Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Balak 5768/ July 12, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



The Power of Propaganda


Yonah Bar-Maoz


Department of Bible and Mikra’ot Gedolot Ha-Keter

From the outset, Balaam presents himself as one loyal to the word of the Lord.   He declares that he will say only what the Lord puts in his mouth, refrains from cursing the Israelites when G-d forbids him to do so, and sets out on his way only after having obtained permission (Num. 22:20, 35).  Balaam even succeeds in summoning G-d twice, as if he were Moses, Aaron or Samuel, of whom it is said, “When they called to the Lord, He answered them” (Ps. 99:6). In addition, we see that in his three speeches Balaam faithfully relayed what he had been told, without making any changes, even though Balak angrily rebuked him for what he said.

All of these characteristics would seem to suit a loyal prophet of the Lord. However, examining the style of retelling, when Balaam reports to the emissaries of Balak what the Lord had said to him (Numbers 22), gives us quite a different picture. When Balak’s emissaries came to Balaam the first time, he promised them to relay the words of the Lord exactly as they would be told to him:  “He said to them, ‘Spend the night here, and I shall reply to you as the Lord may instruct me’” (Num. 22:8). The following table shows to what extent Balaam kept his word:

The Lord’s words to Balaam (22:12)

Balaam’s words to the Moabite dignitaries (22:13)

The report of the Moabite dignitaries to Balak (22:14)

Do not go with them.  You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.

The Lord will not let me go with you.

Balaam refused to come with us.


It is immediately apparent that Balaam did not keep his word.  What the Lord said to Balaam was comprised of three parts:   forbidding him to go, forbidding him to curse, and informing him of the motive for this, [1] yet Balaam only relayed to the dignitaries the marginal first part, while the main part, for the sake of which he had been summoned by Balak, he kept concealed throughout the story.  Therefore, all his repeated declarations concerning his faithfulness to the word of the Lord are a smokescreen designed to conceal, indicating that there is a great gap between him and prophecy.

One might still try to argue that Balaam was a true prophet who was not faithful to his task, but this is not the case:  Balaam only pretended to be associated with the G-d of Israel, and the style in which he repeated things to the Lord that he had heard from Balak attests to this and shows up the deceit in Balaam’s words.

Balak’s words to Balaam (22:5-6)

Balaam’s report to G-d (22:11)

There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me.   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.

Here is a people that came out from Egypt and hides the earth from view.  Come now and curse them for me; perhaps I can engage them in battle and drive them off.


Scripture repeats Balak’s words to Balaam as Balaam put them to the Lord, indicating to us that Balaam did not turn to G-d to ask permission. [2]   Balaam’s detailed response to G- d’s question, “What do these people want of you?” indicates that he did not take this as a rhetorical question, rather as a question requiring an answer, on the assumption that the questioner knew nothing about the matter at hand. [3]   Indeed, Balaam was utterly surprised by the appearance of the Lord in his dream.

How to Understand Balaam’s Character

The key to understanding Balaam’s character and behavior is given us by the Moabite dignitaries.   The first table shows that the dignitaries did not believe Balaam at all.  He claimed to them that the Lord (using the Tetragrammaton) refused to let him go with them, whereas they reported to Balak that the refusal came from Balaam:  “Balaam refused to come with us.”

Balaam was undoubtedly the one who led the dignitaries to this understanding since he made his compliance contingent on the G-d of the Israelites giving his consent, and even called Him by his national name, the Tetragrammaton.   Hence it was clear to them that this G-d would not agree to His people being cursed, and hence the conclusion that naturally follows is that Balaam was using a transparent excuse in order to enhance his reputation and exact a higher fee.  That was how Balak understood it, and therefore he sent a more prestigious delegation, saying, “Thus says Balak son of Zippor:   Please do not refuse to come to me.   I will reward you richly and I will do anything you ask of me.  Only come and damn this people for me” (Num. 22:16-17).

