Rembrandt, Balaam and the Ass, 1626 (public domain image)
Parashat Balak in Sefer Bemidbar tells the story of Balak, king of Moav, who hires the prophet Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael as they approach his territory east of the Jordan River. Bilaam is regarded as an effective prophet but consistently fails to curse Bnei Yisrael, blessing them instead. He is also famous for the incident of the talking donkey, who recognizes an angel blocking their path before Bilaam, the supposedly great seer, does.
The strangeness of the story, told in Bemidbar 22-24, including the fact that we utter Bilaam's unintended blessing as part of our regular liturgy, led to much midrashic and other rabbinic speculation. In addition, Bilaam appear intratextually within Tanakh, which the medieval mefarshim (commentators) take as a starting point for their examination of the Bilaam narrative.
[Note: The sources on this sheet include discussion of explicit sexuality and are not appropriate for all audiences.]
Discussion of Bilaam in the Tanakh
The parashah that follows Balak, Parashas Pinchas, describes an incident at Baal Peor in which Bnei Yisrael engage in sexual improriety; it is intertwined in the minds of rabbinic and medieval commentators (see also Tanhuma, Balak 17a).
They note, for instance, that Bilaam is killed after Baal Peor by the sword, which they understand to be an allusion to his involvement in the incident.
Several verses later, Moshe gives one of the harshest commands of his term as leader. He says that a plague has broken out in the camp due to the sin at Baal Peor and that all its participants must be put to death. In so commanding, Moshe explicitly blames Bilaam for his role in Baal Peor:
The story of Bilaam is briefly retold in Sefer Yehoshua:
Bilaam is also alluded to in the book of Micah:
Bilaam in the Mishnah & Talmud
Pirkei Avot has an important midrashic passage regarding the ten miracles pre-programmed into earthly existence, in the twilight period (bein ha-shemashot) of the very first erev Shabbat. One of these is Bilaam's talking donkey:
This passage attempts to account for the fantastical nature of a talking donkey by accounting it one of ten supernatural miracles that were deliberately crafted into creation.
Another passage from Pirkei Avot characterizes the students of Bilaam "the wicked" negatively, stating that their lot is in Gehinnom:
Interestingly, the important braita on Bava Batra 14b which deals with the authorship of the various books of Tanakh makes a point of stating that Moshe wrote the Bilaam narrative:
It may be objected that it is obvious that Moshe wrote Parashat Balak, since it is a part of the Torah. By the very fact that the braita singles out the Bilaam narrative, however, it recognizes the tensions in this strange passage, such as its vantage point of the story (to which Moshe is not privy) and also Bilaam's surprisingly strong and very real prophetic ability:
Rabbinic thought levels severe judgement against Bilaam as utterly evil:
(Parallel in Bereshit Rabbah 20:5; Bamidbar Rabbah 22:7)
In one of the colorful necromancy stories told about Onkelos, he raises Bilaam from the dead, where he remains obstinate in his hatred for the Jewish people despite a decidedly unpleasant fate:
Rabbinic thought also reads Bilaam into the Exodus narrative, casting him as one of the evil advisors of Paroh:
(Parallel in Shemot Rabbah 1:9)
Finally, Chazal seek to understand what it was that prompted Bilaam to utter his blessing:
Bilaam in Midrash: On Bilaam's Power
In contradistinction to the passages above that villify Bilaam, Sifrei surprisingly acknowledges the immensity of his prophetic powers:
However, in Vayikra Rabbah Bilaam's powers are diminished:
Bereshit Rabbah also acknowledges Bilaam's powers:
The powers and limitations of Bilaam's prophecy are discussed at length in Bemidbar Rabbah:
However, Bilaam is also accounted among the most wicked of figures in Tanakh:
Bilaam & Lavan in Midrash
A passage from Tanhuma associates Bilaam with none other than Lavan, the archetypical rabbinic villain:
The Bilaam-Lavan connection is also explored in Bereshit Rabbah: