Why Was Hashem Angry at Bilam?

Exegetical Approaches

Overview

In explaining Hashem's anger at Bilam, most commentators look to find fault with Bilam.  Thus, Rashbam and others suggest that despite Hashem's warning not to curse the nation, Bilam planned to defy Hashem's will, justifiably arousing His ire.  A second approach similarly vilifies Bilam, but by positing an achronology, it suggests that rather than simply intending to harm the Israelites, Bilam even actively did so, already from the beginning.  When Hashem initially refused Bilam permission to curse Israel, Bilam devised an alternative plan, advising the Midianites to incite the nation to sin so they would no longer merit Divine protection.

However, a minority approach opts not to blame Bilam, but instead to reinterpret the verses describing Hashem's wrath.  Building on the Rambam and others, it suggests that the entire story of Hashem's anger followed by the angel blocking Bilam's donkey's path took place only in a prophetic dream prior to Bilam's actual beginning his journey.  As such, these were not a punitive response to sin, but rather a precautionary warning to ensure that Bilam did not err.  According to this position, at the beginning of the story, Bilam is still a positive character deserving of prophecy, and only later evolves to become evil.

Preemptive Warning

Hashem's wrath was expressed only in a prophetic dream prior to Bilam's departure, and it constituted part of Hashem's response to Bilam's request to join the Moabites.  As such, it was not a punitive reaction to wrongdoing, but only part of a preemptive warning to ensure that Bilam proceeded to act according to Hashem's will.

