What’s so bad about Bilaam?
He’s seems like a nice enough guy. A holy man, even!
Now Balak, the king of Moab – for whom our parsha is named – he’s a real villain. He’s the one who wants to destroy the Israelites. Of course, it’s true he tries to hire Bilaam to put a curse them. But that doesn’t automatically make Bilaam a bad guy, does it?
In fact, when Balak’s men come to Bilaam to make the request, he tells them he has to ask God what to do. And when God then tells him not to curse that people, Bilaam immediately refuses and tells the men to leave.
When they come back a second time, promising riches, he tells them:
Even if Balak were to give me his whole house, full of gold and silver, I could not do anything, big or small, contrary to the command of the Lord my God. (Numbers 22:18)
וַיַּעַן בִּלְעָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַבְדֵי בָלָק, אִם יִתֶּן לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ, כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא אוּכַל, לַעֲבֹר אֶת פִּי ה אֱלֹהָי, לַעֲשׂוֹת קְטַנָּה, אוֹ גְדוֹלָה.
Wow – so religious! Bilaam sounds like a perfect saint.
It turns out that God does let Bilaam go this time, but Bilaam makes it clear to Balak that he cannot promise a curse:
I can only utter the word that God puts into my mouth. (Num. 22:38)
הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר יָשִׂים אֱלֹקים בְּפִי אֹתו אֲדַבֵּר.
And guess what? Bilaam ends up blessing the Israelites, much to Balak’s dismay! In fact some of the words of this blessing are preserved in our daily liturgy:
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel! (Num 24:5)
מַה טֹּבו אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב, מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל.
This is no enemy of Israel! This is the author of one of her greatest tributes!
And yet, the rabbis haaaaaaaate Bilaam. For them, he is the epitome of wickedness. They pile on him all the nastiest things they can think of. Including, even, the following unpleasant suggestion from the Talmud:
His donkey said to him…I’ve let you not only ride me during the day, but also sleep with me at night. (Avoda Zara 4b)
אמרה ליה … שאני עושה לך רכיבות ביום ואישות בלילה
Well, as insults go, it doesn’t get much lower than, “You have sex with your donkey.”
So why are the rabbis so anti-Bilaam, when he seems from the plain text of the story to be such a righteous man? Most of the answers come down to the fact that he was willing to ask God again if he could go perform this curse for Balak, after he had already been told by God that this was a bad idea. Didn’t he get it? God said no. So the rabbis suspect that deep down, he really wanted to hurt the Israelites. He was dying to curse them, chomping at the bit, looking for any opening.
But even so, what about the fact that God allows Bilaam to go? Surely Bilaam can’t take the blame for that! It’s pretty clear that he would never defy God openly. If God had said no, he’d never have left.
The rabbis of the Midrash respond to this difficulty with a startling theological statement:
From this, you learn that a person is led down the path that he wishes to go. (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:12)
מִכָּן אַתּ לָמֵד שֶׁבַּדֶּרֶךְ שֶׁאָדָם רוֹצֶה לֵילֵךְ בָּהּ מוֹלִיכִין אוֹתוֹ
Well, this is bizarre! Is the suggestion really that God will tell you anything you want to hear? What kind of God is that, then, and what is the meaning of following God’s will if it is really only an echo of your own deepest desires?
The moral significance of this radical claim may perhaps be discovered by sifting carefully through another rabbinic motif: their constant linking of Bilaam with Abraham.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:19), for example, asks:
What is the difference between the students of our father Abraham and the students of the wicked Bilaam?
מַה בֵּין תַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ לְתַלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע.
…and then goes on at length to explain how different the two figures were – how one was humble and the other haughty, one was rewarded and the other one taken down to the pit of destruction.
The rabbis imagine Bilaam himself drawing this comparison, later, when he proposes to make an offering on “seven altars – I will offer bull and a ram on each altar…”:
“And Abraham only offered a single ram!” (Rashi, v. 23:4)
ואברהם לא העלה אלא איל אחד
It is as if Bilaam is in competition with Abraham, knowing that he stands in Abraham’s shadow and trying to outdo him.
But for all the rabbinic effort to distinguish between Abraham and Bilaam, the Torah itself offers some striking parallels between the two.
First of all, we are told (in Deuteronomy 23:5) that Bilaam is from Aram-Naharayim. This is a place we know from back in Genesis, when Abraham tells his servant to go back to the land of his birth to find a wife for his son, and then we read that the servant “made his way to Aram-Naharayim.” (Genesis 24:10) So Abraham and Bilaam come from the same homeland. They are, in a sense, kinsmen.
And, of course, the whole of the Bilaam story hinges on blessings and curses, which hearkens back to the opening scene in the Abraham narrative, where we read that:
I will bless those who bless you and curse him who curses you. (Gen 12:3)
וַאֲבָרְכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר
This is from the scene where Abraham is told by God, “Go forth!”… just as Bilaam is eventually told by God to “go.”
In fact, it is this scene in which Bilaam finally goes – the very part of the story that he is most criticized for – that has the most pronounced echoes of Abraham:
- Bilaam arose in the morning and saddled his donkey. (Numbers 22:21)
וַיָּקָם בִּלְעָם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת אֲתֹנוֹ
- Abraham arose in the morning and saddled his donkey. (Genesis 22:3)
וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת חֲמֹרוֹ
- He was riding on his donkey, and his two young men were with him. (Numbers 22:22)
וְהוּא רֹכֵב עַל–אֲתֹנוֹ, וּשְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו עִמּוֹ.
- He saddled his donkey and took with him his two young men. (Genesis 22:3)
וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת–חֲמֹרוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת–שְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו אִתּוֹ
- An Angel of the Lord stood on the path to stop him. (Numbers 22:22)
וַיִּתְיַצֵּב מַלְאַךְ ה בַּדֶּרֶךְ, לְשָׂטָן לוֹ
- An Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven…and said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him…” (Genesis 22:12)
וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ ה, מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם… וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר, וְאַל תַּעַש לוֹ, מְאוּמָה…
So the incident for which the rabbis accuse Bilaam of wickedness, of pride, and of following his own murderous instincts under the cover of Divine command… turns out to be an eerie replay of that most difficult chapter in the Abraham story: the Binding of Isaac.
And the Binding of Isaac also begins with God’s calling out of that same command: lech lecha – Go forth!
So of course the rabbis hurry in to show how Abraham was righteous and Bilaam was wicked; that command to go was straight from God while that one was from Bilaam’s own heart; that donkey should have been saddled while that one should have been left alone.
But there is another way that the critique of Bilaam can be read: as a subtle – almost subconscious – critique of Abraham.
Abraham, who like Bilaam, spoke in the language of faith. Abraham, who like Bilaam had the power to deliver blessings or curses. Abraham, who, after all, was only following the voice of God.
We cannot condemn Abraham outright. For he is our father. And his unwavering faith is his greatest virtue, celebrated even by God.
Yet still… the story of the Binding of Isaac has never sat right with us. Was Abraham really supposed to obey that command? Didn’t he jump up a little too quickly to carry it out? Shouldn’t he have known that this wasn’t really what God wanted? Shouldn’t he have protested?
But maybe it wasn’t just a matter of what God wanted. Maybe a part of Abraham didn’t want to protest. Maybe he wanted to show what a great man of faith he was, and was willing to sacrifice his own son to do it.
A person is led down the path that he wishes to go.
God forbid, we could never say such a thing about Abraham.
So instead, we say terrible things about Bilaam. We accuse him of longing for a cursed thing, even though he blessed us. And we condemn him for going, even though God told him to go.
Because he should have known better. Because sometimes, even when you think God is telling you to do something, you don’t do it. Even though it sounds exactly like the call you’ve gotten before – Go forth! – this time, you just know it’s wrong.
And if you don’t, well then we have to wonder, where is this voice of God coming from? Is it really out there, calling to you from somewhere up above? Or is it all in your head?
Be careful walking down this path of destruction – this path you thought God told you to take. For there may be an Angel of the Lord standing in your way, telling you to go no further.
Let’s hope to God you see it in time.