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Balak | Bilam the Prophet

Rav Michael Hattin




After their miraculous and sudden victory over the mighty Amorite kings of the Transjordan, the people of Israel unexpectedly find themselves on the outskirts of Moavite territory.  The Moavite king Balak, alarmed by the Amorite defeat and unnerved by the size of the looming Israelite camp, prepares for engagement.  But recognizing the unlikelihood of besting Israel on the battlefield, Balak opts for a different approach.  Instead, he calls upon the charms of Bil'am the seer of the east, well known in the region for the efficacy of his execrations, maledictions and curses. 


The latter, though eager to oblige especially in light of Balak's generous offers of remuneration, is prevented by God's timely intervention from cursing the people.  Try as he might, by utilizing the occult methods at his disposal, Bil'am is instead repeatedly forced to bless Israel.  Three times he ascends the Moavite heights overlooking the encampment of Israel and makes his nefarious preparations, and three times God inspires him to pronounce benediction instead.  The fourth time, Bil'am offers blessings of his own accord, informing Balak in no uncertain terms that the future and its glories are to be Israel's, while Moav and its allies will be trounced.  




The poetic quality of Bil'am's pronouncements, their soaring and lyrical language and their inspiring themes, rank them among the Tanakh's most beautiful and meaningful passages.  Bil'am's impassioned observation concerning "How goodly are your tents Ya'acov, your dwelling places Israel!" (24:5) eventually entered the liturgy as the introductory verse intoned by the worshipper upon entering the synagogue.  His praise of God "who sees no iniquity in Ya'acov or transgression in Israel, for God their Lord is with them and the trumpet blasts of the King are among them" found its way into the special Mussaf service for Rosh Hashanah (see Talmud Bavli Rosh Hashanah 32b).  In fact, that the Sages seriously debated the inclusion of some of Bil'am's other declarations into the daily recitation of the Shema (see Talmud Bavli Tractate Berakhot 12b)!


At the same time, Bil'am's ongoing expressions of unabashed avarice – his enthusiastic embrace of Balak's gift-bearing messengers notwithstanding their evil appeal, his heartless beating of the donkey who refused to transport him towards Moav and its lucre, and his veiled but repeated demands for hefty remuneration upon his arrival – afford us with a more sobering and severe evaluation of the man.  At best, we may conclude that the traditional sources viewed Bil'am with great ambivalence.  On the one hand, his comforting prophecies of Divine support and love were like welcome balm.  On the other hand, one could not overlook his utterly unsavory character.





The Torah says that "there arose no more a prophet in Israel like Moshe" (Devarim 32:10).  This implies that in Israel no prophet of Moshe's stature arose again, but among the nations one did.  Who might this be?  This refers to Bil'am son of Be'or.  But there is nevertheless a distinction between the prophecy of Moshe and that of Bil'am. Moshe did not know what He would speak to him, but Bil'am did, as the verse states: "the words of the one who hears the pronouncements of the Mighty One" (BeMidbar 24:16).  Moshe did not know when God would speak to him until He actually did, whereas Bil'am knew precisely when God would speak with him, as the verse states: "he who knows the thoughts of the Transcendent One" (BeMidbar 24:16).  Moshe was only addressed when he stood, as the verse states: "you, now, stand here with Me" (Devarim 5:28), but Bil'am was spoken to even when he was prone, as the verse states: "he sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with eyes wide open" (BeMidbar 24:4).  To what may the matter be compared?  To the king's cook who knows all of the expenses associated with the king's table (Sifre Devarim Chapter 357).


At first glance, the above passage from the Rabbinic Midrash on Sefer Devarim seems to portray Bil'am as a prophet even greater than Moshe.  The straightforward reading of the verse that serves as humble Moshe's epitaph indicates that he was the greatest prophet of them all – there was never a prophet who arose in Israel as great as Moshe, and the authority of his prophecy is therefore above doubt.  Remarkably, though, the Rabbinic Midrash turns that fundamental assertion on its head by applying particular emphasis to the phrase "there arose no more a prophet IN ISRAEL like Moshe," thus implying that Moshe's unquestionably unique stature was confined to his national context.  In Israel, there may not have been any more prophets as great as Moshe, but AMONG THE NATIONS there was one, namely Bil'am the son of Be'or!  Thus, while Moshe did not know what exactly God might say, Bil'am clearly did, ascribing his visions to God.  While Moshe was never sure when exactly God might speak to him next, Bil'am apparently could predict the timing of the Divine communication with uncanny accuracy.  While Moshe had to stand at attention when God spoke to him, Bil'am apparently could adopt a more relaxed posture.  Ergo, Bil'am was a prophet among the nations who rivaled even Moshe for greatness. 




The Midrash Aggada on Parashat Balak (BeMidbar Rabba 20:1) on the one hand reinforces the above reading by drawing a perfect correspondence between Bil'am and Moshe, but on the other hand also provides us with a more unflattering reading:


The verse states that "He is the Rock whose works are perfect, for all of His ways are just" (Devarim 32:4).  The Holy One blessed be He did not provide the nations with any future excuse to claim that they had been distanced by Him.  What did the Holy One blessed be He do?  Just as He appointed kings, sages and prophets for Israel, just so He appointed them to the nations as well.  Shelomo was made king over Israel and the world, and so too was Nevuchadnezzar.  The former built the Temple and authored many praises and supplications.  The latter destroyed it and pronounced blasphemies and sacrilege.  He gave David wealth which he amassed for the sake of the Temple, and He gave Haman riches and he used it in order to attempt to slaughter an entire nation.  All of the greatness that Israel achieved was similarly attained by the nations.  He appointed Moshe for Israel and Bil'am for the idolatrous nations.


