Friday, June 25, 2010

Stuff you spring on people this shabbos about Balaam

Here are a few things you can say tonight around the shabbos table to regale your guests and impress your wife, or live in boyfriend as the case may be.

1. Balaam is the answer to a great trivia question, namely: Who is the subject of the earliest extra-biblical archeological source? A plaster inscription, found in 1967 on the wall of a temple at Deir Alla in Jordan, references the night vision of a seer called Balaam son of Beor. It dates to 840-760 BCE. Bring it up tonight, and impress people

(And allow me to bring redemption to the world by noting that I heard this from the lips (or fingers) of Mis-nagid, famous kofer and blogger.)

2. Balaam was NOT (not, not, not, NOT) a prophet according to two top Rishonim. Here is the Ramban's commentary to Num 22:31. The translation is Chaval's (pg 258):"...and God-Forbid that they should stretch forth a hand against a prophet of God."

On the same verse the Ramban says: "From this verse we learn the Balaam was not a prophet because had he been a prophet how could it be that he required "opening of the eyes... and indeed scripture calls him a Ballam ben Beor, the soothsayer [Kosaim]"

I know this quote from the Ramban will come as a bit of a surprise to members of the reading audience who were brought up to believe that Rashi is the last, final, and only word on any subject, but the issue of Balaam's prophecy is hotly debated. Arguments against include the one cited above, along with the point made by Rambam: Balaam was both handicapped and evil, and this would have disqualified him from prophecy.

The correct view on the question of Balaam's prophecy, therefore, is this: We don't know. Anyone who takes a more certain stance is ignorant or trying to sell you something.

3. According to a famous tradition Balaam was one of the advisors who told Pharoh to toss Jewish boy babies into the water. Earlier sources assign the blame to Jannes and Jambre, who elsewhere are identified as Ballam's sons (Jannes and Jambre are Greek ; its unlikely anyone in Pharoh's court or Ballam's family had a Greek names)

4. Many of the great Jewish exegetes said Balaam's talking donkey existed only in Balaam's mind, and not in reality. Other's see the episode as a as a rebuke of both polytheists, and by extension, miracle workers

5.| The episode can also be seen as parody

Some of the more obvious comedic touches:

-- Balaam, the guy who's supposed to be able to destroy the whole, huge nation of Israel merely with his mouth, is made to say to his donkey "If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now." Hello? Zap him with your mouth, Mister Big Shot Prophet!

-- Balaam, the guy who's supposedly a prophet able to recognize the moods of God is made to admit that he was unaware when the Lord's messenger was standing directly in front of his face. Oopsie!

-- The third time the angel blocks the donkey it crouches; later when Balaam is allowed to see the angel, he performs the same act in imitation of his beast. Loser!

-- Three times Balaam's donkey behaves in an unexpected way, causing Balaam great frustration; later, when the Lord changes his curse to a blessing, Balaam himself behaves in an unexpected way, causing Balak great frustration. In this sense, Balaam has been turned into the donkey

6. School children, and immature Jewish men are generally quite taken with the idea that Balaam and his donkey were romantically linked. This is defeated by the plain sense of the text. It reads: ותאמר האתון אל בלעם הלוא אנכי אתנך אשר רכבת עלי מעודך עד היום הזה ההסכן הסכנתי לעשות לך כה ויאמר לא׃
This translates as: And the ass said to Balaam, Am I not your ass upon which you have gone all your life till this day? and have I ever done this to you before? And he said, No.

The beastiality idea comes from the fact that a word very much like ההסכן הסכנתי is used elsewhere to describe an intimate relationship. But (a) this isn't how its used here; and (b) Balaam contradicts it outright. He answers the donkey: NO.

So what gives? Simple. The author of the aggadah (I forget his name, but the Talmud quotes him) was attempting to make evil Balaam look as evil as possible. This is a common approach of the midrash, and its doubtful that the author of this particular aggadah though that Balaam and his beast were involved. He's just using the coincidence of a word to make a point about the man's character.

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