Moses, Abraham, Balaam and Me

There is something fascinating and a bit troubling about Balaam. On the one hand he is called Balaam HaRasha - Balaam the wicked. On the other hand he is a prophet, a wizard, and a leader. The sages compare him to Abraham and to Moses! Like many characters in the Torah, Balaam is a complicated person. He sets out to curse Israel but blesses them in the end. How could the sages compare him to Moses and Abraham? What led to his downfall? What can we learn from Balaam for our lives?

In 1976 two Dutch archeologists discovered this inscription in West Jordan in a place called Deir Alla. It is from the ninth century BCE and it contains an inscription attributed to Balaam the Seer. It is one of the oldest pieces of Aramaic literature that has been found. Here is a small part of the translation which you can find on the internet:

[i.1] The misfortunes of the Book of Balaam, son of Beor. A divine seer was he.

The Theophany

[i.2] The gods came to him at night.

And he beheld a vision in accordance with El's utterance.

They said to Balaam, son of Beor:

"So will it be done, with naught surviving.

No one has seen [the likes of] what you have heard!"

Balaam Reports his Vision to His Intimates

[i.5] Balaam arose on the morrow;

He summoned the heads of the assembly to him,

[i.6] And for two days he fasted, and wept bitterly.

Then his intimates entered into his presence,

and they said to Balaam, son of Beor,

"Why do you fast, and why do you weep?"

[i.7] Then he said to them: "Be seated, and I will relate to you what the Shaddai gods have planned, And go, see the acts of the god!"

1. In what ways is this inscription similar to and different from the biblical Balaam we encounter in the Bible?

2. What can we conclude from this discovery about the biblical text??

3. Is Balaam more like Abraham or Moses?

4. What are the three characteristics that distinguish Balaam and Abraham

(יט) כָּל מִי שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּיָדוֹ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הַלָּלוּ, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. וּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים אֲחֵרִים, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע. עַיִן טוֹבָה, וְרוּחַ נְמוּכָה, וְנֶפֶשׁ שְׁפָלָה, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. עַיִן רָעָה, וְרוּחַ גְּבוֹהָה, וְנֶפֶשׁ רְחָבָה, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע.

(19) Whoever possesses these three things, he is of the disciples of Abraham, our father; and [whoever possesses] three other things, he is of the disciples of Balaam, the wicked. A good eye, a humble spirit and a moderate appetite he is of the disciples of Abraham, our father. An evil eye, a haughty spirit and a limitless appetite he is of the disciples of Balaam, the wicked.

וְעַתָּה֩ לְכָה־נָּ֨א אָֽרָה־לִּ֜י אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֗ה כִּֽי־עָצ֥וּם הוּא֙ מִמֶּ֔נִּי אוּלַ֤י אוּכַל֙ נַכֶּה־בּ֔וֹ וַאֲגָרְשֶׁ֖נּוּ מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּ֣י יָדַ֗עְתִּי אֵ֤ת אֲשֶׁר־תְּבָרֵךְ֙ מְבֹרָ֔ךְ וַאֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּאֹ֖ר יוּאָֽר׃

Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed indeed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”

וַאֲבָֽרְכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃

I will bless those who bless you And curse the one who curses you;
And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.”

מדרש תנחומא, בלק א׳

מֶה עָשָׂה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא. כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהֶעֱמִיד מְלָכִים חֲכָמִים וּנְבִיאִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, כָּךְ הֶעֱמִיד לְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם, וְנִבְדְּקוּ מַלְכֵיהֶם וּנְבִיאֵיהֶם וְחַכְמֵיהֶם שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל עִם מַלְכֵיהֶם וּנְבִיאֵיהֶם וְחַכְמֵיהֶם שֶׁל אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם.

Every dignity Israel received, you find that the nations of the world [also] received. In like manner He raised up Moses for Israel, who spoke with him any time that he wanted, [and] he raised up Balaam for the nations of the world, in order that he might speak with Him any time that he wanted.

ארץ בני עמו. וְאִם תֹּאמַר מִפְּנֵי מָה הִשְׁרָה הַקָּבָּ"ה שְׁכִינָתוֹ עַל גּוֹי רָשָׁע? כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיֶה פִתְחוֹן פֶּה לָאֻמּוֹת לוֹמַר, אִלּו הָיוּ לָנוּ נְבִיאִים, חָזַרְנוּ לְמוּטָב, הֶעֱמִיד לָהֶם נְבִיאִים וְהֵם פָּרְצוּ גֶדֶר הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁבַּתְּחִלָּה הָיוּ גְדוּרִים בַּעֲרָיוֹת, וְזֶה נָתַן לָהֶם עֵצָה לְהַפְקִיר עַצְמָן לִזְנוּת:

...And if you ask: Why did the Holy One blessed be He, let his Shechina rest upon so wicked a heathen, I reply that in order that the heathen peoples should have no excuse to say, “If we had prophets, we would have changed for the better”, He raised up prophets for them. Yet they (these prophets) broke down the moral fence of the world, because at first they (the heathens) were fenced in against (they refrained from) immoral living, but this man (Balaam) counseled them to freely offer themselves to prostitution (Midrash Tanchuma, Balak 1; cf. Rashi on Numbers 24:14).

