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Requiem for Bilam

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Requiem for Bilam


By Rav Michael Hattin





            Last week, we read of the remarkable Israelite victory over Sichon and Og, the ominous Amorite kings who together held the Transjordanian lands, from the southern Dead Sea to the northern Chermon range, under their tyrannical sway.  Swiftly 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.  The Moavites and their king, still smarting from their own earlier crushing loss of territory at the hands of Sichon, suddenly began to feel even more threatened by the Israelite tribes now at their doorstep.  But with the unexpected demise of Sichon and Og, regarded as the regional superpowers, the people of Moav and their nomadic Midianite kin quickly abandoned any hope of successfully engaging the Israelites in battle.  Instead, they opted for a more supernatural approach: the imposition of a deadly execration upon Israel by the well-known Eastern seer Bilam.


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.  He sent emissaries to Bilam son of Be'or… (Bemidbar 22:2-5).


Hailing from the town of Petor on the banks of the distant Euphrates, Bilam was a well-known personality in the occult circles of the region.  The efficacies of his curses and blessings have not only gained him a unique reputation, but have also provided him with a substantial and steady source of income.  Graciously, Bilam received the Moavite and Midianite delegation and anxiously prepared to embark on the lucrative mission of checking Israel's advance with his magic formulas, but the Deity's permission was not immediately forthcoming: "The Lord said to Bilam: 'you shall not go with them, you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed!'" (22:12). 




            Balak, however, was not easily dissuaded.  He surmised (not without grounds) that Bilam hesitated because he desired a higher price for his services, and so the king sent a more respected mission eastwards.  This time, God relents, but not without making it absolutely clear to Bilam that he will not be able to pronounce his spells of doom.  Thus, although Bilam saddled his ass and accompanied Balak's messengers westwards, he provided them no guarantees: "…though Balak might give me his palace full of silver and gold, I am unable to transgress the word of God my Lord to do either small or great things…" (Bemidbar 22:18).


            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.  In the passages that follow, Bilam tries mightily to execrate Israel, but time and time again he is forced instead under Divine duress to exalt them.  The disappointment of his patron Balak, who is himself involved in the elaborate occult preparations, is palpable, but Bilam is powerless to alter his course.  As the Parasha unfolds, Bilam, Balak and those around them come to the unmistakable conclusion that neither incantations nor magic can affect the ineluctable destiny of the people of Israel, for their fate is in God's hands alone.


            Taken together then, the remarkable victory over Sichon and 'Og of last week's Parasha and the utter inability of Bilam to stem the Israelite tide in our reading, both point to a single truth: the God of Israel is neither bound by the statistical probabilities of the scientists nor is He subject to the speculative pronouncements of the prognosticators.  According to all of the empirical data, Israel should not have trounced the devastating forces of the Amorite kings who held all of the lands east of the Jordan under their suffocating aegis.  But defeat them they did, astounding not only themselves but all of the adjacent Canaanite city-states and the petty Transjordanian kingdoms as well.  As for Bilam, his spellbinding prowess was celebrated throughout the eastern lands, but try as he might, he could not confine the God of Israel with his diablerie.  All-powerful and absolute, incorporeal and of perfect oneness, God alone determines the fate of nations and guides the history of His people Israel.


            It is significant to note that alone among all of the parashiyot of Sefer Bemidbar, Parashat Balak contains not a single law or enjoinder, whether provisional or permanent.  There are no mitzvot recounted in its 104 verses that for the most part (excluding the Parasha's tragic conclusion) constitute in the Torah scroll a single uninterrupted section.  Instead, Parashat Balak is wholly devoted to the narration of one episode in the life of the people of Israel, describing an oblique encounter that indirectly takes place between them and those that telekinetically seek their harm.  This is a sure indication that the overarching message of the Parasha concerns neither laws of conduct nor ritual observances but rather profound principles concerning God's governance of the world and His unique relationship with the people of Israel. 




            At Balak's impatient behest, Bilam attempts upon his arrival 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 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.


            Thus it is that Bilam'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, Bilam 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.




            Significantly, the episode of Balak and Bilam is referred to in at least five other places in the Tanakh (though we shall only consider three of these), highlighting the importance of the matter.  Towards the end of Sefer Yehoshua, Moshe's now-aged successor recalls the event, in the context of his schematized history of the people of Israel and his parting charge to them to observe God's statutes faithfully:


(Thus says God the Lord of Israel): I took your ancestors out of the land of Egypt and you came to the sea.  The Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Sea of Reeds.  They cried out to God and He placed a thick, dark cloud between you and the Egyptians, and brought the sea upon them so that they were covered.  Your own eyes saw what I did to the Egyptians, and you dwelt in the wilderness for a great many days. 


I then brought you to the land of the Amorites who dwelt on the eastern side of the Yarden and they fought against you, but I delivered them into your hands so that you possessed their land, and I destroyed them before you.  Balak the king of Moav arose to fight against Israel, and he summoned Bilam son of Be'or to curse you.  But I desired not to hearken to Bilam, and he blessed you instead, so that I saved you from his clutches. 


You traversed the Yarden and came to Yericho.  There, the lords of Yericho battled against you – the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Chittites, Girgashites, Chivites, and Yevusites – but I delivered them into your hands…I gave you a land that you did not labor for,  so that you dwelt in cities that you did not build and consumed  the produce of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.  So now, fear God and serve Him in sincerity and truth and remove from your midst the gods that your ancestors worshipped in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, and serve God! (Yehoshua 24:6-14).


