“The Book of Bil’am”

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
Dedicated in memory of
Rabbanit Dr. Avigail Malka (Poupko) Rock z”l
Our friend and teacher
Author of VBM series “Great Biblical Commentators”
Lecturer in the Herzog College Tanakh Study Days
Beloved wife of our alumnus and VBM author Rav Yehuda Rock
Yehi zikhra barukh.
I. Who Wrote "The Book of Bil'am," and Why?
Chazal record the following tradition:
Moshe wrote his book, Parashat Bil'am,[1] and Iyov. (Bava Batra 14b)
"His book," in my opinion, refers to the book of Devarim.[2]
In the chapters of the responses in the book of Iyov (chapter 3 to the beginning of chapter 42), there are many parallels to the Patriarchs in the book of Bereishit. God's name, however, appears primarily in the chapters that serve as the book's framework (chapters 1, 2, and 42), and therefore Chazal say that Moshe wrote the story of Iyov.
But why would Moshe have written Parashat Bil'am? Why, in fact, is it included in the Torah at all? It is not even clear whether Moshe and the people of Israel were aware of the Bil'am affair!
The parasha dealing with Bil'am, the idolatrous magician and prophet, is the only parasha in the Torah (starting with Shemot) in which Moshe's name does not appear even indirectly. The story that it recounts takes place outside the camp of Israel, its key characters viewing it from afar.[3]
The background to this affair is Israel's victory north of the Arnon and the collapse of the kingdom of Sichon. Ever since then, victory on the part of Israel has terrified the peoples of the region and of the world. The Torah describes in "the song of those who speak in parables" the shocking conquest of Sichon, how they all sang about him, and how he now fell into the hands of Israel and Sichon was wiped out:
For Cheshbon was the city of Sichon, the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moav and taken all his land out of his hand, even unto the Arnon. Therefore, those who speak in parables say: Come you to Cheshbon! Let the city of Sichon be built and established! For a fire is gone out of Cheshbon, a flame from the city of Sichon; it has devoured Ar of Moav, the lords of the high places of Arnon. Woe to you, Moav! You are undone, O people of Chemosh; he has given his sons as fugitives and his daughters into captivity, unto Sichon king of the Amorites. (Bemidbar 29:26-29)
And now with the Israelite conquest:
We have shot at them (va-nirem)[4]  - Cheshbon is perished – even unto Dibon, and we have laid waste even unto Nofach, which reaches unto Medeva. Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites. (Bemidbar 21:30-31)
Balak, the king of Moav, saw and was very afraid ("And Moav was sore afraid of the people" [Bemidbar 22:3]), but he also saw an opportunity to return the northern part of the land of Moav to the Moavites. In his eyes, the Israelites were invaders and conquerors, like Sichon who had conquered the area before them. The law applying to conquerors is well-known: New conquerors will come and conquer them.
A fuller account of the historical background has come to light with the discovery of "the Bil'am inscription,"[5] in ancient Hebrew script and ancient Aramaic language, at the mouth of the Yabok stream in Dir-Ala (which has been identified with Sukkot, opposite today's Moshav Argaman) in a Midyanite temple from the period of the Israelite kingdom.
The beginning of the inscription reads:
[The sa]ying[s of Bil]am, [son of Be]or, the man who was a seer of the gods. Lo! Gods came to him in the night [and spoke to] him according to these w[ord]s. Then they said to [Bil]am, son of Beor, thus… And Bil'am rose in the morning…
In the continuation, Bil'am fasts and weeps aloud because of the impending calamity. He speaks to those who come to see him, and he seeks a way to prevent the disaster.
This clarifies the words of the Torah (Bemidbar 31:8), together with what is written in the book of Yehoshua (13:22), that the people of Israel killed Bil'am the magician. Thus, it is clear (as argued by Chazal) that "the book of Bil'am" could not have been written in the Torah using Bil'am's formulation, which is entirely idolatrous.[6] Therefore, Parashat Bil'am was written in the Torah as Moshe wrote it: in the Hebrew of the Torah.
It is therefore only for us that it is difficult to understand why the "obedient" Bil'am continued in his attempt time after time to curse Israel, after God had said to him: "You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed" (Bemidbar 22:12). For in the world of Bil'am the magician, the combinations of idolatrous powers are liable to change at any moment.
Indeed, the Torah explicitly states that at first Bil'am tried to use his divinations and enchantments, and that only the third time did he reach the understanding
that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, and he went not, as at the other times, to meet with enchantments. (Bemidbar 24:1)
But those who read and hear the Torah do not hear any enchantments or divinations, because it was all written in the language of Moshe!
