>My Saba (Israeli grandfather) likes to tell stories and parables. One of my favourites is about three men who all lived together in the same village, and wanted to find a mythical well in the midst of a deep, dark forest. They all set out separately, following their own specific route through the forest. Each man succeeded in reaching the well right in the heart of the forest. When they returned to the village, they all told the other villagers about the route which they had taken to get to the mythical well. And the three of them began to argue about whose route to the well was best. They kept arguing about their individual routes, convinced that their way was the only way. They never talked about the well, they only ever argued about the route to get there.
For my Saba this story is a critique of the three Abrahamic faiths. We all trace ourselves back to Abraham, and we all follow the same, one, true God. The problem is that we have, over centuries, been consumed by arguing about the right way to God, rather than talking about what we should be doing in the service of God.
I find it interesting to consider the way we Jews refer to Adonai in the different countries in which we live. Here in England, we call Adonai ‘God’ or ‘Lord’. These terms, or names, are equally fitting in a Church context, we pray to the same God and share the English name we use. In the Muslim countries of the Middle East, the Jewish communities did not use the term ‘God’ or ‘Lord’, they called Adonai, ‘Allah’ – the Arabic name for God. These names are a reminder that while the routes may be different, the destinations are the same.
In this week’s Torah portion, it is easy to get distracted by angels, talking donkeys, and the introduction of the line ‘Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael’ – ‘How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel’ (Numbers 24:5). To do this is to miss the significance of Bilam.
The Israelites are no longer an anonymous mass; they have become a force in the area. And as a result of the Israelite’s military successes, the Moabites have become frightened. Balak, the king of the Moabites, fearing for his people, sends for Bilam to come and ‘curse this people’ (Numbers 22:6). In the ancient world curses were powerful things to be feared and it is no surprise that this is Balak’s first line of offence. What is surprising is the fact that Bilam was not a random, foreign prophet; he was a man who had a relationship, and connection, to Adonai.
Bilam asks God’s permission before agreeing to the Moabite request to curse the Israelites. He asks the Moabites to wait the night and ‘I will bring you word again, as Adonai shall speak to me’ (Numbers 22:8). This is not some random pagan deity, this is Adonai, the God of the Israelites. And Bilam has a conversation with God (Numbers 22:9-12), a conversation which continues throughout the Torah portion.
Ultimately, despite travelling to meet Balak, Bilam is unable to curse the Israelites. It is an interesting story, but the overall narrative is not particularly advanced. I like to think that Bilam, in the midst of our most sacred book, serves as an important reminder that there is more than one way to have a relationship with God. Bilam teaches us that there is more than one way to the source; we do not have a monopoly on the truth. We have our way, but there are others. And we should concentrate on the well, rather than the route to get there.