Balaam and the Problem of Other People’s Revelation
Balaam as Greater than Moses (Sifrei)
“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses” says the verse in Deuteronomy (34:10). “But one has arisen among the nations!” protests Sifrei Deuteronomy (357)—Balaam son of Beor, the star of this week’s parasha. This pagan wonder-worker receives disturbing levels of respect, as well as contempt, in Rabbinic tradition. An internationally famous holy man, the Moabite king Balak, hired Balaam to curse Israel, “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6). But Balaam insists he will do nothing but transmit God’s words.
Hinting it might take back its insult to Moses’ supremacy, Sifrei adds that, of course, there isa difference between pagan and Israelite prophecy. But it then digs the hole deeper by offering a list of reasons why Balaam was actually superior to Moses. Balaam recognized God from the start, unlike Moses, baffled by the burning bush. Balaam knew when God would come to him, unlike Moses, surprised by God’s voice. And God came to Balaam even when he lay in a visionary trance, while Moses had to stand waiting in attendance on God like a servant.
Balaam – The Lowest of the Low (Bavli)
If Sifrei raises Balaam so high as to challenge Moses, Bavli Gittin (57a) literally hurls him into a pit of filth. In a startling story about Onkelos, the legendary first translator of the Torah into Aramaic, it explains that Onkelos was a gentile looking to convert to the religion with the best afterlife. Being a magician, he did not hesitate to summon the dead themselves to testify. Like the other recalcitrant spirits, Balaam tells him that Israel is held in the highest repute, but that he should not join them. Asked about his punishment, Balaam reveals that he is tortured with boiling semen in the other world— a punishment that fits a crime not mentioned in our parasha (the seduction of the Israelites by Moabite and Midianite women).
The Contradictory Images of Balaam in the Torah
The Torah itself fully supports both of these starkly opposed pictures, as noted in the short TABS essay, “Is Balaam a Hero or a Villain?” In our parasha, Balaam is a righteous conduit for God’s message who rejects the demands of the powerful and the offer of wealth: ‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not of my own accord do anything good or bad contrary to the LORD’s command. What the LORD says, that I must say.’ (Num. 24:10).
But Balaam is remembered a few chapters later in Numbers 31:16 as a criminal mastermind of sexual transgression, where he is said to have instructed Moabite women to seduce Israelite men, making them “trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so that the LORD’s community was struck by the plague.” Yet at the end of our parasha Balaam quits the scene to return home, and was not present during this seduction. Although the events of Peor are related in Numbers 25, this passage does not mention his reappearance nor does it breathe a word about his involvement. Neither do Deuteronomy 4 or Joshua 22’s summaries of the event even mention him.
There are 70 faces to the Torah, and different parts of Numbers give different testimony in Balaam’s case. Numbers 25 and 31 likely reflect different versions of the crisis of Peor, with variant plots and protagonists.
Balaam as a Buffoon
Balaam’s story never had a single face, even at its first telling. The image of Balaam most people may remember is of a prophetically crippled buffoon, less able than a pack animal to see the angel in front of him, even when he is about to be impaled on its sword. The divine reality is finally explained to him by a she-ass which he was about to beat to death for her desperate attempts to rescue them both and avert catastrophe. In this figure of the victimized prophet, Balaam surely represents the prophet’s opposite number, his blind and vengeful audience.
In fact, Balaam plays both clashing roles in the very same story. Balaam the blind klutz, oblivious to the supernatural, emerges suddenly as he is in the middle of obeying the word he heard directly from God a few hours before. Having rebuffed the request of Balak’s officials because (Num. 22:18), “I cannot disobey the Lord my god in the smallest detail,”he asks and receives permission to take the road to Moab with them. It is in this road that God places the invisible and deadly angel.
Balaam the blind disappears just as suddenly thereafter. The rest of the story revolves around his irresistible vision.
The Difficult Peshat of the Balaam Story
The story’s peshat meaning depicts God moving to destroy a man scrupulously following the revelation he has just received. Theologically and literarily, the text turns against itself. That a visionary Balaam and a steadfast and trustworthy God directly oppose their natures as developed elsewhere is one of the things that make the story so memorable.
We see contradiction, but what we do not see here is simple incoherence, and Neither source-critical analysis nor theological reflection can create harmony.
Rather, both bring out a pointed conflict: the incident of a Balaam so blind he must be shown the divine by an ass is a harpoon in the heart of the great foreign seer.
Here is the threat at the heart of the story: the idea that a foreign holy man with no relationship to Israel was nonetheless widely known to communicate directly with the divine.
It is here, where the story once again turns purposefully against itself, that we see why Balaam must be both exalted and attacked. In the initial visions, God encounters (qr’/qrh, variants of the same root) Balaam at night to deliver a series of blessings. But after this set of oracles the narrator denigrates Balaam’s previous revelations by calling them by the disparaging term “omens” (nechashim): “Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, did not go to encounter (qr’) omens as before, but turned his face toward the wilderness.”— where he sees Israel, exactly as he did in each previous oracle. But what is so wrong with Balaam’s form of prophecy, the “encounter” with his divine sources, that it must later be dismissed as mere fortune-telling?
