The Prehistory of the Balaam Story
Parashat Balak presents an intricate and carefully crafted story about Balak, the king of Moab, who seeks out the services of a well-known soothsayer, Balaam, to curse the Israelites. Balaam does not curse them, but instead blesses them and curses their enemies. The story ends with Balak and Balaam each returning to their homes (24:25).
In spite of the coherence and artful character of this story, I believe that it was constructed on the basis of at least two earlier traditions, one centered on Balaam, without any reference to Balak, and one about Balak, without any reference to Balaam. I will begin by exploring the latter.
Balak without Balaam
Balak is best known to readers from the story of Balaam’s curse turned blessing, but he seems to have entered ancient Israelite literature as an independent character, unconnected to Balaam, as I will demonstrate below.
Balak had no Problem with Israel: An Early Tradition
Judges 11—part of which is in the haftara of Chukkat— tells the story of a dispute that the Ammonites (related in biblical genealogy to the Moabites) are having with the Israelites over certain Transjordanian territory that they accuse Israel of having stolen from them at the time of the exodus. In this dispute with the Ammonite king, Jephthah, the leader of the Israelites in the story, retells the history of Israel’s interaction with Ammon (and Moab) in the Transjordan. He argues that Israel did not take this territory from the Ammonites, but from the Amorites. They thus had no just claim to the territory in question.
Jephthah’s retelling of Israelite history includes a reference to Balak, but without Balaam. Within this context, Jephthah makes the following statement:
כה וְעַתָּ֗ה הֲט֥וֹב טוֹב֙ אַתָּ֔ה מִבָּלָ֥ק בֶּן־צִפּ֖וֹר מֶ֣לֶךְ מוֹאָ֑ב הֲר֥וֹב רָב֙ עִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אִם־נִלְחֹ֥ם נִלְחַ֖ם בָּֽם:
25 Now are you any better than King Balak son of Zippor of Moab? Did he ever enter into conflict with Israel, or did he ever go to war with them?
כו בְּשֶׁ֣בֶת יִ֠שְׂרָאֵל בְּחֶשְׁבּ֨וֹן וּבִבְנוֹתֶ֜יהָ וּבְעַרְע֣וֹר וּבִבְנוֹתֶ֗יהָ וּבְכָל־הֶֽעָרִים֙ אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־יְדֵ֣י אַרְנ֔וֹן שְׁלֹ֥שׁ מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וּמַדּ֥וּעַ לֹֽא־הִצַּלְתֶּ֖ם בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִֽיא:
26 While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time?
The point that Jephthah is making is that Balak never had any problem with Israel’s presence. It never occurred to Balak to make war with Israel. This implies that he never sought to hire a seer to curse Israel. Indeed, this text makes no reference to Balaam!
It is possible to claim that Jephthah is consciously bending the truth for pragmatic purposes. It certainly would not be helpful for Jephthah to admit that Balak wanted to destroy Israel but that he refrained from doing so after he failed to procure a curse against them from Balaam. But the text does not give any indication that Jephthah is misrepresenting history. It thus seems that Judges 11 reflects a stage in tradition in which Balak had no relation with Balaam.
Adding Balaam Artificially into an Early Balak Reference: Joshua 24:9-10
An analysis of the reference to Balak in Joshua’s final speech (24:9-10) confirms my thesis. Joshua 24 depicts a covenant established by Joshua at the sanctuary of Shechem, before which Joshua reviews Israel’s history and highlights the many acts of grace that the Lord did on their behalf. Within this general context, Joshua makes the following remark:
ט וַיָּקָם בָּלָק בֶּן צִפּוֹר מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב וַיִּלָּחֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּשְׁלַח וַיִּקְרָא לְבִלְעָם בֶּן בְּעוֹר לְקַלֵּל אֶתְכֶם. י וְלֹא אָבִיתִי לִשְׁמֹעַ לְבִלְעָם וַיְבָרֶךְ בָּרוֹךְ אֶתְכֶם וָאַצִּל אֶתְכֶם מִיָּדוֹ.
9 Then King Balak son of Zippor of Moab, rose up and waged war against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, 10 but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand.
This text seems to reflect an alternative, in which Balak and Moab actually attack the Israelites, since the text claims that King Balak son of Zippor of Moab “waged war against Israel” at the time of the wilderness march. This contradicts Jephthah’s speech in Judges 11:25 (see below) as well as other biblical passages such as Exodus 15:15 and Deuteronomy 2:9, 28-29, which imply that the Moabites did not wage war against Israel during their wilderness march.
