Leave Us Alone
In this week’s Torah reading, the pagan seer Balaam is hired to curse the people of Israel, but every time he tries, he ends up blessing them instead. In the first of these blessings he says as follows:
How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? And how can I doom those whom the Lord has not?
I see them from the mountaintops, looking upon them from these heights:
A people who will dwell apart, and not be counted among the nations. (Num 23:8-9)
The phrase in the last line, “a people who will dwell apart” (an alternate translation is “a people dwelling apart” or “dwelling alone”) has a long history. It has often been taken as a warrant for Jewish separatism: intermarriage (exogamy), or any other form of intermingling with other peoples, is to be avoided because, as Balaam said, we are “a people dwelling apart.”
Sometimes this verse is cited in order to claim that we Jews are a people different by nature from all others. The book of Jubilees, written by an anonymous Jew in the second century BCE, says as follows:
All of the descendants of his [Abraham’s] sons would become nations and would be counted with the nations. But one of Isaac’s sons [Jacob] would become a holy seed, and he would not be counted among the nations, because he would become the portion of the Most High (see Deut 32:8-9), and all his descendants would fall into that [share] which God owns, so that they would become a people whom the Lord possesses out of all the nations. (16:17-18)
Here, Balaam’s words (in italics above) are cited in support of Israel’s inherently separate status: Jacob, the ancestor of the people of Israel, will become a “holy seed” (for this phrase in connection with intermarriage, see Ezra 9:2) and his descendants “would not be counted among the nations” because, unlike all other nations, the Jews will be God’s own, personal possession.
Targum Onqelos translates “a people dwelling apart” as “a people destined to inherit the world [to come],” while another ancient Aramaic translation renders “and not be counted among the nations” as: “they do not share the laws/customs of other nations.”
Elements of these understandings survive to this day: Balaam’s words are often cited, especially in modern Israel, as a way of saying that we Jews are altogether different from other peoples or nations. Indeed, I have heard this verse cited more than once in connection with another common sentiment, “The whole world is against us.” How could it not be against us, given our special and altogether separate status as “a people who will dwell apart”?
None of this, however, seems to be what Balaam really meant. He could hardly be talking about any actual, physical isolation, given the proximity of various other peoples neighboring the Land of Israel or living within its borders. Philo of Alexandria, the first-century Jewish commentator who lived in Egypt, certainly knew the geopolitical facts. He says explicitly that Balaam did not say what he said “because their dwelling place is set apart and their land severed from others.” This just wasn’t the case, neither in Philo’s time nor for centuries and centuries earlier.
Instead, Balaam’s blessing seems to reflect what might be the wish of any inhabitant of ancient Israel: to be left alone and not annexed to someone else’s empire (as indeed so often happened to Israel and Judah during the biblical period). That is what the adjoining phrase, “and not be counted among the nations,” seems to mean—not to be considered part of the mighty Hittite, Egyptian, Assyrian, or neo-Babylonian empires.
In context, “a people who will dwell apart” is part of Balaam’s blessing of Israel: it’s what any doughty little nation, surrounded by much bigger, imperial powers, might wish for. The various interpretations cited above may indeed have fostered Jewish pride and sustained our people through the toughest of times. Yet sometimes the intended meaning seems blessing enough: Just leave us alone.