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Lesson 3: Balak – “Who are these men with you”? – “Tell me who your friends are….”
“God appeared to Bil’am and said, ‘Who are these men with you?’ Bil’am replied to God: ‘Balak, son of Tzipor, King of Moav, has sent them to me [saying]: ‘Behold, a people has come out of Egypt and covers the face of the land. Now come and curse them for me. Perhaps I will be able to fight against them and drive them away.’’ God said to Bil’am: ‘Do not go with them! You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.’’ Numbers 22:9–12.
Balak, king of Moav, was desperately fearful of the Israelite nation, given his weak military prowess. His idea was to outsource aid to his kingdom. He sent a royal delegation to recruit Bil’am, an eminent gentile prophet, to apply his magical powers to curse the Israelite people and help rid Moav of the perceived threat. The story is complex and enthralling. It includes Bil’am’s give-and-take with God, the former’s encounter with his talking donkey, and his confrontation with a sword-bearing angel. Our passage highlights Bil’am’s initial consultation with God, whereby God, referring to Balak’s recruitment team, asks, “Who are these men with you?”
Do we immediately wonder if the omniscient God really needed that information, or was the question rhetorical? Bil’am had told Balak’s emissaries that he would first need to ask God what he would be allowed to do. God ultimately said not to go, but He prefaced it with His inquiry concerning “these men with you.” His query was, in essence, “Are these the people you should be spending time with?” This rhetorical––shall we venture, a therapeutically interventive––question appeared to be aimed at nudging Bil’am to arrive at his own conclusion once he stopped to think about these men’s mission and how they were using him. God may have hoped that Bil’am would realize that accompanying them would be wrong. This didn’t happen.
We are reminded of other well-known rhetorical questions at the beginning of Genesis: God addresses Adam: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9), and He addresses Cain, Abel’s brother: “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen?” (Genesis 4:6). “Where is your brother Abel” (Genesis 4:9). God’s challenging questions were those the individuals should have been asking themselves to gain their own insight into their respective delicate circumstances.
We will not tackle the classic theological debates concerning God’s omniscience and humankind’s free will. But when God enters a therapeutic mode, the impression is that the human (such as Adam, Cain, or Bil’am) is presented with an issue that they may have wanted to skirt, but that should be of their concern. In all cases, though, God needed to spell out the message.
In Bil’am’s case, a sword-wielding angel appeared to block his progress or at least delay him. However, when Bil’am eventually gazed upon the Israelite camps, intending to carry out the king’s commission by cursing the people, out came blessings couched in beautiful poetry that inspires us to this day.
We mostly don’t have the discretion of choosing our work colleagues. However, we should be aware of how certain colleagues can help us grow and advance at work and how others may pull us down. As in many areas of life, most of what transpires is beyond our control, but the little discretion we do have should be applied to our benefit. Every workplace has individuals who are there for various reasons: Some remain because they believe they can’t find anything better, others are actively seeking their next job, and still others look forward to their workday, with many of them feeling quite fulfilled in what they do.
We strive to work well with all our colleagues, but it’s also important to be mindful of with whom we spend our discretionary time, whether on coffee breaks or sharing a new project idea. When you finish a conversation with a colleague, do you feel inspired to explore new directions, or do you look at your watch to see how much time remains in the day? Do you find yourself cheering your colleague who is celebrating a work achievement, or are you bogged down with a colleague who is sulking about being deprived of a coveted parking spot? These feelings will likely color how you experience the rest of your day and perhaps even spill over to how you greet your partner when you get home.
You can modify these dynamics more than you surmise. We tend to go with the flow and fall in with whoever takes the initiative or comes up with the juicier gossip (see I heard it through the grapevine). Spending coffee or lunch breaks with disengaged colleagues will drain your creative energies, and you may even hear yourself spouting more and more about why you should invest much less in your workplace. Since none of us is perfect, finding fault in a team leader or the CEO requires considerably less ingenuity than rocket science––no challenge here.
As noted elsewhere, an inclination to negativity is contagious––even addictive––and can be destructive in your career. Every so often, notice how others see you at work–do they come to you to hear your ideas and sound out theirs? Or do they come to you for a complaint-fest? Certainly, many of these grumblers are fine people, but they may have been dragged into a position they have difficulty extracting themselves from. You would best not go there. Beyond your professional responsibilities, think of how your people connections can be balanced so that your positivity is your more prominent inclination. Strive for win-win relationships at work and beyond. Yes, these are the relationships that require your initiative and are worth maintaining. John Lennon is given credit for this one: “Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.”
- Bil’am was in the unique position of negotiating with God: Should I take Balak’s generous offer to curse the Israelites or should I do what’s right in God’s view? This sounds a lot like a heavy dose of ambivalence – a condition that is standard operating procedure for most of us. So when your internal voice asks you “Why am I in this conversation?” or “Is this the message that I should be giving to my clients?” or “Are these the colleagues I should be spending my discretionary time with?” – don’t take it as a rhetorical question. It’s real, and you probably know the right answer!
- You may recall the Gallup engagement survey highlighting the centrality of close relationships at work. Indeed, some might claim that positive relationships at work fuel successful performance. A person engaged in a job search would do well to inquire what workers say about their organizational culture. Try consulting job boards, like Glassdoor, which offer worker reviews to supplement other standard workplace features.
- Try this: The Covid-19 pandemic and increased remote work taught us the importance of ongoing contact with colleagues, not just for advancing the organization’s mission. An emerging challenge is now evident in artificial intelligence (AI). Most industries and individuals are scurrying to define the tasks that can be accomplished cheaper (and better) utilizing AI applications. A recent study has acknowledged the attraction of making jobs more efficient but cautions us not to neglect social intercourse as part of our day. While employees and managers alike should welcome emerging AI applications, they should also deliberately encourage social contact during coffee breaks and other discretionary moments––These are anything but a waste of time.
 DePaul, K. (2020). How to find out if a company’s culture is right for you. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/11/how-to-find-out-if-a-companys-culture-is-right-for-you
 Tang, P. M., Koopman, J., Mai, K. M., De Cremer, Zhang, J., Reynders, P., Tung, D., Ng, S., & Chen, I-S. (2023). No person is an island: Unpacking the work and after-work consequences of interacting with artificial intelligence, Journal of Applied Psychology. DOI:10.1037/apl0001103