Bilam's character – According to Rambam, at this point in Tanakh, Bilam is a positive character, loyal and obedient to Hashem's word, as evidenced by his receiving of prophecy.3  As RambamShemonah Perakim 7Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 7:1About R. Moshe b. Maimon claims that one of the requirements for the attainment of prophecy is perfection of moral character, an evil Bilam would be self-contradictory.
The scope of Hashem's response to Bilam – Though it is natural to assume that Hashem's response to Bilam's second request consists of but one sentence, "אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה" (v. 20), RalbagBemidbar 22:13-35About R. Levi b. Gershom, perhaps RambamMoreh Nevukhim 2:42Moreh Nevukhim 2:45About R. Moshe b. Maimon,4 and the position cited by the Malbim posit that all of verses 20-35 were part of Hashem's response to Bilam in his dream.5  As such, Bilam's seeming departure on his journey in verse 21, Hashem's ensuing wrath, and the entire donkey incident, all took place only in this prophetic dream and not in reality.6  Together they served as a visual metaphor which mirrored and reinforced Hashem's verbal warning in v. 20, that Bilam relay only that which Hashem commands him.7
Allegorical anger – According to this reading, Hashem's anger is only part of a prophetic parable, an allegorical way of expressing the consequences that will incur if Bilam veers from Hashem's instructions. As such, it need not be read as a reaction to any previous wrongdoing, but only as a precautionary warning.
Symbolism of the dream's details – The various details relayed in the dream each serve to reinforce Hashem's initial warning message, "קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה":
  • Hashem's anger – Hashem's anger in the dream expresses the wrath that will be unleashed on Bilam if he acts against Hashem's will.
  • Angel and sword – The angel's readiness to kill Bilam highlights the severity of such a transgression, and its potential punishment.
  • Talking donkey – Through the image of a talking donkey, Hashem emphasizes how He controls the speech of all creatures and how Bilam is but a tool in Divine hands, capable of uttering only that which Hashem permits.
Necessity of the warning – According to this approach, Bilam, on the whole, was an obedient servant, with no active intentions of defying Hashem's word, as evidenced by his constant seeking of Divine approval for his actions.8 Nonetheless, his pestering of Hashem in verse 19, despite knowing that Hashem had already forbidden him from cursing, betrayed that Bilam was attracted by the prospect of a huge fee.9 Recognizing that this was a potential stumbling block, Hashem wanted to counter Bilam's desire for riches with a heavy dose of fear.
Does Hashem change His mind? One of the advantages of (and motivations for) this approach is that it presents Hashem as being consistent throughout.  Hashem's permission in verse 20, his wrath of verse 21, and the angel's reiteration of Hashem's permission in verse 3510 all add up to a single message, that although Bilam may go, he must say only that which Hashem tells him.11
Why relay the message through a miraculous event? This position obviates this question, as it assumes that there was no miracle, but only a vision.12 As it is common for prophetic dreams to utilize symbols and metaphors and not just speech, the fact that Hashem chose to do so here is not surprising.
Did the dream accomplish its goal? Bilam heeded Hashem's warning and did not attempt to defy Hashem's will. Thus, even when Balak hints that he is willing to honor Bilam with a handsome reward ("לָמָּה לֹא הָלַכְתָּ אֵלָי הַאֻמְנָם לֹא אוּכַל כַּבְּדֶךָ"), Bilam is not enticed and immediately emphasizes that he has no power other than to say that which Hashem puts in his mouth.13
"וְלֹא הָלַךְ כְּפַעַם בְּפַעַם לִקְרַאת נְחָשִׁים" – This verse should not be read as suggesting that Bilam had been attempting to use magic to circumvent Hashem's will.  Rather, as was his usual wont, he had been offering sacrifices and communing with the Divine in order to seek the Divine word.
"הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם"
  • Rambam in his Commentary on the MishnaCommentary on the Mishna Avot 5:19Moreh Nevukhim 2:45About R. Moshe b. Maimon14 maintains that, at some point, Bilam turned evil.  As a result, he later played an active role in advising the Midianites.15 This would then explain why he was killed during the battle.
  • Alternatively, this position might suggest that, even after our story, Bilam does not actively attempt to harm Israel.16 It might explain, as does Ibn Ezra,Bemidbar 23:21About R. Avraham ibn Ezra17 that "בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם" does not mean that Bilam actively counseled the Midianites to entice Israel into sin, but rather that they learned to do so through his speech. In the middle of Bilam's second blessing, he says, "לֹא הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב וְלֹא רָאָה עָמָל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל".  The Midianites understood from this that though the Children of Israel are untouchable when virtuous, they are vulnerable when they sin.
Moshe's recounting of the event – Moshe's words, "וְלֹא אָבָה י״י אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל בִּלְעָם וַיַּהֲפֹךְ י״י אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְּךָ אֶת הַקְּלָלָה לִבְרָכָה" are somewhat difficult for this approach, as they imply that Bilam had been plotting to harm the nation.  This approach could suggest that these words represent the perspective of the Children of Israel.18 The Israelites likely knew only that Bilam had joined Balak,19 and logically assumed that he did so with intent to curse, even though he had not.
Name of Hashem – Bilam's consistent use of the proper name of Hashem, (שם הויה) suggests that he recognized Hashem's supreme authority. The very fact that he merited prophecy further suggests that he was loyal to Hashem. Together, these points support this position's suggestion that Bilam did not leave with any intent to defy Hashem.
Disappearance of Balak's messengers – The fact that Balak's messengers are absent from the donkey incident is expected according to this approach.  As the whole incident took place in a vision before Bilam set off with them, there is no reason for them to be present.
"אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים" – This approach does not read any particular significance into this lengthy wording.
Philosophical motivations – There are several philosophical considerations that might motivate this approach:
  • Requirements for prophecy - As mentioned, RambamShemonah Perakim 7Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 7:1About R. Moshe b. Maimon maintains that to attain prophecy a person must perfect their character and morals.  As such, Rambam must view Bilam as being a positive character during this episode. See Requirements for Prophecy.
  • Seeing angels – According to Rambam, since angels are non-corporeal beings, any story in which a human appears to see one in physical form must be understood to have occurred in a dream or prophecy. See Angels – Spiritual or Physical?
  • Minimizing miracles – Due to his understanding of Divine providence and the immutability of nature, Rambam tends to minimize miracles, leading him, here too, to suggest that there was no miraculously talking donkey. See Miracles.

