Balak: King Balak's Lament
By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
Heard of me? I am the famous—or, perhaps, infamous—King Balak of Moab. I lent my name, forever, to your Torah portion, despite being the supreme loser of the story. I hired that faker, that charlatan-prophet Balaam, to curse the Israelites who were invading my land. And, can you imagine? He blessed them, instead. Every year, the Jews read about my being fooled by that fake prophet and his allegedly talking donkey, and all have a hearty laugh at my expense. It’s in their Torah scroll.
I tell you, it's not fair.
Why curse the Israelites? Let me tell you plainly, Stranger: they
were Refugees—they and their wizard-leader Moses. Rumor had it that an Invisible God was involved, too, though I never heard a word from Him. No. I had heard of their rising from slavery, throwing off their chains, and defeating my liege lord, Pharaoh Ramesses II. This disturbed, even frightened me: you see, I paid tribute to him on a regular basis. One doesn't upset the Egyptians; they have a way of infiltrating one's kingdom, setting up a system of spies, and secretly reporting back to the Egyptian Bureau of Information about our economy, armed forces, government, and so on.
For a nation to survive in this world, it takes strong borders and an eye to security. A stranger is, most likely, an enemy. No exceptions!
And so, when I got wind of these dangerous Israelites encroaching on our borders, I immediately went to consult my Army. No help there: we were heavily engaged in assisting Ammon against the Perizites, and had sent an Expeditionary Force against the Hivites, as well. Clearly, as General Nechoshet explained to me, we were spread too thin.
I had no recourse but to consult my kosemim, my sorcerers. Never trust those fellows; they insist on gold-in-advance before they utter a charm or curse. And then, if the curse doesn’t take effect, and your victim is still hopping about, whistling merrily, rather than collapsing into his bed for a good, long, painful death, they will just smile at you and say, “Don’t know what went wrong with the curse, Majesty; perhaps your victim has his own counter-curse working? More money may help….”
Then I heard of this fellow Balaam. It is true that he lived at a distance, at least two miles away from my mud hut—I mean, palace. But they said he was honest, and made house calls. That was enough for me. I sent emissaries to him—highest-ranking officers I could find, all decked out in their best uniforms—and promised Billyboy a houseful of gold and silver, to boot.
He didn’t want to come, at first—some nonsense about his respecting that Invisible God of the Hebrews. Can you imagine? I myself worship Nur-Sin, the Moon Goddess, like all intelligent people.
Well, there was no time to wait. I sent my emissaries a second time, and a third—that seems to be the normal routine one follows in these situations. And, then, apparently, his—the Israelites’—invisible God gave him permission! Wonderful, I thought.
I later on heard some nonsense about what happened on his trip—talking donkey, winged white demon with a sword—crazy with the heat, say I. Improper nutrition. This bread-and-water regimen that these ascetic types follow, out there in the desert—it must affect their minds, somehow. Give me a whole roast chicken, when I can get it, and some barley beer. Yes. Talking donkey! My eye.
Ought to hire her to be an adviser, considering whom I’ve got around my Court, nowadays….
I wined the fellow and dined him, showed him plainly what I wished him to do: stand on different hills, and curse the rabble Israel from each one. Simple enough, no?
Instead, what does the fool do? “I can only say what God puts into my mouth,” he tells me, with a faraway look in his eyes.
“Well and good,” say I, “only don’t forget who’s paying whom, here. I want some heavy, top-drawer cursing, if you want any gold to take home, my lad.”
Well, what came about? I was made a donkey, myself. That liar Balaam blessed the people, including their camping equipment, can you imagine? “How goodly are your tents,” he bleats out.
Some poet even wrote it down. It’s a Jewish prayer, now. What nerve!