This Week's Torah Portion: Spot the False Prophet (Part 38)

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.


Dëvar Torah – Parashath Balaq (Numbers XXII, 2 – XXV, 9)

At the end of last week’s parasha, Israel was approaching the Promised Land. Moshe requested the right of passage from Sichon, powerful king of the Emorim, who denied it. As a result, Sichon’s army was wiped out in battle, and his country conquered. This brought Israel hard against the border of ‘Og, King of the Bashan. He similarly resisted and went down to bitter defeat.

Now, Israel was encamped on the plains of Mo’av (XXI, 21-XII, 1).

Balaq ben Tzippor, King of Mo’av, trembled at the prospect. Sichon had been a conqueror who had taken territory from Mo’av (XXI, 26-28), and ‘Og had also been mighty; what chance did Balaq have against their conqueror?

Balaq’s kingdom enjoyed a political relationship with Midian, native land of Moshe’s in-law’s (the great 19th Century commentator Nëtziv suggests that each of Midian’s five rulers was by turn king of Mo’av. This perhaps finds some support in that Balaq’s father’s name Tzippor is the masculine form of Tzippora, Moshe’s wife).

Balaq, in consultation with his colleagues, decides to meet the threat by engaging the Aramaean Bil‘am ben Bë‘or to curse Israel and to advise how to stop them.

The Talmud (Bava Bathra 15b) lists both Bil‘am and his father among a group of prophets sent by G-d to the nations. Indeed Sanhedrin 105a informs us that Bil‘am was the greatest of these prophets (a find in recent years of a partially preserved inscription from a purported Book of Bil‘am at a Canaanite site in Jordan lends archaeological support to this tradition). As such, the character of Bil‘am could seem to be worthy of some study.

The text of our parasha reveals several serious flaws in that character.

Mendacity and self-deception: When Balaq first seeks Bil‘am’s help, Balaq characterizes his services as follows: Ki yada‘ti eth asher tëvaréch mëvorach va’asher ta’or yu’ar (“For I know that what you bless has been blessed and what you curse will be cursed”). From this, commentators such as Ha‘améq Davar deduce that Bil‘am was engaged in a confidence game. He would use his gift of prophecy to determine who was in line for a Divine blessing, and he would then rush to “bless” the fellow, and when the “blessing” came to pass he would demand a reward. However, his power to curse was of a different order altogether. The Talmud in Bërachoth 7a tells us that there is a brief instant every day when G-d expresses his anger. Bil‘am though his gift of prophecy accessed that instant and channeled it.

The passive participle mëvorach implies that Bil‘am’s pious fraud is an open secret, at least to the cognoscenti, but a comment of the Midrash Rabba is most enlightening. When G-d tells Bil ‘am (ibid., v. 12) that he may not curse Israel, he then asks, “If so, let me bless them!” To this, G-d replied: “They don’t need your blessing.” It would seem from this exchange that Bil‘am had begun to fool himself and to believe his own propaganda.

Egomania: There are several indications that Bil‘am suffered from a terrible case of egomania. We see that Bil‘am’s prophetic vision was a chezyon laila, a “night vision” granted though the general Divine name Eloqim, a very low order of prophecy, in effect a dream (cf. ibid. 8-12 and 19-20). Yet when Bil‘am reports to Balaq, he speaks in the name of Ha-Shem, G-d’s own ineffable name (ibid., 8, 13, 19 et al.) thus “upgrading” the prophecy unwarrantedly and inflating his own importance.

We also see that, despite G-d’s emphatic refusal lo théléch ‘immahem (“You will not go with them!” v. 12), Bil‘am nonetheless persists in trying to wheedle a concession from G-d. G-d’s second statement to Bil‘am qum léch ittam (“arise, go with them”, v. 20) is not a contradiction. As the Ha ‘améq Davar points out, the word ‘im implies full physical and spiritual accompaniment, whereas éth is a purely physical comitative. Despite this, Bil‘am insisted on having it his way, and imagined that he had persuaded G-d to change His mind.

Greed: That Bil‘am was not merely greedy by committing fraud is evident from his words to Balaq’s second group of ambassadors (v. 18): “If Balaq would give me his house full of silver and gold I would not be able to violate the command of Ha-Shem My G-d to do something either something small or great.” This has a pious ring to it until (as Rashi notes) one reflects that no such offer was being made. Bil‘am was telling the literal truth, but in terms of his desires.

The Midrash Rabba already asks the obvious question: Why should G-d give the precious gift of prophecy to such an utter low-life as Bil‘am? The answer (in Rashi’s periphrase) was that it was done to remove any excuse from the nations of the world on the Day of Reckoning that they had been given prophets to instruct and rebuke them as Israel had been. They, too, could have been able to observe the Torah and stay on the straight and narrow. To disprove this notion categorically, G-d sent them Bil‘am, whose final piece of advice to them was to engage in sexual immorality to defeat Israel, an instruction which they followed with alacrity (XXV, 1-9, Rashi after Sanhedrin 106a).

At first glance it hardly seems a fair test. There are certainly decent and honorable non-Jews; the Talmud speaks of the “righteous and pious of the nations” who have a portion in the world to come. What chance of demonstrating uprightness did the nations have if their greatest prophet was a scoundrel like Bil‘am?

The answer, I believe, lies in that very capacity for self-deception exhibited by Bil‘am. Rashi tells us that the Moabites had moral principles until the episode at the end of the parasha; they were not complete innocents under Bil‘am’s spell. Yet it never seems to have occurred to them to ask a simple question: would a prophet of G-d offer such a suggestion? No, they were gullible, and fell in with his advice, presumably because it answered their own deep lusts. Even now when the Christian and Muslim worlds claim comparable moral standards to those of Torah, examples abound of political and religious leaders who abuse the trust of their adherents.

Still, Israel is a “stiff-necked people” (Exodus XXIII, 5). The sons of Israel were not easily convinced by Moshe, nor have they ever been easily swayed. Resistance to the blandishments and torments of 2,000 years of exile prove it. Israel is noted for its emunath chachamim, its faith in the rabbinical sages and leaders over the generations, but this has never been a blind faith.

Indeed, it is arguable that “faith” is a poor translation for the Hebrew word emuna, which implies a quality which requires long training and experience to acquire. Whilst individual rabbis, even great ones, being human, can err (witness Rabbi ‘Aqiva’s endorsement of Bar Kochba) the collectivity of the great rabbis in each and every age are Israel’s guarantee. For this reason we speak of emunath chachamim in the plural rather than emounath chacham in the singular. Those loyal to Torah will always be able to spot a Bil‘am.