Balaam said to the messenger of יהוה, “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back.” But the messenger of יהוה said to Balaam, “Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you.” (Numbers 22:34-35)
Balaam, saddled back upon his frightened ass, is faced with a choice that is not a choice -- for how could he both say “I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of my God יהוה” (Numbers 22:18) and also hope to interpret the will of the divine beyond what he is told in plain language?
He is a sorcerer of great renown, and yet those who employ him do not hear what he hears: the unidentifiable, unmistakable voice that rumbles through the depths of his mind. He strives to quiet himself to hear it lest he miss a whisper; to settle the beating in his ribs that he may catch tone and timbre. But he never hears when he wants and never catches more detail than he is given.
The messenger’s voice is identical, and Balaam’s eyes cannot track its face. It had disappeared into the peripherals of his vision, a twinkling itch in the corner of his eye that vanishes if he turns to look. But it is with him; God is with him in each reluctant step.
God is with the people that Balak is fuming about, as well, and Balaam wonders if they feel this reverence and fear and confusion as he does. In this moment the presence is just watchful, and he can only follow his own agency and knowledge: erecting altars and offering sacrifices, and then going to a quiet place upon the hill and in his own heart.
It is his own agency with which he acts but it is not a choice -- it is the in-between place of obedience, as he was obedient to his parents, as his servants are obedient to him, as the waters of creation were obedient to the breath of God. Balaam himself is a product of that shaping of the world, and here he is now with the helplessness of the soft earth and mud.
It is powerful and uncomfortable to face the contrast against his free will. The messenger unseen at his side seems to hum and Balaam is touched by an emotion he can’t place. If this divine being could “feel,” what would it feel as an agent or extension of God? Total surety of purpose, every action correct.
But Balaam is just a human -- a sorcerer with feeble magic beholden to the power even of this will-less messenger. For a moment he identifies despair, jealousy, humiliation, shame; even as he professes to serve God, there is a quiet place in God’s creative breath that he has lusted for, forgotten, imagined, and blindly tried to suck into his own nostrils.
And יהוה put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, “Return to Balak and speak thus.” (Numbers 23:5)
In the twinging heat of those emotions there is an instant where he suddenly understands. The presence of the messenger is almost like lips tender against the shell of his ear and the voice is effortlessly heard in his mind -- and then there is nothing else.
His mouth feels full of something unspoken but there is no hurry to let it loose because of the sheer inevitability of it. What is going to happen next is so obvious that there is no need to consider it. He is full of words, full of a single word, and yet there is finally no murmuring inside.
The messenger’s poetry -- God’s poetry -- begins to fall out of his lips. He is transfixed by it, each syllable vibrating the throat of his human body and manifesting through his breath into the air of the world. His mind is darkened to it, taking it only as it comes, but each curl of his tongue is completely known.
It is not complex obedience any longer. It is more simple than the rise and fall of his chest.
Balak rages, blind to what is happening before him.
The messenger speaks, precise and confident and personal truth, and Balaam speaks perfectly in tandem:
He replied, “I can only repeat faithfully what יהוה puts in my mouth.” (Numbers 23:12)
Three times the messenger speaks lyrical blessings; three times Balaam becomes a mouthpiece for God. When Balak is defeated in anger, Balaam finds himself on his way home.
The presence has left him, the void of surety and emptiness and quiet begins to fill once more with painfully human emotions and mundane language.
He is a reader of omens but no signs in the stars can guide the tension that sits in his gut; twisting, uncomfortable, and warm. It was more perfect than any magic to let the force of pure creation take him over and speak blessings on a people he has never met. To become one with a messenger of God. To feel the words that make the world in his most inner parts.
But if God had let him choose to relinquish his free will for that, he would not have accepted the offer. If God let him choose for it to happen again, he is not sure how he would answer. He is only human.
That does not stop his heart from remembering the utter silence, nor his mind from trying to recreate it. It draws him like a moth to candle; ragged curiosity and desire.
How much of that is his own choice? It is almost worth a bitter laugh -- Balaam’s “free will,” even when it was not stripped of him, seems now like the stuff of fantasy.
Everyone is faced with these choices-that-are-not-choices, and yet there is a clear difference between willful obedience and true lack of agency. A servant or a child at times may dream of complete freedom but must think and act within the paradigm of the world that exists for them.
So too Balaam sees his world and wonders: is it only natural for one whose agency is limited to want for loss of it completely? What happens, after he has felt that, in his willful service to God?
He knows the wondering is a kind of wandering, and his loud heart wants simply to return to the other place.