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Parashat Balak - The Curses of Laban

The Curses of Laban

Further thoughts on Parashat Balak

by John J. Parsons

Note: The following article concerns the Torah reading of Balak. Please review the Torah portion to "find your place" here....

The Torah states that until Abraham arrived in Canaan, the ancestors of Israel "served other gods" (Josh. 24:2). These "gods" were undoubtedly part of the mythology of the ancient Near East that had its origin with Nimrod in ancient Babel (Gen. 10:10). Jewish tradition says that Noah gave Nimrod the skins with which God clothed Adam and Eve, and these gave him power over all the animals of the world.  Hence he became a "mighty hunter" and convinced the ancient Babylonians that he had divine authority and power (Gen. 10:9). Nimrod then organized the construction of the Tower of Babel (מִגְדָּל בָּבֶל), a symbol of political unity and power, and anointed himself king over the land of Shinar. He was the reigning monarch in Abraham's day.


A midrash relates that Abraham's father Terah (תֶּרַח) sold idols for a living in the neighboring City of Haran.  When Abraham was a young child, however, he realized that idol worship was foolishness. One day when he was asked to watch the store, Abraham took a hammer and smashed all the idols - except for the largest one. His father came home and demanded to know what happened. Abraham replied that the idols all "got into a fight" and the biggest idol won.  His father was angry but understood that Abram had discovered the truth of ethical monotheism. This was a severe test because Abraham had to oppose his father Terah and take a stand against the idolatrous culture of his day.

According to legend, when Nimrod later heard that Abraham refused to give honor him as divinely appointed king, he was arrested and thrown into a fiery furnace for three days. Abrahamm survived this ordeal, but when his brother Haran (הָרָן) was likewise tested, he was burned alive (Gen. 11:28). Rashi notes that "Ur Kasdim" (אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים) means "fire of Kasdim," referring to these events.

Abraham then received God's call to go to the Promised Land and convinced his father to make the journey with him. Terah died en route to the land, however (Gen. 11:31-32). His brother Haran had two children who survived him, a boy named Lot and girl named Milcah. Abraham adopted Lot who accompanied him to Canaan, but his brother Nahor (נָחוֹר) married Milcah and remained in Mesopotamia.  After Terah's death, Abraham heard the Heavenly Voice command him to leave his ancestral home for good and to continue his journey to Canaan, where he was promised to become a great nation (Gen. 12:1-2). From the seed of Abraham "all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3).

Nahor and Milcah had a boy named Bethuel (בְּתוּאֵל). Bethuel was an unsavory character who later attempted to poison Abraham's servant Eliezer when he was dispatched to find a bride for Isaac. He was also the father of a daughter named Rebekah (who later married Isaac) and a son named Laban (לָבָן).

Laban lived with his father Bethuel as a shepherd, and had two daughters, Leah and Rachel (who later became the matriarchs of Israel). According to traditional commentaries, after Rebekah had given birth to the twins (Esau and Jacob), she wrote her family back home to arrange marriages for her sons. They agreed that Esau would take Leah as a wife and Jacob would take Rachel.

After Jacob stole the blessing from Esau, he was forced to flee to his mother's family in Aram (i.e., Mesopotamia) to escape from his brother's murderous wrath.  It was in Aram that we learn of the treachery of Laban and witness his relentless malice directed toward his nephew Jacob.  Laban deceived Jacob ten times, switched his daughters in marriage, exploited his labor, and finally attempted to hold the entire family as his slaves.  According to midrash (Bereshit Rabbah), Laban is called "Kemuel" (קְמוּאֵל) because he rose up (קוּם) against God (אֵל). The Zohar (mystical commentary on the Torah) states that Laban was an expert in sorcery (כִּשּׁוּף) with which he sought to destroy Jacob. Therefore he said to Jacob, "I have learned by divination (i.e., נַחַשׁ, from the same root as nachash, the "serpent" in Eden) that the LORD has blessed me because of you" (Gen. 30:27). Perhaps this explains why Rachel later stole her father's idols (i.e., "teraphim," תְּרָפִים) before the family fled back to the Promised Land (Gen. 31:19) -- she was attempting to break the power of his spells against her family...

