For God is not a Man...(23:19): On Blessing and Betrayal at the Plains of Moav
At the end of their forty year journey through the desert, the Children of Israel finally arrived at the last stop. The final verse of Parashat Chukat informs us that the people encamped on the Plains of Moav, just on the other side of the Jordan River from the city of Jericho (21:35). While their wanderings have ended and the stage has been set for entering into the land, much will yet occur before the crossing of the
Many crucial events will happen on the Plains of Moav. The people will sin with the daughters of Moav, and Pinchas will rise to prominence (25:1-18). The people will be counted in preparation for conquering and dividing the land (26:1-27:11), and Yehoshua will be appointed leader (27:12-23). In point of fact, the Plains of Moav constitutes the physical setting for the remainder of the Torah, the environment of the various events that comprise the remainder of the Book of Bamidbar, and the context of the last words of Moshe that comprise the Book of Devarim. It is the departure point for the last stage of the Torah and the cusp of the people's imminent entrance into the
Nevertheless, immediately after the arrival of the Children of Israel at the Plains of Moav, the Torah seems to veer away from the topic at hand. Before picking up the story of the Children of Israel, the saga of Moshe and the events at Arvot Moav the Torah chooses to teach us the story of Balak and Bilam, the attempt by Moav and Midyan to curse the Children of Israel (22:1-24:25). The dialogue of Bilam and his donkey is entertaining, the passages depicting the palpable frustration of Balak are enjoyable, and the reaction of the local inhabitants to the Israelite invasion is informative. Yet the reader cannot fail to be struck by a sense of interlude, as if the Torah has switched topics. In fact, in discussing the authorship of the texts that make up the canon, the Gemara in Bava Batra 14b states that Moshe wrote "his book" and Parashat Bilam. In some sense, the story of Balak and Bilam, known by the Gemara as Parashat Bilam, stands apart. It is different than the surrounding material and strikes us not necessarily an organic and natural part of the larger narrative. While written by Moshe, it is other than standard Torat Moshe, or the rest of Sefer Bamidbar.
To put this slightly differently, in the broadest sense, the narrative flow of the Torah can be defined as the saga of the relationship between God and those he has chosen, the forefathers, Moshe and the people of
Let us try to complicate matters a bit more. Turning our attention to some of the details of the Bilam story should unearth some additional interesting issues and some unexpected connections between the Bilam story and other parts of the Torah.
Upon receiving divine permission to accompany the emissaries of Moav, Bilam "got up in the morning," "saddled his donkey" and set off with Balak's men (22:21). Commenting on this verse, a series of Midrashim (Midrash Tanchuma Balak 8, Midrash Aggada 14:5), synthesized here by Rashi (22:21), draw a connection to the Avraham narrative. Just as Bilam "got up in the morning (va-yakam Bilam ba-boker)" (22:21), so too Avraham, on his way to sacrifice Yitzchak, "rose up in the morning (va-yashkeim Avraham ba-boker)" (Bereishit 22:3). Similarly, just as Bilam "saddled his donkey (va-yachavosh et atono)," so too, in that very same story, Avraham "saddled his donkey (va-yachavosh et chamoro)" (Bereishit 22:3). While the terms used to describe the acts of rising, as well as the terms for donkey, vary between the two stories, the clear thematic overlap impressed the Midrash.
