Copy Right 2022
Rabbi Dr Zvi Aviner
Bilaam And the Messiah-2/
The Greatest Story Ever Told
The tiny holy spark that turned
into a huge flame of faith
The story of Bilaam is not just a story, a fair tell. It is rather a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, that has propelled forwards the human history like no other story. It has led to the birth of Christianity and Islam, thereby affecting the lives of billions peoples. It is, I should say, the extract, the essence of the Torah, connecting the Beginning, the Evolution, the Appearance of Man, the Giving of the Torah – with the future. It has acted like a spiritual engine of Mankind, giving us energy, power, direction and a hope.
It behooves therefore every person, every Noahide, to be familiar with the story, besides the Seven Commandments. It should be a part of the curriculum of the Noahide Yeshivah, G-d willing.
What is the essence of the story, in few words? It spells for us the FORMULA HOW TO RAISE A MESSIAH. It tells us why it is paramount that Israel should live in the Holy Land of Israel, and what benefit this would bring to Mankind.
Not incidentally, the story of Bilaam takes place at the exact moment when Israel is about to cross the Jordan River to the Holy Land. The story describes how at that very moment in history a fierce opposition to Israel has been raised – by no other than Israel’s kin nation, Moab, another descendant of Abraham’s family. The issue revolves about the spiritual hegemony over the Family of Noah’s Nation, humanity. So fierce was that opposition, that the Heavenly Throne was shuttered by it – so said the Rabbis.
Between Israel and Moab
The story begins by saying –
“And Moab was disgusted
in the face of the Children of Israel” (numbers 22: 2)
The Moabites felt “disgusted” by seeing Israel at their borders, as if Israel was a natural plague, wild oxen, a cloud of locus covering the “eyes of earth.” Their reaction was a genuine biological repulse, like one feel facing something ugly, something you don’t want to see around your home or associate with.
The question is why?
The Moabites knew that Israel was forbidden to wage war against them, since they were kin of Israel, the descendants of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. They had no reason to fear “Israel’s sword.” So why the deep resentment?
The answer lies in Moab’s history and faith.
The separation between Abraham and his nephew, Lot, began before the overturning of Sodom. It is said that when Abraham departed from Lot – because Lot’s people were stealing from the locals – Abraham told him:
“If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right,
and if you go to the right I’ll l go to the left” (Genesis 13: 9)
Thus, their departure from each other was COMPLETE. Lot then settled in Sodom, and Abraham went his way.
The second time the Torah compares Abraham and Sodom is prior to the overturning of Sodom. As we recall, the three angels who came to perform the overturning, first visited Abraham, as if to be sure of the verdict. Then, sitting by Abraham’s table, while he was catering them by himself, they “observed Sodom” (Genesis 14: 16.) From there – from Abraham’s table – Sodom looked very bad indeed.
That comparison to Abraham sealed the Sodomites fate. And since they were the exact opposite of Abraham, they had to be overturned. As if Sodom and Abraham cannot live together on this planet – even nowadays. (Yes, there is a modern Sodom)o
What was the Sodomite faith?0
The Torah says about the Sodomites that they were “exceedingly evil and sinners to YHVH.” (Genesis 13:13). It is unique description which means, according to Rashi, that they “knew YHVH, and yet rebelled against Her.” The Sodomites were not primitive idol worshippers like the Canaanites and other nations around them. They knew YHVH, either from Shem, Noah’s son who lived nearby at Jeru-Salem, or by their own tradition. They knew what YHVH stands for and yet they performed the EXACT OPPOSITE on purpose, with rebellion, with mockery.
Thus, the Midrash says, they performed the exact opposite of the Seven Commandments, with fun and mockery. Their mockery actually betrayed the fact that they knew well what the Merciful YHVH expects from Mankind yet they did the very opposite with fun – (not unlike the Nazis telling their victims that they are “resettled,” welcoming the death trains by music and orchestra.)
And while YHVH stands for compassion for the poor and desolate, the Sodomites developed a slogan that said, according to the Rabbis, “mine is mine, yours is yours. ” It sounds nice, praising individuality, yet it was a mockery – since it excluded any social charity and “safety net” for the socially poor and oppressed, the exact opposite of what Abraham did all his life.
Moab came from that culture.
Moab – which means in Hebrew “From My Father” – was the grandson of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who impregnated his daughters after the overturn of Sodom. As we recall, the three angels who came to overturn Sodom and her allies, allowed Lot, his wife and his two daughters to escape the city.
Lot’s wife “looked backwards, “ longing to Sodom, and was therefore turned into a a salt statue, whereas Lot and his two daughters hide in a nearby cave. The daughters, thinking they were the only survival of Mankind, made their father drunk, then slept with him. Their act was a sheer abomination – an act of hessed – yet their goal was good, thinking they were saving Mankind from extinction.
Hence, although the daughters were known in Sodom as harlots, their action here came out of a holy spark in their soul. Let’s remember that tiny spark for the rest of the story.
