A UNIQUE EXAMINATION OF FOODS, PLANTS, AND ANIMALS IN THE BIBLE
TENTS OF PRAISE
Balaam was hired by the Moabites and Midianites to curse the Israelites encamped in the Plains of Moab as they awaited entry into Canaan. Instead of curses, however, Balaam was forced to speak only the words directed to him by God, a series of four parables. Despite Balaam’s disreputable character and motives, the content of his proclamations is of great import, remaining in effect at all times and in all conditions. For the Torah devotes an entire parsha, one containing no commandments, to Balaam and his parables.
Unquestionably, the most famous part of Balaam’s parables is the opening verse of the third one (Numbers 24:5), “Mah tovuo’halehkha (How goodly are your tents), Jacob, meeshk’notehkha (your dwelling places), Israel.” This phrase is recited daily at the very beginning of the morning service, customarily as a person enters the synagogue. Fewer people are familiar with the ensuing verses of the parable (24:6-9): “k’nahchalim neetavu (like streams they stretch forth), k’ganot ahlei nahar (like gardens by the river), k’ahhalimnatah (like aloes planted) of the Lord, k’ahrazim ahlei mayim (like cedars by the water). Water flows me’dawlav (from his buckets/dippers), v’zaro (and his seed) shall be in abundant waters; and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God, Who brought him forth out of Egypt, is for him like the lofty horns of the re’m (“wild ox,” see Yitro in Exodus); He shall consume the nations that are his adversaries, and shall crush their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows. He crouched, shakav (he lays down) like a lion, and like a lioness, who shall rouse him up? Who blesses you shall be blessed and who curses you shall be cursed.”
Contributing to this parable’s many levels of meaning are various word plays and similes as well as linguistic and metaphoric connections to other biblical sections, all corresponding to major transition points in the development of the Covenantal Community -- Creation, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Esau, the Exodus from Egypt, and the Jewish commonwealth. Balaam’s third parable, unlike the others, contains numerous allusions of water and vegetation. Balaam’s description of Jewish society as tovu (goodly) connects it to Creation, pronounced tov (Genesis 1:3,10,12,18,21,31), in particular, to the creation of man and the original state of humankind, the Garden of Eden. During Creation, God created water (1:1), divided the water into heaven and earth (1:6), divided the earthly water into land and ocean (1:9), and later “watered the whole face of the ground (2:6),” after which God created Adam and caused vegetation to sprout from the ground. The text records (2:8), “vayita (and planted) the Lord God gan b’Eden mekedem (a garden in Eden eastward)” and (2:19) “a nahar (river) went out of Eden to water ha’gan (the garden).” Thus the phrases k’ganot ahlei nahar (like gardens by the river) and k’ahhalimnatah (like aloes planted) are connected with the earliest planting, the Garden of Eden. (For more on gan and planting, see Bereisheet 1 and Noach in Genesis.) Acts of planting (vayita) appear again by Noah after the Flood (Genesis 9:20), then by Abraham after the disinheritance of Ishmael (21:33), two major transition points in the Covenantal Community.
Balaam’s reference to trees recalls “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food (Genesis 2:9)” and the vehicle of Adam and Eve’s transgression, “the tree of knowledge of good and evil (2:9).” Balaam cites two specific trees: the arez (cedar), the largest native plant of the Middle East and a common biblical presence, and the ahhal. (For more on trees and cedars, see METZORAH in Leviticus.)
The word ahhal, derived from the root “to cover/shade,” is mentioned only in this instance in the Chumash and found in three other locations in all of Scriptures, always in the plural (sometimes masculine and sometimes feminine). Psalms (45:9) states, “Myrrh and ahhalot and cassia are all your garments (fragrant); from ivory palaces stringed instruments have gladdened you.” Proverbs (7:17) observes, “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, ahhalim, and cinnamon.” Song of Songs (4:14) relates, “Nard and saffron, callamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and ahhalot with all the chief basamim (spices).”
Tellingly, each of these references is to this plant’s distinctive fragrance. Thus Targum Onkelos translates ahhalim into Aramaic as busmaya (aromatic plant). The specific aromatic plants denoted by ahhal, usually translated as aloes, are more than a dozen members of the Aquilaria genus of the Thymelaeceae family, most notably the Indian Aquilaria agallocha. The biblical aloe is no relation to several other plants also called aloe in English -- the American agave and the African members of the family Asphodelaceae. It is also not the same as another fragrant Southeast Asian native, sandalwood (chandana in Sanskrit and sandal in Farsi), small, slender members of the leguminous Santalaceae family.
