The story of Bilam is probably best known for the incident of the “talking donkey.” However, there is much more to this story than meets the eye. First, let’s review:
Balak, the king of Moab, feels threatened by the Jews who are advancing through the desert on their way to the Land of Israel. Balak decides that since normal warfare does not work against the Jews, he will hire the non-Jewish prophet Bilam to curse and destroy them.
God tells Bilam that he can join Balak, but is to be bound by God's word. As Bilam travels toward the Jewish people, his donkey balks at the journey. After the donkey stops a third time, Bilam gets angry and threatens to kill the donkey. To his amazement, the donkey responds by speaking. The donkey contends that his obstinacy is only to protect his master, as he points out an angel on the road who was going to kill Bilam.
Bilam continues on, and together with Balak, attempts to curse the Jews. However, God turns these intended curses into blessings. In frustration, Balak sends Bilam back home. However, Bilam offers one last piece of advice: Utilize the women of Moab to seduce the Jewish men and bring them to idol worship. (The particular idol, Ba'al Peor, is worshipped through defecation.1) The Jews are seduced into this worship, and God begins to punish them with a plague. Pinchas courageously stands up to the ringleaders and kills them. The Jews return to God, and the plague stops.
We’ll examine the following issues:
- How does “cursing” someone work?
- How do we understand the whole idea of a talking donkey?
- What would prompt someone to worship with bodily wastes?
- How do we understand the idea of an “evil prophet”?
Power of Speech
To begin, let’s discuss the power of speech. Man is created in the image of God. A most basic quality of God is His ability to create. Therefore, being created in God’s image means that man is a creator. There are many levels of this ability to create. Man can create physical things: bridges, buildings, bombs. Man can create intellectually: art, music, comedy. And man is endowed with the Godly ability to create another human being, through procreation.
What was God's original method of creation? It was through the power of speech, the Ten Utterances2 – e.g. “God said: Let there be light.”3 From this we see that a primary way in which we emulate God is through speech. In fact, the commentators explain that when God breathed into man a living soul” – i.e. a part of God – it was specifically the power of speech.4 Indeed, verbal ability is a fundamental difference between humans and animals.
Yet for every force of good in the world, there is a balancing and opposite force that has potential for evil. In speech, this is reflected through the power of evil ideas, demagogues and false prophets.
This power of speech was enhanced when the Torah was given to the Jewish people. It was then that we became the people of the Book, and more importantly, the people of the Word of God. A Jew is connected to the most basic power of speech, as the ultimate in Godly speech is through words of Torah. Such speech impacts humanity by increasing the presence of God in the world.
This point is emphasized in Genesis 48:22, where Jacob says that he captured the city of Shechem with his “sword and bow.” The commentators explain that “sword and bow” actually refers to two types of prayers; hence Jacob is saying that he was able to accomplish with his verbal expression the same as Esav did with his sword (Genesis 27:40) or Ishmael could with his bow (Genesis 21:20).5
That’s why Balak realized that any attempt to overcome the Jewish people through force would be doomed. Physical force will be always be trumped by the speech of God. Pharaoh’s Egypt was the superpower of the ancient world, but was overcome by the word of God and Moses. Therefore, King Balak chooses to fight fire with fire, and finds in Bilam an antagonist whose powers of evil also transcend the physical realm.
The Sages teach us that Bilam had reached a level of prophecy. A key component of prophecy is the use of speech to amplify the word of God. Thus, Bilam is known as the opposite of Moses. Moses is constantly trying to energize God's mercy.
By contrast, Bilam had the ability to discern the precise moment each day that God is “angry” at the world. At that exact moment, Bilam sought to increase that anger in order to inflict harm.6 This is the ability to curse.
What shapes up is the battle for how the world will relate to spirituality – as a means to grow closer to God's mercy, or as method to acquire power and dominion. Moses uses the prophetic power of speech for good, and Bilam uses it for evil.
The Talking Donkey
In order to preserve free will, God tells Bilam that he can join Balak. However, Bilam is warned that even with choice, the use of his prophetic power of speech against the Jews is limited. When Bilam disregards this warning, an angel blocks his path, and he is warned by the talking donkey.
Donkeys are common in the Torah. Abraham travels to the binding of Isaac on a donkey,7 and Moses returns by donkey with his family to Egypt.8 Even the Messiah is expected to arrive on a donkey.9 What is special about donkeys?
In Hebrew, a donkey is called chamor, which means physicality. A donkey represents the most base, dense part of the world. It is the animal which a human being rides upon and subjugates. Therefore it represents the person who controls his physical impulses and guides them as he desires.
Thus when Bilam abused his power of free choice, he is confronted by his inverse – a completely physical being, which instead of being under human control, now turns the tables and controls the person. This is the comeuppance of a prophet of God who attempts to misuse the word.
The donkey sees an angel in the path, where Bilam cannot. Ironically, the donkey is more attuned spiritually than Bilam himself.
