Parashat Balak: Something Queer in the Vineyards

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as 

parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Andrew Ramer considers the “queer” power of talking animals, and the blessings and curses they can bear.

Creative Common/muffinimal

Creative Commons/muffinimal

The American Heritage Dictionary says this of Queer:
1. Deviating from the expected or normal; strange; a queer situation.
2. Odd or unconventional, as in behavior; eccentric.
3. Of questionable character or nature, suspicious.

All of this could describe the talking she-ass who appears in this week’s parasha: unexpected, unconventional, of questionable nature. Parrots and myna birds can mimic human speech. Chimps and gorillas have been taught to sign in human languages. King Solomon was said to be able to understand the languages of the animals. But a talking she-ass is something else all together.

Talking animals are found in every culture, from Aesop’s fables to Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Miss Piggy, the cowardly lion of Oz, and even several talking donkeys: Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, Benjamin in Animal Farm, and the talking donkey in the Shrek films. But in all of the Torah there are only two talking animals, the serpent in Eden and now our donkey. Just as Parashat Shelach Lecha calls to mind Parashat Lech Lecha, I believe we’re supposed to think about the serpent when we read this portion. The serpent led the first human beings astray, separating them from their primal garden home,while the she-ass carried Balaam the son of Beor toward blessing the Israelites with words we recite to this day: “Mah tovu: How goodly are your tents, Jacob; your dwellings, Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)

Balaam’s blessing occurs in a parasha unlike any other in the Torah. Several rabbinic sources consider it to be a separate book of Torah all together. An ancient text uncovered in 1967 in Jordan contains fragments of the prophecies of Balaam the son of Beor, making him one of the few characters in the Torah to be mentioned in non-Biblical sources. The Balaam in this week’s parasha, in agreement with the uncovered inscriptions, was a pagan prophet hired by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites. Balaam set out to meet Balak on his loyal she-ass, who swerved off the path through a vineyard — to avoid the angel with a drawn sword who was blocking her way. Balaam couldn’t see the angel and beat the she-ass three times, trying to get her to go back on the path. Unwilling to do so, she turned to Balaam and said, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me?” (Numbers 22:28) To which Balaam replied, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” (Numbers 22:29). The angel then revealed itself to Balaam and made it clear to him he can continue on, with the understanding that he will only say what he’s told to say — blessings, not curses.