Laban's worship of the serpent (nachash) led him to become one of the first enemies of the Jewish people. He tried to make Jacob a slave from the beginning, later claiming that all his descendants and possessions belonged to him (Gen. 31:43). Later Laban had a son named Beor (בְּעוֹר) who became the father of the wicked prophet Balaam (בִּלְעָם). In other words, the "cursing prophet" Balaam was none other than the grandson of Laban:


Balaam was regarded as a great seer, magician and an adept in the occult. He had an "evil eye" and drew the spirit of demons to anything he gazed upon (Avot 5:22).  His notoriety made him famous, and powerful people asked him to invoke curses on their enemies. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) states that Balaam became so famous as a magician that he later became a chief advisor to Pharaoh. It was Balaam who advised the new Pharaoh to enslave the Israelites and to afflict them with brutal taskmasters (Exod. 1:8-11). According to Midrash, at some point this new Pharaoh had a nightmare. In it he saw an old man standing before him as he sat on his throne. The man held a balancing scale. All the elite of Egypt were placed on one side of the scale, and only a small lamb on the other. When Pharaoh looked, behold, the lamb outweighed all the others!


When he awoke, Pharaoh called his wise men and asked them to interpret his dream, but they could not do so.  Only Balaam had the explanation: "A child will be born to the Israelites who will destroy the land and kill all the people," he said. "Then he will lead the Israelites to freedom. You must stop this from happening!" Pharaoh's stargazers agreed with Balaam and informed Pharaoh that according to their calculations the child had been born on that very day! "But he is destined to die by water," they said, and Balaam then recommended that a decree be issued that all newborn Israelite boys be thrown into the Nile river. In other words, it was Laban's hatred of Jacob (imparted to his grandson Balaam) that was the underlying impetus for the persecution of the Jews in Egypt! 

In Jewish tradition, Laban is regarded as even more wicked than the Pharaoh who enslaved the Jews in Egypt. This enmity is enshrined during the Passover Seder when we recall Laban's treachery as the one who "sought to destroy our father, Jacob."  Spiritually understood, Laban's hatred of Jacob (i.e., Israel) was intended to eradicate the Jewish nation at the very beginning.  Had Laban succeeded, Israel would have been assimilated and disappeared from history.  God's plan for the redemption of humanity through the Promised Seed would have been overturned (Gen. 3:15). But even despite being thwarted by God's direct intervention (Gen. 31:24), Laban carefully passed on his hatred of the Jews to his grandson Balaam.  The Zohar says that Balaam became "a disciple of" Laban, so that for all practical purposes they functioned as the same person. "As great as Moses was in the realm of spirituality and purity, Balaam was his equal in the realm of witchcraft and impurity" (Tanna Eliyahu).

Even after the Exodus from Egypt, Laban's hatred (embodied in Balaam) pursued the Jews.  According to Jewish tradition, Balaam followed Israel out of Egypt and later returned to his homeland of Pethor (פְּתוֹר), near Aram (Num. 23:7; Deut. 23:4). When Israel later encamped along the borders of Moab, Balak - the newly appointed king of the Moabites - sought an alliance with the Midianites and commissioned a delegation of emissaries to hire Balaam to curse the Jews so that they would be unsuccessful in battle. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," or so thought Balak, who sought to create a united front against the Jewish people.... The midrash states that Balak was as powerful a sorcerer as Balaam, though he did not know how to curse as well as the latter. His name ("son of Tzippor") means that he practiced sorcery by using a tzippor (bird). The Zohar states that "Balak knew how to perform sorcery, but he did not know how to complete it with his mouth" (Zohar 3:305). Balaam, on the other hand, knew the precise hour to invoke God's anger and used the "correct" invocation (in Hebrew) to invite God's judgment (Tanchuma; Berachot 7a).

It is worth noting the parallels between King Balak and the Pharaoh of Egypt.  First, both were usurpers and political opportunists.  Pharaoh is described as a "new king" (Hyksos) who may have seized power from the ancient ruling dynasty, and Balak (who descended from the ancient Amorites) was installed as a ruler of Moab during a crisis of leadership after the death of their protectorate king Sihon (Num. 22:4). Both of these upstart rulers expressed similar fears of Israel's strength and numbers, and both therefore sought to destroy the Jews. Moreover, both relied on magicians and outside consultants, though the common link between them was the "cursing prophet" Balaam. As an emissary of Laban's hate, Balaam sought to prevent the exodus from Egypt, just as he later sought to curse the Jews so that they would be unable to inherit the Promised Land.

Balak dispatched a group of elders from both Moab and Midian to invite Balaam to curse the Israelites. Initially he refused to go with them, though after repeated obsequious delegations and promises of honor and glory from Balak, he finally saddled his donkey and made his way toward Moab. On the way to perform his maledictions, however, delicious irony ensues. Balaam is berated by his donkey, who saw the Angel that the LORD sent to block his way. The so-called great man could not control his own donkey with his words; how would he then be effectual in cursing Israel?

