chapter  4
42 Pages

The speech performance frame

The case of Balaam’s speeches
ByJacqueline Vayntrub

This chapter focuses on a study of the “communicative situation” of Balaam’s mashal performances in Num 23–24. An analysis of the episodes demonstrates how Balaam’s speeches in their narrative context work through the problem of ambiguity in speech: the meaning of an utterance is dependent on its performance context. A mashal speech involves the generalization of events and phenomena and their reapplication to other, new contexts. Balaam’s mashal speeches have often been read as prophecies communicated by the Israelite god to a non-Israelite prophet who nevertheless claims Yahweh as his own god. While the narrative frame configures Balaam’s speech as a prophetic message, outside of the frame, the speeches seem to be the words of Balaam himself. The mashal itself opens with Balaam’s self-identification as one who has heightened perception, one who sees and hears the deity, but not necessarily one who is faithfully reporting that speech.