The Prophecies of Bilam

  • Rav Michael Hattin







The Prophecies of Bilam


By Rav Michael Hattin





Last week, we read of the remarkable Israelite victory over Sichon and Og, the ominous Amorite kings.  With their triumph, the people secure and begin to settle the lands east of the Jordan River.  The Kingdom of Moav and its provisional leader Balak, still smarting from their own loss of territory at the hands of Sichon, feel even more threatened by the Israelite tribes now at their doorstep.  With the demise of Sichon and Og, regarded as the regional superpowers, the people of Moav and their nomadic Midianite kin abandon any hope of successfully engaging the Israelites in battle.  Instead, they opt for a more supernatural if less materially gratifying approach: the imposition of an execration by the well-known Eastern seer Bilam.


Hailing from the town of Petor on the banks of the distant Euphrates, Bilam is a well-known personality in the occult circles of the region.  The efficacies of his curses and blessings have gained him a unique reputation and have also provided him with a substantial and steady source of income.  Eager to answer the call of Balak and his Midianite henchmen but conscious of his own limitations, Bilam inquires of the Deity and requests His sanction for the mission, but God's response proves inconclusive: "…that which I shall say to you, you shall do" (Bemidbar 22:20).  Thus, although Bilam saddles his ass and accompanies Balak's messengers, he will provide no guarantees.


In the most peculiar encounter which follows, the invisible angel of the Lord thrice bars the path of Bilam's donkey, each time with greater menacing effect.  Bilam, dumb to the vision of the beast but impatient with its increasing reluctance to proceed, strikes the donkey harshly.  Finally, God, in an event without parallel in the Scriptures, grants the ass the power of speech, and its eloquent protests to Bilam are succeeded by the revelation of the angel to Bilam's senseless eyes.  Warning him to not stray from God's directives, the angel allows Bilam to proceed, and finally he arrives at the border of Moav.


Structural Similarities


At Balak's impatient behest, Bilam attempts to pronounce his curse against the people of Israel, but three times his efforts meet with failure.  The textual structure of the three, and of a fourth that Bilam pronounces to a startled Balak unprompted, is quite similar.  Invariably (excluding the final fourth pronouncement), the endeavor begins with Balak's invitation to Bilam to view the extremity of the Israelite encampment from afar.  This is followed by Bilam's directive to Balak to erect a series of seven altars and to offer a bullock and a ram on each of them.  Bilam then ascends alone to the designated high place to receive Divine inspiration.  God encounters him, "places words in his mouth," and sends him back to Balak and his officers, who patiently await his return.  To the surprise and consternation of Balak, Bilam then proceeds to pronounce a Divinely mandated blessing of the people of Israel.  This is followed by a frustrated outburst by Balak, and countered by Balak's apologetic remark that he can only communicate the message that God "places in his mouth." 


With respect to the fourth pronouncement, Bilam offers it without Balak's invitation, without prior preparation, and without the need to 'ascend on high' to receive God's word.  His final blessing is presented as a fitting climax to the entire narrative, an eloquent pronouncement that surpasses his earlier words, both in composition and style.


Points to Ponder


Clearly, the Torah invites us to consider the content of Bilam's pronouncements through the prism of their similar structure, as if the pattern that seems to inform the entire account must in some way contribute to the significance of his words.  Additionally, we are called upon to investigate the connection of the introductory 'donkey' episode to what follows.  Why would the Torah have Bilam's donkey stop in its tracks three times and no more, if not to bluntly suggest a link with his three subsequent attempts to curse the people of Israel?


Examining his three pronouncements in turn will be helpful to not only highlight their similarities, but more importantly to point out their contrasts.  What we may discover is that there is more here than simply three independent proclamations of roughly equal weight.  In fact, we shall see that Bilam's words affirm a very deliberate and meaningful progression.


First Encounter


"The Lord incidentally encountered ('VayiKaR') Bilam…and placed words in his mouth…He (Bilam) declared his oracle and said: 'Balak King of Moav has brought me from Aram, from the eastern mountains, to arise and to curse Yaakov and to pronounce words of wrath against Yisrael.  But how can I curse, since the Almighty has not?  How can I be wrathful when God is not?  I see them from the heights of the mountains and gaze on them from the hills.  They are a nation that dwells alone, that is not reckoned among the peoples.  Who can count the dust of Yaakov or ascertain the number of Yisrael's descendants?  Let my soul perish like the righteous, let my end be like theirs!" (Bemidbar 23:4-10).


In this first attempt, we notice that 'THE LORD' ('Elohim') encounters Bilam INCIDENTALLY ('VayiKaR), and that Israel is SINGLED OUT as a nation that is like no other.  Additionally, we are impressed by descriptions of Yisrael's abundance, of descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth.  There seems, however, to be no definitive historical period to which Bilam may be alluding.