Balaam’s claim that G-d forbade him to go gave him an escape route, should he need it, should it turn out that he was incapable of cursing Israel.  In any event, such failure would not be the result of negligence, since as far as he was concerned he made every attempt to curse Israel.   Conclusive proof that Balaam was not a prophet of the Lord is clearly evident here.  If he believed in the Lord and acknowledged His might and sovereignty, he could have obeyed Him while at the same time aggrandizing his own reputation.   All he had to do was to bless Moab, since he was just as capable of blessing as of cursing, as Balak said to him:  “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6).   However, both Balam and Balak alike were “clever at doing wrong, but unable to do right” (Jer. 4:22), and chose not to help and deliver but to harm and destroy.

Why Was He Thought To Be a Prophet?

It is clear from all of the above that Balaam was not a prophet at all, but in traditional exegesis and Bible scholarship he has often been defined as such as a direct result of the extensive advertisement that he propagated for himself from the very first moment that the reader is introduced to him, when he proclaimed his absolute obedience to   G-d.   Since before every action that he took he proclaimed he was about to express the will of G-d, and time and again he adhered to the claim that he is loyal to the word of G-d, especially when he came under a fire of criticism for his failings, the impression is reinforced that he is a righteous man being persecuted for his righteousness.   Likewise, in his speech he lauded himself with many epithets that allude to a close connection with G-d:   “Word of him who hears G-d’s speech, who obtains knowledge from the Most High, and beholds visions from the Almighty, prostrate but with eyes unveiled” (Num. 24:16).

The misunderstanding of Balaam is compounded by an improper or insufficient understanding of the Sages’ view of Balaam.  It is true that they called him a prophet, [4] but to comprehend their words correctly, we must look at the comparison which they make between him and Moses:

Never again did their arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – never in Israel, but yes among the other nations.   And who might that be?   Balaam son of Beor.   However there is a difference between Balaam’s prophecy and Moses’ prophecy:  Moses did not know who was speaking with him, and Balaam did know, as it is said:  “Word of him who hears G- d’s speech.”  Moses did not know when He would speak to him, until He spoke to him, and Balaam knew when He would speak to him, as it is said:  “who obtains knowledge from the Most High.”   Moses did not speak to him except when standing, as it is said, “But you remain here [standing] with me” (Deut. 5:27), and Balaam would speak to him prostrate, as it is said:   “And beholds visions from the Almighty, prostrate, but with eyes unveiled.”  To what may this be compared?  To a king’s chef, who knows how much the king spends on his dinner. [5]

This parable, in which the Sages compared Balaam to a king’s chef, makes it patently clear that they saw a huge difference between him and the king’s faithful servant Moses, and therefore their prophecies were also worlds apart.   Indeed, Nahmanides comments on this midrash and shows that Balaam saw things as a fortune-teller who surmises things that have nothing to do with prophecy. [6]

Another midrash recounts as follows:  And the Lord put a word [Heb. davar = thing] in Balaam’s mouth (Num. 23:5) – meaning that he distorted his mouth, as if nailing it to a board.  Rabbi Eliezer says:  It was an angel speaking.  Rabbi Joshua says:  It was the Holy One, blessed be He, as it says, ‘Return to Balak and speak thus.’” [7]   According to this homily, even though the expression, “to put a word in his mouth,” sounds like it belongs to the realm of prophecy, there was no inner connection of substance between Balaam and the blessings that came out of his mouth.  The Sages’ saying that most of Balaam’s blessings ultimately did not come to pass also shows that they did not view them as prophecy, [8] for they were the ones to state that the Holy One, blessed be He, never brought forth good from His mouth and recanted and turned it to bad, save for one thing that is mentioned in Ezekiel’s prophecy. [9]

Balaam, a non-Prophet

Maimonides, who delved into the nature of prophecy from an early age, can be credited with giving the most accurate definition of Balaam’s essence.  He categorized Balaam as belonging to the second out of 12 degrees in his scale of prophecy, a degree which is considered pre-prophetic:   “Balaam also fell into this category when he acted well.  Scripture had this in mind when it said, ‘And the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth,’ as if to say, ‘He spoke with the spirit of the Lord.’  In this regard he also said of himself, ‘who hears G-d’s speech.’” [10]

Centuries later another scholar of prophecy, Andrew Neher, ruled definitively:  “Balaam was not a biblical prophet. He was a false prophet for many reasons, including his achievements in the realm of magic.” [11]   This brings us back to the definitive statement given in the book of Joshua (13:22):  “Together with the others that they slew, the Israelites put Balaam son of Beor, the augur, to the sword.”


