The Manichaean Candidate
I was reminded of these dualists as I chanted the Haftarah – The Prophetic Selection – this past week. Micah has an interesting way of referring to Balak and Balaam’s attempt to curse the Children of Israel: “My nation, remember now what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered him.” (Micah 6:5) The prophet does not refer to Balaam’s equal desire to curse Israel or Balaam’s strategy to corrupt Israel through the daughters of Moab. Micah asks us to remember the plot and Balaam’s answer.
Balak understood that the battle would be a spiritual war, one with which he was totally unfamiliar. Aware that Midian was equally concerned with this new nation on the political and military scene, He turned to his ancient enemy for advice. Moshe spent many years with them and Balak expected that they would have a sense of his powers. The Midianites, who remembered the Moshe with the speech impediment before his experience at the Burning Bush and the beginning of his prophecy, somehow understood that Moshe’s power was his ability to communicate with God.
The two nations decided to hire Balaam, the great prophet of the nations, albeit a hedonist, to lead them in this battle of unfamiliar territory. The Midianites are too frustrated by Balaam’s corruption to stick with the strategy and Balak is left to handle the only prophet in history considered by the Sages to be the equal of Moses.
Balak was confused by Balaam’s constant reference to God – The God of Israel – as the One in charge. Balak and Balaam offer sacrifices to this great power, and even when the first curses come out as blessings, Balak, despite his frustration, asks Balaam, “What did God speak?” (Numbers 23:17)
Balak accepts that this hedonist, Balaam, is Moab’s only hope. He accepts that they must make offerings to Israel’s God. He even accepts that Balaam will only be able to speak God’s words. So how can he possibly believe that they will succeed in cursing God’s nation with God’s help?
Balak, much as the Manichaeans, the Cathars, and the Bogomils was a dualist, although of a different and more dangerous sort: He believed that the spiritual and physical worlds were completely unrelated. Balak accepted that the former did not function according to any of the rules of the latter. Balak, a supremely practical and insightful king, simply accepted Balaam’s “answers” that the spiritual war with Israel would not make practical sense to a simple human being.
This is why the Targum Yonatan describes the final confrontation between Balaam and Pinchas as he does: “When Balaam saw that Pinchas was chasing him, he used his magic to fly into the air. Pinchas used the Name of God, rose up to the heavens, grabbed Balaam, pulled him down to earth, and only then, killed him.” Balaam, the dualist, believed that Israel could only exist in the heavens. They would never live a physical life on this world. It could only be one or the other.
Pinchas pulled Balaam down to earth before killing him to make a statement that Israel does not believe that there are two separate worlds that are unrelated. The Children of Israel understand that the spiritual and physical function together. We do not strive to escape this world in order to live and flourish spiritually. We find the beauty and spirituality here on this world.
The Balaks, Balaams, and Manichaeans are all long gone, but we continue to thrive in both the spiritual and physical realms.
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