Of all the biblical characters, one of the most intriguing is a man named Bilam. Despite the fact that he does not seem to "walk with God", he is a seer, a prophet, and is privileged to hear and see much more than other men. At the point Bilam is introduced, the fear of the Israelites has spread to neighboring countries. The story of the Exodus has apparently traveled far and wide; as a nation that enjoys divine protection, the Jews have become an obsession of the nations that occupy the area surrounding what would soon be called the Land Of Israel.
And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moav was very afraid of the People, because they were many; and Moav was distressed because of the People of Israel. And Moav said to the elders of Midian, 'Now shall this company lick up all who are around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.' And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moavites at that time. He sent messengers therefore to Bilam, the son of Beor, to Petor, which is by the river of the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt; behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. (Bamidbar 22:2-5)
Bilam was chosen as the conduit to curse Israel. Apparently, he enjoyed a stellar reputation: Balak's emissaries travelled quite far to procure Bilam's services; they believed that he was uniquely qualified for this task. In fact, there are even biblical commentaries who share this high regard for Bilam's skills. Rabbinic literature describes Bilam, son of Beor, as a singular prophet for the non-Jewish world, on the same level of prophecy as Moshe, prophet for the Jewish People.
There never arose in Israel a prophet like Moshe, but among the nations of the world there did arise; and who is that? Bilam son of Beor. (Midrash Tanaim Dvarim chapter 34)
The Rabbis even enumerate ways that Bilam's prophesy may have been greater than Moshe's; for example, Bilam was capable of anticipating when he would receive a prophetic vision.
This position seems somewhat problematic in light of certain biblical passages. The first and foremost statement regarding the uniqueness of Moshe's prophecy is made by God Himself: When Miriam presumptuously equates her own stature as a prophetess with that of Moshe, God makes it perfectly clear: Moshe's prophesy is on a completely different level, unequalled in human experience:
And they said, 'Has God indeed spoken only by Moshe? Has he not spoken also through us?' And God heard it. And the man Moshe was very humble, more than any other man upon the face of the earth. And God said suddenly to Moshe, and to Aharon, and to Miriam, 'Come out you three to the Tent of Meeting.' And the three came out. And God came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the Tent, and called Aharon and Miriam; and they both came forth. And he said, 'Hear now my words; If there is a prophet among you, I, God, will make myself known to him in a vision, and will speak to him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moshe, for he is the trusted one in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, manifestly, and not in dark speech; and he behold the form of God. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moshe?' (Bamidbar 12:2-8)
The Torah attests that there was never a prophet in Israel of the stature of Moshe:
And there has not arisen since in Israel a prophet like Moshe, whom God knew face to face. (Dvarim 34:10)
Despite these statements, the rabbinic tradition persists: "There never arose in Israel a prophet like Moshe, but among the nations of the world there did arise - Bilam son of Beor." The Rabbis even enumerate ways that Bilam's prophesy may have been greater than Moshe's; for example, Bilam was capable of anticipating when he would receive a prophetic vision.
PROPHET FOR PROFIT
The Midrash ultimately concludes that Bilam was like a servant of the king, and therefore privy to certain intimate details that remained hidden from even a great friend of the king.1 Nonetheless, the very comparison is disturbing. Moshe was the most modest man who ever lived; presumably, he had the smallest ego, and was God's most selfless, devoted servant.2 In contrast, Bilam gives the impression of arrogance, and displays willingness to deviate from God's command for financial gain.3
An analysis of the verses leaves us with the impression that Bilam relished the opportunity to curse the Jews - either for ideological or for financial reasons. Despite his reputation, he seems not only far from the prophetic ability of Moshe, he seems inferior to others as well.
When Bilam is first approached he is asked to curse the Israelites, we quickly learn that this is no simple task for him. He needs to consult:
Come now therefore, I pray you, curse this People for me; for they are too mighty for me; perhaps I shall prevail, that we may defeat them, and that I may drive them out of the land; for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed. And the elders of Moav and the elders of Midian departed with divination in their hand; and they came to Bilam, and spoke to him the words of Balak. And he said to them, 'Lodge here this night, and I will bring back word to you, as God shall speak to me'; and the princes of Moav stayed with Bilam. (Bamidbar 22:6-8)
Whereas Bilam must wait for the night, in hope of a message, one of the elements which God stressed as evidence of the superior level of Moshe's prophecy was his ability to prophesize during waking hours:
And he said, Hear now my words; If there is a prophet among you, I, God, will make myself known to him in a vision, and will speak to him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moshe, for he is the trusted one in all my house. (Bamidbar 12:6- 7)
Still, remarkably, God appears to Bilam; the message is forthcoming:
And God said to Bilam, You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the People; for they are blessed. (Bamidbar 22:12)
The suggestion to curse the Jews is shot down. God says two things to Bilam: first, 'you shall not go', and second, 'you shall not curse'. Then, the reason: 'for they are blessed'. When relaying the answer, Bilam neglects to relate the entire prophesy; he very selectively says:
And Bilam rose up in the morning, and said to the princes of Balak, 'Go to your land; for God refuses to give me leave to go with you.' (Bamidbar 22:13)
He says only that he cannot go. He neglects to say that he cannot curse the Jews; for that matter, he does not tell them that the Jewish People are blessed - implying that no one can curse them, and the entire venture is folly.4
Despite God's very clear statement, when Balak's emissaries return, Bilam enters into two-sided negotiations - with the messengers on the one hand, and God on the other:
And Bilam answered and said to the servants of Balak, 'If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not transgress the word of the Almighty, my God, to do less or more. Now therefore, I beg you, remain you also here this night, that I may know what God will say further to me.' (Bamidbar 22:18- 19)
Despite the previous rejection Bilam thinks it worthwhile to try again:
And God came to Bilam at night and said to him, 'If the men come to call you, rise up, and go with them; but only that word which I shall say to you, that shall you do.' (Bamidbar 22:20)
The nuances are critical, and Bilam ignores them. God says that he should accompany the emissaries "if the men come to call you" - but that is not what these men do. They did not really come for him, they came for him to curse the Jews.5 This is the direct result of Bilam's failure to repeat God's earlier instructions in their entirety. Bilam "forgot" to mention that the Jewish People were un- cursable, that he will be unable to fulfill Balak's request because the Jews are blessed. Had he mentioned this part of the message, the emissaries would not have returned "to call on him".
