Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Parshat Balak

Balak's Fear

"Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moav became terrified of the people, for they were numerous…" (Bemidbar 22:2-3).

What exactly was Balak afraid of? At first glance, he is concerned that Israel will attack him and steal his land. However, from a simple reading of the text, we know that this cannot be true.

To begin with, Israel at this point, has already defeated Sichon and Og, the Amorite kings. They are now standing on the banks of the River Jordan waiting for the order to cross over into Canaan to conquer it. Therefore, it should have been obvious to Balak that Israel had no intention of engaging Moav in war.

Further, in Sefer Devarim, Moshe states: "The Lord said to me, Do not distress the Moabites, and do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land [as] an inheritance…" (Devraim 2:9).

Israel was forbidden to attack Moav. While it could be argued that Moav did not know that instruction, they nevertheless, could not have missed the fact that Israel had bypassed their land and went around them. If Israel had belligerent ambitions against Moav, they would have found out well before now.

Finally, after Bilam fails to curse Israel and Balak recognizes that he could not defeat them in battle, nothing happens. Bilam goes home, Balak goes home and there are no hostilities between Israel and Moav.

Therefore, it seems that he had aggressive ambitions against Israel and not vice versa. So why was he afraid? What did he want?

The answer can be found by looking at the story of Yiftach in Sefer Shoftim (The Book of Judges). In trying to come to a negotiated settlement with Amon (the sister nation of Moav), Yiftach asks them why they were attacking Israel.

They respond: "Because Israel took away my land, when he came up out of Egypt, from the (river) Arnon even unto the (river) Yabbok, and unto the Jordan; now therefore restore those cities peaceably" (Shoftim 11:13).

It seems that Moav has a territorial argument with Israel. They want Israels's settlements in east bank of the Jordan river, claiming that Israel had stolen them from them when they conquered Canaan. But is this so? We do not encounter any battle between Israel and Moav (or Amon) after the Exodus. However, we do have Israel conquering those areas, but from Sichon and Og not Moav. So again, what's going on?

The answer is in last week's parsha. While describing Israel's defeat of Sichon and Og, the Torah writes: "Heshbon was the city of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and he had fought against the first king of Moab, taking all his land from his possession, as far as Arnon" (Bemidbar 21:26).

The area that Israel had captured from Sichon, had been previously conquered by Sichon from Ar, the first king of Moav. Moav had never given up its hope of retaining this land. Indeed around 300 years later, in the days of Yiftach, they are still fighting Israel over it. Nevertheless, the Torah stresses: "Arnon was the Moabite border between Moav and the Amorites" (ibid 13). While Moav claim that the east bank of the river Jordan is their land, it is not. Their border is the Arnon river. North of the Arnon is not historically Amon's even though Amonites once lived there. As a nation it was never their land.

Yet, Balak still claimed it and wanted it back. It terrified him that Israel had now conquered it as "they were numerous" and he feared that he would never get back. So he asked Bilam to curse Israel. He believed that under those circumstances, he could attack and defeat Israel. When that plan failed, he came to terms with his loss and did not stop Israel from taking possession. However, his people's historical memory lasted and 300 years later they too tried to restore the eastern bank of the Jordan river. They also failed.


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