The Development of Bil’am as a Navi by Reuven Herzog


Bil’am the Moavi (or Arami, according to some) prophet should be considered the central character, as he drives the plot forward and is the only one to have a dialogue with both of the other leads, namely, Balak and Hashem. The relationship between Bil’am and Hashem is particularly interesting, because the language used by the Chumash is inconsistent. Hashem is referred to many times, but with mostly two names – Hashem (YKVK) and Elokim – interchanged in a very unclear pattern. Looking at the usage of these names over the development of the Parashah gives us a greater understanding of Bil’am and how he develops, and can even shed some light onto the nature of a Navi.

Each name of Hashem has its own significance, meaning, and connotation. These meanings often exist in tandem: One of the most common duos of meanings refers to the two dominant traits of Hashem in running the world; “YKVK” refers to Hashem’s Midat Rachamim, attribute of mercy, whereas “Elokim” refers to His Midat Din, attribute of judgment and justice (BeReishit Rabah 33:3), a dichotomy often found in our Tefilot, especially on the Yamim Nora’im. What is more applicable to our Parashah, though, is the exclusivity of the Tetragrammaton (YKVK).

“Elohim” simply means “god,” and is often used not in the context of Hashem Himself. In the Aseret HaDibrot, the prohibition reads, “Lo Yihyeh Lecha Elohim Acheirim Al Panay,” “Do not have any other gods before me” (Shemot 20:2). The word’s usage spans the entire Semitic world, used by polytheists (even Balak here refers to “HaElohim,” “The god” (BeMidbar 23:27)) and monotheists alike; the Arabic word for god, “Allah,” is just a derivation of the same Semitic word. Elohim is the general name for Hashem, whatever and whoever He may be. On the other hand, YKVK is a special name, reserved for the Jewish people. It is a name that is unique, so special that Hashem didn’t even reveal it to our forefathers, but did for the first time to Moshe. Though the Chumash often records, “VaYomer Hashem El Avram,” “And Hashem said to Avram” (BeReishit in various places) or similar phrases, this is only from the narrator’s perspective. It may teach us something about how Hashem was acting at that time, but not about how He was called by the Avot. In any case, He tells Moshe (Shemot 6:3), “Ani Hashem [YKVK]; VaEira El Avraham VeEl Yitzchak VeEl Ya’akov BeKeil Shakai, UShemi Hashem [YKVK] Lo Nodati LaHem,” “I am Hashem [YKVK]; I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov with [the name] Keil Shakai, but [with] my name Hashem [YKVK], I was not known to them.” What is special about Moshe that he is the first to know Hashem by this name, and not Avraham, the founder of widespread monotheism? While Avraham may have begun the concept of religion as we know it today, Moshe was the founder of the Jewish nation. YKVK is the special name of Hashem used in conjunction with the Jewish people. Even the Mesha Stele (a monument describing Moav’s subjugation by Israel and subsequent freedom) mentions two gods: Kemosh, the god of Moav, and YKVK, the god of Israel. YKVK is a more exclusive name, perhaps a more personal name, which Hashem only shares with His people.

With this understanding, we can examine Bil’am’s developing relationship with Hashem over the duration of the episode. The first time we see the names of Hashem is following Balak’s initial request. When Balak found out about Bnei Yisrael’s crushing victory over the two Emorite kings Sichon and Og, he called upon Bil’am to curse them, fearing for his own nation. He made no mention of Hashem in his message, only that, “Yadati Eit Asher Tevareich Mevorach, VaAsher Ta’or Yu’ar,” “I know that whomever you [Bil’am] bless will be blessed, and whomever you curse will be cursed” (BeMidbar 22:6). Bil’am asked the messengers to remain overnight, “VaHashivoti Etchem Davar KaAsher Yedabeir Hashem [YKVK] Eilai,” “And I will bring you back word, according to how Hashem (YKVK) will speak to me” (22:8). Immediately, however, the Torah records how Hashem appeared to Bil’am that night: “VaYavo Elokim El Bil’am,” “And God came to Bil’am” (22:9). Why did the name of Hashem change? This seems to indicate that Bil’am was being shown his place. He claimed that he could communicate with YKVK, the most personal connection with Hashem, to which Hashem responded, “No; you may have a gift of prophecy, but only like anyone from outside Bnei Yisrael. You can only hear from Elokim.” This may even hint at a display of arrogance on Bil’am’s part and a subsequent reprimand from Hashem. Bil’am did not get the message, though, and told Balak that he cannot go, “Ki Mei’ein Hashem [YKVK] LeTiti LaHaloch Imachem,” “Because Hashem [YKVK] refused to allow me to go with you” (22:13). He maintained his image of an elite Navi with the highest personal connection to Hashem; as told by Torah, however, he was not.

