KJ (King James translation): And the children of
Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.
BN (BibleNet translation): And the Beney Yisra-El set out, and pitched their tents in the plains of Mo-Av, beyond the Yarden at Yerecho.
YERECHO: In the Book of Joshua the town is YERICHO, rather than YERECHO. Ezra 2:34, which belongs to the period when these texts are being written down, also has YERECHO. Modern Ivrit however has YERICHO. Why the difference, and when the difference? Towns change their names with time and the development of language (Oxford was originally Oxenford, Bristol was originally Brigstowe), but in this case we have YERICHO both in the earlier and later periods, YERECHO in the middle.
Verse 1 in fact belongs to the previous Sedra, where I have also included it; Sedra Balak starts at verse 2
Sedra 7, BALAK
Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
Chapter 22 (cont)
The Tanach brings together an enormous range of writings, from poetry to genealogical tables, from liturgy to folk-tale, from king-lists to shopping lists. What now follows may be a work of serious allegorical literature, or it may be a Beney Yisra-El equivalent of one of Aesop's Fables; the latter is more likely. But even more likely, it is a script for a satirical play,a pantomime, a music-hall comedy; though is is alas impossible (as some scholars have proposed) that the tale was a very late addition to the Tanach, as a response to Apuleius' "The Golden Ass" (properly "The Transformations of Lucius"), a satirical Roman novel in which a man is transformed into an ass and then proceeds to utter ludicrous prophecies; that book belongs to the 2nd century CE, and it may well have owed its origins to this tale (the impossibility is demonstrated by the tale being present in the Qumran versions of the Tanach; an interesting essay for serious students, dealing with those "Dead Sea Scroll" versions of this tale, can be found here).
22:2 VA YAR BALAK BEN TSIPUR ET KOL ASHER ASAH YISRA-EL LA EMORI
KJ: And Balak the son of
Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.
BN: And Balak the son of Tsipur saw all that Yisra-El had done to the Amorites.
BALAK: Names are always the first give-away. BALAK means "empty" or "void" (cf Isaiah 24:1), and may even have been an onomatopaeic word, reflecting the sound that is made when a bottle is drained - in which case maybe we should call him King Glug! And then BEN TSIPUR. Calling him Ben Zippor, as is done in most English translations, simply avoids the issue, which is to say it isn't just wrong, it's willfully and dogmatically wrong. Tsipur means "bird"... (is this then a tale about a bird-brained world-leader who likes to Tweet?). The bird in question, at least if I was directing the stage version of this, would have to be a carrier pigeon - the reason wll become obvious in the next chapter.
22:3 VA YAGAR MO-AV MI PENEY HA AM ME'OD KI RAV HU VA YAKATS MO-AV MI PENEY BENEY YISRA-EL
KJ: And Moab said unto the
elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that
are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the
field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king
of the Moabites at that time.
BN: And Mo-Av said to the elders of Midyan: Now will this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field. And Balak ben Tsipur was king of Mo-Av at that time.
22:5 VA YISHLACH MAL'ACHIM EL BIL'AM BEN BE'OR PETURAH ASHER AL HA NAHAR ERETS BENEY AMO LIKRO LO LEMOR HINEH AM YATSA MI MITSRAYIM HINEH CHISAH ET EYN HA ARETS VE HU YOSHEV MI MULI
KJ: He sent messengers
therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the
river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold,
there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the
earth, and they abide over against me:
BN: And he sent messengers to Bil'am ben Be'or, to Petor, which is by the river, to the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying: Behold, a people has come out of Mitsrayim; behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they have camped by my border.
BIL'AM BEN BE'OR: Usually rendered as Balaam in English, but at the very least the Yehudit as written is Bil'am; however, "as written" includes the pointing, and without the pointing a very different reading is both possible and actually more likely: Bli-Am, "without a people".
