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".
- High Level Prophet – Sifrei Devarim, Midrash Tannaim, Sifrei Zuta, and Bemidbar Rabbah compare Bilam's prophetic abilities to those of Moshe, saying that the statement "וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה" (Devarim 34:10) is limited to Jews, but Bilam, who was not Jewish, was a prophet at Moshe's level.
- Low Level Prophet – Bilam had prophetic abilities, but they were very limited. According to the Bavli, Bilam's ability was limited to knowing when Hashem got angry, thus knowing when to give curses. Vayikra Rabbah states that Bilam, as a non-Jewish prophet, was limited to prophecy during nightly dreams. Rambam states that Bilam never got above the second level of prophecy, placing him at the level of the authors of Ketuvim.
- Temporary Prophet – According to R. Yochanan in Bavli Sanhedrin, once Bilam attempted to curse Israel, he was stripped of his prophetic abilities, reducing him to a קוסם. In contrast, according to Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ramban, and Shadal, Bilam never had prophetic abilities, and was only granted them on a temporary basis in order to bless Israel. Shadal adds that Bilam always (erroneously) believed in his divinatory powers, and thus was not surprised by Hashem actually appearing to him. Ramban states that even among the various blessings there is change: while the original blessings were at a low level of divine inspiration, due to Bilam's desire to curse Israel, once Bilam stopped attempting to curse (Bemidbar 24:1), Bilam became a true prophet, and thus he was "שֹׁמֵעַ אִמְרֵי אֵל".
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
- 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 Bavli and 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
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.
- Most of the commentators maintain that Bilam lived in Aram. According to Targum Onkelos, "פְּתוֹר" is a place in Aram, and the river is נהר פרת.5 It is unclear according to this what "אֶרֶץ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹ" refers to: either Balak's home country, indicating Balak was originally from Aram (Rashi, Rashbam), or to Bilam's home country (Ramban).
- In contrast, Chizkuni states that Bilam lived in Midian, making clear why he was killed there, and why Balak sent Midianite elders as his messengers. However, it is unclear how Chizkuni explains the verses referring to "פְּתוֹר" and Aram.
- A third approach, found in a number of modern scholars, understands "אֶרֶץ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹ" to refer to a place called Amu.
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.