Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Balak 5765/ July 16, 2005

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,




From Pagan Magician to Prophet


 Dr. Raphael Yarhi




Balaam came from Aram as a pagan magician, but in his dealings with Balak, king of Moab, he gradually changes and progressively comes to recognize the G-d of Israel.   In this study I shall attempt to show that the change that takes place in Balaam is reflected in the various ways that the name of G-d appears in the story:  E- lohim, El, and the tetragrammaton or four-letter name(Y-H-W-H).

In chapters 22-24 there are many occurrences of these names:  when the Lord talks to Balaam, when Balaam talks to Balak’s officers, in the story of the ass, and in Balaam’s encounters with Balak.   We must distinguish between the use of some of these names to denote the gods of other nations, and their use to refer specifically to the G-d of Israel.   In the course of the narrative Balaam progressively makes greater use of the name of the Lord, the tetragrammaton, as he turns from a pagan magician to an Israelite prophet. This change also finds expression in his poetic speeches.

I would like to show further that the reversals and changes or ups and downs in his dealings with the Lord are in fact a means for transforming him from a pagan magician into a prophet of the Israelite G-d. [1] Consequently he also changes his will to curse into a desire to bless the Israelite people.

First I shall present several indications for identifying the way in which the names of G-d are used in the verses.   The Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1.9, raises the question whether the name E-lohim that occurs in several places in Scriptures is used in the sacred sense or the profane, denoting pagan gods.  For example, all the names of the deity that appear in the story of Micah and his idol (Judges 17-18) are profane, even the tetragrammaton that appears there (17:13), save for verse 31 in chapter 18, where the name is sacred (“throughout the time that the House of G-d stood at Shiloh”).   So too the name E-lohim that occurs in the story of Abraham (Gen. 20:13), “So when E- lohim made me wander (or, diverted me) from my father’s house,” is profane (according to the Jerusalem Talmud, loc. sit.) since such an action could not be ascribed to the Lord.   In some places the names serve to denote sacred and profane alike, as in Exodus 22:27:  “You shall not revile E-lohim.”   Elsewhere the same name, appearing twice in the same verse, is interpreted once as sacred and once as profane, as in “E- lohim stands in the divine assembly; among the divine beings [elohim] He pronounces judgment” (Ps. 82:1). [2]   Likewise, the word elohim is interpreted in two ways in the verse, “and it is G-d’s [E-lohim] will that I hurry.   Refrain, then, from interfering with the god [Elohim] who is with me, that He not destroy you” (II Chron. 35:21). [3]

The name E-lohim is basically a generic name, common to our G-d and the gods of the other peoples.  The same is true of the name E-l, [4] as in “You whose powerful deeds no god [el] in heaven or on earth can equal” (Deut. 3:24), or “Who is a god     [E-l] like You” (Micah 7:18); “Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials [elim]” (Ex. 15:11).  From a general nomenclature and the plural “gods,” these names came to be used specifically as the personal name of the one G-d of the Israelites. [5]  

According to Cassuto, the name E- lohim can be interpreted as a personal name for the Israelite Lord only in those verses in which it could be replaced by the tetragrammaton without any change of meaning. [6]   E-lohim as a personal name either occurs in the conjunctive (semikhut) form, as in E-lohei Avraham, “the G-d of Abraham,” E-lohei Yitzhak, “the G-d of Isaac,” or in a possessive pronominal form, as in E- lohai, “my G-d,” or E-loheikha, “your G-d,” and the like. [7]   The Jerusalem Talmud loc. sit. states, “These are names that cannot be obliterated (e.g., sacred names):   one who writes the Name with four letters; yod, heh, aleph, and daled; E-l, E- lohim, E-loheikha, E- lohai, E-loheinu, E- loheikhem, Shaddai.   Therefore, in the case of Balaam, the tetragrammaton (the Name with four letters) must be understood as the Israelite Lord.

In the light of this characterization, I shall attempt to trace the names of the Deity that appear in the story of Balaam, pointing out the change in their meaning in Balaam’s world.  In chapter 22:2-21, the name E-lohim appears consistently in an ambiguous sense; while it is indeed the Israelite G-d speaking to Balaam, Balaam relates to this name simply as another god of the nations of the world.  In contrast, when Balaam speaks, after having received G-d’s revelation, he uses the tetragrammaton, [8] yet when he says, prior to this revelation, “As the Lord [Y-H-W-H] may instruct me” (Num. 22:8), he was using the name of the Lord in order to posture before Balak’s officials, showing them that he is in privileged communication with the Lord; this should be understood as an expression of his crudeness (Ha’amek Davar).   When Balaam or Balak use the name E-lohim, they do not mean the G-d of Israel; whereas when the tetragrammaton appears in the story (as in the expression, “angel of the Lord”), this refers to the G-d of Israel.

