Is Bilam Evil?

  • Rav Alex Israel

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav Alex Israel


Le'zecher nishmat Naftali Hertzke ben Mayer Eliezer v'Gittel z"l, Nathaniel H. Leiderman, whose yahrzeit will be observed on 11 Tammuz. Dedicated by Ira Leiderman & Mindy Smith and their children Eric & Cara of Englewood, NJ, USA.


In memory of Cvi ben Moshe Reinits, whose Yahrzeit was on the 2nd of Tammuz, from those who remember him.










At first glance, this week's parasha looks like something out of Dungeons and Dragons: We have blessings and curses, talking donkeys, a frustrated demented king, and a traveling wizard whose curses repeatedly turn into blessings. Bil'am the sorcerer and prophet is invited to curse the Children of Israel and it all goes rather wrong.


We would like to focus this week on one central question whose answer will radically affect our entire view of the parasha: is Bil'am evil?


Chazal (our Sages) refer to Bil'am quite standardly as Bil'am Ha-rasha (the wicked). He is seen as greedy, egoistic, and a Jew hater. He attempts to subvert even God himself! Was he really such a villain?




A number of commentators, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) at the top of the list, view Bil'am in a remarkably positive light. They bring convincing proofs for their position from the text of the story itself. In fact, if you would stop reading now, pick up a Chumash and read the beginning of our parasha (Ch. 22 v. 2-20) you might begin to see what they mean.


Bil'am's motto, a phrase which he repeats time after time throughout the parasha, seems to be:


"Even if Balak gives me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot do anything, big or little , contrary to the word of the Lord my God" (See also 24:13)


and in another variation:


"I can only repeat faithfully what the LORD puts in my mouth." (23:12 and see also 22:7,13,38. 23:26.)


Bil'am appears as a paradigm of obedience and submission to God. One can view almost the entire story from this vantage point. At every step, Bil'am does nothing before he has consulted with God. When God tells him not to accompany Balak's ministers, he faithfully transmits God's message and refuses to go along with them. Only when God allows him to go, does he agree to their summons. Even when asked by King Balak himself, he gives no assurances. He simply repeats his motto that he is subject to the desires of God and that God is his sole controller.


Bil'am comes over as a man of integrity. A good man.


This character appraisal of Bil'am would appear to be accurate were it not for some strong contrary indications in the text. After Bil'am forwards Balak's second request to God, God allows him to go. However no sooner had he left, we read how


"God was incensed at his going and placed an angel of the Lord in his way as an adversary." (22:22)


In addition, there is the story of the angel with sword drawn coming apparently to stop Bil'am fulfilling his evil plan.


The Ramban (22:22) does not see in these verses refutation of his overall view of Bil'am:


"God's desire, was to bless the people of Israel through the prophet of the gentiles. Bil'am should have told Balak's ministers explicitly 'I have been permitted by God to accompany you, but only on condition that I do not curse the people and that if God instructs me, I will bless them"'... Now Bil'am in his eagerness to go with them did not relate this message and said nothing at all. 'When he rose in the morning, Bil'am saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries' (22:21)... as if he desired to do their bidding. God was angry at his going because had he told them, they would not have asked him to go. In addition there was the defamation of God in that his leaving, as if by God's consent, gave the impression that God had given permission to curse the people...."


The incident with the angel is to correct this fault in Bil'am's attitude. The angel tells Bil'am how he has distorted God's permit allowing him to go to Balak (See the Ramban's translation of pasuk 22) - he should have made his intentions clearly understood. Bil'am repentingly offers to return home, but God simply warns him a second time that he will say none other than that which God instructs him to say.


Bil'am is still a good, God-fearing man; he merely made a mistake, which he was prepared to correct when it was pointed out to him (see 22:36).




Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) sees Bil'am as a negative figure from the outset. We will review just a few of his comments in this vein.


After the first approach by Balak's people, God tells Bil'am (22:12) "Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed." Rashi (quoting the Midrash Tanchuma) reads this as an exchange between Bil'am and God: To the command of God, "Do not go with them," Bil'am replies, "Then I will curse them from here!" "You must not curse that people" says God, to which Bil'am answers, "then I will bless them." God says "They are (already) blessed," as one says of the hornet: 'not of your honey nor your sting.'


Bil'am replies to the Moabite messengers: (22:13) "The Lord will not let me go with you." Rashi, quoting the Tanchuma again, reads this phrase in an arrogant, self-centered tone:


"The Lord will not let me go with YOU - but rather with ministers of a higher rank than you. We see from here his haughtiness. He didn't want to demonstrate that he was under the authority of God, but rather used a proud tone. Balak responded, (22:15), 'Then Balak sent other dignitaries, more numerous and distinguished than the first.'"