Balaam, it seems, was added into this text artificially by a later redactor. The original text in Joshua 24 consisted of the beginning of verse 9 and the end of verse 10 and read:
וַיָּקָם בָּלָק בֶּן צִפּוֹר מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב וַיִּלָּחֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל וָאַצִּל אֶתְכֶם מִיָּדוֹ.
King Balak son of Zippor of Moab, rose up and waged war against Israel, but I rescued you from his hand.
This text reads much more naturally. God saves the Israelites from the battling Moabites not from Balaam’s curse. It seems, therefore, that a late editor felt the need to reconcile the Joshua text with what is reported in Parashat Balak. He thus interpolated the harmonizing sentence, “He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you.” This addition made it seem as if Balak did not actually wage war against Israel, but only sought to do so after getting Balaam to curse Israel.
Thus, Balak’s war is not a war, but an attempt to get Balaam to curse Israel, and God’s saving of Israel is not a saving but just God thwarting Balak by thwarting Balaam.
Balaam Added Secondarily to a Description of Moab’s Interaction with Israel in the Wilderness: Deuteronomy 23:4-7
In light of the analysis of Joshua’s speech, it seems most likely that the same phenomenon is exhibited in the law against intermarriage with Moabites (Deuteronomy 23:4-7). The secondary material is in indented italics:
כג:ד לֹֽא יָבֹ֧א עַמּוֹנִ֛י וּמוֹאָבִ֖י בִּקְהַ֣ל יְ-הֹוָ֑ה גַּ֚ם דּ֣וֹר עֲשִׂירִ֔י לֹא יָבֹ֥א לָהֶ֛ם בִּקְהַ֥ל יְ-הֹוָ֖ה עַד עוֹלָֽם: כג:ה עַל דְּבַ֞ר אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹא קִדְּמ֤וּ אֶתְכֶם֙ בַּלֶּ֣חֶם וּבַמַּ֔יִם בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶ֣ם מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם
23:4 No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of Yhwh. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of Yhwh, 23:5 because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt.
וַאֲשֶׁר֩ שָׂכַ֨ר עָלֶ֜יךָ אֶת בִּלְעָ֣ם בֶּן־בְּע֗וֹר מִפְּת֛וֹר אֲרַ֥ם נַהֲרַ֖יִם לְקַֽלְלֶֽךָּ: כג:ו וְלֹֽא אָבָ֞ה יְ-הֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ לִשְׁמֹ֣עַ אֶל בִּלְעָ֔ם וַיַּהֲפֹךְ֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֧יךָ לְּךָ֛ אֶת הַקְּלָלָ֖ה לִבְרָכָ֑ה כִּ֥י אֲהֵֽבְךָ֖ יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ:
And because he hired against you Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. 23:6 Yet Yhwh your God refused to heed Balaam; Yhwh your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because Yhwh your God loved you.
כג:ז לֹא תִדְרֹ֥שׁ שְׁלֹמָ֖ם וְטֹבָתָ֑ם כָּל יָמֶ֖יךָ לְעוֹלָֽם:
23:7 You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.
The main concern of the text is to prohibit the integration of the Ammonite or Moabite in the assembly of Yhwh, and it gives two reasons for this prohibition: The first is that the Ammonite and Moabite people refused to provide Israel with food and water on their trek from Egypt. The second one is that “he,” that is, Balak, hired Balaam to curse the Israelites.
This second reason, however, is problematic. None of the similar prohibitions in this chapter contains two justifications, and all are considerably shorter than the four verses here. More significantly, the text as it now stands presents both a grammatical and logical problem. First of all, it says that the Ammonites, who played no part in hiring Balaam according to the story in Numbers, are barred from joining the Israelites because they were part of the hiring of Balaam; no tradition connecting Ammonites and Balaam is found anywhere else. More problematically, the text, supposedly dealing with both Ammonites and Moabites, reads (v. 5) “he (singular) hired,” while v.7 reads “their (plural) welfare.” In sum, the italicized section is a long, secondary digression about how God intervened against Balaam.
The removal of the material on Balaam resolves all these difficulties. Presumably, for the original author of this text, the sole Moabite sin against Israel at the time of the exodus was the refusal to provide them with food and water. The attempt of Balak to curse them and then attack them was not known.