Commenting on the verses, the Midrash presents the theory that strong emotion, whether love or hate, distorts the normal order of things. As a person of status, Avraham should have waited for his servants to saddle his donkey. Yet his love for God and his zealousness to perform the divine command distort the normal order of things. He rises early and saddles his donkey by himself. As a person of status, Bilam should have waited for his servants to saddle his donkey. Yet his hatred of
While the ideological points made by the Midrash seem relatively straightforward, the textual claim of the Midrash demands further elaboration. In point of fact, the dual parallel noted by the Midrash constitutes but part of an elaborate parallel between the Bilam story and the Akeida narrative. On closer analysis, the story of Bilam's journey to Moav echoes the Akeida on numerous levels. First and foremost, in addition to the dual parallel of "rising/getting up in the morning" and "saddling the donkey" noted above, both stories begin with a divine command, signified by the word "go." Just as Avraham is commanded by God "lekh," to go to the
In addition, on their respective journeys, both Avraham and Bilam are each accompanied by "two of his young men (shenei ne'arav)" (Bereishit 22:3, Bamidbar 22:22), a formulation found nowhere else in the Torah. Likewise, in a fifth point of parallel, both stories contain "an angel of the Lord" sent by God to disrupt the intention of the respective principal actors of each story. An "angel of the Lord" interferes at the last moment and prevents Avraham from fulfilling what he perceives as the point of his journey, the sacrifice of Yitzchak (Bereishit 22:11-12). Likewise, an "angel of the Lord" interferes with Bilam's journey in order to remind him to speak naught but what God tells him to speak, i.e. to prevent Bilam from attempting to curse the Children of Israel, what he perceives as the point of his journey (22:25).
While the Midrash was certainly correct in linking the story of Bilam's journey with the Akeida narrative, something more than just an incidental point about the dynamics of love and hate seems to stand behind the connection. Alternatively, while Avraham is certainly righteous and Bilam is certainly less than righteous, something other than an opportunity to insult Bilam should stand behind the connection. To put this slightly differently, what constitutes the deeper point, if any does in fact exist, behind the parallel between the Torah's telling of the Akeida and its structuring of the Bilam journey story?
Although we have concentrated our attention until this point on the Akeida echoes found in the Bilam journey narrative (22:20-35), the connections between Avraham and Bilam are in fact a bit broader. In fact, they seem to have quite a bit in common. For starters, they both come from the same hometown.
In introducing Bilam, the Torah states that Balak sent messengers to "Petor which is on the river" (22:5). In addition, in a somewhat unusual formulation probably connoting birthplace or homeland, the Torah specifies that Bilam was summoned from "the land of his people" (see Ramban 22:5). While Petor on the river may be somewhat of a mysterious place to the reader, Devarim 23:5 identifies Petor as Petor Aram Naharayim. Petor on the rivers is either another name for Aram Naharayim, or a particular place in the general locale of Aram Naharayim, an area along the
In addition, the introduction of Bilam contains another striking reference to the introductory segments of the Avraham narrative. In requesting of Bilam to curse "the people that has left
Parsing the four-termed blessing-cursing attribute of Bilam in this manner should summon up the divine promise to Avraham way back when. As part of the original divine promise, God informs Avraham that "I will bless he who blesses you and curse he who curses you" (Bereishit 12:3). In a certain sense, in this four-termed blessing-cursing declaration, God promises Avraham the power of blessing and cursing. The alternate possible statuses of blessedness and cursedness depend on standing in a particular relation to Avraham and the nation destined to descend from him. He who stands in relation x, that of blessing Avraham, shall be blessed. He who stands in relation y, that of cursing Avraham and/or his descendants shall be cursed. In sum, Bilam resembles Avraham not just in his origin or his journey, but also in his supposed power, the power of divine blessedness or cursedness.
In mapping out the overlaps between the Bilam story and the Avraham narrative, our analysis took us both to the Akeida and to the beginnings of the Avraham narrative, the story of Lekh Lekha. In fact, these two stories stand in an interesting relation to each other. Suffice it to say that both originate in God's command of lekh lekha. In parallel to God's original command to leave his land and birthplace to "go" to a land as yet unspecified (Bereishit 12:1), in the Akeida narrative, God commands Avraham to "go" to the Land of Moriah, to a place as yet unspecified (Bereishit 22:2). Both stories involve a particular makom, or place (Bereishit 12:6, 22:3-4, 9). Both involve altars (Bereishit 12:7-8, 22:9), and both involve revelation, in the terminology of the text, the appearance of the Lord (Bereishit 12:7, 22:14).
