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How can we Explain Bilaam’s Behavior?

The story of the prophet Bilaam is a very odd one. Paid by the king Balak to curse the Jewish people, he ends up blessing the people instead.

But what on earth was he thinking? Why would he have thought that he would have been allowed to curse G-d’s own chosen people? Any rational person in that situation would merely have declined the assignment, since angering G-d does not seem like a very good career move.

I think the answer is that Bilaam does not know that “his” deity is the same god of the Jewish people! And here’s the evidence for it: Bilaam first treats G-d as his own personal deity. He refers to G-d as “my god.”(Num. 24:13) And he clearly seems to think that his deity would not mind cursing the upstart Jews – which is why he goes so far as to compare the Jewish people to the plague of locusts:

The [locusts] hid all the land from view (Exodus 10:15)

“Here is a people that came out of Egypt and hid all the land from view” (Bilaam to G-d, Numbers 22:11)

“Hiding the land” is only found in the Torah in these two verses, which makes this link very strong.

For Bilaam, it is more: the land is from where Bilaam gains his inspiration. He seeks “omens” – which are the same word as “snake” in the text – nachash. The snake crawls on the ground, so blocking the land is blocking natural omens from view. Yet Bilaam seeks omens, nachash when he prophecies the first two times.

The third time Bilaam prophecies, he has come to realize that G-d is not actually merely the deity of the natural world. This came from his prophecy, when G-d puts the words in his mouth that make him realize that the G-d of the Jewish people is also the god that Bilaam talks to!

This is the key text: “Their G-d [same word as Bilaam uses to refer to his god] is with them.” (Num. 23:21)

And it changes how he behaves:

Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased G-d to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens [snakes], but turned his face toward the wilderness. (Num. 24:1)

The word for “wilderness” is taken from the root letters meaning “from the word.” The wilderness is not spectacular or beautiful; it is a place so devoid of features that we are not naturally attracted to it. It is a bit like praying from under a shawl, or Jacob and Bilaam talking to G-d at night: blocking out the visual makes it easier for us to focus on our listening, and find a way to connect with ourselves and with G-d. Separations from the natural world make it easier to commune and connect (which is also why G-d in the Torah almost never speaks to more than one or two people at a time – each person is unique, and each relationship is unique, so the religious experience even within a community is grounded in the connection each individual person has with G-d).

Bilaam’s understanding has grown from thinking G-d was merely the natural deity, to learning that G-d is found in words, in a place above nature. He discovers that his own private deity is not his very own – that G-d is also the G-d of the Jews. Bilaam also learns that to commune with G-d he needs to look past nature, not into it. And it means understanding that Jews are not about allowing people to commune with the natural world – Bilaam was right that we indeed “block” the view of the earth, because it is our task to help the world see that true prophecy and connection with G-d is found through words and relationships, not harmonization with nature.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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