Parshat Balak: The King

Then Balak said to [Balaam], “Come with me to another place from which you can see them [Israel]—you will see only part of them, not all—and curse them for me from there.” (Numbers 23:13)

King Balak of Moab is in a quandary.  Threatened by Israel’s approach near his territory, he sought out a sorcerer and hired him to curse them.    But instead of a sorcerer, he  finds himself stuck with a diviner, one who can read the future but cannot control it.

Balak has spared no expense to obtain his divine maledictions, and is as puzzled as he is frustrated when they are not forthcoming.  All he can do is schlep Balaam to another vantage point, hoping that a partial view of Israel’s encampment will make them appear more vulnerable.  When that results in another blessing for Israel, Balak fumes, “don’t curse them and don’t bless them” (23:25); in other words, if you can’t say something calamitous about somebody, don’t say it.

In seeking to divert divine power to his own military ends, Balak discovers that divine power has a Mind of its own.   Enroll him in the list with Ahab, Oedipus, Macbeth, and other ancient kings who think they’re manipulating the oracle while all the time the oracle is overmastering them.

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