Friday, July 22, 2016

Balak: Bilaam's transition from sorcerer to prophet

Alternate Title: Hashem is consistent

A sorcerer manipulates spiritual forces, and thinks he can manipulate God as just another spiritual force. A prophet is the mouthpiece of God and the conduit of his will.

A surface reading of parshat Balak is confusing. Hashem seems inconsistent. Hashem tells Bilaam not to go. Then, He tells him that he may go. Then, Hashem sends an angel to stop (or kill) Bilaam for going. Then, the angel tells him that he may go? Is this not an inconsistency or repeated reversal? It all seems quite confusing.

The answer, to my mind, is that Hashem is entirely consistent, but what we are seeing is character development. The messengers ask Bilaam (22:6) to curse them, for they know that whoever he curses is cursed. That is, he has the role of sorcerer, able to manipulate spiritual forces.

Bilaam tells them he will sleep and ask Hashem. Hashem has at least some role in this. Hashem tells him not to go, and furthermore, that he shouldn't curse them, for they are blessed. And, as Bilaam relates to the messengers, Hashem refused to let him go with them (22:13).

This initial refusal establishes two things. First, it clearly reveals Hashem's desire to Bilaam. Hashem does not want Bilaam to go, and doesn't want Bilaam to curse. Any action / intention by Bilaam to curse them would violate what Hashem wants, and is therefore at least quasi-sinful. Furthermore, it is likely a theological rejection of (2:6), that the power to curse lies entirely in Bilaam's hand. Rather, this people is objectively blessed, and so a curse should not / will not happen.

Bilaam tells the messengers this. Other messengers from Balak come and repeat the request. He seems pious and says to them he cannot act except as Hashem instructs, and acts as a conduit to relate Hashem's request.

However, the subtext here is that he does indeed wish to go, given that Balak has promised honor and riches. Yet Bilaam already knows the will of Hashem. Hashem's prior response made it absolutel clear that Hashem did not wish Bilaam to curse them, and that they are blessed, such that he should not curse. Bilaam should have simply held to the prior rejection.

That he does not shows that (1) he is hoping for permission to act in a way which will bring him honor and riches, even though he knows that this is contrary to Hashem's desires, and (2) he still thinks that there is power in his words, and that he will be able to manipulate spiritual forces to curse those who are blessed.

Hashem tells him to go with the men, but that he will do that which Hashem tells him, he should do. While on a surface level, this seems like clear authorization to go. But it is really a passive-aggressive answer. It is also a test. Will Bilaam go, now that he has official permission? He already knows that going and cursing is against Hashem's desire. And Bilaam still thinks that he will somehow succeed in eventually cursing. He is acting as sorcerer.

When Bilaam goes, Hashem's wrath flares (22:22). This is not inconsistent. The angel is not, however, sent to kill, but to deliver a message. The donkey, three times, sees an angel standing in his path, and veers to the side. The dumb donkey understands Hashem's will (represented by the angel), and diverts from his intended action, and direction from his human master, in order to fulfill Hashem's will. So too, Bilaam should have understood (from his first interaction with Hashem; perhaps also from the repeated strange veering to the side by his donkey) that this mission is contrary to Hashem's true desire, and should have diverted from his intended action, and direction from his human master Balak, in order to fulfill Hashem's will.

His own words rebuking the donkey, first beating it, and saying it was deserving of death for going against his will, such that if he had a sword, he would kill it, is a condemnation of himself, who went against his own Master's desire. He then sees the angel, with a sword parallel to the sword he just mentioned.

When the donkey speaks, and Bilaam sees the angel with sword drawn, Bilaam understands that Hashem is upset with him, for his attitude and sin - for his wanting to accomplish something he knew was contrary to Hashem's desire, and for his belief that he would somehow be able to manipulate the spiritual forces contrary to how Hashem was running the world.

Bilaam states his willingness to return, since this has displeased Hashem (22:34). This is a (partial, at least) transformation, in that he will only act in accordance with Hashem's pleasure or displeasure. Hashem tells Bilaam to go, but that he will speak only what Hashem instructs him (22:35).

At this point, Bilaam is no longer sinning. It is Hashem's will that he go. Hashem's intention here is to make public, to the nation of Moav, that Hashem is in control of the course of human events, and of who is cursed or blessed. Bilaam is playing the role of the donkey. Just as the Hashem opened the donkey's mouth and it said the words Hashem placed in its mouth, so too Bilaam. And the three times diversion from human master's direction because of Hashem's direction will parallel the three times Bilaam will veer from Balak's direction.

When greeting Balak, he doesn't say that he can only act as Hashem wants him to act, which is the earlier pious statement. He declares that he has no power to say anything (22:38). This is contrary to what the messengers first said (22:6), that the power to curse was with Bilaam. He further tells Balak (22:38) that he is a mere mouthpiece, and only says that which Hashem puts into his mouth. This is new. This is the lesson he learned on the road, from the donkey and the angel. This is what Hashem said in 22:35, that he will (not just should) speak only that which Hashem gives him to speak.

Balak still operates on the assumption that Bilaam will be able to curse - will be able to channel and manipulate spiritual forces, via kesamim (which were in the hands of the messengers). The sacrifices are initiated, at first, by Balak (22:40), unless this is part of simply honoring Bilaam.

At any rate, sacrifices (and IIRC, drinking the blood of sacrifices) are a mantic method, a means of inducing a prophetic altered state. Thus, seven altars with seven bulls and seven rams, and the hope that Hashem will appear to Bilaam, this time in the daytime rather than in a dream. This is ritualistic, and means of manipulating spiritual forces. Yet Bilaam states that Hashem will show him something that he can tell Balak (23:3).

Now, he acts as prophet, rather than sorcerer. He rejects, to Bilaam, to Moav, to the reader of the sidra, the idea that he will have any power to curse or invoke wrath if this is not Hashem's desire in the world (23:8). And then proceeds to bless Israel.

Balak is upset with Bilaam, because he does not regard Bilaam as prophetic conduit, but someone who can control spiritual forces, so Bilaam tells him otherwise, that he must say that which Hashem puts in his mouth (23:12). Balak persists, the scene repeats, with similar result, with the same idea that it is Hashem who puts the words in his mouth (23:26), such that even positive words he will not / cannot suppress. Balak still thinks Hashem is manipulable, such that a different location and further sacrifices will induce Hashem to act in contrary manner to His expressed desire (23:27).

Then, there is a further positive development in Bilaam's attitude. He sees what Hashem's desire is, and doesn't go through any or his sorcerer actions. He sees Hashem's will to bless Israel, and doesn't go in search of omens as before, in a feeble / fake / ultimately ineffective way to attempt to manipulate the result (24:1). And then speaks poetically and prophetically, blessing the nation of Israel. This might even be of Bilaam's own accord and invention!

Contrary to all I have written is perhaps Bilaam's claim (24:12) that this is the original statement to the second messengers (22:18). But this might well be cast as spin, and we can see a slight difference in language (acting contrary to His will, which is the piety of a sorcerer vs. ability to effect anything with speech, since Hashem is giving him the words, which is the capability of a prophet). 


Anonymous said...

>He rejects, to Bilaam

should be: He rejects, to Balak


Anonymous said...

Also, it would be interesting to find a way to square your explanation of Bilaam's transformation from a sorcerer to a prophet with the (midrashic?) idea that he was the greatest non-Jewish prophet ever, somebody with a prophetic stature equal to that of Moshe Rabeinu.


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