Rashi here illustrates Bil'am as egoistic, fortune seeking and proud.


Rashi also accuses Bil'am of "an insatiable desire for wealth and excessive greed." When Bil'am turns down Balak's offer with the words "Even if Bil'am gives me his house full of silver and gold ..." (22:18) Rashi reads between the lines noting Bil'am's hidden agenda of wealth. Bil'am realizes his market value if he could defeat the Israelites single-handedly and save Balak the cost of a war. He therefore suggests that an appropriate reward might be a house worth of gold and silver.


Rashi completes the picture of the evil Bil'am with a note on the verse (22:21) "When he rose in the morning, Bil'am saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries." Why would the proud, honor-seeking Bil'am do his own dirty work? Why would he saddle his own animal? Rashi comments :


"We learn from here that intense hatred can distort even ingrained character traits.... Here he saddled his ass personally.

With the Moabite dignitaries: his heart and their hearts in unison."


There is one not insignificant question which threatens to challenge this view of Bil'am. Why did God let Bil'am go? Why did he not ban him from making the journey?


To this Rashi presents an answer that reflects our principle of free-will as well as the determination of Bil'am (22:33):


"A person is lead in the way in which he desires to go"


God helps people to travel along the path of their desires. If Bil'am wishes to curse the Israelites, so be it. Let him pay the cost of his crime at a later date. In the meantime, God lets him follow his hearts desire.




When confronted with a difference of opinion of this type, we must ask ourselves how two Bible scholars could come to contrasting conclusions based on the same text. What is the textual basis of each op?


In a certain sense, the beginning of our parasha (Ch. 22) seems to give two separate stories of Bil'am and it is the disparity between the two stories which gives rise to the ambiguity regarding the nature of Bil'am's character.


Let us explain. The story can be split into two discreet sections. In essence, we see before us two 'stories':


The first about Bil'am being approached with an offer from Balak and faithfully turning to God with each request, following His word at every turn.


The second story is that of Bil'am and his ass. In this second story, the Moabite dignitaries seem to be nowhere in sight (See Ramban 22:33) and we witness Bil'am in his confrontation with the angel who is apparently sent to stop him.


Interestingly enough, both stories conclude with almost an identical phrase;(Compare verse 20-21 with verse 35. There are some variations) that "Go with the men but you will only repeat what I tell you. And Bil'am went with the dignitaries of Moav/Balak."


The first 'story' seems to present a near perfect Bil'am. He is God-fearing, loyal and obedient. When Bil'am accompanies the Moabite emissaries, we know that it has full Divine approval. We have no reason to believe that God should be angry in any way


The second 'story,' however, sets a different scene. Its opening line is "God was incensed at his going" and it continues with the strange story of the talking donkey. The impression one draws from the story is definitely one of God's displeasure at Bil'am.


This strange story is God's way of trying to get through to Bil'am. What message is God sending him? God is expressing to Bil'am the limits of human perception. Bil'am cannot see that which his donkey sees. The human mind does not always see the Divine. Bil'am has some thinking to do if he is to 'see' the truth. Maybe, in addition, God is illustrating to him that the power of speech is in the hands of God and not man. In the usual order of things donkeys cannot speak, humans can. But if God chooses, donkeys CAN speak and by the same logic, Bil'am should realize that his speech is in God's hands. Important messages for a man on a mission to curse an entire nation.


These two 'stories' are the background information that we are told regarding Bil'am. It would seem that the RAMBAN takes the first section of Chapter 22 as his starting point. Bil'am is basically good. He slips up. Honor and glory get in the way of his better side. God gets angry, Bil'am apologizes, and we move on. And, in the final analysis, Bil'am comes through. Bil'am blesses the Jewish people rather than cursing them. He deviates not a letter from what God has told him to say.


Rashi however, seems to rely on the second story as the defining factor regarding Bil'am. The first half of Chapter 22 is read with the prior knowledge of the latter half. God is clearly angry with Bil'am for going. Bil'am never seems to get the message that God is displeased, maybe because he doesn't want to accept its implications.


Bil'am acts like a child nagging his parent for something that the child wants contrary to his parent's better judgment. Bil'am seems persistent in asking God repeatedly, and when he hears a positive response, jumps at the chance. He seems not to notice that God isn't exactly 'smiling' at him and that from an outsider's perspective, it would be clear that God would prefer that he stay at home.


It is in this light that Rashi interprets the entire first section of the Chapter. Bil'am is painted with foreboding colors.




