Parashat Matot-Masei – Erev Shabbat 17 July 2020
Week of 12-18 July 2020
Torah portion: Numbers 30:2-36:13 Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4
There are several things in this week’s Parasha that disturb me. One of them particularly stood out for me: the meticulous account of killings during and after the war with the Midianites (31:7, 8, 17). The Israelites killed every Midianite male, the kings of Midian and all the mature women. But there was one death that I found particularly curious: Balaam (31:8). So this week I decided to look more closely at what the rabbinic tradition thought about Balaam.
The rabbis did not like Balaam; they usually called him “the wicked Balaam”. Nikolsky writes: “The Babylonian Talmud is presenting Balaam in an unquestionably negative tone. He is ugly, impertinent, and he is choosing to be evil, even when he can avoid it.” (2008: p. 224)
This might be surprising as the Bible tells how Balaam resisted riches and fame when he was asked to curse God’s people (Num 22:18). Besides, he obeyed God’s command and blessed Israel in the end, a blessing that is repeated in the Jewish liturgy ever since (Num 24:5). However, a closer reading of Balaam’s story reveals that there is more to him than it first appears. The text says that God burned in anger against him (Num 22:22) and not only is his death recorded in the Bible, it is mentioned twice (Num 31:8 and Josh 13:22)! More particularly, the rabbis were convinced that Balaam had something to do with the story of the Moabite and Midianite women seducing the Israelites to follow idols (Num 25). This is the background of the order to wage a war against the Midianites in this week’s Parashah. And this is the main accusation the rabbis have placed against Balaam and the Midianites: separating Israel from their God. It was on Balaam’s advice that the Moabites and the Midianites managed to seduce the Israelites into worshipping idols (s. Sanhedrin 160).
We like to portray God as slow to anger and forgiving (cf. Ps 103:8). And God is. But we cannot ignore that there are plenty of passages in our Scriptures that tell us about this same God burning with anger and punishing peoples. (For the Israelites everything came from God’s Hand). What usually provoked God to anger was idol worshipping. God was portrayed as a jealous God who would not tolerate that we place other things where He should be (this is the first of all the Commandments: Exod 20:3 and Deut 6:14). Nothing should come between God and His people, say the rabbis. Whoever does, like Balaam and the Midianites, will be destroyed.
Some things in this life are not pretty. Birth is not pretty, and neither is death. But that does not mean that God cannot be there. In His anger and jealousy, God is still the same God who cares and loves deeply.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Is there anything in this week’s Parasha that you think should be disturbing to a modern reader? 2. Can you think of other examples of God’s anger at idol worshipping? 3. Reflect on how God can be angry, jealous, caring and loving at the same time!
Bibliography: Nikolsky, R., “Interpret Him as Much as You Want: Balaam in the Babylonian Talmud”, in The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity and Islam, ed. by G.H. van Kooten and J. van Ruiten (Leiden: 2008), 213-230.