וּבְבֹא משֶׁה אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ (במדבר ז, פט), תָּנֵי (דברים לד, י): וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמשֶׁה, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא קָם אֲבָל בְּאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם קָם, כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹא יְהֵא פִּתְחוֹן פֶּה לְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם לוֹמַר אִלּוּ הָיָה לָנוּ נָבִיא כְּמשֶׁה הָיִינוּ עוֹבְדִים לְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא. וְאֵיזֶה נָבִיא הָיָה לָהֶם כְּמשֶׁה זֶה בִּלְעָם בֶּן בְּעוֹר, אֶלָּא הֶפְרֵשׁ בֵּין נְבוּאָתוֹ שֶׁל משֶׁה לִנְבוּאָתוֹ שֶׁל בִּלְעָם, שָׁלשׁ מִדּוֹת הָיוּ בְּיַד משֶׁה מַה שֶׁלֹא הָיוּ בְּיַד בִּלְעָם. משֶׁה הָיָה מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ עוֹמֵד, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ה, כח): וְאַתָּה פֹּה עֲמֹד עִמָּדִי וַאֲדַבְּרָה אֵלֶיךָ וגו', וְעִם בִּלְעָם לֹא הָיָה מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ אֶלָּא נוֹפֵל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (במדבר כד, ד): נֹפֵל וּגְלוּי עֵינָיִם. משֶׁה הָיָה מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ פֶּה אֶל פֶּה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (במדבר יב, ח): פֶּה אֶל פֶּה אֲדַבֵּר בּוֹ, וּבְבִלְעָם (במדבר כד, ד): נְאֻם שֹׁמֵעַ אִמְרֵי אֵל, שֶׁלֹא הָיָה מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ פֶּה אֶל פֶּה. משֶׁה הָיָה מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ פָּנִים בְּפָנִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות לג, יא): וְדִבֶּר ה' אֶל משֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים, וְעִם בִּלְעָם לֹא הָיָה מְדַבֵּר כִּי אִם בִּמְשָׁלִים, כְּמָה דְתֵימָא (במדבר כג, ז): וַיִּשָֹּׂא מְשָׁלוֹ וַיֹּאמַר וגו'. שָׁלשׁ מִדּוֹת הָיוּ בְּיַד בִּלְעָם מַה שֶׁלֹא הָיוּ בְּיַד משֶׁה, משֶׁה לֹא הָיָה יוֹדֵעַ מִי מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ, בִּלְעָם הָיָה יוֹדֵעַ מִי מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: נְאֻם שֹׁמֵעַ אִמְרֵי אֵל אֲשֶׁר מַחֲזֵה שַׁדַּי יֶחֱזֶה. משֶׁה לֹא הָיָה יוֹדֵעַ אֵימָתַי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ, וּבִלְעָם הָיָה יוֹדֵעַ אֵימָתַי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (במדבר כד, טז): וְיֹדֵעַ דַּעַת עֶלְיוֹן. מָשְׁלוּ מָשָׁל לְטַבָּחוֹ שֶׁל מֶלֶךְ שֶׁהוּא יוֹדֵעַ מָה הַמֶּלֶךְ מַקְרִיב עַל שֻׁלְחָנוֹ וְיוֹדֵעַ כַּמָּה הוֹצָאוֹת יוֹצְאוֹת לַמֶּלֶךְ עַל שֻׁלְּחָנוֹ, כָּךְ הָיָה בִּלְעָם יוֹדֵעַ מָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עָתִיד לְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ. בִּלְעָם הָיָה מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ בְּכָל שָׁעָה שֶׁיִּרְצֶה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: נֹפֵל וּגְלוּי עֵינָיִם, הָיָה מִשְׁתַּטֵּחַ עַל פָּנָיו וּמִיָד הָיָה גְּלוּי עֵינָיִם עַל מַה שֶּׁשּׁוֹאֵל, וּמשֶׁה לֹא הָיָה מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ בְּכָל שָׁעָה שֶׁיִּרְצֶה. רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר אַף משֶׁה הָיָה מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ בְּכָל שָׁעָה שֶׁיִּרְצֶה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וּבְבֹא משֶׁה אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ, מִיָּד (במדבר ז, פט): וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת הַקּוֹל מִדַּבֵּר אֵלָיו.