Finally, and most critically, both involve, and reach their conceptual end, in a divine promise. In the first lekh lekha story, upon his reaching the land, God appears to Avraham and promises him that "to your descendants I will give this land" (Bereishit 12:7). Likewise, in the Akeida narrative, the story reaches its conceptual peak, if not its dramatic height, at the end of the story with the renewal or expansion of a divine promise. The angel speaks a second time and informs Avraham that as a reward for his obedience he will be blessed, his children will be greatly multiplied, they will be a blessing for all the nations of the earth, and in a new twist, that "they shall possess the gates of their enemies" (Bereishit 22:17-18).
While it remains beyond the scope of our analysis to fully explicate the import of the lekh lekha-Akeida parallel and the structure of the Avraham narrative, on the simplest level the two stories serve as a frame for the Torah's telling of the Avraham story. On a slightly deeper level, the second lekh lekha, the Akeida, constitutes the culmination of Avraham's story that began with the first lekh lekha. It constitutes the last of the famed tests he undergoes and the highpoint of his religious journey. But as just emphasized, it also constitutes the final cause and final sealing of the divine promises to Avraham. For his obedience, Avraham's descendants are blessed. As reward for his journey Avraham's children multiply beyond count, they inherit the land and "possess the gates of their enemies."
But there is more to it than just marking the context. Returning to some of the details of the Bilam narrative and the Avraham-Bilam parallel should help unpack an additional point or two.
As mentioned earlier, the story begins with Balak's attempt to contract Bilam to curse the Children of Israel. Balak requests that Bilam "please come (lekha)" and "curse for me (ara li)" this people (22:6). Balak hopes that with Bilam's aid and the placing of a curse upon the people, "that perhaps we may smite them and drive them from the LAND" (22:6). In other words, from the perspective of we the readers, Balak intends, albeit without being aware of such, that the prospective journey of Bilam embodied in his request of "come/lekha" will reverse the outcome of Avraham's twice traveled journey of lekh lekha. This requires a bit of clarification.
And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless him that blesses you and curse him that curses you and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed. (Bereishit 12:2-3).
By virtue of Avraham's trips, his descendants were promised blessing and blessedness, the land (Bereishit 12:7) and the vanquishing of their enemies (Bereishit 22:17). In urging Bilam to curse the descendants of Avraham in order to defeat them and vanquish them from the land, Balak stands against God's promises to Avraham and the unfolding historical reality forged by Avraham's actions.
The clash fostered between the divine promise to Avraham regarding the power of blessedness and cursedness and Balak's assignation of that very power to Bilam further strengthens this interpretation. Avraham's actions establish a reality in which not only are his descendants blessed, but those who bless them are blessed, and those who attempt to curse them not only fail, but are they themselves cursed. But as mentioned earlier Balak justifies his request of Bilam with the claim that Bilam possesses the power of blessing and cursing, "For I know that he whom you bless is blessed and he whom you curse is cursed" (22:6). From Balak's perspective, it is not the case that an attempted curse will rebound upon the curser. Rather with Bilam as the curser, the curse will stick and reverse the status of "blessedness" established by Avraham and his journey.
But of course, Balak's attempt to thwart the realization of the destiny forged by Avraham's journey is doomed to failure. God responds to Bilam's first request to accompany the emissaries of Moav with the clear statement "not to go (tailaikh) with them and not to curse the people for they are blessed" (22:12). In other words, the original status established by God's promise to Avraham stands and will not be changed.
Similarly, by the end of the third attempt to curse the Children of Israel, in a clear echo of the divine promise to Avraham, Bilam is forced to admit regarding Israel that "blessed is he that blesses you and cursed is he that curses you" (24:9).
Finally, in line with the blessing/curse theme of the text and unstoppable power of the original blessing established for Israel, the key term for curse that appears in both the Avraham narrative (Bereishit 12:3) and the Bilam narrative, the stem a.r.h. appears seven times in the Bilam-Balak story (22:6,6,6,12, 23:7, 24:9,9). By no accident, the term for blessing and the conceptual opposite of "curse," the root b.r.ch. appears fourteen times in the Bilam narrative (22:6,6,12, 23:11,11,20,20,25,25, 24:1,9,9,10,10), exactly twice the number of times that the term for curse appears. The power of Avraham's blessing outweighs the attempt to curse. Balak's plot is doomed to failure.