The older daughter then gave birth to a son whom she named Moab, which means “From My Father” – not being shy of her ordeal with her father. The younger daughter also gave birth to a son whom she called Amon. These two boys evolved into two small, proud nations that occupied the former territory of Sodom and Gomorrah, north of the Dead Sea. Moab even spoke a close dialect of the Hebrew language, which makes it easy for today’s archeologist to read their inscription.
The Moabites inherited also many traits of the faith and culture of ancient Sodom and Gomorrah. This can explain their total resentment to Israel’s presence at their border
For instance, when Israel passed by their borders, asking to purchase from then food and water for good money, the Moabites not only refused but also came out against Israel by the sword.
As a result, the Merciful YHVH forbade Israel from ever accepting converts from the Moabites and the Ammonites. This was a rare decree against Moab and Ammon, setting up an eternal burrier against mix marriages between Moab and Israel, as if G-d wished to separate their genetic pool from each other forever. No other nation was so completely separated from Israel. THE CHANCE OF ANY GENETIC MUTUAL FERTILIZATION BETWEEN ISRAEL AND MOAB (AND AMMON) WAS EXTREMELY SLIM, NON EXISTING.
Moreover, besides this legal separation between Israel and Moab, the Moabites in Moses’ time developed a sort of extremely ugly kind of IDOLATRY that surely set them apart from Israel. They worshipped the Peor, which means an “open cavity,” in the ugliest way a sick human mind might conceive. Hence Israel too felt disgusted by Moab’s faith, making their repulsiveness mutual. Again, the chance that there would be any mixture of Moab and Israel was near zero.
Having discussed Moab’s separation from Israel, let’s return to the story,
King Balak’s Dream and Accusations
Last class we learned that besides his disgust from Israel, King Balak of Moab was also haunted by a weird dream, in which he saw his daughter sitting on a throne and all Israel prostrating before her. When he consulted his wise men, they told him to appoint his daughter over his army and she would surely defeat Israel and rule over them by the sword.
The smart king Balak knew better. When he consulted the Midyanites, who had known Moses first hand for years (Moses’ wife was a Midyanite) , they advised him against such a military raid. The only way he could overcome Moses, they said, was to use Moses’ own power of the word against him. It meant- use Moses’ own faith in YHVH against him, smear him and Israel in YHVH’s eyes, and you win!
“How would I accomplish that?” the king asked.
“Hire a prophet who knows YHVH, and he would help you. Let him present you to Heavens, and he would use Moses’ own words and principles to find blemish in Israel and diminish their fame the eyes of YHVH,” the Midyanites said.
“Is there such a prophet?” the King asked.
“Yes, his name is Bilaam,” the Midyanites said.
That strategy, in fact, has been used by Israel’s enemies for thousands of years. The Greek and the Romans – as well as the Muslims – often used the very prophet of the Bible as a weapon against Israel. They told Israel – have not your own prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos, found you guilty in the eyes of your own G-d?” So they charged, ignoring the many good, comforting verses to Israel by the same prophets.
Now, who was the prophet Bilaam?0
Archeologist have found his name inscribed on an ancient temple in trans-Jordan. The Rabbis, however, have insisted, that regardless he was elevated to be a great prophet of what he was, a crook or a magician, at the time of the story almost equal to Moses.
The only difference between him and Moses – they said – was that Bilaam used his enormous power for seeking wealth and fame, the opposite of Moses.
According to the Rabbis, Bilaam knew how to approach the Heavenly Court, like a good lawyer. Indeed, that is what the King hired him to do.
In his message to the prophet,
King Balak asked the prophet to solve him his weird dream, and he also raised three charges against Israel:
(1): They are not whom they claim to be!
““Here is a company (aam) coming out of Egypt,” (Numbers 21:5)
The people out there call themselves Israel, while in fact they are but “aam,” nameless Egyptian slaves who have just escaped from their masters. There is no proof that they are the legitimate descendants of the Patriarchs, Abraham Isaac and Jacob. Have they not been enslaved for 210 years? Have not their women been molested and abused by their Egyptian masters, many times over? Hence they have no right to be here! (Whereas I am a legitimate descendant of Lot, Abraham’s nephew.)
(2) : They have no faith
“They have covered the eyes of the Earth” (21: 5.)
These words can simply mean that the people across of him were so numerous that they covered the sky, iike locust.
But the Rabbis read it to say that Balak claimed here against Israel’s faith. Had they not worshipped the Golden Calf? Had they not made Moses’ life miserable by constant rebellion and a desire to return to Egypt? How could they claim the Holy Land for themselves in the name of G-d?
(3): They are not a civilized nation
The King’s third accusation against Israel was that they were not qualified to be counted among the civilized nations, the family of Noahide nations. They consist of a disorganized mob that fill the field like wild oxen, consuming and destroying everything on their way. They are incapable of running a civilized country; therefore they should not be here.
These three charges have become the classical antisemitic charges against Israel till nowadays
- The Jews of today are not the true descendants of the ancient Hebrew
- The Jewish faith today is different, most Jews today are secular
- The Jews today do not consist a nation – they speak different languages, have different cultures and customs, and most of them do not share the same territory.
