This week’s Torah portion covers Numbers 22:2 to 25:9.
38 years of wilderness wandering have passed with very little biblical commentary. Miriam and Aaron have died and Moses knows he will never step foot in the promised land. The Israelites now find themselves battling Edomites, Amorites, and Canaanites in their journey onward. By the time they arrive to the plains of Moab, rumors of their victories have spread across the land.
The King of Moab, Balak, fears the coming Israelites. Much like the Egyptian pharaoh, Balak is unsettled by the large number of Israelites. Balak sends for the seer Balaam because he believes that whomever Balak curses will be cursed and whomever he blesses will be blessed.
We know from Egyptian records from this same time period that it was a common practice to hire seers to compose poetic curses against enemies. The story of Balak fits perfectly into the historical context. However, it is an odd departure in the Hebrew bible. There have been rare instances of non-Israelites speaking with the God of the Hebrews. Melchizedek, the King of Shalem, is the most obvious example. But the way Numbers recounts the episode, Balaam and the one true God are in sincere dialogue, even if Balaam also seems to be an opportunistic pagan seer.