Friday, July 09, 2010

What was Bilaam doing in Midian?

Summary: Bilaam shouldn't have been there, since he 'returned to his place'. So why was he killed in the battle against Midian? The midrash has an answer; Ibn Caspi does not, and is firm in not having an answer. Also, Rav Saadia Gaon, and another suggested resolution.

Post: At the end of parashat Balak, we read:

25. Balaam arose, went, and returned home, and Balak went on his way.כה. וַיָּקָם בִּלְעָם וַיֵּלֶךְ וַיָּשָׁב לִמְקֹמוֹ וְגַם בָּלָק הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ:

And earlier, we learned that his home was in Petor, in Aram. If so, it is strange that he would be killed in the war with Midian. Yet this is what happens, in parashas Matos:

8. And they killed the Midianite kings upon their slain: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, and Balaam the son of Beor they slew with the sword.ח. וְאֶת מַלְכֵי מִדְיָן הָרְגוּ עַל חַלְלֵיהֶם אֶת אֱוִי וְאֶת רֶקֶם וְאֶת צוּר וְאֶת חוּר וְאֶת רֶבַע חֲמֵשֶׁת מַלְכֵי מִדְיָן וְאֵת בִּלְעָם בֶּן בְּעוֹר הָרְגוּ בֶּחָרֶב:

How was he here? Rashi explains, based on a midrash:

the five kings of Midian: Do I not see that the verse lists five [kings]? Why was it necessary [for Scripture] to say “five”? But it is to teach you that they were all equally involved in the conspiracy, and they all received the same punishment. Balaam went there [to Midian] to receive his reward for the twenty-four thousand that had fallen from Israel as a result of his advice, and now he left Midian to meet the Israelites, and he offered them harmful advice. He said to them, “If, when you were six hundred thousand, you could not overcome them, and now with twelve thousand, you come to fight?” They gave him his just deserts-in full, without depriving him in the least. — [Sifrei Mattoth 40]חמשת מלכי מדין: וכי איני רואה שחמשה מנה הכתוב, למה הוזקק לומר חמשת, אלא ללמדך ששוו כולם בעצה והושוו כולם בפורענות. בלעם הלך שם ליטול שכר עשרים וארבעה אלף שהפיל מישראל בעצתו, ויצא ממדין לקראת ישראל ומשיאן עצה רעה. אמר להם אם כשהייתם ששים רבוא לא יכולתם להם, ועכשיו בי"ב אלף אתם באים להלחם. נתנו לו שכרו משלם ולא קפחוהו:

That is, indeed Bilaam returned to his place, as it stated at the end of Balak. But we see that Bilaam had given them the eitza about Baal Peor. Where do we see this? Well, for one, later in the perek:

16. They were the same ones who were involved with the children of Israel on Balaam's advice to betray the Lord over the incident of Peor, resulting in a plague among the congregation of the Lord.טז. הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם לִמְסָר מַעַל בַּי־הֹוָ־ה עַל דְּבַר פְּעוֹר וַתְּהִי הַמַּגֵּפָה בַּעֲדַת יְ־הֹוָ־ה:

And so, Bilaam gave this advice, returned to his home. And then when 24,000 perished, he came to Midian to collect his reward. He adds this bit of advice to Israel, which places him at this particular scene, but regardless, this explains why he is not in Peor.

This travel back and forth seems a bit speculative. This is why Ibn Caspi writes:

ואת בלעם בן בעור. אין לנו בזה רק מה שעינינו
מאות, והוא כי נמצא אז במדין , אם כי לא נדע סבת המצאו שם,
כי לא פורש בתורה ומי ינבא, ואם לא זכר מציאותו לא ידענוהו:

That is, he takes a very conservative approach. The pasuk tells us that he was there in Midian, and so of course we accept that. But the Torah also does not reveal to us just how he came to be in Midian at that time. (Presumably, he is thinking of Bilaam "returning to his place" at the end of Balak as a confounding factor.) And so, we should say "we don't know it" because the Torah did not tell us, rather than proffering an elaborate midrashic explanation -- or some other explanation.

I saw another explanation cited in the name of Rav Saadia Gaon:
Thus, this commentator suggests that even though the pasuk in Balak stated that Bilaam returned to his place, he delayed there after his advice in order to see the results, and so was killed. "Went to his place" means that he set off towards there, not that he arrived there. Similar to the way Rav Saadia Gaon explains Vayelech Charana, that Yaakov set off towards Charan.

That is an interesting possibility. Another one, I would suggest myself, is that וַיָּשָׁב לִמְקֹמוֹ וְגַם בָּלָק הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ is  idiomatic, and doesn't mean that Bilaam literally went to "his place", meaning Petor, but he went to whatever place he was going to, just as Balak went off on his own road. I am not so convinced by my own suggestion here.

Another possibility is that indeed, Bilaam returned to Petor. But then he was approached by the kings of Midian; and he gave them this advice regarding Baal Peor, and so he was present in Midian at the time of the battle. This sounds almost like a variant of the midrash! How can this work out, based on the pesukim? I would suggest as follows -- the Torah really records two incidents involving Bilaam, which happened in close proximity to one another, and involving some of the same parties. And so the Torah folds many of the details in together.

There is the straightforward story of Balak and Bilaam. Then, there is the following which occurs after Balak went on his path and Bilaam returned to Petor:

Bemidbar 22:1

1. The children of Israel journeyed and encamped in the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.א. וַיִּסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּעַרְבוֹת מוֹאָב מֵעֵבֶר לְיַרְדֵּן יְרֵחוֹ:

3. Moab became terrified of the people, for they were numerous, and Moab became disgusted because of the children of Israel.ג. וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם מְאֹד כִּי רַב הוּא וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
4. Moab said to the elders of Midian, "Now this assembly will eat up everything around us, as the ox eats up the greens of the field. Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time.ד. וַיֹּאמֶר מוֹאָב אֶל זִקְנֵי מִדְיָן עַתָּה יְלַחֲכוּ הַקָּהָל אֶת כָּל סְבִיבֹתֵינוּ כִּלְחֹךְ הַשּׁוֹר אֵת יֶרֶק הַשָּׂדֶה וּבָלָק בֶּן צִפּוֹר מֶלֶךְ לְמוֹאָב בָּעֵת הַהִוא:

Thus, Moav sparked Midian to take action. This action was not cursing, Rather:

7. So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian went, with magic charms in their hands, and they came to Balaam and conveyed Balak's message to him.ז. וַיֵּלְכוּ זִקְנֵי מוֹאָב וְזִקְנֵי מִדְיָן וּקְסָמִים בְּיָדָם וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל בִּלְעָם וַיְדַבְּרוּ אֵלָיו דִּבְרֵי בָלָק:

There is a folding over of the elders of Moav and the elders of Midian here. Both went to Bilaam, but at different times. Thus, in the next pasuk, we only see the Moabite nobles:

8. He said to them, "Lodge here for the night, and I will give you an answer when the Lord speaks to me." So the Moabite nobles stayed with Balaam.ח. וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם לִינוּ פֹה הַלַּיְלָה וַהֲשִׁבֹתִי אֶתְכֶם דָּבָר כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֵלָי וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׂרֵי מוֹאָב עִם בִּלְעָם:

Then, perek 25, with the incident in Shittim, which is attributed to Bilaam's advice, and so on and so forth. Indeed, Ibn Ezra equates the elders of Midian with the five kings of Midian mentioned in Matos.

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