Balaam: A Seer in Training

Balaam: A Seer in Training
Man riding donkey by grassy field, scrubby trees, and dry mountains, illustrating a post about Balaam and his donkey

Balaam, star of Parshat Balak (Num 22:2-25:9) . He’s a seer, alright. Just not a great one. He certainly receives messages in dreams, emotions, and images. But he does not know how to interpret them. You might say: he is a gifted seer. But he lacks training.

Balaam Can’t Yet Interpret Dreams

For example, Balaam receives messages from God in his dreams. But he’s not so skilled in dream interpretation. When King Balak tries to hire him to curse the Israelites, Balaam has two dreams. In one dream, God says, “Don’t go on this mission.” In another dream, God says, “Go, but do only what I tell you to do.” At first, they seem inconsistent. So, Balaam could try to put them together. For example, he could ask, “Which part of me isn’t supposed to go?” Or “Which part of me is good at listening? How can I let that part lead?” But he does not ask those questions. Instead, he simply disregards the first dream, and follows the second.

Balaam Can’t Interpret Feelings & Images

The next morning, Balaam saddles his donkey and heads out on the mission. God gets angry. So, an angel of God stations himself on the path to oppose Balaam. The donkey sees the angel standing with a drawn sword in his hand. Wisely, she refuses to move ahead. Balaam gets angry and hits his donkey. So, she speaks directly to him in Hebrew. “Why did you hit me three times?” He replies, “You are mocking me! If I had a sword I would kill you!”

Pay attention, reader, to the details of the storytelling. Things are happening in the God-field around Balaam. There’s some emotion: God is angry. And there’s some visual imagery: an angel holds a sword. Balaam feels the emotion, and imagines the sword. But he does not interpret the experiences correctly—or at all. For example, he could ask, “What does this angry feeling tell me about my mission?” Or “I imagine myself with a sword; what is God trying to tell me?” But he does not ask those questions. Instead, he simply falls into the feelings and the images.

Fortunately, Balaam’s donkey replies with great calm. “Have I ever put you in danger?” she asks. “No,” he admits, and separates himself from the angry feelings and images. Then, his inner eyes begin to open. He sees the angel and its sword. He confesses to a lack of insight. And he asks for clear, explicit guidance.

Spiritual Perception is a Skill

Balaam has talent, for sure. But talent isn’t the same as skill. Maybe he hasn’t yet put in his 10,000 hours of spiritual practice. He’s got lots of listening, focusing, and reflecting to do before he gets there.

Maybe Balaam never got the training Jeremiah got (Jer. 1). God knows Jeremiah is talented. So one day, God calls Jeremiah into training. “What do you see, Jeremiah?” Jeremiah describes what’s in front of him—or maybe what’s in his imagination. Then, God shows him how to refocus his gaze, so he can see through ordinary experiences into spiritual reality.

Jeremiah says, “I see an almond (שקד, sha-ked) branch.” God says,”You saw well, because I keep watch (שקד, sho-ked) over what I say, and fulfill it. And what else do you see?” “A boiling pot, facing away from the north,” says Jeremiah. “Yes!” says God, “Disaster will boil over from the north.”

Then God tells Jeremiah that working as a prophet will not feel good. “But,” God says, “do not break down. I will be with you.” God does not have to explain the inner work Jeremiah must do to prepare. But it seems Jeremiah understands. He will learn not to sink into his feelings but to inquire into them. “What is God telling me to do?”

Many of us who aspire to spiritual perception start off like Balaam. Gifted, but not skilled. Present to our dreams, but confused by them. Full of feeling, but overwhelmed by it. Deeply imaginative, but distracted by our own creativity. Should we accept the mission to become spiritual leaders and teachers? Yes—as long as we remember to keep asking the very questions Balaam forgets.

Thank you, Rabbi Susan Shamash, for saying so clearly, “Balaam’s not a very good seer.”

9 Comments
  1. You’re welcome! Thank you for this beautiful teaching!

  2. Could it be that God is not a very good communicator? For example, many is the time that I have expressed something to someone and the did something I did not want them to do. Another time I heard instruction or request and tried to deliver, only to find out I did not. Now I am learning to ask if the message is indeed understood. “Would you be willing to tell me what you heard me say?” or “Would you be willing how it is for you to hear what I am saying?”

    I believe I am noticing that God is never responsible for individuals not carrying out God’s instructions, Moses, not sure is Jonah is an example, to name the only ones can think of.

    Suggesting Balaam is not a very good seer, imho, could be seen as blaming the victim.

    How is this for you to read, Laura?

    1. Thanks, Zelik. This is a story where God delivers the message multiple times in multiple formats to this particular protagonist. Classical interpreters are split about whether Balaam ever understands it or not. Their evaluations of Balaam range from “greatest prophet who ever lived” to “willfully evil.” I prefer to see Balaam as being on a developmental journey. (Of course! I’m an educator.) Unfortunately, as the story continues, Balaam dies soon after all this happens. So, sadly, we do not know what his growth potential was.

      Again, this is an evalution of a character in the Torah’s story! There is historical evidence that Balaam was also a character in some Canaanite stories, where he is portrayed differently.

    1. Why not, if used thoughtfully? Just for a simple example: It’s certainly part of trying to see people in a positive light, which is considered a positive spiritual act in Jewish tradition. (But is counterbalanced by the importance of warning people of danger.)

  3. Hi Laura,
    Thank you for this teaching! It brings a memory of the movie Noah, in which different ways of understanding, or seeking to understand, God’s message are brought. As in Balaam’ s story, the question of who truly sees or hears God, verses who only hears himself, are raised: and sometime, it is not the person (or being) we want to believe is the hero!
    Yael

    1. Thanks so much, Yael. That’s a great connection! Shabbat Shalom

    1. Felishia, thank you so much for visiting the site and leaving a comment. Blessings to you!

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