1998The story of Bilam, the gentile prophet who knows and speaks with God, is one of the stranger narratives in the Torah. The outsider who talks and behaves like an insider.
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Generally, everyone spends a lot of time trying to understand Bilam's relationship to God, God's messenger and the talking ass. I would like to see Bilam's story in the context of Bilam's life.
Take a look at this chapter and then look at Numbers 30:8. Why does Bilam end up dying by the sword?
2 Now Balak son of Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites,
3 and Moav was in exceeding fear before the people, since they were so many; they felt dread before the Children of Israel.
4 Moav said to the elders of Midyan: Look now, this assembly will lick up everything around us like an ox licks up the green-things of the field! Now Balak son of Tzippor was king of Moav at that time.
5 He sent messengers to Bil'am son of Be'or, to Petor, which is beside the River (in) the land of the sons of his kinspeople, to call him, saying: Here, a people has come up out of Egypt, here, it covers the aspect of the land, it has settled hard upon me!
6 Now then, pray go, damn this people for me, for it is too mighty (in number) for me! Perhaps I will prevail: we will strike it, so that I drive it from the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, whomever you damn is damned!
7 The elders of Moav and the elders of Midyan went, tokens-of-augury in their hand, they came to Bil'am and spoke Balak's words to him.
8 He said to them: Spend the night here tonight, then I will bring back to you whatever word YHWH speaks to me. The nobles of Moav stayed with Bil'am.
9 Now God came to Bil'am and said: Who are these men with you?
10 Bil'am said to God: Balak son of Tzippor, king of Moav, has sent to me:
11 Here, the people that came out of Egypt, it covers the aspect of the land! Now then, pray go, revile it for me, perhaps I will be able to make war upon it and drive it away!
12 God said to Bil'am: You are not to go with them, you are not to damn the people, for it is blessed!
13 Bil'am arose at daybreak and said to Balak's nobles: Go to your land, for YHWH refuses to give-me-leave to go with you.
14 The nobles from Moav arose, they came to Balak and said: Bil'am refuses to go with us!
15 So Balak once again sent nobles, greater and more honored than those;
16 they came to Bil'am and said to him: Thus says Balak son of Tzippor: Pray do not hold back from going to me;
17 indeed, I will honor, yes, honor you exceedingly- anything that you say to me, I will do. Only: pray go, revile for me this people!
18 Bil'am answered, he said to the servants of Balak: If Balak were to give me his house's fill of silver and gold I would not be able to cross the order of YHWH my God to do (anything) small or great!
19 So now, pray stay here, you as well, tonight, that I may know what YHWH will once again speak with me.
20 And God came to Bil'am at night, he said to him: Since it is to call you that the men have come, arise, go with them; but-only the word that I speak to you, that (alone) may you do.
21 Bil'am arose at daybreak, he saddled his she-ass, and went with the nobles of Moav.
22 But YHWH's anger flared up because he was going, so YHWH's messenger stationed himself in the way as an adversary to him. Now he was riding on his she-ass, his two serving-lads with him.
23 Now the she-ass saw YHWH's messenger stationed in the way, his sword drawn in his hand, so the she-ass turned aside from the way and went into the field. And Bil'am struck the she-ass to turn her back onto the way.
24 But YHWH's messenger stood in the furrow (between) the vineyards, a fence here and a fence there.
25 Now the she-ass saw YHWH's messenger, so she pressed herself against the wall, pressing Bil'am's foot against the wall; and once again he struck her.
26 But YHWH's messenger once again crossed over, standing in a narrow place where there was no pathway to turn, right or left.
27 Now the she-ass saw YHWH's messenger, so she crouched down beneath Bil'am. And Bil'am's anger flared up; he struck the she-ass with his staff.
28 Then YHWH opened the mouth of the she-ass and she said to Bil'am: What have I done to you that you have struck me (on) these three occasions?
29 Bil'am said: Because you have been capricious with me! If a sword had been in my hand, by now I would have killed you!
30 The she-ass said to Bil'am: Am I not your she-ass upon whom you have ridden from your past until this day? Have I ever been accustomed, accustomed to do thus to you? He said: No.
31 Then YHWH uncovered Bil'am's eyes and he saw YHWH's messenger stationed in the way, his sword drawn in his hand; he bowed and prostrated himself, to his brow.
32 YHWH's messenger said to him: For what (cause) did you strike your she-ass (on) these three occasions? Here, I came out as an adversary, for the way was rushed out against me.
33 Now the she-ass saw me, so she turned aside before me (on) these three occasions. Had she not turned aside from me, by now, (it is) you I would have killed; but her I would have left-alive!
34 Bil'am said to YHWH's messenger: I have sinned, for I did not know that you were stationed to meet me in the way. But now, if it is ill in your eyes, I will head back.
35 YHWH's messenger said to Bil'am: Go with the men, but only the word that I speak to you, that (alone) may you speak. And so Bil'am went with Balak's nobles.
36 When Balak heard that Bil'am was coming, he went out to meet him, to Ir/Town of Moav that is by the Arnon border, that is at the far-edge of the border.
37 And Balak said to Bil'am: Did I not send, yes, send to you, to call you! Why did you not go to me? Am I truly not able to honor you?
38 Bil'am said to Balak: Here, I have come to you; but now, am I able, able to speak anything (myself)? The word that God puts in my mouth, that (alone) may I speak.
39 Now Bil'am went with Balak; they came to the village of Hutzot/Streets.
40 Balak slaughtered oxen and sheep, and sent them out to Bil'am and to the nobles that were with him.
41 Now it was at daybreak: Balak took Bil'am and had him go up on the Heights of Baal, so that he could see from there the edge of the people.
1 YHWH spoke to Moshe, saying:
2 Seek-vengeance, the vengeance of the Children of Israel from the Midyanites; afterward you will be gathered to your kinspeople.
3 Moshe spoke to the people, saying: Draft from among you men for the attack-force, let them be against Midyan, to exact the vengeance of YHWH upon Midyan.
4 A thousand per tribe, a thousand per tribe for each of the tribes of Israel, you are to send out to the attack-force.
5 There were mustered, from the divisions of Israel, a thousand per tribe, twelve thousand (men) drafted for the attack-force.
6 Moshe sent them out, a thousand per tribe, to the attack-force, them and Pin'has son of El'azar, priest to the armed-forces, the holy implements and the trumpets for (sounding) trilling-blasts in his hand.
7 They arrayed-their-forces against Midyan, as YHWH had commanded Moshe, and they killed every male,
8 and the kings of Midyan they killed, along with the (other) slain: Evi and Rekem, Tzur, Hur and Reva, the five kings of Midyan; and Bil'am son of Be'or they killed with the sword.
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Why was Bilam killed with the sword?
Bilam is the one who blesses and curses with words. Look at the narrative in Numbers 22 and see if there is any connection between Bilam's encounter with the angel/messenger and his demise. Is there anything "poetic" in the relationship between these two events?
In the Torah's view is Bilam a hero or a villain? Why?
Rashi states that Bilam's demise is actually the completion of a role reversal that began when Bilam imitated Israel's power. The power of the word. Just as Bilam could bless and curse with his lips and was willing to use that power either for or against Israel, he would ironically die by the sword of Israel, a nation who was taught "n"t by fury, not by power, but by My Spirit?"
Just as Israel never expected to be blessed by the likes of Bilam, Bilam never expected being slain by the likes of Israel. The irony of this situation hinges upon the knowledge that nieither party is acting in character.