Balaam: The Prophet and the Consultant

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

Is Bilaam really such a 'bad guy'?  This may surprise you, but if you read this week's Parsha carefully, you'll have trouble pinpointing any specific transgression that he commits.

Indeed, God's anger with his decision to travel with Balak's messengers (see 22:12,22) suggests that his true intentions may have been to curse Am Yisrael.  However, this fact may prove exactly the opposite - that Bilaam is a man of high stature!  After all, over and over again, Balaam overcomes his personal desire to curse Yisrael and blesses them instead - "exactly as God commands him" (see 23:12,26 & 24:13).  In fact, his final blessing of Am Yisrael appears to have been of his own initiative (see 24:1-6).

Why, then, do Chazal cite Balaam as the archetype 'rasha' (a wicked person / see Pirkei Avot 5:22)?  Simply for once having 'bad intentions'?

In this week's shiur we attempt to answer this question.


As we mentioned above, in Parshat Balak it is hard to pinpoint any specific sin that Balaam commits.  In fact, by the time the Parsha is over, one is left with the impression that Balaam may even be a rather righteous, God fearing individual.  Let's cite some examples:

Before he departs upon his journey, Balaam makes sure to make it absolutely clear to Balak's messengers that he will not stray one iota from whatever God will tell him (see 22:18).

Later on, upon his arrival at 'sdeh Moav', Balaam actually blesses Am Yisrael instead of cursing them, precisely as God commands him (see 23:1-24:9).  In fact, Balaam's blessings are so 'pro-Israel' that by the conclusion of the story, Balak becomes so angry that he basically tells Balaam to 'get lost':

"Balak's anger was kindled with Balaam and, striking his hands together, Balak tells Balaam: I asked you to curse my enemy and instead you have blessed them three times!  Now, run away to your own place..." (24:10-11).

Then, as though he had not disappointed Balak enough, Balaam's 'farewell address' to Balak includes a harsh predication of how Yisrael will one day defeat Mo'av and Edom in battle (see 24:15-19).

Finally, it's all over when "Balaam gets up and goes to his homeland, and Balak also went on his way" (24:25).  Clearly, as Parshat Balak reaches its conclusion, we are left with the impression that Balaam & Balak split on 'no-speaking' terms.  Balaam, the 'loyal prophet of God', returned home - leaving Balak 'empty handed'.

Surely, had this been the only story in Chumash about Balaam, it would be quite difficult to judge him as a "rasha".  In the following shiur, we will show how the primary source for Chazal's negative view of Balaam may be rooted in a different story, one that is recorded later on in Parshat Matot - where the Torah tells us about Balaam's 'untimely death'.

We begin our shiur by showing how the story in Parshat Matot forms the continuation of the story in Parshat Balak.

Balaam & the War with Midyan

Recall that immediately after the story of Balaam in chapters 22-24, we find the story of Bnei Yisrael's sin with 'bnot Moav' (the daughters of Mo'av and Midyan) in chapter 25.  Although the Torah does not specify who instigated this sin, the juxtaposition of these two stories already suggests a thematic connection (see Rashi & Ramban 25:1).

Due to their sin, Bnei Yisrael are punished by a terrible plague, but finally they are saved by the zealous act of Pinchas (see 25:1-9).  At the conclusion of that entire incident, God commands Bnei Yisrael to avenge the Midyanim (i.e. to launch a reprisal attack / see 25:16-18).

The details of that ensuing battle are recorded several chapters later - in Parshat Matot (see 31:1-12).

[Even though logic would dictate for Chumash to record this battle immediately after its command, i.e. in chapter 26; for some reason, Chumash interrupts this narrative with several other 'parshiot' instead.  The reason for this 'interruption' will be discussed in next week's shiur on Parshat Pinchas.]

In its brief detail of the battle against Midyan (in Parshat Matot), the Torah informs us, almost incidentally, that Balaam is killed together with the five kings of Midyan (see 31:8).

Why was Balaam executed?  Was he an officer in Midyan's army, or was he simply 'caught in the cross-fire'?

The Torah doesn't tell us explicitly why he was killed, but it certainly wants us to know that he indeed deserved the 'death penalty' together with the other 'leaders' of Midyan.

To understand the underlying reason, we must undertake a quick analysis of the story that follows when Moshe Rabbeinu meets the officers who had returned from this battle.