BE'OR: The name takes us back to the imagery in verse 4. BE'AR means "to consume", usually with fire (Exodus 3:3, Psalm 83:15), but also the depasturing of a field (Isaiah 3:14 et al); the former then extends into "destruction" and, the "consuming" of a people through conquest or expulsion (1 Kings 22:47), or the cleaning out of a physical location (Deuteronomy 26:13), or the removal of evil (Deuteronomy 13:6, 17:7). But there is also BA'AR in Psalm 49:11, and its Aramaic equivalent BA'ARA in 1 Chronicles 8:8, which mean "stupid", or at the very least "foolish". I can't help wondering if the whole of this story wasn't originally Biblical-era picaresque or pantomime or satirical comedy, with the very names of the characters the starting-point for a great deal of irreverent mockery. "Balaam the son of Be'or" is all very serious in English, but the name could perfectly validly be translated as "Mr Homeless and Stupid", both of which he will prove to be.
PETOR: Way east, in Mesopotamia officially, though really in Turkey; close by Carchemish on the Euphrates river - click here. Did they not have any soothsayers nearer at hand? Or is this perhaps a story, like Jonah and Job, like Esther, brought back by the exiles as a local tale, and given a Yehudan context - in the way that Chinese Cinderella found herself cleaning the kitchens of western Europe?
22:6 VE ATAH LECHAH NA ARAH LO ET HA AM HA ZEH KI ATSUM HU MIMENI ULAI OCHAL NAKEH BO VA AGARSHENU MIN HA ARETS KI YADATI ET ASHER TEVARECH MEVORACH VE ASHER TA'OR YU'AR
KJ: Come now therefore, I
pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too
mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we
may smite them, and that I may
drive them out of the land: for I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed,
and he whom thou cursest is cursed.
BN: Please come and curse this people for me. They are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to defeat them, and even drive them out of the land. I know that he who you bless is blessed, and he who you curse is cursed.
AGARSHENU: I'm not happy with this pronunciation. The root is GARASH and the infinitive LEGARESH. The sheva should surely be a segol - AGARESHENU?
22:7 VA YELCHU ZIKNEY MO-AV VE ZIKNEY MIDYAN U KESAMIM BE YADAM VA YAVO'U EL BIL'AM VA YEDABRU ELAV DIVREY VALAK
KJ: And he said unto them,
Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the LORD shall speak
unto me: and the princes of Moab abode with Balaam.
BN: And he said to them: Lodge here tonight, and I will come back to you with my answer, in whatever words YHVH may speak to me. And the princes of Mo-Av abode with Bil'am.
The tale now begins to become problematic. That Bil'am would speak to his god(s) is entirely reasonable; but that he should speak to YHVH is at best implausible. I suspect that this is a translation of whatever word Bil'am used for his god, rather than the name he used - in the same way that, and it would be an error of translation, someone might publish an edition of the Qur'an in which the deity (al-Lah) was named God throughout; but to one who believed that God was God, and that there is only one God, it would also be logical to do this. Now see the next verse.
22:9 VA YAVO ELOHIM EL BIL'AM VA YOMER MI HA ANASHIM HA ELEH IMACH
KJ: And God came unto
Balaam, and said, What men are these with
BN: And Elohim came to Bil'am, and said: Who men are these with you?
What comes to Bil'am that night is not YHVH, but Elohim, which could be the Yisra-Eli Elohim, or simply the word the Beney Yisra-El used for anybody's pantheon of gods. Now look at the next verse, which gives us a third version, but at least this one will be the one we would have expected.
22:10 VA YOMER BIL'AM EL HA ELOHIM BALAK BEN TSIPUR MELECH MO-AV SHALACH ELAI
KJ: Behold, there is a
people come out of Egypt, which covereth the face of the earth: come now, curse
me them; peradventure I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out.
BN: Behold there is a people that has come out of Mitsrayim, so many they cover the face of the Earth. Now, come curse them for me. Perhaps I shall be able to fight against them, and shall drive them out.
VA YECHAS ET EYN HA ARETS: For the first time, that figure of one and a half million that was calculated in the census appears to have some veracity!
In this verse Bil'am is quoting from verses 5 and 11, more or less exactly
22:12 VA YOMER ELOHIM EL BIL'AM LO TELECH IMAHEM LO TA'OR ET HA AM KI BARUCH HU
KJ: And Balaam rose up in
the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land: for
the LORD refuseth to give me leave to go with you.
