Bilaam and the Role of the Prophet

Rafi Segal

On Shabbat we read both the Torah and the Haftorah, reading about the prophets from the books of Niveiim. But of course there’s an obvious exception: today we read about a prophet in the torah reading itself. We read about a king, Balak, who wanted to curse Israel. But he didn’t do it himself. He got a prophet to do the deed, the prophet Bilaam. Why did Balak bring a prophet into the Torah? Why didn’t Balak just do the cursing himself?

An important reason is that Balak didn’t have much stature. In the preceding part of the Torah, Balak’s predecessor Sihon was killed in battle by the Israelites. Rashi suggests that not only was Balak’s appointment very recent, but he also didn’t have a lot of stature and wasn’t fit for kingship of Moav, because he was a Midianite. When you don’t have a lot of stature, you need a heavyweight on your side. Bilaam had such stature. Bilaam’s reputation as a prophet was so great that Balak said:

For I know that whom you have cursed is cursed, and whom you have blessed is blessed.

Even hundreds of years later his reputation was a force to be reckoned with. “Concrete” evidence of this was found in an archeological excavation in 1967 at Deir Alla, 60 km northeast of here, in Jordan. A building was found with fragments of inscriptions about Bilaam. The inscription read:

Bilaam son of Beor seer of the g-ds…Lo the g-ds came to him at night and spoke to him…they said to him: ‘There has appeared the last flame, a fire of chastisement has appeared’

The building was dated to about six hundred years after Bilaam’s death, giving a sense of how long his legacy was a force to be reckoned with. Bilaam’s stature was such that at the time of Pirkei Avot he was contrasted to Avraham as his evil counterpart. Bilaam was famous enough that the Talmud, when describing who wrote which books of the bible, said “Moshe wrote his own book and portion of Bilaam and Iyov” (Baba Bathra 15a). Bilaam was not your basic rent-a-prophet. He was one of the major religious figures of his millennium. To have such a person on one’s side is a powerful weapon indeed.

So, it’s obvious that Balak needed Bilaam. But why did Bilaam need Balak? More generally, why do religious leaders and political leaders need each other? There are some very practical reasons that we see here. Balak controlled a lot of money, and Bilaam was glad to get some money as long as he didn’t have to violate his policies and procedures. Another more general reason is that political leaders and religious leaders have different roles and different strengths. The prophet is more of a thinker and the political leader is more of a doer. Theodore Roosevelt summed up the value of the political leader and his impatience with the thinkers:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…

Religious leaders and political leaders are skeptical about the value of the other, but each needs the other.

Another important difference between the religious leader and the political leader is how they view compromise. A political leader values compromise and making deals, and sees that as getting things done. In contrast, a religious leader sees compromise as backing down on important principles. A good example of these two different sense of compromise can be seen from the experience of United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim when he arrived in Iran in 1980 to negotiate the release of American hostages. At the airport, he said that he came “as a mediator to work out a compromise.” To the political ear this sounds perfectly appropriate, but it was translated into Farsi using the religious meaning of the word compromise, in the sense of a compromise of one’s principles or honor. The translation of Waldheim’s remarks was broadcast, and by the time he arrived in Teheran a mob materialized and almost overturned his car; he was lucky to escape alive. Compromise is seen differently by religious and political leaders, and religious and political leadership are very different realms that shouldn’t be merged.

If you read Parashat Balak by itself, Balak comes across as evil, and Bilaam comes across as someone who went along reluctantly. However, Bilaam gets much rougher treatment in the Talmud than Balak. Both are called rashah, (evil), but Bilaam is the one more singled out as a striking example of evil. Why is Balaam shifted from being the agent of evil to the embodiment of evil? It’s not clear. One possibility is that Bilaam did evil things that were not mentioned in the Torah portion. For example, the Talmud (Sotah 11a) suggests that Bilaam was one of the three advisors who suggested to Pharaoh to kill all Jewish first-born sons. Another possibility is that Balak is given an easier time because his granddaughter was Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David. A third possibility is that Bilaam was singled out for harsher treatment because he continued to have a following in later centuries, a possibility that has seemed more concrete since the excavation of Deir Alla.

Another puzzling part of the parasha is why, after each episode in which Bilaam blessed Israel, Balak urged Bilaam to try again. The text suggests that maybe the location wasn’t right. Balak says:

Let us go to another place, from where we will see part of the nation, but we will not see the whole nation.

Each of the three curse locations was associated with a different deity of Moav, so they could have claimed that only one mattered, but this wouldn’t come across as very compelling. It is possible that Balak was hoping for one big curse to outweigh the blessings, but why after two blessings did Balak believe that one curse out of three would be a strong enough curse? Did they plan on suppressing news of the first two and going public with the third? This doesn’t seem likely, because we found out about all three.

An even more important question is why, after flubbing the first two curses, did Balak (or Bilaam) not switch strategy and go for a blessing for Moav to balance out the blessings for Israel. After seeing that cursing Israel wasn’t going to work, they could at least have gone for a situation in which Israel and Moab were both blessed, and could coexist in peace. We don’t know, but we do know that they stuck stubbornly to the initial strategy and got zero curses out of three.

To our good and our bad fortune, the enemies of Israel have always been a bit incompetent. To our good fortune, we got the blessings and went on to great success. To our bad fortune, our enemies are so focused on harming us that they ignore the obvious opportunities for peaceful coexistence.

Copyright © 2006 Raphael Segal.  This talk was given on the afternoon of 8 July 2006 in Jerusalem.  It is part of the Segal leadership series.