This brings us back to the Avraham imagery that the Torah weaves into Parashat Bilam, the Akeida parallels and the echoes of Avraham's first lekh lekha journey. On both the literary plain, and from the perspective of Balak, Bilam constitutes an anti-Avraham. He is not really like Avraham. He does not faithfully follow after God to the land to build a new nation, nor does he journey to the mountain to make the ultimate sacrifice. Rather he stands to thwart the divine promises that result from these promises. The imagery serves to set Bilam as a foil for Avraham and to bring the Avraham narrative into the context of Sefer Bamidbar. While Balak may well have contracted an anti-Avraham, from the same place and supposedly possessing the same powers, to reverse the divine promises and blessedness granted to Avraham, this project is doomed to failure. Avraham has already made his journeys, and blessedness has been established. In the pithy words of God to Bilam on the first night the emissaries of Moav stayed over: "For they are blessed" (22:12). The power of Avraham, the power of his commitment and the power of his covenantal relationship with God, outweighs the power of Bilam, of any anti-Avraham, or attempt to curse the Children of Israel.
To return to the original Midrash we began with, in drawing the connection between the Bilam narrative and the story of the Akeida, the Midrash castigates Bilam. According to the Midrash, upon seeing Bilam rise early and saddle his donkey, God states: "Evildoer, Avraham has already preceded you." But this is far more than just a mocking of Bilam. Avraham has already preceded Bilam or any other anti-Avraham. Nothing can match his merits and the blessedness cannot be reversed.
Let us return to the question we began with. By now, we should no longer need to wonder regarding the inclusion of Parashat Bilam in the Torah or its placement at this particular juncture in Sefer Bamidbar. The story is not just about Moav and Midyan, Balak and Bilam, talking donkeys or the like. Rather the story is also about the power of the covenant established by Avraham's actions, the merit of the forefathers and the eternal blessing established for
In point of fact, the themes of deal breaking, loyalty, betrayal and treachery figure prominently in the narrative. Bilam is explicitly told by God not to go and not to curse the people, for they are blessed (22:12). Yet Bilam is not loyal to the word and desire of God. Upon the return of the officers of Moav, he hints at a price, the metaphorical house full of gold and silver, and invites the officers to stay over another night; perhaps things will be different this time (22:18-19, Ibn Ezra 22:19, Rashi 22:18). In other words, Bilam seems to have his own agenda.
This sense of divergent agendas is further reinforced as the narrative moves forward. After God grants permission to accompany the officers of Moav on the condition that Bilam speak naught but what God tells him to (22:20), Bilam rises early, saddles his donkey and "goes" with the officers of Moav. At this point, the Torah describes God as "becoming angry." God sends an angel to block Bilam's path (22:22). But this seems inexplicable. God has just commanded him to go. Apparently, Bilam has gone for a different reason than that commanded by God. He has truly gone "with" the officers of Moav, for their purposes and their agenda (Rashi 22:21-22).
In other words, Bilam is treacherous. While he says one thing, he intends another. He is disloyal, and he attempts to betray God. He sells out for a house full of gold and silver. He is a harlot, a prophet for sale. Balak is right to accuse Bilam of treachery. But his true treachery is not vis a vis Balak, it is vis a vis God and God's stated agenda.
Bilam's treachery contrasts with the actions of another central character in the Bilam narrative. At the beginning of his second poem and prophecy, Bilam contrasts the ways of God with the ways of man.
God is not a man that he should break his word, nor the son of man that will change his mind. That one will say and not do, he will speak but not perform. Behold, blessed they are when I am taken, and blessed (they remain), I cannot reverse it. (23:19-20)
Unlike man in general, and Bilam in particular, God is loyal. He keeps His word and does not change his mind. Consequently, as He had previously blessed the Children of Israel, He will not retract His word; He will not reverse the blessing. God does not engage in treachery.
