Parashat Balak 5774 – The Unmoved Mover vs. The Dynamic Relationship

לֹא אִישׁ אֵ’ל וִיכַזֵּב, וּבֶן-אָדָם וְיִתְנֶחָם

Parashat Balak describes Bnei Yisrael’s unknowing encounter with Balak, Midian’s new king (Bamidbar 22:4), and his countryman (22:5) Bilaam, a sorcerer of some repute. Balak asks Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael, and, although he is initially forbidden by ‘א to do so (22:12), Bilaam goes. Three times they set up 7 altars and offer 7 rams and 7 cows, one on each, and then Bilaam receives a message from ‘א to present to Balak. While the first two times he desires to curse Bnei Yisrael, and instead blesses them, the third time he realizes that he has no option but to bless them, and does so intentionally. Despite this initial intention, Bilaam consistently states throughout the story that he will only be able to say and do that which ‘א tells him (22:18, 38; 23:3, 12, 26; 24:14). He is very clear that he himself cannot curse the people, but can only pronounce ‘א’s cursing them. Seeing as ‘א had already said that Bilaam “shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (22:12), it seems odd that he would try and curse them anyway. It is only after ‘א clearly states that He will not be changing His mind[1] (23:19) that Bilaam embraces his destiny to bless Bnei Yisrael (24:1).
It is not entirely surprising that Bilaam would have initially thought that ‘א’s mind could be changed. After all, in Bamidbar 22:12 ‘א tells him explicitly that he may not go and curse Bnei Yisrael, and then in 22:20 ‘א rather ambiguously states that Bilaam may go. Moreover, Tanakh depicts ‘א changing his mind pretty severely before the flood: “And the Lord regretted (וַיִּנָּחֶם) that He had made man on the earth, and He grieved in His heart,” (Bereishit 6:6). ‘א saw that mankind had become incredibly evil, and regretted their creation. This would seem to imply that ‘א might change His mind. However, in Bilaam’s second divinely-inspired speech to Balak, he explicitly contradicts this idea: “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor the son of[2] man, that He should regret (וְיִתְנֶחָם),” (Bamidbar 23:19). These two verses, using the exact same word, directly contradict each other.
The resolution might be found in looking at what exactly Bilaam did that he thought would change ‘א’s mind. When preparing each of the three times to curse Bnei Yisrael, Bilaam had Balak erect 7 altars and bring a cow and a ram on each. When Bilaam comes before ‘א the first time, he says, “I have prepared the seven altars, and I have offered up a bullock and a ram on every altar,” (23:4). The seven altars are not random. For whatever reason, perhaps due the importance of the number 7 in both Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern thought, Bilaam thinks that these 7 sets of altars and offerings will influence ‘א’s intent. The second thing Bilaam does to change ‘א’s mind is change location. The first attempt is from Bamot-Baal (22:41), the second is from the Field of Tsophim, at the top of Pisgah (23:)14, and the third attempt is from the top of Peor (23:28). These methods are based on the pagan conception of the Divine, wherein the gods are subject to magical energy derived from the meta-divine realm, where the gods themselves get their power[3]. This is what ‘א is specifically rejecting in His statement that He “is not a man, that He should lie, nor the son of man, that He should regret.”[4]
By contrast, ‘א elsewhere seems not only to suggest but to declare outright that His intent can be influenced by mankind’s actions.

At one instant I may speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to uproot and to break down, and to destroy it; But if that nation turns from their evil, because of which I have spoken against it, I repent (וְנִחַמְתִּי) of the evil that I thought to do to it. And at one instant I may speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; but if it does evil in My sight, that it does not listen to My voice, then I repent (וְנִחַמְתִּי) of the good, with which I said I would benefit it. (Yirmiyahu 18:7-10)

‘א explicitly states that His decrees can be changed by man’s actions. However, it’s not a matter of incantations or offerings that creates this change. Instead it’s a matter of doing good versus doing evil.
‘א is not the “unmoved mover” of the philosophers. The Tanakh makes it very clear that ‘א is in a living and dynamic relationship with all of mankind in general, and with Bnei Yisrael in particular[5]. This means that the actions of mankind matter to Him, as these actions do not exist in a vacuum. However, He cares specifically about certain kinds of actions, those of ethics and morality, Torah and Mitzvot. This message comes across loud and clear throughout the words of Moshe and the prophets[6]. Man is not insignificant. Man is perhaps of the greatest significance. Man’s position at the end of the process of creation is meant to indicate the greatness of which man is capable. However, man is created on the same day as the animals to demonstrate that man can also sink to the level of the animals with great ease. With this great power comes ultimate responsibility. ‘א’s concern with us and our action obligates us to understand the great weight of our actions. Our actions are so important and powerful that they have the ability to influence even ‘א. But not through reciting meaningless incantations or performing magic rituals. It is the ethical life of man, lived in the framework of Torah and Mitzvot, with which ‘א fully concerns Himself.

[1] It’s difficult to reconcile the more philosophical, unchanging, way we think about ‘א with His depiction in Tanakh, but it is possible. However, that is beyond the scope of this essay, and for the purpose of the essay we will assume that, at the very least, the Tanakh does depict ‘א as changing.

[2] The “X, => Son of X” formula is a common form of emphasis in Tanakh. See Meir Weiss, The Bible from Within, “Neither a Prophet not the Son of a Prophet Am I”.

[3] Yehezkal Kaufmann, “The Religion of Israel”.

[4] This statement, verse 23:19, falls in the middle of Bilaam’s second speech to Balak. While he does still change location before the third speech, verse 23:28, he then realizes that he can’t change ‘א’s mind and that he might as well bless the people intentionally, verse 24:1.

[5] Bnei Yisrael have a specific, “covenantal” relationship with ‘א, a phrase with very important connotations, but beyond the scope of this essay.

[6] See Isaiah Chapter 1, for example.

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