Balaam finally arrived at Moab's border and attempted three times, from three different vantage points, to pronounce his curses. These three curses concerned Israel's past, present, and future. To the consternation of Balak, however, in each case blessings upon Israel were recited instead.

The first curse (from the "high places of Baal") was meant to separate Israel from their past, though Balaam was constrained to say: "From the top of the rocks (מֵראשׁ צֻרִים) I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations" (Num. 23:9). The phrase "the top of the rocks" is thought to refer to the beginning (ראשׁ) of Israel's unique history of the patriarchs.  Contrary to the intent to disconnect Israel from her roots and become assimilated, Balaam's pronouncement of blessing upon Israel's separate ethnic identity continues to this day....

The second curse (from the top of Mt. Pisgah in Moab, the place where Moses later died) was meant to separate Israel from their present liberation from Egypt.  Balaam foresaw Moses' death here and therefore wanted to appeal to God to abandon Israel in the wilderness. The LORD overruled him, however, and Balaam was constrained to say: "God is not a man, that he should lie; nor the son of man, that he should repent: has he said, and shall he not do it? or has he spoken, and shall he not make it good?" (Num. 23:19). In other words, God has sworn to defend Israel and give them the land promised to Abraham.  In a fascinating part of Balaam's poetic blessing, he says, "he [God] has not seen perversity in Israel... the LORD their God is with them, and the acclaim of their King is in their midst" (Num. 23:21). The word translated "perversity" here is amal (עָמָל), a word that can also mean "toil" or "labor." Israel was chosen by God's grace - not because of personal merit or "works." Indeed, "there is no enchantment (i.e., "nachash," נַחַשׁ) against Jacob, no divination ("kesem," קֶסֶם) against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, 'What has God wrought!' (Num. 23:23).

Finally, the third curse was from the top of Peor, the place where Israel would later sin (Num. 25:1-3). Here Balaam hoped that in the future Israel would fall into idolatry and abandon faith in the LORD. Instead of the intended curse, however, Balaam was forced to say, "How good are your tents, O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel!" (Num. 24:5). Notice that the word translated "your tabernacles" is mishkenotekha (מִשְׁכְּנתֶיךָ), "your mishkans," referring to the future Temples of the Jewish people. Balaam foresaw the future service to God where the Jews would ask for forgiveness and enjoy fellowship with the LORD. (This blessing has been incorporated into the daily Mah Tovu blessing recited upon entering the synagogue.)

According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a), when Balaam saw that he could not prevail against Israel using these three verbal curses, he devised a different strategy to defeat them.  Balaam advised Balak to erect tents near the Israelite camp and to seat old women in their doorways to sell linen garments to the Israelites. The old women lured the men inside the tents, where the young women of Moab awaited them, adorned and perfumed. The women of Moab tempted the Israelites to join in the worship of "Baal Peor" (בַּעַל פְּעוֹר) and to participate in idolatry and immorality (Num. 25:1-3). Thus Balaam at last succeeded in cursing Israel and caused the death of 24,000 Jews (Num. 31:16).

The idea of a "cursing prophet" is bizarre, to say the least.  Balaam was gifted with great spiritual sensitivity which he perversely devoted to evil purposes.  The Scriptures condemn Balaam as a spiritual hireling who sought to corrupt the people of God (Deut. 23:3-6). He was a consummate hypocrite who, for all his talk about speaking "only what God put into his mouth" was highly motivated to curse the Jews for a fee (Num. 23:38, 22:17-18). His blindness led him to be rebuked by a talking donkey who saved his life from the Angel's sword of fire (Num. 22:23). The rebuke from the mouth of an animal was delicious irony, since in spite of his best efforts, Balaam would be forced to bless the Jewish people. Like his donkey, he could only speak the words that God put into his mouth....

"Life and death are in the power of the tongue" (Prov. 18:21), though a gratuitous curse will surely backfire (Prov. 26:2). According to the midrash, Balaam was named "swallowing the people" (עַם + בֶּלַע) by his mother. How strange a name -- and yet some people apparently want to give birth to "charmers," to occultic seers -- even to "homicide bombers" and those whose life's mission is to curse people... Moses was given his name by an Egyptian princess who adopted him (the Egyptian root appears in the names Ahmoses, Ramsees, etc.), but God overruled her linguistic intent by having the child "draw the people of out" of Egypt. Balaam's mouth was likewise overruled when he sought to curse the children of Israel.  The LORD took hold of his tongue and made this "donkey" of a man speak words of truth.