Second Encounter


"God incidentally encountered ('VayiKaR') Bilam and placed words in his mouth…He (Bilam) declared his oracle and said: 'Arise Balak and hear, hearken to me son of Tzippor.  The Lord is not like man to waver, nor is He Hemortal to change His mind.  Does He proclaim and not fulfill, does He speak and not carry out?  I have taken a blessing, for He has blessed and I cannot reverse it.  He sees no wrongdoing in Israel, no iniquity in Yisrael, God the Lord is with them and the glorious presence of the King is in their midst.  The Almighty brought them out of Egypt and He is like the mighty horns of the bison for them.  No magic can prevail against Yaakov, no occult against Yisrael, for now the works of the Almighty shall be told to Yaakov and to Yisrael.  They are nation that rises like the lion and lifts itself like the lion.  They too shall not lie down until they have consumed the prey and drank the blood of the kill'" (Bemidbar 23:16-24).


This time, we notice that it is not 'the Lord' ('Elohim') that encounters Bilam, but rather GOD ('HaShem').  We are told of His immutability, of His desire to bless, and of His CONTINUOUS PRESENCE in Israel.  Significantly, a historical note is inserted into the proclamation, for Bilam speaks of God's involvement in the EXODUS.  Finally, there is a somewhat obscure allusion to a lion, to a mighty people of Israel that will consume its undefined 'prey' before 'lying down.'  Bearing in mind the chronological element introduced by the Exodus, we would perhaps not be overstepping our bounds by understanding it as a reference to the CONQUEST OF CANAAN (the 'prey'), and the beginning of the process of SETTLEMENT (the 'lying down').


Third Encounter 


"When Bilam saw that it was fitting in God's eyes to bless Israel he did not seek out occult forces as before.  Instead, he set his gaze towards the wilderness.  Bilam lifted his eyes and saw the people of Israel dwelling according to their tribes, and the spirit of the Lord came upon him.  He (Bilam) proclaimed his oracle and said: 'These are the words of Bilam son of Be'or, the words of the man with the seeing eye.  These are the words of the one who heard the words of the Almighty, who perceived a vision of the All Powerful, falling down with open eyes.  How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places Yisrael.  They are like outstretched streams, like gardens by the river, like aloes planted by God, like cedars by the waters.  His wells shall overflow with water, his crops shall be watered abundantly, his king shall be greater than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. The Almighty who brought them out of Egypt and is like the mighty horns of the bison for them, shall devour the nations that oppress them, grinding their bones and wounding them with His arrows.  They shall lie down and sleep like the lion, and who shall bestir them?  Those that bless you shall be blessed, those that curse you shall be cursed!'" (Bemidbar 24:1-9).


Here, we see how Bilam finally recognizes the INEFFICACY OF THE OCCULT against Israel.  Now it is the SPIRIT OF THE LORD that inspires him, for he has seen a VISION of the Almighty.  In his mind's eye, Bilam sees the tribes of Israel planted SECURELY AND PRODUCTIVELY by the waters.  He sees their KING, whose KINGDOM will be glorious and great, surpassing that of 'Agag.'  Their ENEMIES SHALL BE COMPLETELY VANQUISHED, for the lion that is Israel will devour them and chew on their proverbial bones.


This time, Bilam sees farther into the future, for the tribes that in his second vision could not settle in security before conquering their foes, are here described as 'lying down' with none to dare rouse them.  In this third encounter, Bilam sees a king in Israel, greater than 'Agag.'  This Agag is none other than the King of Amalek, vanquished by Israel's first king, Shaul (see Shmuel/Samuel 1, Chapter 15).  The reference would therefore be to the founding of the monarchy in Israel, an event that took place about three hundred and fifty years after the Exodus from Egypt.  This development culminated with the ascent of David to the throne, the sovereign who finally conquered Israel's hostile neighbors and laid the groundwork for the founding of an empire.


Last Encounter


As stated above, Bilam's final prophecy is offered unsolicited.  Balak is not called upon to undertake any preliminary preparations, and God is not sought out but rather appears.  Significantly, Bilam presents his parting words as a vision of what the people of Israel shall do to Moav 'at the end of days':


"He (Bilam) proclaimed his oracle and said: 'These are the words of Bilam son of Be'or, the words of the man with the seeing eye.  These are the words of the one who heard the words of the Almighty, who knows the knowledge of the Most High, who perceived a vision of the All Powerful, falling down with open eyes.  I see him but not now, I gaze upon him but not soon.  A star will shoot forth out of Yaakov, a scepter shall rise from Yisrael, who shall crush the princes of Moav and demolish all of Shet's descendants.  Edom shall be their inheritance, Se'ir their enemies shall be their inheritance, and Israel shall be triumphant.  A ruler from Yaakov shall destroy the remnant of the city…'" (Bemidbar 24:14-19).


In this last vision, Bilam submits that he peers far into the future, seeing the so-called 'end of days' that elsewhere in Tanakh connotes the MESSIANIC AGE (see Devarim 4:30, 31:29; Yishayahu/Isaiah 2:1; Yechezkel/Ezekiel 38:16; etc.).  This time, his perception of God's words is complemented by KNOWLEDGE of the Most High.  Bilam sees a MESSIANIC FIGURE, an ideal king, who will finally and irrevocably make an end of Israel's foes, who will vanquish Moav and Edom, its ancestral enemies.  ALL OF HUMANITY, the sons of Shet (Seth, the third son of Adam and Chava, whose descendants constitute the human race), will reluctantly recognize Israel's ascendancy and their message shall finally triumph.