The Aquilaria trees are fast-growing evergreens native to Southeast Asia, reaching up to 130 feet (40 meters) in height and 2 feet (60 centimeters) in diameter. It bears 2-3.5 inch long (5-9 cm) thin oblong leaves and, after only a few years, white flowers. When trees more than 20 years old are infected by a fungus (Phialophora parasitica), a frequent occurrence in the wild, as a defense mechanism, they internally produce a dark aromatic resin in the infected areas. As a result, the resinous sections of the heartwood form a soft, aromatic wood, variously called agallocha, aloeswood, agarwood, eaglewood, agalwood, oud (Arabic), chen xiang (Chinese), jinko (“incense that sinks in water” in Japanese), and gaharu (Indonesian), most of these terms from the original Sanskrit name for these trees, aguru (“light,” i.e. not heavy). The amount and location of aloeswood in each tree, generally only a few pounds, depends on the intensity and distribution of the fungal attack. If unaffected by the fungus, this fragrant wood does not occur. Therefore, some Aquilaria trees are intentionally wounded to induce a fungal attack, the result being, however, an inferior resin. Since the infection usually occurs inside the plant, the only way in most instances to determine if a tree has been affected is cutting it open.
The sweet-pungent scent of aloeswood, exceptionally long-lasting, has been treasured and exported since ancient times. The wood as well as an oil (Lignum Aquilariae) distilled from it have long been popular throughout the Far and Middle East for aromatic and medicinal purposes. Interestingly, the resin contains psychoactive substances which act in the brain on mechanisms that regulate mood and thoughts. As a result, traditional Chinese medicine uses the resin to treat pain, nervousness, exhaustion, and asthma. The predominant usage of aloes in ancient Israel was as a perfume, serving as an energy booster and aphrodisiac. Aloeswood is still employed today in perfumes and incense, constituting the preferred male scent among Arabs. However, because many genus of these trees have been harvested to near extinction in Asia, the resin is now rare and very expensive.
Besides the ahhal, Scriptures records another foreign tree, the almugim (1 Kings 10:11-12) and algumim (2 Chronicles 9:10-11), both words probably derived from the Sanskrit name for aloeswood, aguru. This special wood, imported by sea from the land of Ophir in the Far East (a three-year journey), was utilized to make a pathway in the Temple and for making harps and lyres for the Levites. The Septuagint translates Ophir as Sophir, the Coptic name for India. Josephus (Antiquities, book 8, chapter 6, section 4) locates Ophir in “the Aurea Chersonesus,” identified as Abhira between the Indus River and China, the native habitat of both peacocks (1 Kings 10:22) and Aquilaria agallocha. To be sure, some scholars consider the almug to be the red sandalwood, the heartwood of two fragrant leguminous trees (Adenanthera pavonina and Pterocarpus santalinus) from India, primarily used as timber and a dye, not in perfume and incense. However, the Jerusalem Talmud (Ketubot 7, 31d) explains that this special wood from Ophir is ahhalim (agalloch). The Midrash (Bereisheet Rabbah 15:1) included almugim among the twenty-four types of cedars (not a botanical list, but encompassing evergreens), noting it is the biblical ahhalim. (The Midrash also mentioned that the world was not worthy to enjoy the use of cedars, but they were created for the sake of the Temple.) Interestingly, the Arabic word for the lute, el-oud, was derived from the name for aloeswood, originally used to make the soundboard of this instrument. (When the el-oud reached Spain around the eleventh century, it was called alaud/laud, from which derived the French luth and English lute.) Thus there is a longstanding historical connection between aloeswood and Middle Eastern musical instruments. Such instruments would certainly have an interesting physical affect on the musicians.
