Exposition of the Book of Numbers, Part 5

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6)

Question: I heard in school about how the Rabbis said that Bilam was the non-Jewish answer to Moses. I was taught that the goyim were given a prophet on the level of Moses in order to take away the excuse they could have used, “if we only had someone like Moses to guide us…” But we also have a lot of sources that make Bilam out to be a bad guy, about his hatred for the Jews and about his being the poster boy in Pirkei Avos for someone with bad middos. You also mentioned a few weeks ago that Rambam did not feel that Bilam, with all his bad Middos, could have been fit to be a Navi. How do you resolve this?

Answer: In short, I would say that Balaam may have been worthy, but he failed miserably.

The Torah is neither a history book nor an anthology of biographies. Rather, it is a collection of stories, mostly concerning the most refined personalities, that impart eternal lessons of ethical and moral value. When we read about Abraham, for instance, we only learn about a smattering of events that happened over the course of his long life, but the critically common factor in all of those stories is how he excelled when put to the test. In a minority of situations, the Bible describes someone who had potential but failed, all in order to teach us how not to be. The best example is the description of King Ahab in Kings I. There, Ahab is shown to possess many potentially virtuous Jewish characteristics, but nevertheless he utterly fails in his role as the enforcer of God’s law. (More on that later.)

Balaam is similar. Here is how I understand it: Back in the day, Abraham’s teachings were not limited to his students among the children of Israel. The Bible describes the souls that Abraham and Sarah “had made” while in Haran, and Isaac and Jacob continued his life’s work of spreading God’s word, i.e., ethical monotheism. Maimonides describes how mankind was originally given six commandments, then a seventh, and then how the patriarchs added certain positive practices, but ultimately all was subsumed by Torath Moshe (Kings and their Wars, 9:1):

Six precepts were commanded to Adam: the prohibition against worship of false gods; the prohibition against cursing God; the prohibition against murder; the prohibition against incest and adultery; the prohibition against theft; the command to establish laws and courts of justice.
Even though we have received all of these commands from Moses and, furthermore, they are concepts which intellect itself tends to accept, it appears from the Torah’s words that Adam was commanded concerning them. The prohibition against eating flesh from a living animal was added for Noah, as Genesis 9:4 states: ‘Nevertheless, you may not eat flesh with its life, which is its blood.’ Thus there are seven mitzvot. These matters remained the same throughout the world until Abraham. When Abraham arose, in addition to these, he was commanded regarding circumcision. He also ordained the morning prayers. Isaac separated tithes and ordained an additional prayer service before sunset. Jacob added the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve. He also ordained the evening prayers. In Egypt, Amram was commanded regarding other commandments. Ultimately, Moses came and the Torah was completed by him.

However, elsewhere Maimonides explains how at Sinai, the Mosaic revelation superseded the previous revelations. (See e.g., Laws of Mourning, 1:1) This meant that from then on, the laws concerning circumcision and eating the sciatic nerve would have different details depending on one’s nationality. Also, the Israelites were entitled to special divine grace and providence as God’s chosen people.

Before Sinai, one could be a perfectly legitimate loyal follower of Abraham’s teachings just by continuing in the tradition that had existed before Moses. Balaam was one of those people. He believed in the God of Abraham. He was maybe even a religious leader of some sort in the days when the world was divided among those who knew God and those who knew Him not. But suddenly, the Israelites, led by Moses, emerged from relative obscurity, from the barren desert and the mud pits of slavery, declaring that from now on there was a new, holier category of people. Yes, there were those who did know God, but there was a higher category: Those who were chosen to be His treasured people among all the nations of the earth. More so, they had been given a new law, one with many more commandments that purposely distinguished them from the other nations and that promised them greater rewards to be reaped for entering into a new covenant with God.

Understandably, there were many people like Balaam, who challenged the Israelites’ alleged new position of privilege, just like certain people among the Israelites challenged the new religion that expelled the firstborn from the priesthood and instead made it the exclusive purview of one tribe, and even with new gradations among that tribe. Why, Balaam thought, did the Israelites deserve to be God’s chosen? After all, he himself, among others, was also on a moral and intellectual level high enough to receive God’s word. It was not fair.

Because God had “reversed [Balaam’s] curse to a blessing,” (Deuteronomy 23:6) you can understand what he originally had against the Jews from his blessings. Take the first blessing, found in Numbers 23:8-10:

How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom the LORD hath not execrated?

He wanted to curse the Jews, because to him they were not God’s blessed people.

For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.

Balaam originally believed that the Jewish people were not in any way remarkable, and therefore undeserving of special consideration.

Who hast counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered the stock of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let mine end be like his!

The people themselves were not any more pious than the other nations, and these themes continue in Balaam’s subsequent blessings.

Thus, this parasha is the story of how one ethical monotheist cast his lot with the Qorah’s and Dathan’s and spies, instead of with the Jethro’s and and the Caleb’s who dutifully accepted God’s word and its consequences, when they were confronted with the fact that God had specifically created a hierarchy of Holiness among mankind. This parasha describes the downfall of someone who had the potential to be a great leader among his own people, and instead, due to his hatred and jealously, caused first the death of the objects of his enmity, and then his own.

Therefore, we see no real contradiction among the descriptions of Balaam’s character. Anything positive our sages and Rishonim had to say about him pertains to the time before he fatefully chose to try to curse Israel; everything negative they had to say about him pertains to the time after. It is no wonder then that another running theme of the story, from the point Balaq initially seeks to hire Balaam until he returns to his land, is specifically the opportunities God gave Balaam to back off. I counted seven, which is the number that also recurs most often in this week’s parasha.

One other important note. Balaam wholeheartedly believed that the Israelites were no better than others, and encouraged Balaq to put Israel to the test in order to show God that it was so. It nearly worked. When Phineas, the very heir to the most enviable position of chosenness among the chosen people, killed Zimri, he prevented the rest of his brethren from falling into the assimilationist trap that Balaq had set under Balaam’s counsel. It was only because the Israelites kept God’s commandments that they deserved the divine protection promised in the covenant. When they would fail to maintain the standards required of the chosen people, then indeed, they would lose that protection, giving Balaam a sense of victorious satisfaction.


5 thoughts on “Exposition of the Book of Numbers, Part 5

  1. Pingback: Exposition of the Book of Numbers, Part 1 |

  2. Pingback: Exposition of the Book of Numbers, Part 3 |

  3. Pingback: Exposition of the Book of Numbers, Part 4 |

  4. Pingback: Exposition of the Book of Numbers, Part 6 |

  5. Pingback: Parasha Notes: Yithro 5779 | Avraham Ben Yehuda

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