And in Moshe's coming to the tent of meeting to speak with Him: It is learned (Deut. 34:10), “And no other prophet arose in Israel like Moshe” - in Israel, none did arise, but among the nations of the world, one did arise; so that there not be a claim open to the nations to say, “If we had a prophet like Moshe, we would have worshiped the Holy One, blessed be He. And which prophet did they have [that was] like Moshe? This was Bilaam the son of Beor. However there is a difference between the prophecy of Moshe and the prophecy of Bilaam: Three characteristics were in the hand of Moshe that were not in the hand of Bilaam. Moshe would speak with Him, standing.... And with Bilaam, He would only speak with him prostrate. Moshe would speak to Him 'mouth to mouth,' and with Bilaam He did not speak to him 'mouth to mouth.' Moshe would speak to him face to face, ...and with Bilaam, He only spoke in parables. Three characteristics were in the hand of Bilaam that were not in the hand of Moshe: Moshe did not know who was speaking with him. Bilaam knew who was speaking with him. Moshe did not know when the Holy One, blessed be He, would speak to him, and Bilaam did know when the Holy One, blessed be He, would speak to Him; . Bilaam would speak with Him any time he wanted, as it is stated, “fallen and of open eyes” - he would prostrate himself on his face and immediately, his eye would be revealed about what he was asking; and Moshe did not speak to Him anytime he wanted. Rabbi Shimon says, “Moshe too would speak to Him anytime he wanted, as it is stated, 'And in Moshe's coming to the tent of meeting to speak with Him' - immediately, 'and Moshe heard the Voice speaking to him.'”

עַיִן טוֹבָה. מִסְתַּפֵּק בְּמַה שֶּׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ וְאֵינוֹ חוֹמֵד מָמוֹן אֲחֵרִים. שֶׁכֵּן מָצִינוּ בְּאַבְרָהָם שֶׁאָמַר לְמֶלֶךְ סְדוֹם (בראשית יד) אִם מִחוּט וְעַד שְׂרוֹךְ נַעַל וְאִם אֶקַּח מִכָּל אֲשֶׁר לְךָ:
a good eye: He is satisfied with that which he has and does not covet the money of others. As so did we find with Abraham, who said to the king of Sodom (Genesis 14:23), "'That not from a thread to a shoe strap and that I will not take from all that is yours.'"
וְרוּחַ נְמוּכָה. עֲנָוָה יְתֵרָה. וְכֵן מָצִינוּ אַבְרָהָם אוֹמֵר (שם יח) וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר:
a humble spirit: Extra humility. And so did we find Abraham say (Genesis 18:27), "'and I am dust and ashes.'"
וְנֶפֶשׁ שְׁפָלָה. זְהִירוּת וְהַפְּרִישָׁה מִן הַתַּאֲווֹת. וּמָצִינוּ זֶה בְּאַבְרָהָם, דִּכְתִיב (שם יב) הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת מַרְאֶה אָתְּ, שֶׁעַד עַכְשָׁיו לֹא הִכִּיר בָּהּ מֵרֹב צְנִיעוּת. וּבְבִלְעָם אַשְׁכְּחַן עַיִן רָעָה, שֶׁהָיָה יוֹדֵעַ שֶׁהָיָה רַע בְּעֵינֵי הַמָּקוֹם שֶׁיֵּלֵךְ אֵצֶל בָּלָק וְהָיָה הוֹלֵךְ כְּדֵי לִטֹּל שָׂכָר, דִּכְתִיב (במדבר כב) אִם יִתֶּן לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב:
and a small appetite: Cautiousness and separation from the desires. And we found this in Abraham, as it is written (Genesis 12:11), "'behold now I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance'" - that until now, he did not recognize [this] from [his] extensive modesty. And with Bilaam, we find an evil eye, as he knew that it was bad in the eyes of the Omnipresent that he should go to Balak, and he went [regardless] in order to take payment, as it is written (Numbers 22:18), "'if Balak give me the fill of his house [with] silver and gold.'"
(א) וַיַּ֣רְא בִּלְעָ֗ם כִּ֣י ט֞וֹב בְּעֵינֵ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ לְבָרֵ֣ךְ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְלֹא־הָלַ֥ךְ כְּפַֽעַם־בְּפַ֖עַם לִקְרַ֣את נְחָשִׁ֑ים וַיָּ֥שֶׁת אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר פָּנָֽיו׃
(1) Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased יהוה to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens, but turned his face toward the wilderness.