The Remarkable Words of Bil'am

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



In memory of Nathaniel H. Leiderman, Naftali Hertzke ben Mayer Eliezer v'Gitel whose sixth yahrtzeit will be on 11 Tammuz. Dedicated by Ira Leiderman and Mindy Smith and their children Eric and Cara.


The Remarkable Words of Bil'am – Part 1

By Rav Michael Hattin


Parashat Balak describes the astonishing attempt of the King of Moav to defeat the people of Israel by means of sorcery and magic. Recall that last week, with the demise of the last members of the generation that had left the land of Egypt, the people of Israel finally began the long-awaited march towards their destination. At the wilderness of Zin, the inhospitable badlands located in the Negev region, Miriam passed on and the people thirsted for water. There, Moshe and Aharon struck the rock and they too were condemned to perish. Aharon's death soon followed, for when the people reached the nearby Mount of Hor, the aged High Priest was told to ascend to its summit and there he died, leaving Moshe to continue as leader alone. Continuing to journey Canaan-bound from the place of Aharon's death, the people were attacked enroute by the hostile King of Arad, but they prevailed against this Cannaanite despot. They then circled around the southern shores of the Dead Sea, as they approached the land from the east. Skirting the territory of the hostile Edomites and the inhospitable Moavites their kin, Israel soon encountered the antagonistic Sichon King of the Amorites, who engaged them at Edre'i. Israel miraculously triumphed against this regional superpower, and then went on to trounce the even more menacing Og King of Bashan. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Israel found itself in possession of a great swath of territory on the eastern side of the Jordan River, including lands considered by Balak the King of Moav to have constituted his people's unassailable patrimony.

Balak son of Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorite. Moav greatly feared the people for they were numerous, and Moav recoiled from before the people of Israel. Moav said to the elders of Midian: "now this congregation will consume all around us just as the ox consumes the vegetation of the field," and Balak son of Tzippor was the king of Moav at that time (Bemidbar 22:2-4).

Alarmed at the approach of the massive Israelite encampment towards his shrunken territory, but realizing that he would not be able to counter them on the field of battle, Balak the king hurriedly sends messengers bearing precious gifts to Bil'am son of Be'or, a well-known soothsayer and master of the occult who dwells on the shores of the Euphrates. The latter graciously receives the delegation and anxiously prepares to embark on the lucrative mission of checking the people's advance with his magic formulas, but the Deity's permission is not immediately forthcoming: "The Lord said to Bil'am: 'you shall not go with them, you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed!'" (22:12). Balak, however, is not easily dissuaded. He surmises (not without grounds) that Bil'am hesitates because he desires a higher price for his services, and so the king sends a more respected mission eastwards. This time, God relents, but not without making it absolutely clear to Bil'am that he will not be able to pronounce his spells of doom.

Bil'am saddles his ass and accompanies Balak's messengers, but the mission soon begins to go awry. An invisible angel of the Lord thrice bars the path of Bil'am's beast, each time with greater menacing effect. The ass senses the danger and refuses to proceed, but Bil'am, dumb to the vision of the beast but impatient with its increasing reluctance, 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 Bil'am are succeeded by the revelation of the angel to Bil'am's senseless eyes. Warning him to not stray from God's directives, the angel allows Bil'am to proceed, and finally he arrives at the border of Moav where he is warmly greeted by the anxious Moavite tyrant.


At Balak's impatient behest, Bil'am attempts to pronounce his curse against the people of Israel, but three times his efforts meet with failure. The textual structure of the three pronouncements, and of a fourth that Bil'am pronounces to a startled Balak unprompted, is quite similar. Invariably (excluding the final fourth pronouncement), the endeavor begins with Balak's invitation to Bil'am to view the extremity of the Israelite encampment from afar. This is followed by Bil'am's directive to Balak to erect a series of seven altars and to offer a bullock and a ram on each of them. Bil'am 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, Bil'am 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, Bil'am 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.

Thus it is that Bil'am's no-less-than-three attempts to curse Israel fail miserably, for God each time transforms his villainous venom into sweet words of future success. And thus it is that with each successive effort, Bil'am becomes more and more painfully aware that his seeming powers of prognostication and execration are utterly futile against the people of God. Magic holds no sway over Israel and their destiny cannot be manipulated by the stars. Prophecy, the true experience of receiving God's communication, overwhelms the shallow and vague words of the fortune tellers, and no augurer could possibly predict the most astonishing Divine pronouncement of all: Israel will survive for eternity, and their mission to transform human history by inviting all people to embrace ethical monotheism will ultimately be realized.

Let us consider each one of the pronouncements in turn, in order to ascertain whether there is not only a pattern to Bil'am's prophecies, but a deliberate progression as well.


The Lord incidentally encountered ('VayiKaR') Bil'am…and placed words in his mouth…He (Bil'am) declared his oracle and said: Balak King of Moav has brought me from Aram, from the eastern mountains, to arise and to curse Ya'akov 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 Ya'akov 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 Bil'am 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 Bil'am may be alluding.


God incidentally encountered ("VayiKaR") Bil'am and placed words in his mouth…He (Bil'am) declared his oracle and said: Arise Balak and hear, hearken to me son of Tszippor. The Lord is not like man to waver, nor is He mortal 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 Ya'akov, no occult against Yisrael, for now the works of the Almighty shall be told to Ya'akov 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 Bil'am, 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 Bil'am 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").


When Bil'am 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. Bil'am lifted his eyes and saw the people of Israel dwelling according to their tribes, and the spirit of the Lord came upon him. He (Bil'am) proclaimed his oracle and said: These are the words of Bil'am 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, Ya'akov, 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 Bil'am 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, Bil'am 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, Bil'am 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, Bil'am 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 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.


As stated above, Bil'am'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, Bil'am presents his parting words as a vision of what the people of Israel shall do to Moav "at the end of days":

He (Bil'am) proclaimed his oracle and said: These are the words of Bil'am 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 Ya'akov, 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 Ya'akov shall destroy the remnant of the city… (Bemidbar 24:14-19).

In this last vision, Bil'am 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; Yeshayahu 2:1; Yechezkel 38:16; etc.). This time, his perception of God's words is complemented by KNOWLEDGE of the Most High. Bil'am 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.


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

All of Bil'am's prophecies see progressively farther into the future. First he pointed out that Israel is God's portion and inheritance, and 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, Bil'am 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, Bil'am'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 Bil'am's perceptive eyes.

Next time, we will continue to examine the structure of this most unusual Parasha and consider how it appropriately introduces the incident of the "daughters of Moav" at its conclusion, as well as the zealousness of Pinchas that constitutes the opening of next week's reading.

Shabbat Shalom