But there is more to it than this. In preparation for his various curse attempts and prophecies, Bilam instructs Balak to construct seven altars and bring sacrifices (23:1, 23:14, 23:29). In first entering into the prophetic state, Bilam declares to God that he has "prepared the seven altars and offered a bull and ram upon each altar" (23:4). Apparently, Bilam attempts to bribe God. God is meant to be impressed or pleased by the manifold altars and offerings. It is the equivalent of Bilam's own metaphorical "house of gold and silver." God is meant to be seduced by the offerings and consent to curse the people of
This of course is the gloss given to the events by Moshe. In recounting the story in Sefer Devarim, Moshe tells the people that God "would not listen to Bilam" (23:6). He turned the curse into a blessing, "for the Lord your God loves you" (23:6). It is God's loyalty and love for
This last point, the love of God for
This brings us to the final point on the loyalty-treachery axis, yet one more contrast. But rather than contrasting the character and actions of Bilam and God at Arvot Moav, we must contrast the character and actions of
Immediately following the Balak-Bilam narrative, what we termed Parashat Bilam, (22:1-24:25), the Torah reports the sad events of the next occurrence at Arvot Moav.
Unlike God, the people cannot resist the temptations of Moav. They cannot remain loyal to the covenant; they commit harlotry both with foreign women and foreign Gods. They are seduced, and they commit treachery.
To close the circle, even at Arvot Moav, on the cusp of entering the land, the people betray the covenant. They commit adultery, in both the physical and metaphorical senses of the word. They are disloyal and betray God. They are Bilam, or even worse than Bilam. They don't truly deserve to enter the land. But this is not the point, at least not the only point.
In fact, the juxtaposition of the two stories, the story of Balak-Bilam (22:1-24:25) and the story of the adultery with the daughters of Moav (25:1-9), seems intended to make a different point all together. The conjunction between the two stories and the implicit contrast of God and
Despite their momentary slip and their treachery, the people are protected by God's promise to Avraham. They are protected by the blessing given by God to Avraham. Most importantly, they are protected by virtue of God's loyalty and fidelity to His word, His blessing and His people. As Bilam himself was forced to phrase it:
God is not a man that he should break his word, nor the son of man and change his mind…Behold, blessed they are…and…I cannot reverse it. (23:19-20)
Come what may, God remains loyal, and His blessing remains with the people.
1. See 23:1-4, 23:14-15 and 23:29-30. Now see 25:1-2. Also see Shemot 32:4-8. Try to explain the connections in light of the shiur above. See Ramban and Ibn Ezra 24:1. Now contrast with Rashi 23:4 s.v. et shiv'at. Analyze Rashi in light of the shiur above.
2. Review Bereishit 22:1-19. Pay careful attention to the role of "seeing" in the story. Now see Bamidbar 24:3-4 and 24:15-16. What is Bilam's self image? Now see 22:21-35 while paying careful attention to the idea of "seeing." See Rashi 22:29 and 22:34. How accurate is Bilam's self image? Try to figure out the relationship between obedience and vision/revelation suggested by comparing the Bilam/donkey and Akeida stories. Also see Mishna Avot 5:19.
3. Bilam and Moshe are sometimes compared in Rabbinic literature. (See Bamidbar Rabba 20 and Devarim Rabba 1). Look at 22:8. See Rashi 22:8. Now see 12:6-8. Review 22:3-4, 15-16 and 22:21-35 as well as the issue of Bilam's loyalty discussed in the shiur above. Look at 12:7-8 again. Try to differentiate between Moshe and Bilam in two different ways. For another connection see Bamidbar 22:23-27 and 20:11-12. Does this shed any light on Moshe's actions at Mei Meriva?
4. See Bamidbar 31:14-16. Now see Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban 25:1. Try to delineate how each explains the connection of 22:1-24:25 and 25:1-9? Can you expand Rashi's notion of the "advice of Bilam" based upon the shiur above?