The prophet concedes to come
The drama starts when the prophet refuses to accept King Balak’s lavish offer. He would not seek a blemish in Israel and curse them in YHVH’s eyes, unless he gets an approval from YHVH to do so.
In fact, the prophet concurs with King Balak’s accusations against Israel, and even raises his own one: why was Moses thriving to bring Israel into the Land of Canaan? Couldn’t Israel settle in another place? Why did YHVH promise Abraham the Holy Land and no other land? He would seek an answer to those burning question as the story gets unfolded.
Seeing the prophet refusal, King Balak keeps sending him increasingly higher rank officers, promising increasingly more monetary compensation, yet the prophet is adamant – he would wait for YHVH’s approval.
Finally, it was ELKM, the Attribute of Justice, who appears to Bilaam at night, first forbidding him to go, then, as Billam keeps begging, giving him a permission to go with the Moabites, provided he would say – in his prophecy – only words that ELKM would tell him to say.
The she-donkey three revelations
That permission makes Bilaam very happy. Next morning, he wakes up with enthusiasm before anyone else, saddles his she-donkey by himself and goes on the road ahead of the Moabite delegation. He agrees to say only the worlds of ELKM, yet he is confident that by examining Israel he would find a blemish in YHVH’s eyes, something ugly that would cause the Shechinah to depart from Israel, leaving them a prey to the Moabites and other enemies of Israel.
In his heart he repeats King Balak’s accusations against Israel’s origin, faith and social order. He is sure he would find a fault in them – so bad, so ugly, that YHVH would depart from them. Then Israel would disappear from the area and from the stage of history, as King Balak has hired him to accomplish.
With those three accusations on his mind, the prophet Billam rides forwards alone, happy and assured of himself.
Exactly at that point, the Angel of YHVH appears – not to him, but to his she-donkey, a great humiliation to the arrogant prophet!
Moreover, the angel of YHVH, the angel of MERCY, is holding a sword against him, acting as a “Satan against him” (Numbers22;22), as Bilaam’s adversary. Here the word satan appears in the first and only site in the Torah – as a good angel, acting as an adversary to Bilaam and his wicked plan.
The Angel of YHVH appears to the she-donkey three times,
addressing King Balak’s three accusations one by one
The Donkey’s first Revelation
In the first revelation to the she-donkey, the verse says:
“And the She-Donkey saw the Angel of YHVH
standing in the way,
and his sword drawn in his hand.
And the She-Donkey turned aside out of the way
and went into the field.
So Bilaam hit the she donkey, to deviate her back into the road.” (22:23) 0
In this first revelation, the Angel of YHVH gave the she-donkey the freedom to escape into the field right or left.
Then the she- donkey has as second revelation
of the angel where it says:
“Then the Angel of YHVH stood in the path of the vineyard
a wall being on this side, and a wall being on that side.
And when the she-donkey saw the Angel of YHVH
she thrust herself to the wall, and crushed Bilaam’s foot
against the wall and he struck her again.
In the second revelation, the Angel restricts the she-donkey going right or left, yet it allows her to go forwards. Here she needs to be careful. Pressing herself against the wall would crush Blaam’s leg.
The she-donkey then has third revelation where it says:
“And the Angel of YHVH went farther and stood
in a narrow place
where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
And when the she Donkey saw the Angel of YHVH she lay down under Bilaam.
And Bilaam’s anger burned, and he struck the she-donkey with a staff.
Here, In the third and last revelation, the she-donkey is given no leeway to go either right or left, not even forwards or backwards. She simply crouches on the ground in full submission.
By these three revelations to the she-donkey, the Angel of YHVH was sending Bilaam the message that he would have three opportunities to examine Israel, addressing King Balak’s three accusations against Israel.
First, he would address In Israel’s origin – are they indeed the patriarchs’ seeds? Like the she-donkey, Bilaam would speak out only the true words that YHVH would place in his mouth, yet he would be given, like the donkey, a degree of freedom to deviate from YHVH’s words right and left AND SEEK A BLEMISH IN ISRRAEL.
Then he would be given a second opportunity to examine Israel’s faith – are they loyal to YHVH? Like the donkey, he would have to speak out only the true words that YHVH would place in his mouth. Yet, like the donkey, he would also be given a limited freeway to find a blemish in Israel.
Then he would be given a the third opportunity to examine Israel’s social order- are they indeed like locus or wild oxen? Could they be counted among civilized Nations? Here, in this third opportunely, he would have to say- like the donkey – only the true words that YHVH would place in his mouth, yet this time he would have absolutely no leeway to examine them right or left, backwards or forwards. In this final revelation, his mouth and his heart would be the same! THERE WOULD BE NO WAY TO CHALLENGE THAT THIRD REVELATION OR STOP IT FROM HAPPENING!
As the story is unfolded, the Angel opens Bilaam’s eyes so that he understands these messages. Somewhere along the line, he hopes, he would also find a solution to King Balak’s weird daughter ruling over Israel. He would also understand, he hopes, why is it paramount that Israel settles in the Holy Land and in no other land.