Balaam without Balak
Poetry vs. Prose
The story in Parashat Balak (Numbers 22-24) is written in a combination of prose and poetry. While the main outline of the story is in prose, the four speeches of Balaam (Numbers 23:7-10, 23:18-24, 24:3-9, and 24:15-23) are all poetic. On one hand, the Bible is filled with examples where originally independent poems are added into a story (the song of Channah in 1 Samuel 2, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15). On the other hand, a single author could have written the poetry and the prose.
To determine which the case with the poems of Balaam is, we should focus on the question of how well the poems read on their own.
The First Set of Poems – Part of the Narrative
It seems to me that we must distinguish between the first two poems of Balaam and the last two. The first poem begins as follows (23:7b-9a):
מִן אֲ֠רָם יַנְחֵ֨נִי בָלָ֤ק
מֶֽלֶךְ מוֹאָב֙ מֵֽהַרְרֵי קֶ֔דֶם
לְכָה֙ אָֽרָה לִּ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב
וּלְכָ֖ה זֹעֲמָ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
מָ֣ה אֶקֹּ֔ב לֹ֥א קַבֹּ֖ה אֵ֑ל
וּמָ֣ה אֶזְעֹ֔ם לֹ֥א זָעַ֖ם יְ-הֹוָֽה:
כִּֽי מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ
Balak has brought me from Aram,
The king of Moab from the eastern mountains:
‘Come, curse Jacob for me;
Come, denounce Israel!’
How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce those whom Yhwh has not denounced?
For from the top of the crags I see him,
From the hills I behold him.
This poem refers to essential information reported in the prose narrative. The poem states that Balak, king of Moab, has summoned Balaam to curse Israel, just as we read in the narrative. The poem also states that Balaam looks down on Israel from the mountaintops, which is connected to 22:41 of the prose narrative: “On the next day Balak took Balaam and brought him up to Bamoth-baal; from there he could see part of the people of Israel.”Since the poem seems to be based upon the narrative and the narrative needs a speech from Balaam at this point, here the prose and poetry are integrally connected, and part of a single narrative.
The same may be said about the second poem. The beginning reads (23:18b-19):
ק֤וּם בָּלָק֙ וּֽשֲׁמָ֔ע
הַאֲזִ֥ינָה עָדַ֖י בְּנ֥וֹ צִפֹּֽר:
לֹ֣א אִ֥ישׁ אֵל֙ וִֽיכַזֵּ֔ב
הַה֤וּא אָמַר֙ וְלֹ֣א יַעֲשֶׂ֔ה
וְדִבֶּ֖ר וְלֹ֥א יְקִימֶֽנָּה:
Rise, Balak, and hear;
Listen to me, O son of Zippor:
God is not a human being, that he should lie,
Or a mortal, that he should change his mind.
Has he promised, and will he not do it?
Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
The poem treats the specific situation that occurs presently in the prose narrative, namely, Balak’s second attempt to get Balaam to curse Israel, in spite of God’s statement that he would not allow this. In this context, Balaam’s statement to Balak, son of Zippor, that God is not like humans and does not change his mind makes perfect sense. Most important, the poem makes no sense without the narrative on which it is based.
The Latter Two Poems – Originally Independent
In contrast, the third and fourth poems do not display clear dependence on the prose narrative and can be understood without it. This is demonstrated, first of all, by the opening passage that appears in both 24:3-4 and 15-16 (with very slight differences):
נְאֻ֤ם בִּלְעָם֙ בְּנ֣וֹ בְעֹ֔ר
וּנְאֻ֥ם הַגֶּ֖בֶר שְׁתֻ֥ם הָעָֽיִן:
נְאֻ֗ם שֹׁמֵ֙עַ֙ אִמְרֵי אֵ֔ל
וְיֹדֵ֖עַ דַּ֣עַת עֶלְי֑וֹן
מַחֲזֵ֤ה שַׁדַּי֙ יֶֽחֱזֶ֔ה
נֹפֵ֖ל וּגְל֥וּי עֵינָֽיִם:
The oracle of the man whose eye is clear,
The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,
The oracle of one who hears the words of El,
And knows the knowledge of the Elyon,
Who sees the vision of Shaddai,
Who falls down, but with his eyes uncovered.
This narrative introduction points to the fact that they can stand on their own. Moreover, if Balaam’s “style” was to include his name in the beginning of a poem, it is strange that he would only do so in the latter two poems and not the opening poems. It makes more sense to assume that these poems were once independent and included openings that point out to the reader who the speaker is.