Evil Intent

Hashem was angry at Bilam since he was acting in bad faith. Though Bilam knew that Hashem's intentions were that he bless the Children of Israel, Bilam was nonetheless hoping to curse them.

Did Hashem change His mind? All these sources assume that Hashem did not fundamentally change His mind throughout our story.  From start to finish, His main objection was to Bilam's cursing the nation, while the question of whether or not he joined the Moabites was secondary.21 Thus, when Bilam departed with the intention of cursing, Hashem was justifiably filled with wrath.
Evidence of Bilam's evil intent – As there is no explicit mention in the text that Bilam had any evil intent,22 these sources mine the text for clues to support their contention:
  • "וַיֵּלֶךְ עִם שָׂרֵי מוֹאָב" – The Gr"A, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah and Malbim assert that the phrase "וַיֵּלֶךְ עִם" (rather than "וילך את") implies that Bilam not only physically joined the officers, but that he was also of one mind with their intentions to curse Israel.23
  • "כִּי הוֹלֵךְ הוּא" – Seforno, Or HaChayyim, and R. Hirsch suggest that the somewhat extraneous word "הוּא" implies that Bilam was going to do as he pleased, according to his own agenda and not Hashem's.
  • "כִּי הוֹלֵךְ" – R"Y Bekhor Shor maintains that the very fact that Bilam went with the messengers betrays his intentions. If he had been planning on abiding by God's words, what was the point of going?
  • Asking a second time – The fact that Bilam does not just refuse the second set of messengers, but asks Hashem for permission again, betrays his hopes that Hashem changed His mind.24
  • No mention of Hashem's conditions - Bilam's omission of Hashem's caveat25 (that he could go but only say that which Hashem commands) when relaying the Divine response to the Moabites might further suggest that he planned to ignore these instructions.26
  • Account in Devarim – When Moshe recounts the event in Devarim 23:4-7, he says, "וְלֹא אָבָה י״י אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל בִּלְעָם וַיַּהֲפֹךְ י״י אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְּךָ אֶת הַקְּלָלָה לִבְרָכָה".  This formulation suggests that Bilam had different intentions than Hashem and that he was indeed plotting to curse.
What was Bilam thinking?
  • Hashem is fickle – Rashi and R. Hirsch point out that though Bilam was fully aware of Hashem's opposition to his cursing, his pagan view of gods led him to believe that Hashem was like a human, who could be swayed to change His mind by sacrifices27 or magical practices.28  This would explain why Bilam continuously seeks the Divine word despite planning on cursing the nation; he recognizes that Divine consent is necessary, but hopes that he can influence it.
  • Magic trumps Hashem – Alternatively, Bilam believed that his curses or other magical rites had the power to harm even without Hashem's sanction.29 If so, though, it is not clear why he bothered to ask for Hashem's permission.30 
Bilam's motives – Most of these sources imply that Bilam was motivated by his personal hatred of the Children of Israel and a desire to harm them.  R"Y Bekhor Shor and Abarbanel, in contrast, suggest that Bilam was acting out of financial interest. He did not harbor ill will against the nation; he simply hoped to earn a good fee from Balak.
"לוּ יֶשׁ חֶרֶב בְּיָדִי כִּי עַתָּה הֲרַגְתִּיךְ" – The angel's intentions – Rashbam suggests that the angel was sent to punish Bilam31 for planning to overturn Hashem's will.32 He points to Yaakov,33 Moshe,34 and Yonah35 as examples of others who tried to avoid fulfilling the mission assigned them by Hashem, and who were similarly punished.36
Why relay the message through a miraculous event? The donkey episode was intended to both teach Bilam of the futility of his efforts to curse the nation and to humble his pride in his magical capabilities:37
  • All in Hashem's control – Abarbanel, Seforno, and R. Hirsch all point out how the miraculous speech of the donkey taught Bilam that just as the donkey was forced to speak against its nature, so, too, Bilam would have no choice but to say that which Hashem put in his mouth.38