In the story of Balaam’s ass (Num. 22:22-35), the Israelite G-d reveals Himself to Balaam for the first time.  In verse 22, “But G-d [ha-E- lohim] was incensed at his going; so an angel of the Lord placed himself in his way as an adversary,” ha-E- lohim means G-d of Israel, even though Balaam is not aware that He is standing in his way.  There is irony in the fact that the ass perceived the G-d of Israel before Balaam did, since the angel of the Lord was constantly in her way, blocking her path, whereas Balaam’s eyes were obscured from seeing.   It is not until later that Balaam sees the angel of the Lord, sent by the G-d of Israel:   “Then the Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way” (v. 31). [9] He then bows down and prostrates himself before the angel of the Lord in recognition of his presence.   After the angel reproves Balaam, Balaam says to the angel of the Lord, “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way” (v. 34).  That is to say, Balaam underwent a change, now discerning between non-Israelite gods and the G-d of Israel, whose emissary he has just encountered, and this fact is denoted by use of the tetragrammaton by the text in the words “angel of the Lord [Y-H-W-H].”  Further on we see Balaam himself using this name.

However, the incident with the ass did not change Balaam’s ideas totally, as we see from what he says when he meets Balak:   “I can utter only the word that   E-lohim puts into my mouth” (v. 38); that is, E-lohim is a deity in general and not yet the G-d of Israel.   It is only later that Balaam goes to encounter the Lord (expressed by the tetragrammaton):   “Perhaps the Lord [Y-H-W-H] will grant me a manifestation” (Num.23:3).  Scriptures continues, “and the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth” (Num. 23:5), but we still do not know whether Balaam realizes that the Lord’s word is in his mouth.  In verse 12, however, it appears that Balaam underwent a further transformation, when he says, “I can only repeat faithfully what the Lord [Y-H-W-H] puts in my mouth.”

After Balak builds an altar at “Lookout Point” and Balaam returns from communing with the Lord, Balak asks him mockingly, “What did the Lord say?” (Num. 23:17).  Balak picks up on the change that has occurred in Balaam’s speech, switching from E- lohim to the Lord (the tetragrammaton).   Then, in the next oratory following this act, Balaam, who noted Balak’s mockery, answers him:   “G-d is not man to be capricious” (Num.23:19), as if to tell him:  your god is capricious like any human, but this G-d, who is G-d of Israel, is not capricious. 

Henceforth he uses either the name Lord, or the combination “Lord G-d” [Hashem E-lohim] along with pronominal suffixes, all of which are used in the sacred sense, as in Numbers 24:1:  “Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased the Lord [Y-H-W-H] to bless Israel,” and elsewhere.   From this point onwards he ceases to be a magician (he “did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens [24:1]”) and becomes a prophet speaking with the spirit of G-d:   “As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of G-d came upon him” (Num. 24:2), and with this spirit he prophesies the End of Time.  In his last oratory (Num. 24:16) he refers to “G-d’s speech,” “knowledge from the Most High,” and “visions from the Almighty.”   This collection of expressions, packed into a single verse, attests that Balaam was not putting on appearances but rather was imbued with the spirit of G-d; his sacrificial offerings were made in order to please the G-d of Israel. [10]


The difficult road that Balaam traveled, from being granted permission to go with Balak’s officials, to G- d’s anger at his going with them and the story of the ass, was an educational journey that transformed Balaam from a magician into a prophet. He  turned from someone who acknowledged the gods of other nations to someone who acknowledged the Lord, from someone who wanted to curse to someone who wanted to bless “in the spirit of G-d.”

This representation of Balaam is totally different from his representation in the works of the Sages.  Following the prophet Micah (7:5) and Nehemiah (13:2), the Sages tended to view Balaam as a magician with a satanic plot.   In the Mishnah he appears as the prototype of evil traits – “an evil eye, a haughty mind and a proud soul are the characteristics of the disciples of Balaam the wicked” ( Avot 5.19).  In the gemara he is portrayed as someone who claims credit for twenty-four thousand Israelites being slain (Sanhedrin 106a).  Rabbi Johanan says that Balaam did indeed change, but in the opposite direction to what we have presented above:  he began as a prophet, but then became a magician; also see Tanhuma and Numbers Rabbah on this week’s reading. [11]   He appears in a similar negative light in Rashi’s commentary.

[1] The term “Israelite G-d” refers to the monotheistic notion of the Israelites at that time, in contrast to the notions of the pagan world.   A “prophet of the Lord” is an internal Israelite notion, contrasting to the idea of false prophets.

[2] The Septuagint, Vulgate, and Jerome all render E-lohim in Psalms 82:1 as “gods.”  The Syriac translation renders it as “angels,” the Aramaic as “judges,” and the Greek Aquilas actually as G-d Almighty, reading the verse:  “in their [the other deities?] midst G-d judges” (A. Geiger, Ha-Mikra ve-Targumav, Tel Aviv, 1949, p. 181).

[3] These are the words of Pharaoh Nekho to Josiah, regarding Josiah’s intention to intervene in his war against Carchemish on the Euphrates.

[4] M. D. Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1961.

[5] Encyclopedia Mikra’it, , vol. 1, p. 302.

[6] As in, “When G-d [E-lohim] began to create heaven and earth,” for which we could substitute, “When the Lord began to create heaven and earth.” 

[7] Encyclopedia Mikra’it, 306.

[8] Alexander Rofe, Sefer Balaam, 1980, p. 37.

[9] The same word nitzav (standing) in conjunction with the Israelite G-d is found   in Jacob’s dream:   “And the Lord was standing beside him” (Gen. 28:13).

[10] The Anchor Bible, Numbers 21-36, Introduction and Commentary, Baruch A. Levine, 2000, U.S.A.   Comment 2:  The Balaam Narratives.

[11] Rofe, p. 49l.