Balak: Language and Translation

When Balaam speaks poetry given him by God — 23:7, 23:18, 24:3, 24:15 — the text says he va-yisa m’shalo. Alter and JPS (and The Women’s Commentary) say, “took up his theme.” Stone has it, “declaimed his parable.” Fox says, “took up his discourse.” (For references, see Source Materials.)

Alter notes that the Hebrew mashal is “used in the Bible for different kinds of poetic composition — aphoristic, proverbial, rhapsodic. (Thus the poets called moshlim in 21:27 are rendered as ‘rhapsodes.’)” He adds that mashal is not generally used for Hebrew prophets and may be meant to distinguish Balaam as a gentile seer. (See also Chukat: Language and Translation.)

Fans of Yehuda Amichai might note that “The Bible and You, The Bible and You and Other Midrashim” from Open Closed Open, begins and ends — in the Hebrew (the English version includes only 18 of 32 stanzas) — with a reference to mashal v’nimshal [parable and moral].

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