Comparison with an Independent David Poem
An example of this type of poem with this type of opening comes from the opening lines of the final words of David as presented in 2 Samuel 23:
נְאֻ֧ם דָּוִ֣ד בֶּן־יִשַׁ֗י
וּנְאֻ֤ם הַגֶּ֙בֶר֙ הֻ֣קַם עָ֔ל
מְשִׁ֙יחַ֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב
וּנְעִ֖ים זְמִר֥וֹת יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
ר֥וּחַ יְ-הֹוָ֖ה דִּבֶּר בִּ֑י
וּמִלָּת֖וֹ עַל לְשׁוֹנִֽי:
אָמַר֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
לִ֥י דִבֶּ֖ר צ֣וּר יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
מוֹשֵׁל֙ בָּאָדָ֔ם צַדִּ֕יק…
The oracle of David, son of Jesse,
The oracle of the man whom God exalted,
The anointed of the God of Jacob,
The favorite of the Strong One of Israel:
The spirit of Yhwh speaks through me,
His word is upon my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken,
The Rock of Israel has said to me:
One who rules over people justly…
Both texts begin with very similar statements and in both the speaker presents himself as inspired to speak in the name of God. 2 Samuel 23 is part of an appendix to Samuel comprised of 2 Samuel 21-24, and is not connected to any narrative, but is an independent poem.
By analogy, we may say that the two final poems of Balaam stand on their own and do not need to be set within a broad, narrative context (although the narrator built his story around these originally independent poems.)
The Independence of the Latter Two Balaam Poems
The independence of these poems is confirmed by an examination of their content. The third poem (24:3-9) is a blessing of Israel and a pronouncement concerning its future military ascendance. The fourth poem (or set of poems, 24:15-24) begins with a vision of Israel’s subjugation of Moab and Edom and continues with visions of defeat for the Amalekites, Kenites, and others.
All of this is perfectly understandable on its own, without recourse to the prose narrative. In fact, the narrative introduction to the fourth poem does not even accord that well with the poem. In the narrative, Balaam tells Balak that he will inform him of what the Israelites will do to his people in the future (24:14). Yet, the poem is much broader, depicting the future downfall of several different peoples, not only the people of Balak.
The most important sign of the independence of the third and fourth poems from the prose narrative is the fact that they do not address Balak and make no mention of him. This stands in strong contrast with 23:7, “Balak has brought me from Aram, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains” of the first poem and 23:18, “Rise, Balak, and hear; listen to me, O son of Zippor” of the second poem. In my view, this points to an early layer of tradition about Balaam in which he was not associated with Balak.
Balak and Balaam in the Numbers Story: Combining the Traditions
This analysis allows us to appreciate the creativity of the narrator of the story of Balak and Balaam. The early poems of Balaam spoke of a well-known, foreign seer who conferred blessings upon Israel and curses on her enemies. The traditions about King Balak of Moab are less clear. One text refers to an ancient battle that he waged against Israel, but lost, thanks to divine intervention. Another text insists that he never imagined attacking Israel. Both of these texts imagine Balak to be a Moabite leader of considerable note, otherwise, they would not have highlighted that he attacked or failed to attack Israel. By bringing the Balaam and Balak figures together, the author of our story formed a new creation.
The New Balaam: Forced to Bless Israel
Balaam did not bless Israel and curse her enemies based on his love of Israel and of his own initiative. Rather, Balak king of Moab hired him to curse Israel, but, although theoretically willing to comply with his wishes, the God of Israel would not allow it and forced him to bless Israel.
The narrator presents Balaam not only as a seer of El, but as an ideal prophet of the Lord of Israel, who would only speak the word that the Lord put in his mouth, regardless of monarchic pressure or promises of great monetary reward (22:18, 38; 23:12, 26; 24:13).This is what is expected of the true prophet (cf. 1 Kgs. 22:13—14).
The New Balak: Scared of Israel
The redactor not only combined the Balaam and Balak traditions, but in so doing, fundamentally changed the image of Balak. Balak was not a powerful monarch who courageously waged battle with Israel, but was terrified of Israel’s great strength and size from the very outset: “Moab feared the people greatly for they were great” (22:3). The only way he would dare embark on any military offense against Israel was if he could enlist powerful curses against them. Once he failed at this, and instead heard how Israel was blessed and how his people would fall before them in the future, he submissively reversed his plans. The great king realized that he had no chance against the people of Israel, whose great God could not be defeated or manipulated.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
July 2, 2015
January 18, 2020
Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series