The second time we see this disparity is the following night. When Balak sent more messengers, urging Bil’am with the promise of great honor, Bil’am refused, listening to the word of Hashem. He said with dignity, “Lo Uchal LaAvor Et Pi Hashem [YKVK] Elokai,” “I cannot transgress the word of Hashem [YKVK] my God” (BeMidbar 22:18). He still elevated himself to the same level of Bnei Yisrael, a level of knowing Hashem personally. And again, the One that came to Bil’am that night was Elokim. However, Bil’am added something shocking to the messengers when he asked them to remain overnight again; he said he would see if Hashem has amended His decision. Hashem had just decreed the exact opposite of what Balak requested; would He really change his mind? Especially as a Navi, as one who claimed to have a high level of connection with Hashem, how could Bil’am have thought to suggest that Hashem would change His mind; will “no” ever turn to “yes?” We start to see here how truly disconnected Bil’am was from Hashem; he didn’t seem to understand Hashem at all, despite his claims otherwise.

Surprisingly, Elokim did allow Bil’am to go that night. Paradoxically, He got angry when Bil’am actually went. We can suggest based on this that Hashem was giving Bil’am an opportunity to show if he truly understood Hashem and could make that stronger connection. If he understood what Hashem wanted, then he wouldn’t go. Yet he only heard that which was on the surface and could not perceive anything else, and therefore did go to Balak.

At this point, we begin to see a change in the name game. Hashem sent a messenger to stop Bil’am, but even the Torah says it was a “Mal’ach Hashem [YKVK],” “Angel of Hashem [YKVK]” (BeMidbar 22:22). It’s interesting that though the angel was from Hashem (YKVK), it was Elokim who sent it. This indicates a transition; only Elokim directly interacted with Bil’am, but He was willing to send a messenger in the name of YKVK. Three times the Mal’ach appeared and stopped Bil’am’s donkey from traveling, but Bil’am didn’t see it and blamed the donkey for not moving. He was unable to fully grasp the situation; he could not see everything that was going on. Even when the Mal’ach appeared “BeMakom Tzar Asher Ein Derech LiNtot Yamin US’mol,” “In a narrow place, where there is no room to turn right or left” (BeMidbar 22:26) – where there was no way to have an alternate understanding, where there was only one explanation – still Bil’am didn’t get it!

Furthermore, Bil’am blamed his trusted steed on the stoppages, hitting it each time. Not only had his donkey never disobeyed him before, it’s illogical to blame the donkey for the stoppages. When Bil’am was confronted with the donkey’s question, “Have I ever mocked you before?”, all he could respond was “no.” At that point, Bil’am realized that he wasn’t thinking correctly. Only then could Hashem reveal the Mal’ach to Bil’am in order that he see what was actually going on. Bil’am spoke with the Mal’ach and confessed, “Chatati, Ki Lo Yadati,” “I have sinned, for I did not know” (BeMidbar 22:34). Bil’am begins to shift a little, realizing that there is sometimes more to think about than just what he can observe.

Bil’am then met Balak, and even humbled himself a little bit when he said, “HaDavar Asher Yasim Elokim BeFi Oto Adabeir,” “Whatever God puts into my mouth, that I shall say” (BeMidbar 22:38), using Hashem’s more public name of Elokim.

