The Torah’s gaze leaves the Children of Israel, who are busy fighting their way to the Promised Lands and records a story that took place away from the Israelites’ camp and presumably without their knowledge. It’s the first time that Moses was not an eyewitness to the events occurring during his tenure as leader.
The focus of the narrative is on an enigmatic individual Bilam, A resident of Mesopotamia, he was said to have achieved some success as a sorcerer, supposedly imbued with the power to bless and to curse. Because his lineage is traced back to Laban, Jacob’s deceitful father in law, some traditional commentators have used his name to describe false prophets and others as the embodiment of evil. In the Talmud, he is one of the commoners whose behavior had been so beyond the pale, that he was granted no share of the afterlife, the World to Come, condemned to eternal suffering, a fate described with graphic eloquence. Christians believed that the name Bilam was used by the redactors of the Talmud to disguise Talmudic invectives about Jesus. It was another excuse, of doubtful veracity, for the Church and anti Semites to excoriate that Talmud, which they have burned, confiscated, censored, put on trial and destroyed by flame.
Bilam was approached by agents of Balak, the King of Moab. The Torah teaches that Moabites’ were descendants of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters, a most dubious heritage. The Israelites were marching towards the Promised Land and having conquered the lands of the Amorites and the peoples of The Bashan, Moab was their next destination., The Moabites were frightened, and for good reason. In a very short time the Israelite fighters had built a rather impressive reputation, achieving great military victories. Balak knew that Bilam could and hopefully would imprecate disaster on the Israelites, thus granting his people reprieve from the Israelite juggernaut.
The source of Bilam’s powers is unclear. Moses did not have the power to curse or to bless; his efficacy was only through God. Some traditional commentators have described him as a prophet to the gentile nations, comparable to Moses, but still his inferior.
Most surprisingly, Bilam had an intimate relationship with God, to whom he turned for counsel. God was not pleased. He told Bilam: “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people; for they are blessed”. Bilam complied and turned down the offer. Balak however was very, very persistent. Bilam was equally adamant; he could not do anything without God’s approval; conversely he could only do what God allowed.
Eventually, God gave Bilam permission to go with the Moabites: “If the men come to summon you, arise and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you – that shall thou do”. In the morning Bilam saddled his she-donkey and went with Balak’s men, ostensibly to bring ruin onto the Children of Israel. What then follows is a narrative laden with open symbolism and written with sufficient ambiguity to ground many interpretations. Included is one of the most vexing narratives in the Torah.
In the course of the tale, Bilam’s she-donkey speaks to him. The choice of a she-donkey as Bilam’s means of conveyance is amusing, but the idea of a she-donkey talking is astounding. This issue was one of the dividing lines between the Rambamand his near contemporaries. Most medieval commentators abided by the principle that since God was capable of doing anything – that would naturally include giving voice to a donkey. Rambam, who had rejected many so-called miracles, argued that Bilam had only a vision of the loquacious ass; “… And, likewise the whole story of Bilam on the way, and of the she-ass speaking, all this happened in a vision of a prophecy, as it is finally made clear that an angel of the Lord spoke to him, i.e., it was the angel who spoke and not the donkey and therefore it was a vision.”
When he finally arrived at Balak’s camp, Bilam repeated his one major stipulation: he would only act after God’s instructions, not those of Balak. Surprisingly, Balak seemed completely unperturbed by that proviso and confidently escorted Bilam to a plateau overlooking the Israelite encampment. There Bilam instructed him to build seven altars upon each of which he was to sacrifice seven bulls and rams, not an inconsequential offering. That done, and after consulting with God, Bilam blessed, not cursed, the Children of Israel. This sequence repeated itself again, and then again – three times in all – and still Bilam continued to bless the Israelites – because, as he patiently explained to Balak – he could only declaim that which God permitted. In the last of the three blessings Bilam announced what has become one of the most famous liturgical verses: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!” Till this day, Jewish liturgy begins with that exultant phrase uttered by this mysterious seer, “Ma Tovu Ohalaicha Yaakov”.
The story appears to conclude with Bilam and Balak quietly parting ways; one into the sunset; the other into the sunrise.
The narrative suggests nothing to ground Bilam’s eventual notoriety and his vilification in Jewish polemics. He was faithful to the word of God with whom he enjoyed a fairly unique relationship. Only Moses amongst all of his contemporaries could speak directly to God, a privilege denied even to Aaron, the brother of Moses and the High Priest. Yet, all was not as it seemed, for while engaging in the ruse of acclaiming the Children of Israel, he was at the same time encouraging debauchery and immorality among the men of Israel. The Torah records that: “the men folk profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women” The Torah suggests and interpretations agree that the women of Moabwent to seduce the Israelites at the behest of the Bilam.
Therein lays the source of Bilam’s condemnation. He outwardly praised the Children of Israel and seemed to have obeyed God’s will, while covertly conspiring to bring shame and hurt on them; the face of a friend but the soul of a foe, a description that can be ascribed to too many of Israel’s historical enemies. Much like Amalek is regarded as the archetype enemy of the Jewish people, Bilam came to be considered in traditional interpretation as the classic exemplar of the cunning anti Semite, one that professes love of the Jewish people yet harbors the real intention to afflict them with evil.