Balaam’s Experience

Numbers 22:2-25:9

By Norman Finkelstein

Published July 15, 2005, issue of July 15, 2005.
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This week’s portion, on the prophet Balaam and the king of Moab, Balak, is a sort of microcosm of the Torah in that it encapsulates so many of its greatest modes and themes. Balaam’s prophetic praise-poems, rising to the most sublime heights, assert the power of God’s blessing over His chosen people in the face of their enemy and, as happens time and again in biblical narrative, the tables are turned and faith is vindicated. Yet in the same portion we encounter that power on an intimate and comic level, too, for Balaam, who will roar forth his vision like a lion, must first be humbled by his own she-ass, who sees God’s messenger and endures the prophet’s abuse before she herself is transformed into a voice for the Almighty. Here is blessing and curse, divine vision and complex political negotiation, human failing and natural grace. In Numbers 23:17, Balak asks Balaam, “What has the Lord spoken?” and we are told, “Balaam took up his parable.”

How to cast this into a midrashic poem? There’s no point in trying to copy the rhetorical force of either the original Hebrew or the very diverse and wonderful English translations we now possess. (For this piece, I drew on my two favorites, the King James Version and Everett Fox’s recent “The Five Books of Moses.”) As I have done on other occasions in my work, I went to the text seeking thematic and structural opportunities, openings, as the Talmud would say, which allow for new forms of utterance — grammatical, stanzaic, semantic — that still may keep faith with the original. Nor is there any point appropriating the entire portion for the poem. Yet I do not think of the result as fragmented. Let us say rather that it is more abbreviated, elliptical, telegraphic: a midrash that opens spaces in the text as much as fills them.

Balaam’s Experience

Struck thrice she lost it she was taken by

the spirit she spoke out against him he saw

what she had seen he bowed and was reproved

* * *

Asked thrice he found it he was taken by

the spirit he could not curse could only bless

Jacob’s tents Israel’s dwellings like groves or river gardens

* * *

Seven times two times three but to no avail

Those whom you bless are blessed

those whom you curse are cursed

Clapped his hands but to no avail

Those who bless you are blessed those who curse you are cursed

* * *

A star from Jacob a meteor from Israel

A lion that eats its prey that drinks the blood of the slain

Thus utters the man of the open eye

Who sees the visions of God Almighty

Norman Finkelstein is a poet and critic. His most recent volume of poetry is “Powers: Track III” (Spuyten Duyvil). He is a professor of English at Cincinnati’s Xavier University.

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