Bilam in the Biblical Text

Bilam is one of the more mysterious characters in Tanakh. Bilam is first mentioned in Bemidbar 22:5, when Balak, King of Moav, requests his assistance in cursing the People of Israel. The Torah spends the next three chapters detailing Hashem's warnings to Bilam, Bilam's attempts at cursing the Israelites, and how the curses were turned into blessings, at the end of which (Bemidbar 24:25) Bilam goes home. Bilam then appears again during the battle with the Midianites, where Bilam is mentioned as being killed together with the four kings of Midian (Bemidbar 31:8, with parallels in Yehoshua 13:21-22), and is said to be the instigator of the Sin of Baal Peor (Bemidbar 31:16).

The hiring of Bilam is mentioned as one of the reasons Amonites and Moabites are banned from joining the Israelites (Devarim 23:5-6, and also Nechemyah 13:1-2). The reversal of Bilam's curses is mentioned as one of the major ways Hashem protected Israel in the desert in Yehoshua 24:9-10 and Mikhah 6:5. Who is Bilam? What is the meaning of him being a "קּוֹסֵם" (Yehoshua 13:22)? Why did his attempt to curse Israel leave such a lasting impression?1

Was Bilam a Prophet?

The verses give varying indicators regarding Bilam's status.2 Bilam receives prophetic dreams (Bemidbar 22:9-12, 22:20), sees an angel (Bemidbar 22:31-35), and receives other heavenly messages (Bemidbar 23:4-5,16, 24:2). He also states throughout the story that his actions are dependent on Hashem's guidance, and refers to himself as "שֹׁמֵעַ אִמְרֵי אֵל אֲשֶׁר מַחֲזֵה שַׁדַּי יֶחֱזֶה נֹפֵל וּגְלוּי עֵינָיִם" (Bemidbar 24:4, and similarly in Bemidbar 24:16). In contrast, in Yehoshua 13:22 he is referred to as "בִּלְעָם בֶּן בְּעוֹר הַקּוֹסֵם", without mentioning prophetic abilities, in Bemidbar 22:7 the messengers bring "קְסָמִים" to Bilam, and Bemidbar 24:1 mentions Bilam using "נְחָשִׁים".

Bilam and Other Characters

  • Bilam and Lavan – There are remarkable similarities between these two characters:
    • Both are from Aram Naharayim.3
    • Both receive a heavenly dream, warning them against harming Israel (Bereshit 31:24 and Bemidbar 22:9-12, 22:20).
    • Lavan divines using ניחוש (Bereshit 30:27), while Bilam uses נחשים (Bemidbar 24:1).
    • Both encounter Israel and end up blessing them.
    • About both the Torah records: "וַיָּשׇׁב לִמְקֹמוֹ" (Bereshit 32:1, Bemidbar 24:25).4
    These similarities lead the midrashim to state that Lavan either was Bilam (Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan)Bemidbar 22:5About Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan)) or was Bilam's father (Bavli SanhedrinSanhedrin 105aAbout the Bavli).
  • Bilam and Yitro are two of the few Gentile personalities who encounter the Children of Israel in the desert, and to whom the Torah devotes considerable attention. As discussed in Yitro & Bilam, the two characters are a study in contrasts. Yitro is the friend who blesses Israel in the first year in the desert, while Bilam is the foe who attempts to curse Israel in the fortieth year. The Torah does not mention any encounter between the two, but some Midrashim (Talmud BavliSotah 11aSanhedrin 105a-106bAbout the Bavli and Shemot Rabbah1:9About Shemot Rabbah) tell of an even earlier rivalry between Yitro and Bilam in Paroh's court.
  • Bilam and Moshe – As seen above, a number of Midrashim compare Bilam's prophetic abilities to those of Moshe.
  • Bilam and Paroh
  • Bilam and Iyyov

Bilam's Origins

Where did Bilam live? According to Bemidbar 22:5, Balak sent messengers to find Bilam at "פְּתוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר עַל הַנָּהָר אֶרֶץ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹ", in Bemidbar 23:7 Bilam states "מִן אֲרָם יַנְחֵנִי בָלָק מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב מֵהַרְרֵי קֶדֶם", and in Devarim 23:5 Bilam is identified as coming "מִפְּתוֹר אֲרַם נַהֲרַיִם". Further complicating the issue is the combination of Bemidbar 24:25, which states that Bilam returned home after being dismissed by Balak, and Bemidbar 31:8, which states that Bilam was killed soon after in Midian.

Bilam in the Ancient Near East

Bilam is the only character in Torah who appears in (non-Biblical) Ancient Near Eastern texts. In 1967 an inscription was found on the wall of a temple in Deir Alla, Jordan. This inscription, written in red and black ink on plaster, is written in Aramaic and can be dated to the late ninth century BCE. The inscriptions begins by saying "[זה] ספר [ב]לעם [בר בער]", and tells of apocalyptic visions seen by Bilam in dreams. The inscription refers multiple times to "בלעם בר בער", and contains linguistic parallels to the blessings of Bilam in the Torah.

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