Parashat Balak

The Nature of Balaam's Prophecy

How to learn from biblical nature imagery.

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Such riverbeds are sandy and dry, there is no surface water for most of the year, but they can be seen from afar, since greenery and even large trees grow next to them, marking them clearly within the vast expanse of arid land. In southern Africa it is these slivers of green that elephants head for in the dry season, and here they dig down into the desiccated sand with their front legs until brackish water oozes out from the depths and they can drink.

If we look then at the general ecosystems in which these plants or rivers are found, rather than the plants themselves, we find the verse in fact has an A-B-A-B structure:

A--nahal--riverbed in a desert environment

B--nahar--greenery next to a broad river

A--ahalim—aloes; plants that usually live in semi-arid or arid areas

B--arazim alei mayim--cedars that stand next to water

Deserts Regions & Temperate Zones

So this verse contains a repeated image of two kinds of biomes or ecozones: desert with aloes and a river that flows only rarely, and a more temperate zone with a perennial river and cedar trees.

This arrangement follows a typical stylistic device in biblical poetry which, in Balaam's time, the people of Israel would have picked up almost instinctively. They knew the desert environment intimately, as well as the power of the Nile River to create 'gardens' on its banks. Later generations lived in Israel where both biomes were well-represented. But for us today, it's not so easy.

In Bilaam's prophecies, as with most others throughout the Bible, nature is used constantly in metaphor and symbolism. Its audience would understand it, needing no help to pick up the ideas the prophet was proclaiming. The people lived a life which was so bound up in nature, with such a strong connection to their natural environment, that the necessary connections might even have been made subconsciously. Nature's beauty and teachings would have permeated their beings.

Today, we need to look beyond the specific meaning of the verse if we are to learn from the use of nature imagery in the Bible in general. We need to ask ourselves: To what extent is nature a part of our consciousness? The answer for many of us is: not much. 

Back to Nature

Before the Industrial Revolution, the majority of humans lived an agrarian lifestyle, dependent upon, or close to the land. Even in 16th century urban London, Shakespeare's nature imagery would have been understood by his audience. But, in the 21st century, with half the world's population living in cities, it seems that we need botanists or ecologists to help us understand our Bible.

We need to consider our exposure to nature: When last did I actually see a river or hear the rustle of trees on its banks? Walk on grass and smell a wild growing flower? Our language and metaphors reflect the reality we experience, consisting of the whirr of machinery and hum of computers, not the animals and plants that live with us on Earth. "Little we see in nature that is ours"--Wordsworth saw this separation already in the 19th century; how much more so today.

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Ilana Stein has a BA in English, a degree in Nature Conservation, and is a registered Field Guide. She works as a writer for the ecotourism company and conservation organization Wilderness Safaris and lectures in Tanach at the Emunah Women's Beit Midrash in Johannesburg, South Africa.