We note that in Yehoshua's remarks, the incident of Balak and Bilam is cited in its correct chronological context, sandwiched between the victory over the Amorite kings and the victory over Yericho.  The Yehoshua reference therefore reinforces our earlier analysis: the people of Israel enjoy a unique relationship with God so that when they are faithful to Him, they need not fear tyrants or foes.  Even challenges otherwise insurmountable, be it mighty Sichon and 'Og or else impregnable Yericho, represent no contest when Israel hearkens to His word.   




            Mention of the episode comes up again in the Book of Judges, as Yiftach the Giladite (c. 11th century, BCE) prepares to battle the Ammonites over their unjust land claim to the Transjordan.  The Ammonites (and their Moavite kin) contested the Israelite settlement east of the Yarden, maintaining that the territory really belonged to them.  What they neglected to mention was that three hundred years earlier (!) the territory had been seized from them by Sichon the Amorite king who then lost it when he attacked the Israelites who sought to peacefully traverse his lands.  During all those years, Yiftach reminds the Ammonite king, they had never pressed their claim, only stepping forward now because they sensed Israelite weakness:


And now, are you then better than Balak son of Tzippor the king of Moav, did he strive with Israel, or did he wage war against them?  While Israel dwelt for three hundred years in Cheshbon and in its towns, in Ar'or and in its towns and in all of the cities that are next to the Arnon, why did you never attempt to reclaim the land during that time?  I have done you no harm but you wrong me in inciting warfare.  May God judge this day between the people of Israel and the people of 'Ammon! (Shoftim 11:25-27).


In this context, Yiftach references the events of our Parasha as a kind of warning to the recalcitrant 'Ammonite king, as if to say that Balak himself avoided war knowing that he could not prevail on the battlefield.  The 'Ammonites should therefore learn from their forebears, suggests Yiftach, and follow suit.  Of course, Yiftach mentions the episode of Balak not to his own people but rather to the 'Ammonites, indicating that it was still recalled by the non-Israelite Transjordanian kingdoms three centuries later and a sure sign of its lasting impact!  In Yiftach's communiquי, the Balak episode is not cited as a reminder of the special covenantal relationship between God and Israel, as it is in Yehoshua's remarks, but rather is mentioned as a kind of political brinkmanship calculated to promote regional dיtente.




            The third and perhaps most intriguing mention of the Balak episode occurs in the writings of the 8th century BCE Judean prophet by the name of Mikha.  In a soaring passage denouncing Judah and Israel's injustice and falsehood, idolatry and reckless dependence on other nations, Mikha recalls our Parasha:


O hear that which God proclaims, arise and strive with the mountains, and let the hilltops hear your voice!  Hear O mountains the striving of God, the mighty foundations of the earth, for God has a struggle with his people, with Israel He will argue.  My people what have I done to you and how have I overtaxed you, do declare to Me!  I took you out of the land of Egypt and I redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moshe, Aharon and Miriam.  My people, please recall what Balak the king of Moav planned against you and how Bilam the son of Be'or responded, from the Shittim to the Gilgal, so that you might know the righteousness of God. 


With what shall I approach God and show deference to the Lord of heaven?  Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings or with one year old calves?  Shall God desire thousands of rams or tens of thousands of rivers of oil, shall I offer my firstborn son for my transgression, the fruit of my womb to atone for the sin of my soul?  Man may have declared to you what he thinks is good, but what does God require of you, except to perform justice, to love compassion and to walk humbly with your Lord! (Mikha 6:1-8).

In the above section, the incident involving Balak and Bilam is recalled as an expression of Divine compassion and concern for His people, for He saved them from the machinations of those two.  And did He not earlier take them out of Egypt and liberate them from slavery?  Did He not provide them with inspired and selfless leaders who guided them to the new land?  How insufferable then that His people should have repaid His kindnesses with treachery!


            The concluding section of Mikha's words is most extraordinary.  Continuing the theme, Mikha stresses that while Israel "owes" God, as it were, for His special interest in their welfare, He does not demand a high "price."  Lavish gifts – sacrifices of expensive animals, offerings of precious products, even the presentation of one's own children! – are not what God requires as payment for His services.  Rather, God only asks that we act with justice towards others, have compassion and exercise modest restraint.  In other words, what God asks of us is a reflection of what He has done on our behalf.  The three elements enumerated in the first section are mirrored here exactly: It was HIS concern with justice that precipitated the Exodus from unjust oppression, it was HIS love of compassion that initiated His appointment of our selfless leaders to care for us in the wilderness, and it was HIS intense distaste for ostentatious and shallow posturing that caused the overthrow of the vain and avaricious Bilam and his cohorts.  In this formulation, then, Bilam is exposed for what he truly is: a paradigm of arrogance and condescension who proclaims for all to hear that by his sorcery and magic, he can "walk with God" and ascertain His thoughts.


            In the end, as we have seen, Balak and Bilam are defeated and Israel is victorious.  Our Parasha reminds us, however, that "beating the odds," as Israel uncannily does, is not due to any sort of coincidence or capriciousness but rather due to God's intervention.  Because God has a special interest in our fate, therefore we manage to somehow always survive and sometimes even prosper.  But we should not take that for granted.  Being the objects of God's special concern imposes a correspondingly special burden of responsibility upon us.  God's demands are materially modest in comparison to Bilam's inflated prices.  What He asks of us is that we work hard to improve ourselves and the world around us:  "Man may have declared to you what he thinks is good, but what does God require of you, except to perform justice, to love compassion and to walk humbly with your Lord!"


Shabbat Shalom