Let's pay careful attention to the section where Moshe censures the military officers for taking female captives, noting how and why he mentions Balaam in this censure:

"And Moshe became angry at the military officers... saying: Why did you leave the female captives alive?  Were they not the very ones who seduced Bnei Yisrael -* bi-dvar Balaam *- at the bidding of Balaam - to go against God in the matter of Peor, causing a plague...!"  (See 31:14-16).

What is Moshe referring to when he mentions 'dvar Balaam'?  From the context of these pesukim, it seems quite clear that dvar Balaam refers to Balaam's advice to use the daughters of Mo'av and Midyan to lure Bnei Yisrael towards the idol worship of 'Ba'al Pe'or'.  [This explanation is also advanced by the Gemara in Sanhedrin 106a.]

If this assumption is correct, then the connection between these two parshiot becomes clear.  It was Balaam himself who instigated the entire incident of 'chet bnot Moav'!  It was his idea to lure Bnei Yisrael into sinning. Balaam was so involved in this plot that this entire incident is associated with his name!

Furthermore, from the very casual mention of dvar Balaam in Moshe's censure to the officers, it appears that Balaam involvement in this scheme is 'common knowledge'.  In other words, Moshe takes for granted that the military officers are aware of what dvar Balaam refers to.  Hence, everyone seems to know that Balaam was the instigator behind this devious plot.

Therefore, when Balaam is executed, it is not because he had once intended to curse Bnei Yisrael. Balaam is found guilty for it was he who orchestrated the entire scheme of chet bnot Midyan.

So what led to Balaam's sudden change of heart?  Why, after blessing Am Yisrael, does he turn around and orchestrate their demise?  Was dvar Balaam simply some last minute advice to Balak before leaving?

It doesn't seem so.  Recall from Parshat Balak that when Balaam was sent away, he and Balak were not exactly on speaking terms.  Furthermore, what was Balaam doing in Midyan at all?  Had he not gone 'home'?

Before we can answer these questions, we must first determine where Balaam is from.  [& it's time for a short lesion in 'Biblical geography'.]

Balaam's 'Home-Town'

To better understand Balaam's true character, we must first establish that he lived in Mesopotamia, a very far distance away from Mo'av and Midyan!  How do we know this?  In the opening pesukim of the Parsha we are told that:

"Balak sent messengers to Balaam ben Be'or, to city of Petor, which is by the river... to call him." (22:5).

In Chumash, the phrase: the river ('ha-nahar') usually refers to the Euphrates (i.e. 'nehar prat'), the main river flowing through Mesopotamia.

This assumption is confirmed in Sefer Devarim, in a short reference to Mo'av and the story of Balaam:

"... and because they hired Balaam ben Be'or from Ptor Aram Naharaim" [Aram - (located between) the two great rivers (the Euphrates and Tigris)] (see 23:5).

Furthermore, Balaam's opening blessing states specifically that he came from Aram, from the East (modern day Syria/Iraq):

"from Aram, Balak has brought me... from mountains in the east [harerei kedem]"  (23:7).

Now we must show how that fact that Balaam resided in Mesopotamia affects how we understand a few 'missing links' in the story.

The Return of Balaam

Recall from the conclusion of Parshat Balak that Balaam had returned home (see 24:25), i.e. to Mesopotamia, after blessing Bnei Yisrael (instead of cursing them).  Nevertheless, only a short time later we find that Balaam is 'back in the neighborhood' (as we discussed above) - when Bnei Yisrael sin with bnot Midyan.  [See 31:8.]  Thus, we must conclude that after Balaam had returned home, he came back to Mo'av - i.e. for a second time!

So what motivated Balaam's lengthy trek back to Mo'av?  Why was he so interested in giving Mo'av and Midyan advice that he knew would cause Bnei Yisrael to sin?

The answer is startling, but simple:

Balaam the 'prophet' went home - but Balaam the 'consultant' returns!  Let's explain:

The very fact that Balaam later returns to Mo'av proves that his true intention all along was to curse Bnei Yisrael.  Yet as a 'prophet, [professionally speaking,], he could not do so for 'how could he curse he whom God Himself does not curse' (see 23:8).

However, even though he may be faithful to God as a professional 'prophet', he is far less faithful as a person.