Here, Bil'am isn't simply equivalent to Moshe in greatness but more akin to his evil twin!  Just as Nevuchadnezzar was the antithesis to Shelomo and Haman to David, Bil'am was the evil contrast to Moshe.  Or as the above Midrash ominously concludes:


Come and see how different the prophets of Israel are from the prophets of the nations.  The prophets of Israel warn them not to transgress…but this prophet who arose from the nations caused a breach that almost led to their destruction.  But not only that.  All of the prophets of Israel invoked mercy on Israel and the nations…but this cruel one arose to annihilate an entire nation for no reason whatsoever…


Here the Midrash charges Bil'am with not only passively seeking Israel's harm but also actively courting their downfall.  While our particular Parasha may seem to highlight Bil'am's impressive and impassioned words, its concluding narrative emphasizes Israel's infamy (BeMidbar 25:1-9).  At the end, Moav does inflict a significant defeat, but not through warfare.  Rather, the people of Israel are drawn into idolatrous revelry by the alluring daughters of Moav and in consequence bring ruin upon themselves.  Significantly, it emerges from MOSHE'S pained outburst some chapters later that the plan to ensnare Israel through the daughters of Moav was actually initiated by Bil'am himself: "were these (women) not attached to Israel by the advice of Bil'am, causing trespass against God by the matter of (the idolatrous rite of) Pe'or and bringing the pestilence upon God's congregation?!" (31:16).  So, it emerges in the end that Bil'am was in fact the antithesis to Moshe, for rather than fulfilling his noble calling of prophet by bringing the people closer to God, he attempted to bring about their downfall by distancing them from the Deity. 




Clearly, the Rabbis were not content to simply cast Bil'am in the negative light that he so patently deserved, but to consciously and constantly place him in direct opposition to Moshe and to his mission.  This perfect contrast, not immediately obvious from our passage, may be based upon their careful reading of earlier sections, namely Chapter 3 and 4 of Sefer Shemot.  Recall that at the outset of Sefer Shemot, the people of Israel were imprisoned in the cruel thralls of slavery.  They cried out to God, and He heard their cries.  Summoning Moshe from Midian by angelic agency at the burning bush, He eventually overcame his mighty protests (all five of them!) and charged him with his mission: to free the Hebrews from bondage.  Moshe reluctantly took leave of his father-in-law, gathered his wife and sons, and saddled his donkey, leaving Midian behind and returning to Egypt bearing the "staff of God in his hand."  But when he and his family paused to rest at the inn, he was confronted "God who desired to kill him" for not circumcising his new son Eli'ezer.  In the end, he was spared and arrived in Egypt ready to follow God's directives.


In essence, everything that transpired to Moshe at the pivotal moment of his election as God's emissary also happens to Bil'am in our Parasha, but in CONVERSE fashion.  Thus, Bil'am hears of Israel's liberation (22:5) from the Moavite and Midianite emissaries (22:7), for like Moshe he dwells near the Midianite nomadic tribes.  Moshe's reluctance to undertake his mission and to leave Midian is here matched by Bil'am's unconcealed enthusiasm to do just that and to travel to Moav to curse the people.  In fact, while God had to first patiently and finally with obvious irritation set Moshe on his mission, here, in contrast, He has to restrain Bil'am who is chomping at the bit to go.  Like Moshe before him, Bil'am also utters numerous protests, but, unlike Moshe, they are in direct response to God's unwillingness to grant him leave.  Like Moshe, Bil'am saddles his donkey and embarks (22:21), and no sooner has he started out when he is confronted by the "angel of God to oppose him" (22:2), similar to Moshe's dangerous confrontation at the inn.  Over and over again, he refuses to acknowledge God's displeasure at his decision, just as Moshe had refused to accede to God's firm demands that he in fact go.  In a nutshell, while Moshe was the most humble and hesitant of selfless prophets, Bila'm is the most haughty and audacious of self-serving sorcerers.


It is therefore with good reason that the Midrashim consistently juxtapose these two individuals, for they clearly represent two very different visions of what it means to be God's emissary.  In the end, of course, Bil'am's mission fails and he is forced to acknowledge not only God's ascendancy but also Israel's election.  His finish is an ignominious one, but no one could deny his prodigious talents.  Perhaps our Parasha comes to sound a cautionary note, to tell us the grave hazards that are inherent in not realizing one's potential for the good.  In the eyes of the Sages, Bil'am truly was a "prophet to the nations" and had he lived up to his noble mission he would have been remembered, like his nemesis Moshe, with affection and awe.


Shabbat Shalom


For further study: see the lengthy comments of the Ramban (13th century, Spain) on 24:1, where he takes issue with the straightforward reading of the Midrash in Sifre above and reinterprets it as an emphatic statement concerning the absolute uniqueness of the nature of Moshe's prophecy.  See also the passage in Berachot 12b that justifies the rejection of Bil'am's words from inclusion in the Shema on technical grounds: we are unable to break up sections of Torah text (such as the relevant parts of Parashat Balak) that "have been designated by Moshe."



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