Moreover, with the "spirit of God" that was with him at that stage, all of the forces with which he was familiar joined together in his consciousness.[7] Only then did Bil'am come close to the level of Avraham and Moshe, and only then did he deliver his parable:
The saying of Bil'am…. The saying of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty. (Bemidbar 24:4, 16)
II. What Did Balak Want From Bil'am?
What did Balak wish to achieve? Why did he need Bil'am? In my opinion, "the elders of Midyan" (Bemidbar 22:4, 7) are the key to the answer to these questions.
Most of the tribes of Midyan were settled in the region of the Yabok stream on the east bank of the Jordan already from the time of Avraham (Bereishit 25:1-6).[8] From there they spread to the Yizrael valley and the lower Galilee in the days of Gid'on (Shofetim 6-7). They supported the occupation rule of Sichon the king of the Amorites, as is alluded to in the book of Yehoshua (13:21: "the princes of Sichon").[9] With his collapse, they established a coalition with Moav to expel the invading Israelites.
Balak saw that the Israelite camp was already camped "in the plains of Moav beyond the Jordan at Jericho" (Bemidbar 22:1; this verse really belongs to the previous chapter). According to his plan, the Midyanites from the north and the Moavites from the south would be able to defeat Israel, if only they would receive the blessing of "Bil'am the son of Be'or," the well-known prophet from Aram-Naharayim, and the invaders would receive his curse.[10]
Bil'am, however, had grave doubts about a military solution when it came to the Israelites and their astonishing power. 
Balak met Bil'am "on the border of Arnon" (Bemidbar 22:36), at the edge of the Israelite conquest, and went up to "Bamot-Ba'al." From there they could see the edge of the camp from afar (Bemidbar 22:39-41). In my opinion, the reference is to a mountain called to this day "Ma'in" ("Ba'al Me'on; Bemidbar 32:38), the highest point in the northern part of Moav. This was located in the territories that had already been "captured" by the Israelites following the collapse of the kingdom of Sichon. There, Bil'am did not succeed in joining the forces that were needed to curse Israel – "the Lord has not execrated" (Bemidbar 23:8).
Balak decided to be more daring and to come closer, and he took Bil'am to "the field of Tzofim, to the top of Pisga" (Bemidbar 23:14). This is "Mount Nevo, the top of Pisga" (Devarim 34:1), Moshe's last observation point before his death. From there one could see large expanses of the country, but it was difficult to see the entire camp of Israel under the steep slope (Bemidbar 23:13).
Here, too, Bil'am failed in his efforts, and he said to Balak that the combinations that were needed to curse were not working "now" against this people:
None has beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has one seen perverseness in Israel… For there is no enchantment with Jacob, neither is there any divination with Israel. (Bemidbar 23:21-23)
If you try to attack, Israel will "rise up as a lioness," and consume you like a devouring lion (Bemidbar 23:24).
Balak was angry but did not give up. He took Bil'am to "the top of Peor, which looks down upon the desert" (Bemidbar 23:28). From there he was able to see the entire camp of Israel. This took tremendous daring, and it stirred up the imagination. It was possible to draw near and look down upon the entire camp of Israel from above, and therefore it was also possible to rip it apart "like spider webs." But the fateful decision remained in the mouth of the prophet-magician, because without him Midyan would not dare go out to battle, and without Midyan there was no fighting coalition against Israel, from the south and from the north.
At the beginning Bil'am thought that there was no military option against Israel; now he was convinced that combining the forces needed to curse the people of Israel would also not succeed. Only now was he ready to turn toward the desert and receive "monotheistic" prophecy, in which all the names and all the combinations are united.
In the first parable, he said two things that angered Balak almost to the point of breaking off relations: 
1) First, Bil'am said that the camp of Israel is wonderful and entirely blessed:
How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Israel. As palms stretched out,[11] as gardens by the river side; as aloes planted of the Lord, as cedars besides the waters; water shall flow from his branches, and his seed shall be in many waters… Blessed be every one that blesses you, and cursed be everyone that curses you. (Bemidbar 24:5-9)
2) In addition, Bil'am argued that "God who brought him forth out of Egypt" (Bemidbar 24:8) would bring him great victories. He will rule like a lion, and nobody will overpower him.
In his last prophetic parable Bil'am said two more things about the future, which apparently reassured Balak:
1) First, a warrior leader will arise in Israel who will smite Moav, but this will happen only be-acharit hayamim (which in the Bible means "in the days of others"):
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh. (Bemidbar 24:17)
In other words, this will not happen in the immediate future, in the days of Balak.