The Reading of the Ramban


Noticing the textual cues pointed out above, the Ramban (13th century, Spain) perceptively comments:


"All of Bilam's prophecies see progressively farther into the future.  First he pointed out that Israel is God's portion and inheritance, then he spoke of their conquest of the land and domination of its kings.  Thirdly, he saw them securely dwelling in their land and becoming abundant upon it.  He saw them appoint a king that would vanquish Amalek, and establish a kingdom that would achieve victory under David…In this fourth vision, Bilam goes on to see the Messianic Age, and he therefore describes his vision as 'not now' and 'not soon'…" (commentary to 24:14).


In other words, Bilam's visions are not simply three or four self-contained units, but rather a progression of ideas that taken together describe the complete historical development of the people of Israel.  Poised to enter the land of Canaan, the stages of Israel's conquest, settlement, securing of borders, and establishment of an empire that will foreshadow its Messianic redemption are already all revealed to Bilam's perceptive eyes.


Prophecy and Prognostication


It is indeed striking that the depth of Bilam's discernment, the quality of his encounters with God, appears to be enhanced with each unfolding vision.  Thus, the first encounter, haphazard and incidental ('VayiKaR'), is with 'Elohim,' a name of God that signifies not only power and transcendence, but also remoteness and inaccessibility.  The second encounter is with the more intimate 'Hashem' ('God'), the Sustainer and Supporter of the cosmos.  In the third encounter, a 'spirit of the Lord' comes upon him as he hears His words and perceives His vision.  Finally, in his last encounter, Bilam also acquires 'knowledge of the Most High,' an expression that seems to signify an intimate engagement with the Deity.


In perfect consonance with Bilam's prophetic progression, the text describes in more and more striking language the exclusivity of the people of Israel.  First, they are perceived as a nation that dwells alone, then they are singled out as a people privy to God's acts, then they are described as having a unique relationship with the Deity, and finally they are presented as the triumphant bearers of His message to humanity.


To the procession of the two complementary themes of Bilam's personal journey and the nation of Israel's destiny, we may add a third: the impotency of magic, sorcery and the occult to affect the fate of the people of Israel.  Thus, Bilam enters the scene as a gifted sorcerer and seer, but his ostensible powers soon prove wholly inadequate.  In the meantime, the fundamental message that no such powers can sway God or dictate Israel's fate, is repeatedly hammered home with increasing intensity.


These three themes of exclusivity, prophecy, and inefficacy of augury, are actually interwoven.  At the most elemental level, prophecy concerns God's communications to human beings.  The more cohesive the relationship with God, the more intense is the prophetic experience, and the more obvious how coarse and ineffectual is divination by comparison.  If Bilam speaks of Israel's potential for exclusivity and intimacy, then he must also address their unique capacity for prophecy, and at the same time highlight his own failure to achieve significant results through prognostication.


The Donkey


All of this, of course, leads us back to Bilam's donkey.  What is the meaning of its encounter with the angelic figure, with its unprecedented speech, and with Bilam's eventual perception of what it can 'see' all along?  Again, we return to the words of the Ramban:


"The reason for this miracle was to impress upon Bilam that God is the Bestower of the power of speech, and can even open the mouth of the 'mute.'  Certainly, He can also stop up the mouth of those who speak, or place in their mouths the words that He wishes them to speak, for nothing is beyond His ability.  Let not Bilam follow then his magical and mysterious practices in order to curse the people…" (commentary to 22:23).


On three occasions, the donkey instinctively pauses and refuses to proceed, sensing that its path is barred.  Bilam's secret desire to honor Balak's request and consequently secure fame and fortune hangs in the balance, and he is impatient to reach his destination.  With unusual viciousness, he lashes out at the dumb beast whose behavior seems so inexplicable.  Finally, the creature addresses him in some sort of communication that the text plainly describes as 'speech.'  Bilam engages the donkey in dialogue and in the end is granted a vision of the 'angel' that impresses upon him his accountability to a Higher Power Who will brook no disobedience to His will.  Is this curious encounter not the story of Bilam's subsequent travails?


On three occasions, Bilam attempts to circumvent God's directives, in order to curse the people of Israel.  In each case, his 'mouth' is instead filled with blessings that he pronounces against his natural inclinations.  In the end, he is forced to concede that his powers have no impact against Israel, that God directs his speech, that he, like the donkey, is nothing more than an instrument in His hands.  The dull-witted, four-legged brute gropes for a glimmer of a higher truth that God progressively but graciously provides.  After three 'communications,' the donkey is finally able to speak intelligible words that loudly proclaim God's involvement and guidance.  Bilam, too, after three 'attempts' to prove otherwise, must eventually come to the profound realization that all of his faculties, including the speech that constitutes the very source of his strength, are subject to God's authority and command.  As soon as he is able to internalize that message, his fourth and final vision of the ideal Messianic Age must follow, for it is the culmination of the process.

Shabbat Shalom