Parashat Balak

Which Is Mightier: The Word Or The Sword?

Bil'am's death by sword at the hands of the Israelites is ironic retribution for his verbal power over them.

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Numbers 30:6-8

(6) Moshe sent them out, a thousand per tribe, to the attack force, them and Pinhas son of El'azar, priest to the armed forces, the holy implements and the trumpets for (sounding) trilling blasts in his hand.

(7) They arrayed their forces against Midyan, as YHWH had commanded Moshe, and they killed every male, (8) and the kings of Midyan they killed, along with the (other) slain: Evi and Rekem, Tzur, Hur and Reva, the five kings of Midyan; and Balaam son of Be'or they killed with the sword.

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Why was Balaam killed with the sword?

Balaam is the one who blesses and curses with words. Look at the narrative in Numbers 22 and see if there is any connection between Balaam's encounter with the angel/messenger and his demise. Is there anything "poetic" in the relationship between these two events?

In the Torah's view is Balaam a hero or a villain? Why?

A Word

Rashi states that Balaam's demise is actually the completion of a role reversal that began when Balaam imitated Israel's power. The power of the word. Just as Balaam could bless and curse with his lips and was willing to use that power either for or against Israel, he would ironically die by the sword of Israel, a nation who was taught "not by fury, not by power, but by My Spirit."

Just as Israel never expected to be blessed by the likes of Balaam, Balaam never expected being slain by the likes of Israel. The irony of this situation hinges upon the knowledge that neither party is acting in character.

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