2) Second, Bil'am prophesies that Amalek, who will fight against Israel, will perish, whereas the Kenites who will join Israel will become stronger, but in the end "he also shall come to destruction" (Bemidbar 24:24).
            Balak will not be able to defeat Israel, but he will also not be hurt if he sits quietly in this generation. Balak and Moav were satisfied with this all-clear siren: "… And Balak also went his way" (Bemidbar 24:25).
III. The Importance of Bil’am
But why does God need this prophet-magician? Why is there no Torah without Bil'am?
It answer seems to lie in the fact that nowhere in the Torah do we hear pronouncements regarding Israel as good as those uttered by Bil'am. This is especially true in the book of Bemidbar, which is full of crises, sins, anger, and calamities. The only one who speaks well about Israel is Bil'am (even if for lack of choice)!
Had Moshe said to Israel: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel," the people of Israel would wonder: Is he about to die? Is he expecting us to crown his son after him as king? They would not believe it. Only because this prophecy was delivered by an outsider could it be accepted as the truth and used to crown Jewish prayer books for all generations.
Imagine an influential Moslem imam standing up one day and explicitly stating that it is the one and only God who has restored "the children of Israel," the descendants of the prophets, to their ancient homeland.[12] Then he might continue that all believers must accept His will, and for this reason all wars against Israel have and will continue to fail. Every person in the world, and every Jewish child, would hear this and be amazed – and peace would arrive!
IV. Cultic Prostitution and Assimilation
Despite everything that was said above, however, Bil'am was not really convinced. He turned to a different course of battle – to sexual temptation and the cultic prostitution that was common in Canaanite culture: "the abominations of the land of Canaan" (Vayikra 18).[13] Bil'am preferred to use Midyanite women in this temptation campaign:
Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Bil'am, to revolt so as to break faith with the Lord in the matter of Peor. (Bemidbar 31:16)
It is for this reason that the Israelites killed Bil'am at the end of the campaign.
The tribes of Midyan in the Yabok stream area found themselves in close proximity to the Israelite camp in the plains of Moav. There, in "Shitim" (Bemidbar 25:1), the daughters of Midyan encountered the sons of Shimon, at the northern edge of the camp of Israel.
The tribe of Shimon was all that remained of its camp. When the people of Reuven and Gad began to settle in the mountains in northern Moav and in Gil'ad, Shimon settled in the (eastern) Jordan valley and began to mix with their neighbors and their daughters. In Shitim, the people of Israel began to lose its unique identity.
The "plague" that broke out mainly affected the tribe of Shimon. In the census in Parashat Bemidbar, Shimon numbered 59,300 people, whereas in the census in Parashat Pinchas, it was down to 22,200. There is no such gap regarding any other tribe, and the gap is greater than the 24,000 who fell in the plague connected to Peor. Apparently, the "plague" included also a Midyanite attack that exploited Israel's weakness. This also explains the command to Moshe to harass the Midyanites and smite them "by their wiles with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor," and not to wait for the expected revenge "in the matter of Kozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midyan, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague in the matter of Peor" (Bemidbar 25:17-18).
Moshe and the elders knew only how to act through the system of judgment (Bemidbar 25:4-5), and therefore they were powerless ("and they were weeping"; Bemidbar 25:6) in the face of the provocation of "Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of the fathers' house among the Shimonites" (Bemidbar 25:14). It was only the zealotry of Pinchas, who executed justice without judgment that halted the plague. This brought him "the covenant of an everlasting priesthood" (Bemidbar 25:13) and served as a model for later zealots.[14]
My revered teacher, R. Tzvi Yehuda Kook would say about this: "Zealotry as a one-time outburst can bring salvation; zealotry as an ideology – absolutely not!"
Indeed, Pinchas almost brought about a civil war against the people of Reuven and the people of Gad on account of the altar that they erected outside the Mishkan "in the region about the Jordan" (Yehoshua 22:10-20). It was only the wisdom and the integrity of the faith of the tribes living on the east bank of the Jordan (Yehoshua 22:21-34) that prevented a catastrophe.
Such wisdom was not found among the tribes of Israel against the people of Binyamin in the affair of the concubine at Giv'a (Shofetim 19-21):
For the ark of the covenant of the Lord was there in those days. And Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon, stood before it in those days, saying: “Shall I yet again go to battle against the children of Binyamin my brother, or shall I cease?” (Shofetim 20:28)
Pinchas's question there was not whether it would be right to embark on a civil war, for this fundamental question is not mentioned at all at the beginning of the campaign (Shofetim 20:18); there they only ask: "Who shall go up for us first." Pinchas's question was only whether or not they would succeed in smiting Binyamin on the third day, after 40,000 Israelite soldiers had died on the previous two days. About this God answers: "Go up; for tomorrow I will deliver him into your hand" (Shofetim 20:28), and the tribe of Binyamin was almost "cut off" (Shofetim 21:6).[15]
In Shilo, Eli, a descendant of Itamar, was already the High Priest.[16]
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] According to the Mesorah, the entire parasha of Balak-Bil'am is one section, without any breaks.