BN: And Bil'am rose up in the morning, and said to the princes of Balak: Go back to your land; for the gods refuse to give me leave to go with you.
Again the text gives YHVH, and again we have to assume laziness or stupidity on the part of the redactor. Bil'am is not a believer in YHVH and therefore not answerable to him; nor does YHVH talk to what he considers the false prophets of rejected quackeries passing themselves off as genuine religions.
22:14 VA YAKUMU SAREY MO-AV VA YAVO'U EL BALAK VA YOMRU ME'EN BIL'AM HALOCH IMANU
KJ: Now therefore, I pray
you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the LORD will say unto
BN: Now therefore, I beseech you, lodge here tonight as well, so that I may know if the gods may have something more to say to me.
It is precisely verses like this that the sense of the piece as a satirical pantomime; I try to imagine the stage version: the quack prophet from nowhere-land, the head-hunters with their caskets of gold, the need to see just how far this can be pushed, to gain the maximum: and the audience thinking about all the Ponzi schemers, flea-marketeers, mortgage-sellers, scammers and junk-bondsmen of their own experience, script by Mel Brooks, with Gene Hackman as Bilam.
22:20 VA YAVO ELOHIM EL BIL'AM LAILAH VA YOMER LO IM LIKRO LECHA BA'U HA ANASHIM KUM LECH ITAM VE ACH ET HA DAVAR ASHER ADABER ELEYCHA OTO TA'ASEH
KJ: And God's anger was
kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an
adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.
BN: But the anger of Elohim was kindled because he went; and an angel of YHVH placed himself in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him...
The confusion of his god and the Beney Yisra-Eli god (sometimes here YHVH, sometimes Elohim) now becomes significant. In v 21 Elohim (Ha Elohim) clearly told him to go with the Mo-Avi princes; now Elohim (YHVH) is angry with him for going. And still more complex, it is an angel of YHVH who tries to prevent him. It cannot be the same Elohim, and Elohim is not YHVH. The error of the text obscures a depth of conflict which is clearly in the tale.
LE SATAN: Yes, Satan, but not the one that Christian theology has taught you to expect, a Hadean devil with fiery tail, horns, and a Zionist bank account. Merely "the adversary" - and significant to find him here, in the Book of Numbers, because this concept of an adversary belongs to Zoroastrianism, and belongs to Persia, starting around the 12th century BCE, but not adopted until the time of the Medes, precisely the epoch of Ezra and the writing of the Bible, starting around the 6th entury BCE. The name of the adversary was Ankareh Minu, usually rendered in English as Angra Mainyu.
ATONO: Ass or donkey? Some etymologists will tell you that they are the same animal, but that ass is the Latin and donkey the Celtic (click here or here). But the Yehudit disagrees with this. Previously we have seen CHAMOR for a donkey (so the translation at Judges 15:16 needs to be reconsidered), but here ATON for an ass - or does Yehudit too have two source-words for the same animal? I think it actually more likely that ATON was the world for the female and CHAMOR for the male, in the way that we have "dog" and "bitch", "ram" and "ewe", "cow" and "bull"...
22:23 VA TER'E HA ATON ET MAL'ACH YHVH NITSAV BA DERECH VE CHARBO SHELUPHAH BE YADO VA TET BA ATON MIN HA DERECH VA TELECH BA SADEH VA YACH BIL'AM ET HA ATON LEHATOTAH HA DERECH
KJ: And the ass saw the
angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the
ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the
ass, to turn her into the way.
BN: And the ass saw the angel of YHVH standing on the road, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Bil'am struck the ass, to turn her into the way.
Which angel would this be? Given the sword, Micha-El probably. Click here. Angels, too, entered the world of Yehudah during the Persian epoch.
