Master of Puppets: Balak 2021

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: To what extent do you feel that you are in charge of your own life? To what extent is your life under the control of other people?

In several ways, the story of the seer Balaam – hired by Balak to curse the Israelites – is a testament to God’s ultimate control over humanity’s destiny:

The Pitch: “‘Come then,” [Balak said to Balaam,] “put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” – Numbers 22:6

Swing #1: “It’s the first Bible story told from the point of view of Israel’s enemies. … Oddly, the result is a story that makes God look much better than He does when He’s among the Israelites. With His Chosen People, God is bullying, capricious, and cruel. He doesn’t listen. He’s impatient. But with Balaam, God shelves the whole Almighty Avenger shtick. Instead, He cajoles the skeptical Balaam and wins him over to the Israelites’ side. It is here, away from His Chosen People, that God is the subtle, wise, and persuasive deity we know and love.” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #2: “[Balaam] was a true prophet of God, a man ‘who knows the knowledge of the Most High’ and whose effectiveness at blessing and cursing could hardly have existed without God’s help.” – James L. Kugel, The Bible As it Was

Swing #3: “Actually Balaam’s power did not consist in blessing but in cursing people by mentioning their failings at a critical moment in God’s timetable. This is why Balak did not demand a blessing from Balaam to make him victorious in war, or at least to be blessed so that he could fight the Israelites to a standstill.” – Sforno

Late-Inning Questions: Is it bothersome that God controls Balaam to the extent that God does? Could Balaam have learned about the greatness of Israel without God’s intervention? Does God provide us with enough free will?

On-Deck at TBT: Before you watch July 4th fireworks, drive by the Temple that morning from 10:30-11:30 to receive some Independence Day regalia and to give much-needed supplies to City Mission’s pantry. Please see the Temple website for more information.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of free will, it’s good to know that Marvin Miller, who fought so long to give baseball players free agency (among other rights), will finally be admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame, albeit posthumously. Hopefully it won’t be long before Curt Flood, an outstanding player who sacrificed the end of his career for players’ rights, will join him there.

Shabbat Shalom!