[2] Devarim opens with: “These are the words which Moshe spoke" (Devarim 1:1). This follows also from the gemara (Megilla 31b), which states regarding the curses in the book of Devarim: “Moshe said them on his own." On this matter, the Bavli disagrees with the Yerushalmi, which states (Sota, end of chapter 5): "Moshe wrote the five books of the Torah, and then he wrote Parashat Balak and Bil'am, and he wrote the book of Iyov." The reference in the Bavli, in contrast, is to the book of Devarim (and therefore it does not say there: "and then he wrote," as in the Yerushalmi). This removes the objections that were raised and the forced answers that were given in connection with these words of Chazal.
[3] As noted in Responsa Chatam Sofer, Yoreh De'ah 356.
[4] Alternatively, "We have plowed them over" (Chizkuni); "we have cast them off" (Rashbam); "we have overthrown their rule" (R. Saadya Gaon, Rashi; Ibn Ezra brings the last two suggestions) – "and these are the words of Moshe" (Ibn Ezra).  
[5] From: A. Rofe, Sefer Bil'am (Jerusalem, 1980), pp. 61-63; my clarifications are found in the parentheses.
[6] In the inscription, elahan (gods) is in the plural; ashtar are goddesses; venitzvu sheidin are gods; and others.
[7] El, Elyon, and Shadai are all gods in the Canaanite pantheon, as was demonstrated by M. D. Cassuto, Sefer Bereishit U-Mivneihu (Jerusalem, 1990), p. 66.
The El-Elyon, before whom Malkhitzedek, king of Shalem, served as priest, and El-Elyon in the mouth of Avram (Bereishit 14:18-22) is a Hebrew combination, a first step in the monotheistic objection to the idolatry that prevailed at that time.
[8] The northern Midyanites were enemies of Israel, while the tribe of Yitro cut themselves off from them and headed south, and joined with Moshe and Israel as one family; see Mikra'ot Le-Parashat Yitro, pp. 51-55.
[9] According to the Ramban (in his commentary to Bemidbar 22:3-5), Sichon overpowered them by force, but allowed them to remain as princes in northern Midyan.
[10] According to the inscription that was discovered, centuries later the Midyanim at the mouth of the Yabok stream still remembered Bil'am the son of Beor, the fasting and the weeping, and at the end the suggested tempting. In Israel, in contrast, they remembered Moshe and his Torah, and also how God turned Bil'am's curse into a blessing (Devarim 23:4-7).
[11] Here, nachalim refers to "palm trees" (as in the Arabic) – the Israelite camp with the blossoming at the top of the pillars of the tents looked like outstretiched palm trees, covering the expanse "as gardens and aloes" and also tall "as cedars." See the explanation suggested by my father, Eretz Ha-Moriya, Pirkei Mikra Ve-Lashon (Alon Shevut, 2006), pp. 185-187. Ibei ha-nachal in Shir ha-Shirim 6:11 are also palm-trees, and the entire verse refers to trees: "nut… palm… grapevine… pomegranetes."
[12] And Moslems are monotheists, immeasurably superior to Bil'am!
[13] Also in the Bil'am inscription, Bil'am the son of Beor's solution to the impending calamity (which is not explained in the inscription) lies in "be-mishkavei alamekha." 
[14] Matityahu, the father of the Chashmonaim, presented Pinchas as a model for killing the Jew who agreed to offer a sacrifice to the Greek god in Modiin, along with the representative of the Selucid kingdom who imposed the royal edict (I Maccabees 2:26). This is also the way he opened his testament to his sons (ibid. 50, 54). The transformation of Matityahu's zealotry into an ideology led to a civil war and the destruction of the Temple.
[15] It is clear from the parasha that answers by way of the Urim and Tumim were received strictly in accordance with the formulation of the question. Chazal said (Shevu'ot 35b) that the people of Israel were imprecise in the way that they formulated their questions on the first two days, and they were therefore defeated in battle, even though they were told to go up.
[16] Eli the priest is not mentioned among the descendants of Pinchas the son of Elazar until "when the Lord carried away Yehuda and Jerusalem by the hand of Nevuchadnetzar (I Divrei ha-Yamim 5:30-41); see about Evyatar (a descendant of Eli) in I Melakhim 2:36-27.