Ben Volman, Kehillat Eytz Chaim Congregation, Toronto
Like a play within a play, the episode with Balaam (or as in the CJB, Bilam) confronts us with a truly paradoxical figure: a God-fearer who could prophetically proclaim the rise of Israel but dies merely a soothsayer, almost as a passing footnote. Strangely enough, the rabbis actually refer to this lengthy interlude as “the book of Balaam.” In his day, Balaam must have been of great repute. Yet in this sidra featuring his four great oracles, he’s portrayed with a mixture of honor and comic relief. Even with the long shadow cast by his prophecies, the rabbis generally give him short shrift.
It all begins with an offer from Balak, the Moabite king, that he was sure Balaam could not refuse: a lavish fortune to place curses on Israel. It was an era when armies had professional sorcerers to curse their enemies, but Balaam’s original answer suggests an unexpected spiritual depth from this gentile: “Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of Adonai my God to do anything, great or small” (22:18).
Though warned by God to only do what God has allowed (v. 20), an unsuspecting Balaam has incurred the Lord’s wrath. While urging his donkey toward the rendezvous with Balak, he’s riding into the drawn sword of the Angel of the Lord. The master may be blind, but the donkey isn’t. The beast, acting as the true “seer” is only the first of several humiliations.
Under Balaam’s repeated furious beating, the donkey that saved his life speaks up. Perhaps we can explain this not as the voice of the donkey, but more the ventriloquist work of the Lord. The irony is fully played out when the master angrily yells at his donkey he wishes he had a sword to kill it just as his eyes are opened to the death-wielding Angel.
Balaam seems truly chastened. And his relationship with the Lord appears genuine enough to earnestly speak the words ba’al peh, placed in his mouth. Rashi is not impressed, however, and thinks that the description of God making himself manifest to Balaam (va-yikar—literally “he fell in”) suggests a lesser relationship than God had with true prophets.
Still, the poetry is not just impressive, but resonates through history, as in, “a people that will dwell alone / and not think itself one of the nations” (23:9). This description of Israel as distinctively separate is now almost taken as doctrine in a common worldview divided between Jew and gentile. And there’s brilliant word-play: “May I die as the righteous die!” with “righteous” translated from y’sharim—echoing the name of Israel, Y’shurun (23:10).
When his original plan fails, Balak presses the seer to try another spot for cursing. Balaam can only proclaim: “Look, I am ordered to bless; / when he blesses, I can’t reverse it. / . . . Adonai their God is with them / and acclaimed as king among them” (23:20–21). As for the Israel that Balaam elaborately depicts with the strength and power of a lion and a lioness—we barely recognize that people, which has been struggling since they left Egypt, resisting God, arguing with Moshe, and complaining the full length of the desert. Now they’re praised as fully worthy of blessing: “How lovely are your tents, Ya‘akov; / your encampments, Isra’el!” (24:5).
Balak urges Balaam to stop, “Don’t curse and don’t bless.” Instead, Balaam will prophesy of Israel’s coming dominance: “They shall devour enemy nations” (24:8). Finally, there is a promise that will again resonate for centuries as a promise identified with Messiah, and applied by Rabbi Akiva in the second century CE to Bar Kochba: “I behold him, but not soon — / a star will step forth from Ya‘akov, / a scepter will arise from Isra’el” (24:17ff.).
An infuriated Balak tells the seer that he’s never getting that promised wealth, and instead receives Balaam’s prophecies of the “last days” against Israel’s enemies. When they part ways, the rabbis interpret the place to which Balaam returned (li’m’kmo, his place) to mean “hell” (Mishnah Par. 3:5).
But we will see him again. In Numbers 31 we learn that Balaam set a trap for the men of Israel, seducing them to the immoral worship and prostitutes that please the Ba’al gods of fertility. Except that Balaam’s cleverly covert ways have finally led to his ruin—and he is slain with Israel’s enemies at Midian.
That’s not the last word on him, by any means. He’ll be repudiated later in Deuteronomy, then Joshua, Nehemiah, Micah, and on into the B’rit Chadashah, including this condemnation by Peter (Kefa): “These people have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Bil‘am Ben-B‘or, who loved the wages of doing harm but was rebuked for his sin” (2 Peter 2:15–16).
Was he a real prophet or a gifted soothsayer? The Talmud suggests that he began as a true prophet, but abandoned the faith for gain—so that the original oracles were authentic, but these were to him like a “fishhook” from which he struggled to break free (Sanh. 105a–106b).
Another surprise—his name is written into fragments of writing on a plastered wall in an ancient Temple in Deir’Alla, Jordan (about 70 kms north of the Dead Sea). This unique archaeological find recounts a strange vision of the notable seer clearly identified as “Bal’am son of Be’or.” Again we’re reminded, this man must have been a notable figure in his day.
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but most of us are corrupted with much more gradual, incremental steps off the moral track. Despite all of Balaam’s public pieties, after the bribes of Balak, others must have come, perhaps more generous. Finally, the seer’s weakest impulses apparently prevailed. Who knows what excuses he gave himself?
No figure so fully brings to life the warning of Yeshua,
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven . . . On that Day, many will say to me, “Lord, Lord! Didn’t we prophesy in your name? . . . Didn’t we perform many miracles in your name?” Then I will tell them to their faces, “I never knew you!” (Matt 7:21–23)
One has to wonder—might he not have been so much more? After the Lord whom he recognized as the true God had revealed the significance of Israel and the blessings they were under, why did Balaam align himself with God’s enemies? The brilliant Franz Rosenzweig, who was about to become a follower of Yeshua, but declined after a Yom Kippur service in which he dedicated himself to Judaism, has another suggestion. Balaam’s error, he says, “was not taking God at his first words: ‘Do not go with them.’ Because the next time God will without fail speak the words of the demon that is within us—‘You may go.’” And there, but for the grace of God, go you and I.
All Scripture references are from Complete Jewish Bible (CJB).