Why Worry About Bilam?


Who Needs to Know?

The Bilam and Balak narrative is unique in being the only extended story in the last four books of the Torah in which non-Jews form the entire cast of human characters and nobody from the Children of Israel is an active participant. The story spans three chapters, the first of which (Bemidbar 22) is dedicated to a back and forth as to whether Bilam will or won't go with Balak's messengers and will or won't curse the Israelites. An additional two complete chapters (23-24) detail the full contents of Bilam's soliloquies. This lengthy account almost begs the question: Of what concern was it to Hashem or the nation (or should it be for us who study the Torah) whether some heathen sorcerer had nice things to say or not about the Israelites?

What If Bilam had Cursed?

Devarim 23:6 describes how Hashem, in His abounding love for the Children of Israel, refused to let Bilam curse the nation, and transformed the curse into a blessing:


וְלֹא אָבָה ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹעַ אֶל בִּלְעָם וַיַּהֲפֹךְ ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְּךָ אֶת הַקְּלָלָה לִבְרָכָה כִּי אֲהֵבְךָ ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

And Hashem, your God, would not listen to Bilam, and Hashem, your God, turned the curse into a blessing because Hashem, your, God loved you.

This account of Hashem's efforts is later echoed by both Yehoshua and Mikhah in their brief summaries of Hashem's historical acts of kindness for the Children of Israel. But why do the Torah and these prophets take the trouble to single out this action of Hashem as if it were one of the most momentous and pivotal deeds He ever performed?1 Would there have been any significant impact on the Israelites if Bilam had succeeded in cursing them as per his original intention? Could this have changed the course of history?