God treats man as he wishes to be treated; when a person chooses a path, God facilitates. Bilam wanted to go with these men; he wanted to curse the Jewish People. Had he truly wished to heed the Word of God as it was revealed to him, he would not have been presented with a second opportunity to go on Balak's mission. He could have faithfully and fully transmitted his first divine message, or informed the emissaries on their second visit what God had communicated to him. Even if the men had come seeking honest counsel, seeking Bilam's insight and vision, he had no good reason to accompany them; this was the content of God's second communication, the part that Bilam's selective hearing screened out.6
Bilam enthusiastically sets out on his mission. God is understandably upset:
And Bilam rose up in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moav. And God's anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of God stood in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his donkey, and his two servants were with him. (Bamidbar 22:21-22)
A TALKING DONKEY
Along the way there is an epiphany, but the great seer is blind. He cannot see the danger that looms before him; he cannot sense that God is displeased with him. But someone - or, to be more precise, something - can see:
And the donkey saw the angel of God7 standing on the path, and his sword drawn in his hand; and the donkey turned aside out of the path, and went into the field; and Bilam struck the donkey, to turn it to the path. But the angel of God stood in the pathway of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. And when the donkey saw the angel of God, it pushed itself to the wall, and crushed Bilam's foot against the wall; and he struck her again. And the angel of God went further, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when the donkey saw the angel of God, it fell down under Bilam; and Bilam's anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with a staff. And God opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Bilam, 'What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?' (Bamidbar 22:23-28)
The donkey can see that which the seer cannot; the donkey can speak as eloquently as the loquacious prophet. The donkey is an emissary of God, and sees danger where Bilam sees an open road to opportunity, riches and fame. The donkey is the true seer. Bilam, still suffering from blindness, wants to kill the divinely-inspired donkey:
And Bilam said to the donkey, because you have mocked me; I wish there was a sword in my hand, for now would I kill you. And the donkey said to Bilam, Am not I your donkey, upon which you have ridden ever since I was yours to this day? Was I ever wont to do so to you? And he said, No. Then God opened the eyes of Bilam, and he saw the angel of God standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed down his head, and fell on his face. (Bamidbar 22:29-31)
WHO IS THE DONKEY AND WHO THE PROPHET?
Just as God had opened the mouth of the donkey, God (finally) opened Bilam's eyes, enabling him to see what his donkey had seen all along. Clearly, Bilam is not like Moshe; his vision is on a lower level than that of the donkey. And yet, he is granted vision: Just as God can use even an animal, grant it vision and allow it to speak, so, too, God can grant Bilam an epiphany and allow him to speak. This is not evidence of an enlightened, spiritually elevated level; it seems to be a case of God using a particular individual for a specific purpose.8
Bilam was more magician9 than prophet. He bragged about his powers, inviting desperate people to flock to him. Ultimately, his "gift" of prophesy was like that of all the other prophets - in service of the Jewish People. Therefore perhaps he came to curse and ended up blessing.
Rav Zadok haKohen points out a similarity between the prophecies of Bilam and Moshe: Whereas most prophets saw visions, or were given specific words to repeat, God spoke from Moshe's throat.10 Similarly, when Bilam finally received his prophecy, he blessed the People of Israel because God spoke through his lips. Unlike Moshe, Bilam's intention was to curse, not bless. Bilam was a sociopath, and his participation in Balak's plot was motivated by a combination of greed and hatred. God had other plans, and Balak was allowed to pursue his chosen path up to the point that it impacted the Jewish People; at that point, Bilam was used as a tool to bless.11
Comparing Bilam to Moshe seems like a cruel joke: The vast difference in spiritual capabilities, in purity of spirit and purpose, is extreme; the chasm separating the two men cannot be approximated. It seems more appropriate to compare Bilam to his own donkey, but even in that comparison, Bilam falls short: The donkey sees more, understands more, is more loyal to its master. None of this can be said about Bilam. He is remembered for all eternity as a failed anti-Semite, a pathetic Moshe-wannabe who squandered his opportunity for true greatness.
1. Midrash Tanatim Dvarim Chapter 34.
2. The verse cited above, in which we are told that Moshe was the most humble man, is the same verse in which God describes the uniqueness of Moshe's prophecy; presumably these two elements are related.
3. See Rashi's comments on Bamidbar 22:18.
4. There is another subtlety: Bilam speaks of the Eternal, while (only) the Almighty speaks with him.
5. The Seforno Bamidbar 22:22 makes this point, albeit somewhat tersely.
6. See Chizkuni Bamidbar 22:22.
7. Here the name YHVH is used, the donkey sees that which Bilam cannot.
8. See the Drashot HaRan, drash 5.
9. See book of Joshua 13:22: Also Balaam, the son of Beor, the soothsayer, did the people of Israel slay with the sword among those who were slain by them.
10. For more on this see my book Explorations Parshat Dvarim page 407 especially footnotes 1,2. See Zohar Dvarim 265a.
11. Rav Zadok Pri Zadik Parshat Balak.