A recurring, controversial topic that many have discussed and looked into in-depth is the question of whether Bilam was a good man or a bad man. But what about whether Bilam was a prophet or a sorcerer? If Bilam was good that doesn’t necessarily mean he was a prophet, and if he was a bad man that doesn’t fully indicate he was a sorcerer either. Though the parsha on Bilam has recently passed, the question is timeless and has been stuck in my head since Parshat Balak.
Bilam, a pagan “prophet,” is known for having grudgingly blessed Bnei Yisrael after Balak, the king of Moab, requested of Bilam to curse the Jewish people in exchange for more nobility and wealth. Bilam is mentioned many times as a bad man, a sorcerer. However, Bilam is also often described as a prophet and a good man. So, which is it?
To answer these questions, we must look at different texts, mefarshim, pesukim and scholars.
In order to answer this question correctly, one must look at how God communicates with other, true, prophets. Normally, like in the case of Jeremiah, God will reach out to the prophet; however, in the case of Bilam, God does not seek out Bilam; Bila’am seeks out God. “And Bilam said unto Balak, stand by thy burnt offering, and I will go, peradventure the Lord will come to meet me.” (23: 1-3)...
“Nahmanides observed in respect of sacrifices, the person bringing them, wishes, through their medium, to achieve closer communication with God, elevating human nature to a Divine level, whilst Bilam wanted to mold, as it were, the Divine will to his own nefarious ends, bringing the Divine down to mortal level” (Nehama, 286). Bilam was trying to force God’s hand, bringing God down to Bilam’s level, rather than elevate Bilam’s spirit to God’s level.
Furthermore, Rabbi Yochanan states that Bilam blessed Bnei Yisrael against his will. “Struggling and in distress like a fish that is hooked to do the bidding of his master.” This comes from the pasuk, “And the Lord put a word in Bilam’s mouth” (23: 5). Rambam points out on this pasuk that many rabbis have suggested that Bilam shaped his mouth (formed it) so that he could speak as he wanted, rather than what would be “placed into his mouth” by God. This is no prophet.
Lastly, the Talmudic authorities found two different types of flaws in Bilam’s final “blessings,” which indicate he may not have been a true prophet, but rather deceitful. Bilam, in his blessing, compared Bnei Yisrael to a cedar tree: “as cedars beside the waters” (24: 6). The Talmudic authorities write that the “cedar tree does not grow in water, does not drive young shoots, its roots are not many, and when the wind blows against it, it uproots it and overturns it.” (Ta’anit 20a). Though this should be fairly obvious, prophets should bless, with full, righteous blessings, where there are only good intentions, whereas Bilam’s blessing was the opposite! So Bilam’s first flaw is being malevolent. Bilam’s second flaw is inaccuracy in his metaphor. Prophets do not have flaws in their blessings, especially such drastic ones, where it can be seen as a small curse rather than a blessing. Therefore, he must not have been a true prophet.
There are also sources indicating that Bilam was, in fact, a prophet. For example, the third time Bilam goes with Balak, this time in front of all of Bnei Yisrael, we notice a shift in Bilam’s “attitude, preparations and the quality of his inspiration.”
“And when Bilam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times to meet enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness. As Bilam lifted up his eyes and he saw Israel abiding tribe by tribe. And the spirit of God came upon him.” (24: 1-2)
Rashbam explains this verse, stating that Bilam, during this third occasion, did not this time seek after enchantment to try to find a place where he would be able to curse Bnei Yisrael, but instead, without bitterness, blessed them. “The spirit of the Lord came upon him,” where God’s presence rested on Bilam out of love.
Similarly, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German rabbi, elaborates on these pesukim. Rav Hirsch states that when Bilam lifted his eyes he began to realize that “the will of God cannot be influenced by sorcery.” God did not put words into Bilam’s ungrudging mouth this time, but the spirit of prophecy “informed” Bilam’s words.
Lastly, Bilam is compared to Moshe, one of the greatest prophets of Israel. As seen, “in Israel there was no other prophet as great as Moses, but among the nations there was. Who was he? Bilam” (Sifre, Devarim 357.). Stating that Bilam was one of the greatest prophets among the gentiles indicates the true, great prophet Bilam was.
Now that we have brought evidence of Bilam as a sorcerer and a prophet we can continue to explore whether he was a good man or a bad man.
Overall, whether Bilam turned from a good man to a bad man is less important than what we need to establish. Bilam was a prophet, there is significant evidence to prove so, but as Rabbi Israel writes, as a prophet one has a great responsibility, and Bilam did not deal well with that responsibility. Bilam chose to sell out harmful secrets of Bnei Yisrael and jumped at the opportunity to curse Bnei Yisrael, against God’s desires, and as a prophet, Bilam should have realized not to go with Balak. Bilam made mistakes, despite his good nature, but in the end, with the free will that God has granted us, Bilam chose to follow his dark desire. This is why in the parsha, donkeys are made to see clearer than humans, and why Bilam is referred to as Bilam Harasha, the wicked Bilam.
One can be a sorcerer without being a bad man, and one can be a prophet without being a good man; Bilam was a prophet who chose poorly and followed his negative intentions to suit himself.
Julianne Katz is a rising senior at BCHA and a summer intern at The Jewish Link.