[1] Based on Midrash Tanhuma Parashat Balak, par. 6:  G-d said to Balaam, ‘Do not go with them,’ so he said:   I shall curse them where I am.   He said to him, ‘You must not curse that people,’ so he said:  If so, I shall bless them.   He said to him:   They do not need your blessings, ‘for they are blessed.’   So, Balaam aroseand said … ‘Go back to your own country.’  He did not say to them that the Omnipotent did not give him permission to go, or to curse; rather, ‘the Lord will not let me go with you’ – He said to me:  It is beneath your dignity to go with these men; rather, go with men of greater stature; for He is mindful of my honor.” 

[2] Anyone who wished to receive the word of G-d would lay the details of his request before Him and await an answer from G-d.  Manoah, Samson’s father, did so, as well as Saul and David (by asking through the breastplate, but also when Saul conjured up Samuel), and also the prophet Jeremiah did so when he wondered about having been commanded to purchase the field of Hanamel, the son of his uncle Shallum (Jer. 32).  This was not the case with Balaam.

[3] Likewise, there are two reasons why one cannot claim that the Lord addressed   Balaam before the latter had had time to turn to Him:  one – Scripture emphasizes that Balak’s emissaries remained in Balaam’s house after he requested them to stay the night (“So the Moabite dignitaries stayed with Balaam”), indicating that the process took some time and that the Lord was only revealed to Balaam later.  The other – Scripture notes that Balaam arose in the morning and only then did he relay G- d’s answer to the dignitaries.   From this we may conclude that Balaam received the revelation late into the night, when the dignitaries were asleep and could not be given the answer, and therefore he had to wait until morning.  If this is so, then Balaam could not have hastened to ask G-d.

[4] The following midrash should also be understood in the same light as what follows:  “The other nations had seven prophets, and these are they:  Balaam and his father, Job, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite, and Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite” ( Bava Bathra 15b).  The Sages did not mean to say that these seven were truly of the same level of prophecy as the prophets of Israel, and Maimonides’ remarks (Guide for the Perplexed, Part II, chapter 32 from the Internet edition translated into Hebrew by Michael Schwartz) on the term “prophet” in Scripture accord with what the Sages said regarding this matter:  “For we also call prophets all those who reveal something unknown by surmises, or conjectures, or correct inferences.  Thus ‘prophets of Baal’ and ‘prophets of Asherah’ are mentioned in Scripture.  And G-d says, ‘If there arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, etc.’ (Deut. 13:1).”

[5] Sifre Deuteronomy, 327.  This midrash appears in a somewhat more detailed version in Midrash Tannaim on Deuteronomy 34:10 and elsewhere.

[6] In his commentary on Num.24:3-4:  “This parable shows that the Sages wished to convey that Balaam himself knew G-d’s intentions, so he said, ‘How can I damn whom G-d has not damned?’ (Num. 23:8) etc., and afterwards he heard [G-d’s] speech in the words that he thought to himself.  This is as I mentioned, for he was an augur, and he foresaw the future in his mind, and now, for the sake of the Israelites, he also heard it in speech; hence, he lauded himself, saying, ‘Word of him who hears G-d’s speech”(according to Miqra’ot Gedolot, HaKeter edition).

[7] Tanhuma Parashat Balak, par. 12.

[8] Sanhedrin 105b:   “Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said:  they all turned into a curse, save for synagogues and houses of study, as it is said:   ‘instead, the Lord your G-d turned the curse into a blessing for you, for the Lord your G-d loves you’ (Deut. 23:6) – a curse in the singular, not curses.”

[9] Shabbat 55a.

[10] Translated by Michael Schwartz, loc. sit.

[11] In his book, Nevuot u-Nevi’im; Mahut ha-Nevuah (translated from French to Hebrew by Michael bar Tzvi), Jerusalem 1999, p. 75.