Yitro and Bilam

A Study in Contrasts

The Torah records very little about the Children of Israel's encounters with other nations during their forty years in the desert, and even less about their interaction with private individuals who are not the rulers of their nations. Yitro and Bilam, though, are the two significant exceptions to this rule – Gentile personalities (both with ties to Midyan1) to whom the Torah devotes a considerable amount of attention.2

In many ways, Yitro and Bilam are a study in contrasts. Yitro is a friend who comes on his own initiative to bless the Children of Israel face to face in the first year in the wilderness,3 and whose descendants become a part of Israel.4 Bilam, on the other hand, is a foe who is summoned to curse the Children of Israel from afar in the fortieth and last year, and is later killed by the Children of Israel. The Torah highlights these contrasts through a series of textual parallels which contain similar words and phrases. The verses themselves can be viewed at a glance by clicking on the accompanying Comparison Table. A summary of their similarities and differences is contained in the table below.

Similarities and Differences

(Shemot 18:1)
(Bemidbar 22:2-5)
Both arrive after hearing accounts of the miraculous victories of the Israelite nation. Yitro recognizes the hand of God, while Balak does not. Additionally, while Balak's fear and loathing are what prompt him to summon Bilam, Yitro reacts with joy.5
Reception and Sacrifices
(Shemot 18:7,12)
(Bemidbar 22:36,40, 23:2)
Yitro and Bilam are both received with honor by their hosts. In both instances, the ensuing ceremonies includes sacrificial offerings. While Yitro sacrifices to offer thanksgiving to God (and the burnt offering to God accompanies but precedes the peace offerings for the festive meal), Balak and Bilam's sacrifices appear to be an attempt to manipulate God (and the offerings to God come only after their feast).
Permission from God
(Shemot 18:19,23)
(Bemidbar 22:8,18,35,38, 23:11,26, 24:13)
Each of Yitro and Bilam specifies that their proposals and actions are dependent upon God's approval. Yitro's appears to genuinely seek God's approval, while Bilam seems to attempt to subvert God's will.
Blessings and Advice
(Shemot 18:10,19)
(Bemidbar 23:11, 24:14)
Most significantly, each of Yitro and Bilam bestows blessings upon Hashem and the Children of Israel and also dispenses advice to their hosts. Yitro blesses of his own volition and advises for the benefit of the Children of Israel, while Bilam seeks to curse and offers his advice to Balak.6

Conveying a Message

Juxtaposing the figures of Yitro and Bilam through these parallels and contrasts emphasizes the realization of one of Hashem's original promises to Avraham "I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you" (Bereshit 12:1-3).7 Yitro, who arrives to bless the Israelites, is invited to join them and share in their blessings (Bemidbar 10:29-32).8 In contrast, his foil, Bilam, who attempts to curse Israel, is forced by Hashem to bless them and is ultimately dispatched by the sword (Bemidbar 31:8). This message has resonated throughout history, for both Jews and Gentiles alike.

Rabbinic Midrashim

The Talmud Bavli Sotah 11a and Shemot Rabbah 1:9 trace the divergence between Yitro and Bilam back to Paroh's court, where Bilam is the author of Paroh's "Final Solution," and Yitro flees to avoid being a party to this advice.9 The textual hook for this Midrash may be the most striking of the Yitro-Bilam parallels, the unique appearances of the word "איעצך" ("I'll advise you") in both stories.10 These two verses are the only occurrences of the verb forms of the root .י.ע.ץ in the Torah.11