The two then proceeded to the first curse site where Bil’am commanded Balak to perform an elaborate ceremony, so that Hashem may speak to him. He still seems to be elevating himself. He did, however, qualify his statement, “ULay YiKareih Hashem LiKrati,” “Maybe Hashem will appear to me” (23:4), no longer expressing the arrogance that he can definitely summon Hashem on his command. It was Elokim who then appears to Bil’am, but it was Hashem who put the words in his mouth, which Bil’am dutifully repeated.

At the second site, the scene was repeated: An elaborate ceremony, Hashem appeared to Bil’am and told him what to say, and Bil’am repeated the blessing. Progress was at last being made. Between the two sites, Bil’am said nothing, not claiming that he could call Hashem, not claiming that he could change the curse, and not even speaking to Hashem when Hashem appeared to him, as he did the first time. Bil’am humbled himself more.

Finally, at the third site, we read of Bil’am’s most triumphant moment. Again, Bil’am had an elaborate sacrificial ceremony, just like the first two times. But the episode then diverges from the past. Before anything else happened, “VaYar Bil’am Ki Tov BeEinei Hashem LeVareich Et Yisrael, VeLo Halach KeFa’am BeFa’am LiKrat Nechashim, VaYashet El HaMidbar Panav,” “And Bil’am saw that it was good in the eyes of Hashem to bless Israel, and he did not proceed as previous times to meet with enchantments; and he set his face toward the wilderness” (BeMidbar 24:1). Bil’am finally understood what Hashem wanted; for the first time in the entire Parashah, and presumably his life, he understood what was going on. To underscore this point, the Chumash continues with, “VaYisa… Et Einav VaYar,” “And he raised his eyes and saw” (BeMidbar 24:2), language used to indicate clarification, seeing what is in front of you and comprehending it.

With Bil’am’s development complete, Hashem gave him the culminating reward. The Pasuk informs us when Bil’am finally saw the truth, “VaTehi Alav Ru’ach Elokim,” “And the spirit of God came upon him” (BeMidbar 24:2). When Bil’am was at last able to see that he was meant to sense and do as Hashem commanded, he was given the crown of Godly spirit.

Bil’am opened his final blessing to Bnei Yisrael with a grand introduction indicative of his new status: “Ne’um Bil’am Beno Ve’or UNe’um HaGever Shetum HaAyin. Ne’um Shomei’a Imrei Keil Asher Machazeih Shakai Yechezeh Nofeil UGelui Einayim,” “The speech of Bil’am, son of Be’or, and the speech of the man whose eye is opened. The speech of one who hears the sayings of Hashem (Keil), who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen yet with open eyes” (BeMidbar 24:2-3). With this grand realization of his mission as a prophet – not just to parrot what Hashem puts in his ear, but also to understand what Hashem wants and to deliver it himself to the people – Bil’am released the most beautiful of the three Berachot. “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov,” “How wonderful are your tents, Ya’akov?” (BeMidbar 24:5), he gushed, carving out the liturgical words still recited today. Bil’am continued with gorgeous praise of Hashem’s nation, and finished by coming full circle: “Mevarechecha Varuch VeOrerecha Arur,” “Those who bless you will be blessed, and those who curse you will be cursed” (BeMidbar 24:9), an exact reversal of the words Balak uses to entreat Bil’am in the first place.

Bil’am concluded with a prediction for the future, something that Hashem did not reveal to him at that moment but that he still saw clearly because he finally understood Hashem. He took on the true role of a Navi – one who is the bridge between Hashem and the people of the world. A Navi is supposed to understand Him in a way no normal person can, nor necessarily should. Bil’am realized that as a Navi, he was not supposed to merely parrot what Hashem said to him; he was meant to do what Hashem wanted, to take action and use his own means to bring about the desire of Hashem.

(Post-Script: Even at this point, Bil’am only obtains the spirit of “Elokim.” However, the phrase “Ru’ach Hashem [YKVK]” does not appear anywhere in the Chumash, and is mostly used in Nevi’im in the context of national leaders (notably Yiftach and Shimshon). Perhaps the Chumash is indicating to us that even with such a strong connection to Hashem, one can only normally obtain the Ru’ach of Elokim, because Ru’ach Hashem is too personal, too intense.)

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