The Nature of Balaam's Prophecy
How to learn from biblical nature imagery.
This commentary is provided by special arrangement with Canfei Nesharim. To learn more, visit www.canfeinesharim.org.
In the portion of Balak, the prophet Balaam, hired by King Balak of Moab, sets out to curse the children of Israel, only to find himself proclaiming four blessings instead. Each blessing builds on the one before it, becoming more sophisticated and exalted.
Balaam begins with introducing his theme and mission in the first, replies to Balak's anger at not cursing the people as he promised in the second, and by the third launches into a praise song of Israel that is considered "neither vindication nor denunciation but pure prophecy (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar)." Here the language itself becomes declamatory and filled with more symbolism; specifically more imagery taken from the natural world. In the first prophecy, only hills and rocks are mentioned, in the second, an ox and a lion, but in the third, both plants and animals are used to great effect. Let us examine one of the verses here.
The third blessing begins with Balaam's most famous statement (Numbers 24:5), "How goodly are your tents O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel." The verse following this is less well known: "Like the winding brooks, like gardens by the river's side, like aloes which the Lord has planted, and cedar trees beside the waters."
Conventions of Biblical Poetry
At first glance, this is a further description of the physical camp of Israel, and we can see it in our mind's eye, stretching into the distance in long rows like streams or tents standing on the flat ground, like tall cedars jutting into the sky.
However, if we look closer at the imagery in the verse, it does not seem to follow any of the patterns used in biblical poetry--for example A-B-A-C (staircase parallelism) or A-B-B-A (chiastic structure)--or even the style of the previous verse, where the first part of the verse is parallel in theme to the second. In our verse we have one body of water (winding brooks) followed by a list of three types of flora (gardens, aloes, cedars), one a desert plant (aloes) and two of which 'happen' to be next to water (gardens by the river's side, cedar trees beside the water). None of the usual structure patterns as mentioned above seem to fit.
Various commentators offer different explanations. Ibn Ezra sees trees implied in the first image of the river, as trees usually do grow next to winding rivers or brooks. The Da'at Mikra commentary takes this one stage further: the word 'nahal' most often refers to a riverbed--as opposed to an actual flowing river--usually within an arid or desert ecosystem.