Despite the fact that Moav knew that Israel was not allowed to conquer Moav (See Ramba"n on B'midbar 22:3), why was Balak afraid that they would "lick out" his land?

I may have trouble understanding Ramban's distinction between Israel waging war and "licking" the land. Ramba"n says that Israel sent them messengers requesting passage through the land in the same way that they sent messengers to Sichon. If we view the language they said to Sichon, they stated that they will walk only on the King's highway, and will not drink their water. It seems that those statements should clarify all intents that Israel didn't have any desire to do anything to Moav's land.

  • I recall hearing one explanation that they were simply afraid. They may have been told that they were 'safe', but they didn't truly believe it and due to their fear went ahead with preventative measures unnecessarily. Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 21:45
  • @Salmononius2 It's likely except for one angle. Bilam was a prophet and we know that he had connection with God and understood some thing about God's character. Specifically, both he and Balak knew that God had told Israel not to attack, and even if Balak were afraid, Bilam could have assured him that God's word is true and unchanging, and he had nothing to fear. Obviously, Bilam had no love for Israel, either, and was seeking to earn big money from Balak, despite his "denial" for Balak's "houseful of gold and silver".
    – DanF
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 13:49
  • That is why I suggested that the fear was for the long term consequences of the conquest of the surrounding nations. Also, Bil'am was careful to increase Balak's fear because he also had the pagan idea that a god could be bribed into giving him success. Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 18:50

2 Answers 2


I have seen commentary explaining that since the Bnai Yisrael could conquer and destroy the surrounding nations, Moav would lose all of its trading partners. Thus, while leaving Moav alone, they would lick up the source of wealth that Moav gained from all of its neighbors, leaving it isolated in what was now a barren and worthless area. An ox uses its tongue to rip the grass out of the ground in order to eat it, not even leaving the roots. The analogy is to oxen totally destroying a grazing area as they rip the grass away from the ground and leaving it barren.

Note that the message sent to the elders of Midyan said that the entire surroundings of Moav (all the neighboring nations) would be destroyed.

As the pasuk says:

Moab said to the elders of Midian, "Now this assembly will eat up everything around us, as the ox eats up the greens of the field. Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time.

Rashi on Balak 22:4 explains this as:

as the ox eats up: Whatever the ox has eaten up no longer contains blessing [because the ox uproots the plants it eats (Da’ath Zekenim)]. — [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 3, Num. Rabbah 20:4]

Ramban explains

אפילו שלא ילכדו את ארצנו ילחכו ברובם את כל סביבותינו, כלחוך השור את ירק השדה, וילכדו להם את כל סביבותינו כאשר עשו לשני מלכי האמורי ויתנו אותנו למס עובד.

Even if they do not conquer our land, they will lick up in their numbers all of our surroundings, like the ox licks up the greenery of the field, and they will conquer all of our surroundings as they did to the two Amorite kings and they will take us as tax slaves.

The אור החיים explains that this implies the entire surrounding area and not just Moav

ילחכו וגו׳ את כל סביבותינו – אולי שלא רצו להראות כל כך מורך הלבב שהם יראים מהם אלא שהם חסים על הסביבות, ואמרו לשון רבים לכלול אותם עמהם,

It appears that they did not want to express such fear on themselves, but that they were worried on the surroundings, and they expressed themselves in the plural language to include the others with them.

While Bnai Yisrael had promised not to harm anyone who allowed it to pass through, they were intent on conquering the land of Canaan. This would have destroyed the major economic strengths of the area. The Egyptians had already lost their economic power as a result of the makos. Once the Bnai Yisrael had conquered Canaan, the trade routes to Egypt would be cut off and trade would not resume once Egypt had recovered (and more than a full generation had passed so it may already have done so). Also the fact of what they had done to Sichon when he attacked them showed what they could do. An analogy could be made to the Great Depression of 1929 which built up as a result to the aftermath of World War I. Even the winning nations of Europe were in major economic trouble.

Rav Hirsch shows that לחך implies total consumption.

לחך means to lick, to lick up; to lick up water or dust with the tongue:

As he explains

Now as a matter of fact the ox first grasps with its tongue, the grass which it tears up and swallows. So that one can literally say "the ox licks up the grass", and לחך here is an apt expression. But the sense of the message was: - as naturally and effortless as the ox takes the grass for its food, so naturally and easily will we all become the booty of this קהל.

  • Interesting and sensible analysis. If you can find that commentary, please link. I'd like to see that.
    – DanF
    Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 19:17
  • @DanF I will look for references to this explanation. Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 23:30
  • FYI - See my comment / response to Salmonius2, above. Does anyone discuss this?
    – DanF
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 13:51

I saw an answer from the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Shabbat Parshat Balak 1988) based on Rashi's commentary on Bamidbar 21:26. There, the verse says that "For Heshbon was the city of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and he had fought against the first king of Moab, taking all his land from his possession, as far as Arnon.". Rashi explains that the verse goes into this history to let us know that Sichon's conquering of the land made it permissible for the Jews to conquer it, even though it originally belonged to Moav.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe says that the nations did not know that such a thing was possible (they considered it still their land). So when Balak saw that the Jews conquered and settled Cheshbon, they thought that the prohibition against conquering the lands of Ammon and Moav no longer applied, and therefore Moav was afraid that the Jews would now conquer their land.

We see something similar in the story of Yiftach the Judge in Shoftim 11. In that story, we see that Ammon claimed the Jews conquered their land. Yiftach answered that the Jews did not take the land from Ammon, but rather from Sichon, who had conquered it from Ammon.

We see from here that Ammon still considered the land theirs, even though it had been conquered by someone else.

  • From the name "Menachem", I guess I should assume that you're Chaba"d? I was thinking along the lines of what Yiftach stated, and your sources provide an interesting research into Yiftach's claim. Tzarich Iyun
    – DanF
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 13:55

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