Monday, July 18, 2005

Artscroll's Stone Chumash disappoints on Balak

I've praised and criticized Artscroll.

In last week's parsha, Balak, the Artscroll Stone Chumash seems to have had difficulty dealing with Balaam. We are certainly not accustomed to the idea of gentile prophets and we're not accustomed to the idea of a wicked prophet. Both of these, or at least the second, seems to turn our conception of what a prophet is upside down.

In the introduction to the parsha (pg. 856) the Stone Chumash says that "God, in His wisdom, ordained that the gentile nations should have a prophet who would be comparable to Moses--though much inferior to him--so that they not would be able to contend that if only they had had someone who could communicate to them the will of God, they would have been as righteous as Israel. Balaam was that prophet."

"Comparable" but "much inferior"? Doesn't sound comparable.

On verse 22:23, The she-donkey saw the commentary says that Rashi and Ramban disagree regarding what the animal saw. According to Rashi, animals are allowed to see spiritual beings that are blocked from human eye, because human intelligence would cause people to live in constant fear if they could perceive everything around them.

Ramban asserts that angels are not physical beings and cannot be seen by people or animals, unless they assume human form--as when they visited Abraham--in which case they are visible to everyone. In Balaam's case, it was not that the she-donkey actually saw the angel. Rather, it sensed that it was in danger, for, figuratively, a being with a drawn sword stood before it.

On verse 22:31 the commentary writes that "it appears obvious that Balaam was not accustomed to seeing angels, for if he was, it would not have been necessary for his eyes to be uncovered. This also proves that he was not a prophet (italics mine), for even Abraham's wife Hagar and the prophet Elisha's servant Gehazi saw angels, though they were not prophets. If Balaam had been a true prophet, he would have had no trouble seeing an angel....Actually, Balaam was a sorcerer, not a prophet. The sublime prophecies he uttered later in the Sidrah were temporary abberations that God granted him only for the honor of Israel."

There are so many inconsistencies in the commentary that I don't even know where to begin pointing them out. Was Balaam a prophet? Can humans see angels or not? If they can't--or if even the donkey didn't see the angel, then in what way does Balaam's failure to see diminish him?

Artscroll cites sources, but it seems like cherry picking sources that contradict each other every few paragraphs or so isn't such a great strategy for a Torah commentary. To be sure, this doesn't happen often in the Stone Chumash. It may have happened in this case because of the difficulty Balaam poses that I raised at the outset. Still, this was a disappointment.

For a first rate analysis of parshas Balak check out Parsha Blog, who points out that Balaam was, in fact, Balak's donkey.

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