Balaam was finally killed by the Israelites in the days of Joshua (Josh. 13:22). What was Balaam doing in the battle? The midrash states that he was once again employed to curse Joshua and his army, though the Talmud states he came to collect his reward for slaying the 24,000 Israelite men (Sanhedrin 106a). The Targum Yonasan fancifully elaborates: "When the wicked Balaam saw Phinehas pursuing him, he used sorcery and flew into the sky. Thereupon Phinehas pronounced the great and holy Name and flew after him. Phinehas grabbed his head, lowered him to earth, drew his sword, and killed him. Balaam entreated Phinehas saying, "If you let me live, I swear to you that all the days of my life I will not curse your people." Phinehas answered, "Are you not Laban the Aramean who sought to destroy the patriarch Jacob? I cannot let you live any longer" (Bamidbar 31:8).

מַעֲשֵׂה אֲבוֹת סִימָן לַבָּנִים / ma'aseh avot siman labanim: "The deeds of the fathers are signs for the children." Balaam was later remembered by the prophets as a stern warning to Israel to remain separate from the pagan nations and to abhor their idolatry (Micah 6:5; Neh. 13:1-3). The New Testament speaks of "the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing" (2 Pet. 2:15), "Balaam's error" (Jude 1:11), and "the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel" (Rev. 2:14). Note that the doctrine of Balaam is associated with the licentious "doctrine of the Nicolatians" who "conquered the people" [νικος + λαος] in order to pursue their own ecclesiological/spiritual lusts (Rev. 2:6,14-15).

What is the "way of Balaam" or Balaam's error? Well, though Balaam appeared to follow God's instructions, his inner attitude was actually hostile to God's desire and plan. He was therefore double minded, antagonistic to the way of truth, and therefore literally insane (2 Pet. 2:16). When Balaam told Balak's emissaries that he could "only speak what God put in his mouth," he was being literal, not moral...  This is revealed in the fact that he was willing to try three times to curse God's purpose, but every time God thwarted his evil intent (Josh. 24:9-10). Despite God's dramatic intervention in his life, Balaam was unrepentant and defiant, and later succeeded in corrupting Israel by devising a scheme to tempt the men of Israel to commit fornication (Num. 31:16, Rev. 2:14-15).

How many Christian pastors and teachers out there resemble Balaam in their desire to curse Israel for personal gain?  Outwardly they may be constrained to "bless" the Jewish people - at least from the pulpit - but inwardly they may want the Jews to become enslaved again, by sending them back to Egypt or by fettering them to the "curses" of Sinai.... Ironically enough, it was the cursing prophet Balaam who said, "God is not a man, that He should lie..." (Num. 23:19), though many Christian denominations assert just the opposite idea by claiming that the God of Israel has abandoned His purposes and plans for ethnic Israel.... The apostles warn that such false prophets "love the wages of unrighteousness" (2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 1:11). Balaam implied that "if he were able to transgress the commandment of God, he would, provided he was given a sum of money (Num. 22:7,18; Deut. 23:3-6). Likewise Yeshua himself warns his followers of those who promote the teaching of Balaam, "who taught Balak to put a stumbling block (σκάνδαλον) before the sons of Israel" to commit fornication (Rev. 2:14).

Balaam was a hireling, a spiritual prostitute who wanted to sell his services. He was in possession of charisma which he used to seduce others into disobedience. He was paid for exercising his gifts without regard for the truth (Num. 22:7, Deut. 23:4-5, 2 Pet. 2:15). As Yeshua said, "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matt. 6:24).

The tragic story of Balaam warns us to check our motives. By itself, the study of Scripture is never enough -- even if we take great pains to properly understand its meaning. Our heart attitude is definitive. God loves Israel. Our will to serve God in the truth determines our way in this life. "If anyone wills to do His will he will know of the teaching..." (John 7:17). We cannot rightfully use the Scriptures to justify our ideas about God or own pet theological doctrines. We cannot manipulate God in order to serve our own theological visions... We must humble ourselves; we must make the effort to honestly listen; and we must be willing to surrender to the truth. It is the love of the truth that brings salvation to us (2 Thess. 2:10-12), not gaining power through religious knowledge or passing ourselves off as religious authorities.

May it please the LORD to help us honestly love the truth, and to keep us far from the error of Balaam! Amen.


B"H  Tammuz 10, 5770

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