In any case, the ahhalim cited by Balaam is the aromatic aloeswood. The usage of ahhalim is partially a play on words, for an ohel is a tent, an ahhalit a group of tents/encampment, and the verb ahhal means “to pitch tents.” Rashbam points out that both ahhalim (aloes) and ahrazim (cedars) have the same annotation (nekudot), i.e. a hatef patach under the aleph, so the word is pronounced ahhalim (aloes) and not ohalim (tents). As the Talmud (Berachot 16a) notes, the phrase (Number 24:6) k’nahchalim neetavu (like streams they stretch forth) is intentionally associated with k’ahhalim natah (like aloes planted),” the latter in turn connected to the previous verse, “ohalehkha (your tents), Jacob.” Thus k’ahhalim natah (like aloes planted) also has the sense of “pitched tents” as in (Genesis 13:12) “Lot dwelled in the cities of the plains v’yehehhal (and pitched his tents) as far as Sodom,” an association with the ancestor of Moab. Chezkuni connects the national “your tents, Jacob (Numbers 24:5)” to the individual Jacob (Genesis 25:27), “and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in ohalim (tents).” The Talmud (Berachot 16a) sees the tent as a symbol of Torah study -- Torah, like water, has the power to purify and elevate. The usage of meeshk’notehkha (your dwelling places) alludes to the mishkan (literally “dwelling place,” i.e. “Sanctuary,” Exodus 25:9). Thus on one level, k’ahhalim natah refers to Torah study and observance. In this vein, Rashi (Sanhedrin 105b) views the use of a metaphor of ahhalim, one of the most pleasant and long-lasting fragrances of the ancient world, as referring to “the commandments;” just as spices emit aromas, so too the divinely-planted fragrance from the commandments exude from the Israelites.
Many of Balaam’s similes are parallels and contrasts -- i.e. tents and Sanctuarys, aloes and cedars, moving water and gardens, stretched out (neetavu) and planted (natah) -- denoting the change between the transitory and permanent, between the then present and future state of the Israelites. Tents are temporary structures, while dwelling places are enduring edifices. Aloes are fragrant foreign trees that do not grow in the land of Israel, while cedars are the tallest and strongest form of vegetation indigenous to the Levant. Rivers and streams are constantly changing, while gardens reflect civilization and immovability. Streams “stretch forth,” while trees are “planted.” Balaam’s parable of water and agriculture actually contrasted with the actual stark wilderness surroundings of the Israelites at that moment and, therefore, obviously also reflect the future. Thus (Isaiah 58:11) “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and make strong your bones; and you shall be like a well-watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”
The connection of Balaam’s parable to the development of the Covenantal Community is most evidenced in a commonality of blessings and curses. Upon initially arriving in Canaan, God promises Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3), “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and be you a blessing. And I will bless who blesses you, and who curses you I will curse; and in you shall be blessed all the families of the earth.” Similarly, when Isaac blessed Jacob (Genesis 27:29), he declares, “cursed be every one that curses you, and blessed be every one that blesses you.” Tellingly, Balaam followed the order pronounced to Abraham not to Jacob (Numbers 24:9), “Who blesses you shall be blessed and who curses you shall be cursed.”
The wording of Balaam’s parable also reflects Jacob’s blessings to his twelve sons (Genesis 49:1-28), particularly those of the two leaders, Judah (49:8-12) and Joseph (49:22-26). Indeed, Jacob emphasizes to Joseph (Genesis 49:26), “The blessings of your father (that Jacob received) are stronger than the blessings of my forebears even to the bounds of the everlasting hills (enduring as long as the eternal hills).” For Abraham was only promised “the land which you see (13:15)” and Isaac “I will give all these lands (26:3),” while Jacob was promised “You shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and your seed shall be all the families of the earth be blessed (28:14).” In the words of Rashi, “For God gave me (Jacob) a boundless blessing without limits, reaching to the four corners of the world.”
The phrase “shakav (he lays down) like a lion (Numbers 24:9)” corresponds to God’s promise to the Israelites (Leviticus 26:6) that, if they keep His commandments, they would be ensured of rain, vegetation, and “I will give peace in the land, oo’shkavtem (and you shall lie down), and none shall make you afraid; and I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, neither shall the sword go through the land.” Similarly, the lion (Numbers 24:9) connects to Jacob’s blessings to Judah (Genesis 49:9), “he stooped down like a lion and like a lioness, who shall rouse him up.” This reference also alludes to the future, to the Messianic Age (Isaiah 11:7), “and a lion, like cattle, will eat hay.”
For what Balaam witnessed, as he stood on the mountain overlooking the Plains of Moab, was the Covenantal Community on the verge of entering a new phase. Indeed, they were not yet known by the other nations as Israelites, but rather as “this multitude (Numbers 22:4)” and “a people come out of Egypt (22:5).” They were only now on the cusp of inheriting their land and establishing their government and identity. Thus another key word in the parable is zerah (seed). The phrase “v’zaro (his seed) shall be in many waters (Numbers 24:7)” relates to the fulfillment of the Divine promises to the Patriarchs. After Abraham, along with his nephew Lot, arrived in Canaan (Genesis 12:8), God for the first time promised the land “l’zarahkha (to your seed)” and afterward “Abraham v’yait ahhaloh (pitched his tent).” Similarly, after Jacob tricks his father into giving him some blessings instead of Esau, Isaac then willingly and knowingly (Genesis 28:3-4) recites, “And God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of peoples. And give you the blessing of Abraham, to you, and l’zarakha (your seed); that you may inherit the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham.” Pointedly, Agag, mentioned in the same verse (Numbers 24:7), is the title of the kings of Amalek, descendants of Esau, who did not receive this blessing and was passed over for inclusion in the Covenantal Community. The descendants of Esau, the Edomites, were already an established nation with a king (Agag), while the Israelites stood ready to inherit their birthright with God as their king.
