A Change of Heart
Bemidbar 22 describes how Balak, the King of Moav, asks Bilam to curse the Children of Israel. Bilam consults with Hashem who flatly refuses him permission and commands him:
לֹא תֵלֵךְ עִמָּהֶם לֹא תָאֹר אֶת הָעָם כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא.
God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people; for they are blessed.”
Upon hearing Bilam's reply, Balak tries his luck again, sending a second entourage to persuade Bilam to curse the nation. Despite Hashem's earlier refusal, Bilam again seeks Hashem's approval, and somewhat surprisingly, this time he receives the opposite response:
וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל בִּלְעָם לַיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה.
God came to Balaam at night, and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak to you, that you shall do.”
What makes Hashem change His mind? Why, this time around, does Hashem allow Bilam to go with the messengers? Did something occur in the interim to affect His decision?
A Second Change of Heart
More perplexing than Hashem's initial position reversal, though, is Hashem's reaction when Bilam acts on Hashem's permission. Immediately after Bilam departs with the Moabites, we are told that Hashem is filled with wrath ("וַיִּחַר אַף אֱלֹהִים כִּי הוֹלֵךְ הוּא"). How is this reaction to be understood? Why is Hashem angry if Bilam is simply following His orders? As Abarbanel asks in his eighth question on the chapter:
אם הוא יתברך הרשה את בלעם ללכת, ואמר לו: "אם לקרא לך באו האנשים קום לך אתם", איך אחרי שהלך נאמר: "ויחר אף אלהים כי הולך הוא ויתיצב מלאך י״י בדרך לשטן לו", והוא לא הלך אלא ברשותו ובמאמרו?!
Angel and Talking Donkey
Bilam's miraculously talking donkey and his encounter with the angel are, for many, the most memorable part of the story, but also one of its most perplexing:
- Why does Hashem decide to relay His message to Bilam in this manner rather than straightforwardly expressing His anger?1 Was making a miracle (enabling the donkey to both see the angel and to speak) really necessary in order to communicate His point?2
- Given Hashem's anger at Bilam, the reader expects that at the end of the encounter there will be some change in Hashem's instructions or in Bilam's actions. Yet, the angel simply reiterates Hashem's earlier command almost verbatim, and Bilam proceeds exactly as before (see table below). If so, what was achieved by this entire episode?3
|פסוקים כ'-כ"א (לפני הפגישה)||פסוק ל"ה (בסוף הפגישה)|
|וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה.||וַיֹּאמֶר מַלְאַךְ י״י אֶל בִּלְעָם לֵךְ עִם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְאֶפֶס אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תְדַבֵּר.|
|וַיֵּלֶךְ בִּלְעָם עִם שָׂרֵי בָלָק|| |
וַיֵּלֶךְ עִם שָׂרֵי מוֹאָב
Obedient Servant or Devious Plotter
From reading our story alone, one might get the impression that Bilam is a positive character.4 He is the epitome of the obsequious servant, never acting without first consulting Hashem5 and always following Hashem's directions.6 He merits prophecy7 and consistently refers to Hashem using His proper name (the Tetragrammaton or שם הויה), suggesting that Bilam recognized Hashem's supreme authority.
וְלֹא אָבָה י״י אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל בִּלְעָם וַיַּהֲפֹךְ י״י אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְּךָ אֶת הַקְּלָלָה לִבְרָכָה כִּי אֲהֵבְךָ י״י אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
Nevertheless Hashem your God wouldn’t listen to Balaam; but Hashem your God turned the curse into a blessing to you, because Hashem your God loved you.
Contrary to the obedient profile of Bilam found in our story, this verse implies that Bilam had headed to Moav with a plot of his own to curse the Children of Israel and that Hashem needed to overturn this nefarious plan. At the end of Bemidbar, Bilam makes another cameo appearance, and it, too, makes one question his innocence. Bemidbar 31:8 states that Bilam was killed together with the Midianite kings in the war waged against them by Israel, and Bemidbar 31:16 may provide a justification for his death:
הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם לִמְסׇר מַעַל בַּי״י עַל דְּבַר פְּעוֹר וַתְּהִי הַמַּגֵּפָה בַּעֲדַת י״י.
Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against Hashem in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of Hashem.
This verse implies that it was due to Bilam's counsel that the Midianites induced the nation to sin with Baal Peor. As such, Bilam emerges here, not as a faithful servant, but as a devious schemer, plotting the downfall of Israel.
How might these stories and verses be reconciled? Which story portrays the "real" Bilam? Should one re-read the original narrative in light of Bilam's later actions and Moshe's account, or reinterpret the later verses in light of his earlier ostensible obedience?9
Several smaller questions might shed light on the above issues:
- "לֹא תָאֹר אֶת הָעָם כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא" (22:12) – When Bilam conveys to the first set of messengers Hashem's initial refusal to let him go, he relays only part of Hashem's response, omitting that he may not curse the nation since they are blessed. Is this omission significant? Why might Bilam have kept this fact to himself? Alternatively, is it possible that, despite the text's silence, Bilam relayed this point as well?
- "אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים" (22:20) – This language appears extraneous. Why does Hashem add the condition, "if the men have come to summon you"? Is it not obvious that they came to summon Bilam?
- Disappearing officers (22:22-34) – Though Bilam departs with Moabite officers (22:1), there is no mention of them throughout the angel-donkey episode. To where did they disappear? Is it possible that though they are absent from the text, they, too, witnessed the incident?