The story of Balak and Balaam is one of the few parashiot (Torah portions) that are named after non-Israelites. It’s a strange one, to be sure. Right in the middle of the wilderness, we get our own version of Shrek.
A talking donkey is a better prophet than the greatest seer in all the land, Balaam. Balaam is so great that the Moabite ruler, Balak, hires him to curse the Israelites, a people who have grown so much in number that they are a threat. Moses doesn’t appear in the story, and the Israelite perspective is absent. In fact, the Torah would go on just fine without this story. Still, there must be something we can learn from it.
God speaks to a non-Israelite, repeatedly, and with authority; the greatest authority, in fact, in the story. God will speak to those who are ready to receive the Divine inspiration, no matter who they are, or where they come from. No one, the story teaches, can claim to be the sole recipient of God’s inspiration. Only a few chapters before this tale, we read of Eldad and Medad. They had remained in camp when Moses had gathered the seventy elders of the community who experienced God’s spirit. Yet they , too, experienced God’s spirit: “yet the spirit rested upon them” (Num 11:26) Joshua, Moses’ second-in-command, is indignant. “My Lord, restrain them!” (11:27) But Moses says no, “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all God’s people were prophets, that God would put God’s spirit upon them!” (11:29-30)
Moses knew then, and Balaam knows here that no one owns God’s wisdom. Today, many claim to be the ones to whom God speaks only, and those who do so in the political realm, in the areas of social policy, and legislation. They think they are speaking for God, that they know what God wants, that they are the only ones who know what God wants.
God spoke to Balaam and refused to curse an entire people, just because a leader was threatened by their presence. God didn’t speak to the ones who were afraid of others, who wanted to destroy the “other, but who because of their wealth and power, expected their wishes to be obeyed.
God spoke to Balaam so that God’s blessings would be heard. We must keep our ears open for blessings coming from places we may not expect, by those who might be “outside the camp” but hear God’s voice.