Water is a recurring motif in Balaam’s parable. The Talmud (Berachot 16a) sees the abundance of water as a reference to the elevation of ritual purity -- a stream is a mikveh (ritual bath). As a result, Kings of Israel were anointed by flowing water (i.e. Solomon by the Gihon spring, 1 Kings 1:38), symbolizing just as a river keeps flowing, so too the Davidic lineage will keep flowing. (Pointedly, from Moab, the very nation threatening Israel’s future by hiring Balaam, descends Ruth, the ancestor of David.) The Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b), posited that Balaam actually ended up declaring the opposite of his intentions, understanding ahhalim to denote that the Israelites will have “kings of stature” and the phrase “ahrazim (cedars) by the water” as “king, son of a king.” Thus ahhalim and ahrazim denote the Davidic dynasty in contradistinction to the Edomite dynasty.
Elevation is another feature of Balaam’s parable, including “his king shall be higher,” “his kingdom shall be exalted,” and “the toahfah (“height”) of the wild ox.” In addition, the text employs ahlei, the poetical form of ahl (meaning “on/upon”), from the root “to ascend/go up.” Poetically, ahlei generally comes in pairs, i.e. Jacob’s blessings: to Dan (Genesis 49:17), “a snake ahlei derek (on the road), a viper ahlei o’rach (on the path)”; and to Joseph (49:22), “a fruitful vine ahlei ahyeen (on the fountain), its branches ahlei shor (upon the wall).” Balaam uses “ahlei nahar (by the river)” and “ahlei mayim (by the water).” This is reminiscent of Moses’ last exhortation of the Israelites (Deuteronomy 32:2), “and like showers ahlei dehseh (upon the fresh grass) and like the abundant rain ahlei eisev (upon the herbs).” The use of ahlei in the Torah is connected to water, fruitfulness, and force, all elements of Balaam’s parable.
On another level, Balaam’s parable is a portrayal of the current social practices and housing situation of the Israelites as they encamped in the wilderness, employing vegetation and water to depict their organized and structured communal life. Rashi observed, “Because he (Balaam) saw that their doors were not directed one opposite the other.” The tents were arranged in a manner so that no one in any tent could see into another home, a striking display of the modesty and decorum of the Israelites. Sforno states that the tents and dwellings places refer respectively to synagogues and study halls, reflecting the high spiritual nature of the nation. According to Hirsch, o’halehkha (your tents) and meeshk’notehkha (dwelling places) connote Balaam’s impression of the Israelites’ virtue and family dynamics: “How do they stand regarding decency, regarding sexual morality? The camp which he saw before him, the tents of Jacob and the dwelling places of Israel, that he viewed, with each child knowing his father, and houses and families and tribes grouped according to the paternal derivation that is the yardstick by which sexual morality could be judged.”
Inherent in Balaam’s parable is a contrast between the Israelites and those who desired to curse them. This is particularly pertinent since the Moabites were descendants of Lot, who was passed over for the Covenantal Community. Thus the use of ahhalim (aloes) contrasts the dwelling conditions and social mores of Lot and his descendants, whose ohalim (tents) were arranged around the inhospitable and unjust Sodom where Lot chose to live, with the children of Israel, their ohalehkha (Numbers 24:5) arranged around the Mishkan (Sanctuary). Instead of Moab greeting their cousins and offering hospitality as they neared Canaan, the descendants of Lot sought to attack and subvert the Israelites. In marked contrast to the morality and civility of the Israelites stood the immorality of the Moabites, whose women, even their princesses, wantonly committed prostitution (Numbers 25:1). The Israelites’ sexual morality is one of the reasons why Balaam is unable to curse them. This probity proves ironic at the end of the parsha, when some of the Israelites fall prey to the sexual seductions of the Moabites. Even learned and devout people can fall prey to carnal temptations if not conscientious and vigilant. The Moabites, through Balaam’s insidious guidance, attacked the Israelites in their greatest area of potential vulnerability, their homes (tents).
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