It seems as though Balaam's desire to cause Bnei Yisrael harm was so great that he searches for a different avenue to bring upon their demise.  Instead of using his 'prophetic abilities', this time Balaam uses his 'prophetic knowledge' to create a situation where God Himself will curse Am Yisrael.

As reflected in his blessing of Bnei Yisrael, Balaam 'the prophet' recognizes the special relationship between God and His Nation.  He fully understands why God does not allow him to curse them, for it is His will that Bnei Yisrael fulfill their Divine purpose to become God's special nation.

On the other hand, Balaam finds a loophole.  Being a prophet, he also realizes that should Bnei Yisrael themselves fail in their obedience to God, He Himself would punish them.  In other words - this special nation could not be cursed without reason.  However, should they sin, God would have ample reason to punish them. Balaam's conclusion is shrewd: to cause Bnei Yisrael to be cursed - by causing them to sin.

Balaam finally found a method to curse Bnei Yisrael.  He advises Moav and Midyan to cause Bnei Yisrael to sin.

This may be the underlying reason why Chazal consider Balaam the archetype "rasha" - for he utilizes his prophetic understanding, the special trait which God gave him, to further his own desires rather than to follow God's will. In a general sense, taking special divine given qualities - and using them in an improper manner, can be considered the 'way of life' of the 'wicked'.

Between Avraham and Balaam

In the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:22), not only is Balaam called the rasha, he is also contrasted with Avraham Avinu:

"Whoever has the following three traits is among the 'talmidim' (disciples) of Avraham Avinu; and whoever has three other traits is among the 'talmidim' of Balaam ha-rasha:

evil eye good eye
arrogant spirit humble spirit
greedy soul meek soul

Both Avraham and Balaam are men of renowned spiritual stature.  However, Balaam exploits this quality for his own personal pride and gain, while Avraham Avinu utilizes this quality towards the perfection of mankind.  A rasha, according to Chazal is one who harnesses his God-given traits and abilities towards an unworthy purpose.  A disciple of Avraham Avinu is one who harnesses these qualities for a Divine purpose.

In Chumash, we find several textual parallels between Balaam and Avraham Avinu that support this comparison.  We will note two examples:

(A) Bracha & Klala


 "and I will bless those whom you bless, and those who curse you shall be cursed, and through you all nations on earth shall be blessed" (Br.12:3).


"for it is known, that he whom you bless shall be blessed, and he whom you curse shall be cursed" (22:5).

(B) Aram Naharayim

The homeland of both Avraham and Balaam is in Aram Naharayim, the center of ancient civilization:

  • Avraham: see Breishit 24:4 & 24:10, and Br.11:27-31.
  • Balaam: see Bamidbar 23:7 & Devarim 23:5.

These parallels point to this thematic contrast between Balaam and Avraham Avinu.  As Bnei Yisrael, the chosen offspring of Avraham Avinu, are about to enter the Land that God had promised him - to become a 'blessing for all nations' (Br. 12:3), they meet a final challenge.  Just as God's prophecy concerning Avraham is about to become a reality, Balaam - the prophet with the ability to bless and curse - together with Moav (the descendants of Lot) and Midyan (the descendants of Yishmael) make a last minute attempt to thwart the fruition of this destiny.

Professional Bias

Once could suggest that this confrontation may be reflective of a more fundamental conflict.  Unlike the people of Moav, whose fear was motivated by a practical threat upon their national security (22:3-4), Balaam's fear of Am Yisrael may have been more ideological.

The very existence of Am Yisrael posed a threat to Balaam himself!  Balaam, as echoed in his three blessings, perceived the Divine purpose of Am Yisrael: a Nation destined to bring the message of God to mankind.  This novel concept of a Nation of God threatened to upset the spiritual 'status quo' of ancient civilization.  Up until this time, if there was a Divine message for mankind - it would be delivered by inspired 'individuals' - e.g. men such as Balaam himself.

However, once Bnei Yisrael would become a nation in their land, this same purpose could be fulfilled by a nation - instead of by an individual.  From a certain perspective, this itself could be considered a 'professional threat' to Balaam and to the society that he represents.

On a certain level, this confrontation between Balaam and Am Yisrael continues till this very day.  Is it possible for a nation, a political entity, to deliver a Divine message to all mankind?  While Balaam and his 'disciples' continue to endeavor to undermine this goal, it remains Am Yisrael responsibility to constantly strive to achieve it.