.
In relation to Jewish tradition, I would call this the “Kaddish effect,” where repeated sounds or close variations on them (e.g., yitbarakh ve-yishtabakh ve-yitpa’er ve-yitromam ve-yitnasse) link not only to meanings but also to emotions. In the liturgy, the Kaddish conventionally marks the divisions between parts of a service, but in a common, more specialized usage, it comforts mourners with its soothing sounds.
The Role of Music In Prophecy
In a striking instance, the Bible acknowledges a strong link between music and prophecy. 2 Kings 3:15 portrays the prophet Elisha delivering the divine word only after a musician has been called for:
וְהָיָה כְּנַגֵּן הַמְנַגֵּן וַתְּהִי עָלָיו יַד־יְהוָה
And it was, when the strummer strummed, that there [came] upon him the word of YHWH…
Inviting the Audience into Prophetic Trance
What all this means for Numbers 24 is that the change of tone in Balaam’s opening words potentially causes the audience to sit up and move, however slightly, in the direction of a trancelike state. It thus sets them up for the enhanced experience that arrives with Israel’s new blessing. And now “the words flow out of Balaam with no outside assistance, no prompting, and no mechanical manipulation.”
When the prophet reaches v. 5: מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל—“How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, / your dwellings, O Israel,” we are meant to hear these words in a state of heightened consciousness, to enter the blessing, as it were. No wonder that later Jewish tradition found these verses so significant that they reinterpreted “your tents” (ohalekha) to mean synagogues, making Balaam’s opening words here the very ones said upon entering the synagogue—as if to imply that the state of inspiration in which the prophet found himself might inform the experience of prayer.
The blessing itself (vv. 5–9) provides a newly enriched cluster of word pictures, adding to the earlier animal imagery of wild oxen and fierce lions (which it repeats here in vv. 8–9) the potent life-giving images of well-watered vegetation (in fact, “water” occurs three times in rapid succession in vv. 6–7). When we combine this enhanced word-painting with the noticeable omission of the idea, mentioned in the previous two discourses (23:8 and 19), that God will not change his mind and curse the people, it becomes clear that Balaam’s new vision is a direct and decisive blessing for Israel. Just as earlier in the story, the she-ass’s third refusal to go ahead led to a clarification of Balaam’s mission, here the third discourse produces the clearest statement yet of God’s once-and-for-all blessing.
Attaining the Highest Level of Perception
A final pregnant use of vocabulary occurs in the second discourse of chapter 24. Verses 15–16 repeat the mesmerizing נְאֻם (ne’um) lines, but with an important addition: Balaam describes himself as a יֹדֵעַ דַּעַת עֶלְיוֹן, “one knowing the knowledge of Elyon” (another divine epithet). As George Savran has noted, Balaam here attains “the highest level of perception, in which his clairvoyant eye is completely attuned to divine intentions.”
Medium and Message
Through their use of poetic language, Balaam’s final revelations show how the medium and the message of biblical texts are frequently inseparable. Here as elsewhere, the compelling rhythms of biblical Hebrew open up a world to the attentive hearer.
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July 16, 2016
September 23, 2019
Professor Everett Fox is the Allen M. Glick professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. Fox is the translator of The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, 1995), and The Early Prophets (Schocken Books, 2014).
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