If this were the only information at our disposal, it would be difficult to understand why Bil'am is so widely perceived in a negative light. Both Rashi and the Ramban have logic and support behind their positions.


However, the story does not end with Bil'am returning home (24:25). He reappears later in Sefer Bemidbar in two places.


The story of Bil'am and Balak is followed immediately (Ch. 25) by an epidemic of promiscuity and idol worship in the camp of Israel. A plague ensues leaving 24,000 dead. The apparent perpetrators of the immorality are the Midianites - the same people who originally called on Bil'am's services.


God says (25:7) "Assail the Midianites and defeat them for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you ...." Apparently, there is some element of underhand activity which has been deliberately planned to ensnare the Israelites in an orgy of idolatry and immorality.


Who is behind it all?


The children of Israel go to war against the Midianites (31:8-15)


"They killed Bil'am ben Beor by the sword ....And Moses said "Why have you left the women alive? They are the very ones who, on BIL'AM'S advice, induced the Israelites to trespass in the matter of Peor and the community of the Lord was struck by the plague."


It would appear that Bil'am is the mastermind behind a scheme which caused serious damage to the fabric of the Israelite camp. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) describes Bil'am's thinking:


"Bil'am said, "Their God despises promiscuity and they (the Israelites) enjoy fine cloth. Let me suggest a plan. Set up stalls selling fine cloth. Place an old woman at the door and a young prostitute inside." They set up the stalls ... When the Israelites came to the market, the old woman offered fine cloth at a high price, the younger girl offered it for less, time after time."


The Talmud continues as to how this familiarity was used to offer the Israelites wine, leading to sexual activity which after some time was conditioned on idol worship.


The Talmud continues:


"And they killed Bil'am by the sword (31:8). [He had already gone home (24:25) so what was he doing there?]. He had returned to receive his payment for causing the plague of 24,000 dead amongst the Israelites."


In the light of this information, it is difficult not to see Bil'am as a cunning, greedy and downright evil. He is a dangerous man. The Mishna in Avot (5:23) states :


"He who has an evil eye, greed and haughtiness are is following the hallmarks of the wicked Bil'am."




It would seem that we have reinforced Rashi's perspective. Rashi builds his opinion based on the wider context and looks at the totality of what we know about Bil'am before making a judgment. He realizes that a mind which can devise and activate a plan to bring Israel into disfavor with its God must have a motivation. That motivation is one of three: pure wickedness, pride, or greed. God would not let Bil'am curse the Jewish nation so Bil'am found another way to cause harm.


But what of the Ramban? The Ramban, certainly, is truer to the language of the beginning of the parasha. How might he fit into the wider context?


Maybe we can offer the following thought. Bil'am is a prophet. Indeed Bil'am is seen as the Gentile equivalent of Moses, the greatest of the prophets (Sifrei).


According to the Jewish tradition, prophecy comes only to those with perfected intellect and character. A controlled, ethical temper is a prerequisite for prophecy. The Ramban is unwilling to define Bil'am as evil from the start because his gift of prophecy would indicate otherwise.


Indeed, Balak testifies to Bil'am's exceptional power:


"whom you bless is indeed blessed and who you curse is cursed" (22:6).


Only one other figure in the Bible is described by a similar epithet. It is Abraham. God tells Abraham


"I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you" (Genesis 12:3)


However, with prophecy, as with any Divine given talent, comes responsibility. How does Bil'am deal with the responsibility of being the greatest Gentile prophet? How does he actualize his spiritual potential?


Whereas Abraham uses his power to promote kindness, faith in God, honesty, and justice, Bil'am promotes immorality and idolatry. Bil'am abuses and wastes his spiritual potential to do good, by turning to evil. [In fact, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) picks up on this point and notes that originally Bil'am was a prop, but later on, is referred to as merely a sorcerer.]


"A person is lead in the way in which he desires to go."


Every person, no matter what his or her background, can determine their life. We can choose good and we can choose bad. We can build or destroy. Only we decide. And God lets us be the way we want to be. Even the greatest past does not necessarily secure a great future.


Whether Bil'am started off good or bad is of less relevance to us. What is important to us is that he goes down in history as Bil'am Ha-rasha - the wicked Bil'am - because of the course of action that he chose. The questions that this parasha leaves us with relate to direction, potential and fulfillment. The man with the greatest potential seems to squander it.


This is a parasha where donkeys see more clearly than humans. God signals to Bil'am what is right and Bil'am is determined to close his eyes, going his own way. Maybe the lesson for us is to follow the clues that God leaves on our path and to let that pathway lead us towards God and goodness.





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