Blessings and Curses
Even after this humiliation of being chastised by a donkey, Bilam continues on in his quest to curse the Jewish people. Yet even though he has the ability to curse, this desire is thwarted. Each time he opens his mouth, he instead blesses the Jews.10 For example, Bilam sought to destroy the synagogues and study halls, but instead he utters the famous words, Ma Tovu,11 which until today is the first prayer that Jews say each morning in the synagogue:
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”12
With this description, Bilam was praising the arrangement of the Jewish camp: Each family’s tent was placed with its door facing away from the public path, thus preserving modesty and dignity.13 Further, Bilam alluded to the great power of Jewish speech for purposes of Torah study and prayer: “tents” refers to the study halls, and “dwelling places” refers to houses of prayer.14
This reversal of Bilam’s original intent to curse is a fulfillment of the promise that God made centuries earlier to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you.”15
The Idol Peor
Finally, when Bilam realizes that it is useless to flout the word of God, he abandons this approach and tries instead the temptation of idol worship. The unusual Peor, worshipped by defecating on it, is the idol of choice.16
Why does such a mode of worship attract anyone, let alone the Jewish people who had lived on a high spiritual plane for 40 years in the desert?
The answer lies in an understanding of the food that the Jews ate in the desert. It was manna, which was fully absorbed into the human body and left no waste.17 If we think about this, it makes perfect sense. Why should God create a human being who eats food and is unable to digest all of it? This is a wasteful and needless expenditure of energy.
Indeed, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden did not eliminate; all food was fully digestible.18 That is the definition of paradise: A world where everything is utilized to its fullest extent. Only in this world do we have a situation where resources and potential are wasted.
The Jews, after 40 years in the desert, were tired of this Garden of Eden. They did not want to be perfect anymore. They wanted to be like regular people, to eat and to defecate. They wanted to be more chamor and less spiritual. Bilam knew exactly what to tempt them with. He presented the Jews with the approach of “eat, drink and eliminate” like normal people. Even more, he sold it to them as a religion – a worship that negates spirituality and celebrates the physical. The Jews, he proposed, could come down from the mountain and be like everyone else.
In doing so, Bilam coined the motto used by assimilationists throughout the generations: “Why should the Jews be spiritual and different?” This, of course, sparked a national tragedy. A plague broke out, and it was only through the brave intercession of Pinchas that the people returned to their senses and ceased the strange worship.
We can now understand another one of Bilam’s curses that was really a blessing:
“[The Jewish] nation will dwell alone, and not be counted among the nations.”19
At first glance, this sounds like a curse of isolation and rejection by the non-Jewish world. But the hidden blessing is that the Jewish people will always maintain their distinct identity, and in that way will be preserved as the eternal nation. This will be accomplished, in part, by the refusal of the rest of the world to accept Israel into the community of nations. One look at Israel’s treatment in the UN, and a long history of anti-Semitism, proves that this is one, albeit painful, way that the Jewish people have indeed managed to preserve their unique national identity.
The Evil Prophet20
We will now address our final question: If Bilam was indeed a prophet, communicating directly with God, how could he have been so evil? After all, as Maimonides says: "Prophecy can only be received by one who is extremely wise and learned, and has mastered proper character traits..."21
This was true for Bilam as well. Otherwise, he could not have merited prophecy.
Rashi22 inquires as to God's purpose in making the evil Bilam a prophet in the first place:
Why did the Holy One rest his Divine Presence upon a wicked gentile? So that the nations of the world should not have an excuse [as to why they didn't serve God]. They would have said, 'If we had prophets, we too would have repented.' So God established prophets for them.
We are left dissatisfied. Did Rashi answer his question? Can't the nations of the world still claim that God didn't play fair? To the Jews, God gave the holy and righteous Moses. But to the gentiles, He gave the evil Bilam!
The answer is that prophecy cannot be achieved in a vacuum. A great person may possess the merit to become a prophet, but will not be able to do so if their nation and generation is not worthy.
Bilam was unable to handle prophecy because he had no adequate nation backing him. The very name “Bilam” is a contraction of b’lo am, meaning “without a nation.”23 God's answer to the nations, according to Rashi, was: "Alright, I will give you a prophet from your finest and most holy. But you will see what will happen to Bilam and how he will transform from holy to evil. Prophecy will corrupt him because the people he is serving are unworthy.”
There are many things in life that we wish we had. But if we were to attain them, would it make us better people, or would it corrupt us? How many stories do we know of people who used to be great and kind, but as soon as they became wealthy, transformed into nasty and selfish beings?
God knows what we can handle, and He gives us all the things we need to achieve our potential in life. Bilam’s downfall teaches us to appreciate what we have, and not to hope for things that may be out of our league. Because if we do, we might just wind up being rebuked by a donkey.
- Talmud – Sanhedrin 60b
- Avot 5:1
- Genesis 1:3
- Genesis 2:7; Targum Onkelos there
- Targum Onkelos; Maharsha (Baba Batra 123a)
- Talmud – Brachot 7a
- Genesis 22:3; see Avot 5:22 which contrasts Abraham to Balaam in a variety of aspects
- Exodus 4:20
- Talmud – Sanhedrin 99a, based on Zechariah 9:9
- Deut. 23:6
- Yalkut Shimoni (Balak 770)
- Numbers 24:5
- Rashi, Numbers 24:2
- Talmud – Sanhedrin 105b
- Genesis 12:3
- Talmud – Sanhedrin 106a
- Midrash – Breishit Rabbati (Parshat Breishit); Ibn Ezra (Deut. 8:4)
- Midrash – Breishit Rabbati (Parshat Breishit)
- Numbers 23:9
- This section is from an essay by Rabbi Boruch Leff, based on the teachings of Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg.
- Fundamentals of Torah 7:1
- Numbers 22:5
- Talmud – Sanhedrin 105a