  • Hashem is not fickle –  Prof. D. Henshke39 points out that Bilam had assumed that Hashem's decisions are arbitrary, and that He therefore could be easily influenced to change His mind.40 Hashem, thus, created a scenario in which initially Bilam assumed that his donkey was acting in an arbitrary manner, only to find out that there was a reason for his actions. Bilam was meant to learn that, despite Bilam's impressions, Hashem is never fickle.
  • Humbling experience – R. Hirsch asserts that the episode was a lesson in humility. Though Bilam thought of himself as a "seer," he was proven more blind than his donkey.41 Though he assumed he could overcome Hashem's opposition and force Hashem's hand, he found that he could not even control his own donkey.
Why does the angel simply reiterate Hashem's earlier command? Since these sources assume that Hashem was not angry about Bilam's physical accompanying of the officers, and that the encounter with the angel was meant only to warn and punish him for his evil intent (but not to have him return home), it is not troubling that the angel repeats Hashem's earlier words. The angel is simply reinforcing Hashem's earlier warning, that Bilam may go, but not curse.
"חָטָאתִי כִּי לֹא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אַתָּה נִצָּב לִקְרָאתִי בַּדָּרֶךְ" – This position might suggest that this is not a sincere confession. After all, Bilam does not apologize for intending to harm Israel, only for "not noticing the angel in his path".  He offers to return home only because he feels he has no choice.
Did Bilam change? Most of these sources maintain that the angel's words had no lasting effect on Bilam.  They point to the verse "וְלֹא הָלַךְ כְּפַעַם בְּפַעַם לִקְרַאת נְחָשִׁים" as proof that, at least until the third blessing,42 Bilam had continuously tried to influence Hashem and/or inflict harm on the nation through various magical rites.43
"הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם" – Many of these sources assume that after recognizing the futility of his attempts to curse the Children of Israel, Bilam instead advised Balak to incite the nation to sin.  This is alluded to in Bemidbar 24:14 when Bilam tells Balak, "אִיעָצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה הָעָם הַזֶּה‎"44 and is much more explicit in Bemidbar 31:16 which states that the Midianite women lured the nation "בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם".
Bilam's death – The fact that the Torah goes out of its way to share that Bilam was among those killed in the war against Midyan (Bemidbar 31:8) supports the fact that Bilam did something wrong for which he deserved to be killed.
"הֲיָכֹל אוּכַל דַּבֵּר מְאוּמָה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יָשִׂים אֱ-לֹהִים בְּפִי אֹתוֹ אֲדַבֵּר" – According to this approach, in this and all of Bilam's similar statements, Bilam might have recognized the truth, that he had no choice but to say what Hashem wished, yet he nonetheless still hoped that he could influence Hashem to change His mind. Alternatively, he was simply paying lip service to Hashem's warning but did not really believe it to be true.
Name of Hashem – These sources might suggest that Bilam uses the proper name of Hashem when speaking to Balak only so as to differentiate Hashem from the many gods that the two believed in.45
The blessings: a message for whom? According to this position, it is possible that several of the messages in Bilam's blessings were actually aimed at himself:
  • מָה אֶקֹּב לֹא קַבֹּה אֵל – Bilam is told once again that he has no power to curse if Hashem does not desire it.
  • לֹא אִישׁ אֵל וִיכַזֵּב... הַהוּא אָמַר וְלֹא יַעֲשֶׂה – Contrary to Bilam's thoughts, Hashem cannot be swayed to change His mind like humans are.
  • כִּי לֹא נַחַשׁ בְּיַעֲקֹב – Despite all his efforts, all of Bilam's sorcery will be ineffective against Israel.
Character of Bilam – This approach views Bilam negatively, as someone who has great animosity towards Israel and continuously tries to circumvent or change Hashem's will.

