The Talmud has the following intriguing statement that ‘Moses wrote his book as well as those of Balaam and Job’ (Baba Batra 14b). Indeed, in ancient times chapters 22 to 24 of the Book of Numbers were known as Sefer Bil’am, ‘the Book of Balaam’, perhaps an indication of the early rabbis’ underlying assumption that the Torah was compiled from disparate sources.
Sidra Balak begins with King Balak sending Balaam to curse the Israelites, and the story ends with him blessing them instead. Balak argues that Balaam’s power is great both in blessing and cursing. Then why does he not ask Balaam to bless his own people instead of cursing the Israelites?
The picture of Balaam is uneven in both Biblical and Rabbinic sources. On the positive side, Balaam is an authentic prophet on par with Moses. He is depicted as knowing God by the name Y-H-V-H. He alone could tell exactly when God was angry. Whereas Moses did not know when God would speak with him until God actually spoke, Balaam knew in advance. When God spoke to Moses, Moses stood, but Balaam lay down when God spoke to him. There was even a suggestion that his utterances should find a place in the Shema; instead they had an honoured place in the Ma Tovu, the beginning of every synagogue service. The Biblical account also highlights his moral stance as a man you cannot bribe.
In post-Biblical sources, the emphasis is very much on the negative side. Even the New Testament depicts Balaam as the embodiment of unholy ambition and an example of apostasy (2 Peter 2:15).The Book of Joshua already describes Balaam as a kosem (diviner), and the rabbis add sorcerer and magician for good measure. He is also called ha-rasha, the wicked one, who never repented and is continuously punished in Gehinnom in boiling semen. As far as his blessings are concerned, the sages believed that ‘better is the curse of Ahijah the prophet than the blessing of Balaam’. They also said that ‘Israel enjoys blessings in this world because of the blessings of Balaam, but the blessings with which the Patriarchs have blessed them are preserved for the World-to-Come’. They also mock Balaam as a seer who cannot see since his talking donkey has a better vision than that of her owner. The rabbis also point out that the same donkey carried Abraham to the akedah, Moses down to Egypt, and in the future would carry the Messiah into Jerusalem. They further taught that ‘if one sees a donkey in a dream, one should expect salvation’.
So, who was Balaam? Was he a person of great intellectual insight or had he no true character whatsoever? Was he a person endowed with great talents who misused them? Was he an opportunist who would sell his own grandmother if there was money to be made? Was he righteous or wicked? One rabbinic tradition suggests that Balaam was blind in one eye. The sages point out that every human being needs two eyes: one to perceive the greatness of the Creator, and the other to behold his own humbleness and insignificance. Balaam knew of the greatness of God (Num.24:16), but he could not see his own insignificance and therefore was arrogant. His words of blessing, however, remain his greatest memorial. Words of poetry and wisdom, not uttered by our teacher Moses, but by a non-Jewish seer or magician.
Rabbi Douglas Charing
Director of the Jewish Education Bureau and Visiting Rabbi to the Southport Reform and Bradford Synagogues
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.