I try to put myself inside the chamber where the Editorial Committee for the Redaction of the Tanach is having its preliminary get-togethers, to create a provisional list of tales for potential inclusion. Three and a half books into the Torah, with nothing but serious historical legends, universal myths, laws and statutes, accounts of wars and natural disasters, the establishment of a text that will define a nation's identity for all time and assert the supremacy of one particular deity, the superiority of one set of rites and ceremonies, over any other - what (unless mischief or tedium or sheer exhaustion) could possibly have been in their heads that they even thought to set aside three whole chapters for a meaninglessly comical tale about a talking donkey, a belligerent angel, and the reluctant Prophet of another people?
22:24 VA AMOD MAL'ACH YHVH BE MISHOL HA KERAMIM GADER MI ZEH VE GADER MI ZEH
KJ: And the angel of the
LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn
either to the right hand or to the left.
BN: And the angel of YHVH went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
Angels of YHVH tend to be rather serious creatures; this angel comes from a more picaresque tradition, perhaps Pan, perhaps Loge, the playful, joking, interfering creature who twists your hair in the night and leaves your socks in wrong pairs when they come out of the laundry.
22:27 VA TER'E HA ATON ET MAL'ACH YHVH VA TIRBATS TACHAT BIL'AM VA YICHAR APH BIL'AM VA YACH ET HA ATON BA MAKEL
KJ: And when the ass saw
the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam's anger was
kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
BN: And the ass saw the angel of YHVH, and she lay down under Bil'am; and Bil'am's anger was kindled, and he struck the ass with his staff.
Or maybe this is here as an exemplary tale of the evils of animal cruelty
MAKEL: Note that this is MAKEL, not a MATEH, a walking stick or shepherd's crook, and not the rod or sceptre that we have seen with Mosheh and Aharon previously. 22:28 VA YIPHTACH YHVH ET PI HA ATON VA TOMER LE VIL'AM MEH ASIYTI LECHA KI HIKIYTANI ZEH SHELOSH REGALIM
KJ: And the LORD opened
the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee,
that thou hast smitten me these three times?
BN: Then YHVH opened the ass' mouth, and she said to Bil'am: What have I done to you, that you have struck me like this three times?
In the interests of trying very hard to take this farcically ludicrous children's story seriously, I shall make passing reference to the use of REGALIM here. REGALIM: a REGEL is a foot, but also a rule. When Rabbi Hillel is accredited with explaining the whole of Torah "be regel echad", he was not actually standing on one leg to do so, but offering a single rule, and that rule was "Love your neighour as yourself", which he took from Leviticus 19:18 What either the rules or the feet have to do with Bil'am's ass is, I regret, beyond my ability to explain - but see also verses 32 and 33.
22:29 VA YOMER BIL'AM LA ATON KI HITALALTA BI LU YESH CHEREV BE YADI KI ATAH HARAGTICHA
KJ: And the angel of the
LORD said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak
unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
BN: And the angel of YHVH said to Bil'am: Go with the men; but only the word that I shall speak to you, only that shall you speak. So Bil'am went with the princes of Balak.
If we read the tale as given, this just became meaningless, because Bil'am had already agreed only to speak the words that were given to him (verse 20). But if we take my reading, then we now have an Eli-Yahu (Elijah) v the priests of Ba'al equivalent set up, with Bil'am being told by both gods only to speak the words they give him...
22:36 VA YISHMA BALAK KI VA VIL'AM VA YETS'E LIKRATO EL IR MO-AV ASHER AL GEVUL ARNON ASHER BI KETSEH HA GEVUL
KJ: And it came to pass on
the morrow, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of
Baal, that thence he might see the utmost part of
BN: And it came to pass in the morning that Balak took Bil'am, and brought him up into Bamot-Ba'al, and he saw from there the utmost part of the people.
BAMOT BA'AL: One more give-away that this was never a Yisra-Eli story, but a Mo-Avi one originally. And now we know, as we had anyway guessed, that Balak's gods (Ha Elohim) are Ba'al and his pantheon - and specifically Ba'al's father El, as we shall see in the next chapter. And if Bil'am is indeed really Bli-Am, then his state of being torn between the deities of the various peoples becomes much more logical and comprehensible. Either that, or this is a piece of political satire, directed at some preacher or politician of the day whom he will probably never know.