Evil Action

Hashem's anger at Bilam stemmed from Bilam's active attempts to harm Israel, his advising the Midianites to entice the nation to sin.

Sources:R"A Friedman, as relayed by R"Y Medan46
Chronology – This approach assumes that the interactions between Bilam and Balak in Bemidbar 22 take place at the same time as the story of the Sin of Baal Peor in Bemidbar 25, and that the stories must be interwoven to appreciate the full picture.47
"הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם לִמְסׇר מַעַל בַּי״י עַל דְּבַר פְּעוֹר" – This approach, following Bavli SanhedrinSanhedrin 106aAbout Bavli Sanhedrin, understands this verse to mean that it was Bilam's idea to induce the Israelites to sin with the Midianites at Baal Peor. However, it uniquely suggests that this advice was given, not after Bilam's attempt to curse the nation failed,48 but at the very outset of the story. Already when Hashem initially forbade Bilam from going to curse the nation because "they are blessed" (22:12), Bilam suggested to Balak that he instead cause the nation to stumble and sin so that they would no longer be deserving of blessing.
"לֹא תָאֹר אֶת הָעָם כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא" – Though the text does not share that Bilam relayed this part of Hashem's words to the officers, this position assumes that he did.49  It is this knowledge that leads to the alternative plan of inciting to sin.
Did Hashem change His mind? According to this reading, Hashem did change His mind between the first and second visits of Balak's messengers, but only due to a change in circumstances.. During the first visit, Israel was free of sin and worthy of Hashem's protection, and so Bilam was prevented from cursing the nation.  By the second visit, however, the nation had sinned at Baal Peor (in the wake of Bilam's advice) and were deserving of punishment. As such, Hashem acquiesced that Bilam be the tool to inflict it.50 Hashem, however, added a caveat: "וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה",  leaving room for the nation to repent and Hashem to change His mind again.
Hashem's wrath at Bilam – As this position uniquely suggests that Bilam not only had permission to go with the Moabites, but also to curse the nation, Hashem's ensuing wrath appears all the more misplaced. This position suggests that Hashem's about-face is once again the result of changed circumstances. By morning, when Bilam departed, Pinechas had killed the guilty parties at Baal Peor, appeasing Hashem's anger. As such, the nation was once again deserving of Divine protection.  Moreover, Hashem's wrath at the nation was transferred to Bilam, who was guilty of causing them to sin to begin with.51
Why doesn't Hashem have Bilam return home? It is possible that after Hashem's anger at the Children of Israel was appeased and His love restored, He desired not only that the nation not be cursed, but that they be blessed instead.52 Thus, the angel tells Bilam to continue on his journey but to say only that which Hashem tells him, a blessing.53
The encounter with the angel – This approach might suggest that the angel was sent to punish Bilam for his deed. However, we would have expected that at some point during the encounter, he would explain as much to Bilam. It is possible that the angel did in fact explain this, but this is omitted from the text, as it would not have been understandable given that the story of Baal Peor was recorded only afterwards in Chapter 25.
Why relay the message through a miraculous event? It is unclear what purpose was served by miraculously opening the mouth of the donkey.
חָטָאתִי - a sincere confession? This position might read Bilam's statement as an admission of defeat more than a confession.
Did Bilam change? According to this position, though Bilam might have recognized that it was futile to curse Israel at this point, his presence on the side of the Midianites during the battle in Bemidbar 31 implies that his animosity towards Israel did not subside.
Moshe's recounting of the event – Moshe's words, "וְלֹא אָבָה י״י אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל בִּלְעָם וַיַּהֲפֹךְ י״י אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לְּךָ אֶת הַקְּלָלָה לִבְרָכָה",   are somewhat difficult for this approach as they imply that Bilam's plan failed and Hashem saved the nation from his machinations. Yet, according to this position, Bilam was successful in his plot to have the nation sin.  As 24,000 people died as a result, it is hard to say that they were saved!
Bilam's death – The fact that Bilam is killed in the war against the Midianites, together with his partners in crime, is very fitting (Bemidbar 31:8).54
Character of Bilam – This position does not merely read the later negative character of Bilam back into this story, but combines the two stories, presenting a wicked Bilam who not only seeks to harm Israel, but also actively causes Israel's downfall from the very beginning.
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