Our parsha begins, “Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.” On this verse, Rabbi Avraham Naftali Galante (Tzefat, 16th century) points out, “He only saw what Israel had done to the Amorites, not what the Amorites had done to Israel.”
As the Israelites approached the Amorites’ territory, they sent messengers to King Sihon saying, “Let me pass through your country. We will not turn off into fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king’s highway until we have crossed your territory.”
The Israelites asked for permission to pass through Amorite land in a way that would cause no harm to people or property. And what was Sihon’s response? He gathered an army and attacked the Israelites in the wilderness — so Israel had to kill the Amorite soldiers and take possession of their land.
Since Balak saw — only — all that Israel had done to the Amorites, he believed the Israelites were to be feared and hated and so summoned Balaam to curse Israel.
Of course, Balaam could speak only what God told him to say and so each time he attempted to curse the Israelites his words were turned to blessings. And this prompted the 15th-century Spanish-Italian commentator Don Isaac Abravanel to ask: Why did God prevent Balaam from cursing the Israelites? Why should they have cared about his curse, as long as the Lord blessed His people with peace?
Abravanel explains: Balaam’s sorcery was world famous. Balak referred to his renown when he said: “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” Had Balaam cursed Israel, the surrounding nations would have plucked up courage and gone to do battle with Israel on the strength of his curses. But when they heard how God had turned his curses into blessings, they should have realized who was Master — and lost all desire to fight His people. From this point of view, the turning of Balaam’s words into blessing served a very useful purpose.
That’s probably true, but if the point was to show the power and mastery of God, wouldn’t it have been more impressive if Israel had prevailed in spite of Balaam’s curses? Why not let Balaam do his worst?
Perhaps the answer lies in this verse from Ezekiel (18:32): “For it is not My desire that anyone shall die, declares the Lord God. Turn, therefore, and live!” If Balaam had cursed the Israelites, giving the Moabites and Midianites the courage to attack, many would have been killed or wounded, Israelites as well as their adversaries. The Talmud in Megillah makes this point about the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. “As the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the ministering angels wished to utter song before the Holy One, but He rebuked them, saying, ‘The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence!’”
God turned Balaam’s curses to blessings hoping that Balak and his allies would realize that an attack would not succeed and choose another way — so that many of God’s creatures would live.