Though Balak seems to have been a rather important tribal ruler, we are not certain how he got his name. Possibly it is from a root that means “to lay waste”, which might connect with his plan to destroy the Israelite camp.
His father was called Tzippor, which normally means a bird. Perhaps it can be linked with a Semitic root that means “morning”, symbolising new energy and resourcefulness.
According to Midrashic speculation, Balak was a prince – not even an important one – but not the son of a king. He gained the throne of Moab because of a combination of ambition (he believed he could stabilise the kingdom), prophecy (Bilam had foretold Balak’s rise to power), warrior-strength and political machinations within the kingdom.
He acknowledged Bilam’s gift of divination but realised that Bilam loved money, so he offered him vast rewards for cursing Israel.
The question is why he hated Israel so much; the answer may be that he thought they had had a charmed journey through the wilderness and feared they would overtake his kingdom.
Why did Balak want Bilam to curse them? Like many ancient figures, he believed that prophetic blessings and curses could change the course of history. The defeat of Israel would not be brought about by military might alone. It needed metaphysical strength.
What Bilam found, however, was that God’s spiritual power was greater than his. If God opposed him spiritually there was nothing he could do, and his words of execration turned to blessing in his mouth.