Looking for Loopholes

Parashat Balak - Numbers 22:2-25:9

The portion of Balak is filled with supernatural interactions between God and a Gentile prophet by the name of Balaam. From our portion, Balaam appears to have been renowned for his spiritual acumen, and seems to have a close relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Yet in the end we find that he is dead set on destroying the Children of Israel. How did this come about? Let's take a brief look at Balaam's mistake.

When Balak's men came to Balaam and asked him to curse Israel, he realized that his services would fetch a large sum of money. He only had one problem. He couldn't speak anything more than what God would allow him:

"Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more" (Num. 22:18). 

How would he be able to bring a curse upon Israel? The sages tell us, however, that this was a mixture of truth and a lie. Truth, in that Balaam was indeed limited by what God allowed him to speak. But also a lie, in that his answer masked the greed hidden in Balaam's heart. Balaam's Achilles' heel was his evil eye-greed-as it is said:

The evil eye, the evil desire and hatred of his fellow creatures put a man out of the world (Avot 2:16)

How do we know this? Not only does Rashi and other ancient commentators mention this, but we also have the Apostolic testimony:

They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing (2 Peter 2:15)

Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam's error and perished in Korah's rebellion. (Jude 11)

But if Balaam could only speak what God told him to, how did he ever hope to accomplish his wicked task of cursing Israel? When he asked permission initially, he received an explicit "No!" If that was the case, why did he end up asking again? Because when God appeared to him during the night He asked Balaam, "Who are these men with you?" With this question Balaam began to think that God was not omniscient like he had previously believed. Therefore, if he could just get God's permission to go with the men, he might be able to accomplish his mission before he was found out. He therefore asked permission again. This time, God allowed him to go with Balak's men. Did God change his mind? Why did He say no the first time and yes the second time?

When Balaam initially asked permission to go with Balak's men, God told him to not go with them ("imahem" in Hebrew). But when God ended up giving Balaam permission He used a different Hebrew word than before. He said that Balaam may go with them, "itam." The sages explain that the difference between these words are that the first implies being one in purpose, while the second implies merely physically accompanying someone. Balaam was to go with them, but he was not supposed to join in their wicked schemes. Evidently, Balaam didn't pay attention to the wording and assumed he had permission from the Almighty to be in collusion with Moab.

Have we ever asked God for permission about something and were given a definite "no," but then proceeded to ask again? Have we ever been guilty of looking for loopholes in the Scriptures? Balaam's mistake was to think that God's "no" wasn't His final answer. When God says something its His final word. As Balaam himself ended up proclaiming, "God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind" (Num. 23:19). If God doesn't change His mind, why would we pretend that He does? Therefore, rather than acting like a child throwing a tantrum when God says no, we should realize that His wisdom is above ours, His answer is always best, and His ways are always good. "To the only wise God be glory forevermore through Messiah Yeshua! Amen" (Rom. 16:27).