By Rabbi Seymour Rossel
What makes a prophet? Amos tells us in eloquent poetry: “Indeed, my Sovereign God does nothing / without first revealing God’s purpose / to God’s servants, the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Visioning the future was prophecy, but since the future was not set in stone, Martin Buber understood this more as “confronting us with the alternatives of decision.” In addition, prophets could bless and curse — so effectively, in fact, that prophetic blessings were eagerly sought and prophetic curses were anxiously feared.
Amos left his home in Judah to reveal God’s word at Bethel in the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos tells us his prophecies were given “two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1) in the days of King Jeroboam II (c. 760 BCE). Amaziah the priest of Bethel feared Amos’ curses and sent warnings to Jeroboam. He ordered Amos to leave Israel, telling him to return to the southern kingdom of Judah to earn his living there as a paid hozeh (a “seer”). Amos responds that he is not a professional prophet. His wealth comes from fig trees and cattle. Back in Judah, working from home, Amos continues to compose poetic prophecy, visions and curses he sends to the northerners in writing — thereby becoming the first “literary” prophet of the Bible.
Now, it came to pass, around the time of Amos, not far away, in the land of Moab just across the Jordan, a large building collapsed in an earthquake (could this be the same earthquake Amos remembered?). This building lay in ruins until 1967 CE. Clearing the floor of the main room, archeologists happened on fragments of plaster with lettering in old pre-Hebrew script. Two plaster “panels” had fallen face down and survived beneath the rubble. Carbon dating placed the panels around the time of Amos (possibly a bit before). Panel 1 was the better preserved. Its inscription carefully incised in red and black ink turned out to be a poetic prophecy delivered by none other than “Balaam, son of Beor,” the Mesopotamian prophet who is the central figure in this week’s Torah portion.
We know when the inscription fell, we know who is mentioned, we know the prophecy is in poetry (like the prophecies of Amos and Balaam) but we do not know (1) if this Balaam was real or legendary, or (2) if real, when exactly Balaam lived — the Torah, after all, dates him to the time of Moses (c. 1250 BCE) but this inscription is from the time of Amos. Yet, consider how ironic! By a strange twist, we now know a non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, not only from Torah but also from the inscription on a plaque preserved by an earthquake nearly 500 years after the Torah says that Moses and the Israelites were encamped on the plains of Moab!
In this week’s portion, King Balak of Moab twice offers to pay Balaam to curse the Israelite camp. We know what Balak has in mind. In those days most kings would not go into battle without first hiring a prophet, a diviner, a sorcerer to engage the enemy in words; and the best of the diviners not only used words, they used poetry! At times the poet’s curses were so powerful that the opposing force would lose heart and leave the field.
Balaam, unlike Amos, is not independently wealthy. He is a prophet who takes money for cursing and for blessing. In other ways, though, Balaam and Amos are quite similar. Both are called hozeh, “seer.” Both have visions and both hear the voice of the One God. And, the poetry of both is of the finest stuff. In the end, in this Torah portion, Balaam receives no recompense from Balak. As God told Balaam from the start, “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12). Therefore, the prophet Balaam blesses Israel, gifting us forever with some of Torah’s most magnificent poetry.
Mah tovu ohaleicha Ya’akov / Mishkenoteicha Yisrael
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob / Your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5)
Rabbi Seymour Rossel is the author of “The Essential Jewish Stories,” “The Wise Folk of Chelm,” “Bible Dreams” and many other books featured at https://RosselBooks.com. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dalla