The Oracles of Balaam
Balaam’s oracles have long been recognized as among the most linguistically difficult in the Torah. The great Israeli linguist Shlomo Morag argued that Balaam’s language was archaic, noting parallels with the ancient Canaanite poetry of Ugarit. By contrast, philologists like Tur-Sinai and Rendsburg argued that their flavor was foreign, pointing to Aramaic-like language, summed up in the oracular statement that Balaam came “min-Aram,” itself an icon of his foreignness in its Aramaic-like shape (unlike Aramaic, the more typical Hebrew form would be me-Aram). Yet while alien, his language shows neither consistent nor obvious Aramaism (there are, for example, no distinctively Aramaic verb forms, noun forms, or syntax).
The Balaam Inscriptions at Deir Alla
Digging at Deir Alla in the Transjordanian region of Gilead in the 1960s, Dutch archaeologists uncovered a previously unknown artifact from Balaam’s world: a new revelation about the pagan prophet himself. Painted on plaster just as God commands Moses to do with the Torah, the crumbled fragments preserve a non-Israelite scripture:
…. The Book (spr) of Balaam, son of Beor, seer (ḥzh) of the gods. The gods came to him at night and communicated to him the oracle of El. They said to Balaam, son of Beor, “Thus [the gods] will do (p’l) …”
Stricken with an ominous message, he weeps and fasts, until his people (‘am) come to him in the morning to ask what is wrong and he reveals the divine judgment directly to them.
What is most stunning about Deir Alla’s non-biblical sefer of Balaam is that not only its language but its mode of revelation evoke what is strangest about our Balaam. The language of the inscription includes both the presence and absence of important Aramaic-like features, leading to intense scholarly disagreement until the Semitist John Huehnergard showed how placing Balaam’s language explained the apparent conflict. It is not that the text is Aramaic, Canaanite, or some mishmash of the two, but that it represents an older stream of language from which the two had not yet diverged. From the viewpoint of Northwest Semitic dialects, Balaam in fact does speak from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away. What connects these disparate linguistic observations is the words’ other-worldliness: Balaam’s language is just strange enough to evoke another space and time while being basically comprehensible.
Balaam’s Vision of God
This is true of how he sees god as well. That the Lord came directly to Balaam at night was a feature striking enough to draw the attention of the Rabbis, and an invidious comparison with Moses, who saw God during the day. In the inscription too the gods (’lhn) come to Balaam at night, emphasizing his distinctive capacity for vision (ḥzh in both the inscription and Torah passage). They reveal what they will do (p‘l, a term alien to Aramaic but shared between inscription and Torah): a terrible judgment on the world. Like the inscription, our parasha’s oracles speak of multiple divine speeches from El and Shadday (a plural group, the šaddayîn, in Deir Alla) as well as God (’elohim).
The language with which our parasha describes Balaam and his distinctive power to see god is shared in key ways with an independent ancient account of revelation that is neither Hebrew nor Israelite. Historically, this Balaam was a prophetic hero in the Transjordan by the 8th century BCE, the date of the shrine on which his inscription was written.
How far back did Balaam’s renown and authority go? What would the audiences of Israel and Judah have known of this neighboring Moses, with his other versions of revelation? Quite a lot, as it turns out, but not always the same thing.
Thomas Mann begins his great biblical novel Joseph and his Brothers with a remarkable piece of scriptural science fiction. What stories would the Patriarchs themselves have told about their own past? At the very point where our own legends begin, the legendary founders would surely have remembered just as many, going just as far back, that are now lost to us. Mann refers to “the well of the past,” a bottomless source with depths that go back further the further you look: every past has a past of its own.
A careful look at the biblical account of Balaam shows that the same is true of this material: it too has a past of its own that we may begin to recover with the help of source criticism, a careful look at diverse rabbinic tradition, and the Deir Alla inscription. More specifically, the Balaam’s legend points to the diversity, and thus the threat, of prophetic and divine sources of knowledge. Parashat Balak presents him as such a powerful source of external authority because he is not one of us, capable of giving us truths from outside. Other parts of the Tanach present him as a seducer and an object of hate, perhaps for the very same reason. He is a symbol of the Torah’s disturbing but purposefully multiple sources, which Sifrei and Gittin so memorably pull apart but which are woven together in the Torah itself. As someone else’s revealer enshrined in our own scripture, he helps reveal the Old Testament of the Old Testament.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
June 29, 2014
November 12, 2019
Dr. Seth Sanders is Associate Professor of Religion at Trinity College. He holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. from Harvard University. Seth is the author of The Invention of Hebrew and co-editor of Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series