The central figure of the Torah reading of Balak is not Balak, the king of Moab, but Bilaam, the sorcerer – and, the Torah reading of Balak is actually the story of Bilaam. In the Jewish tradition, Bilaam is portrayed as a wicked person who seeks to curse the people Israel. In the plain meaning of the story, though, Bilaam is apparently not portrayed as a wicked person – however, he is depicted in a negative light, and satirized, as a sorcerer. The Bible has a great fight against magic and sorcery – as magic and sorcery, as well as ritual practice, are of the very essence of religion in the pagan conception.
Magic and ritual in the pagan conception are related attempts to influence and appease the gods who were conceived as forces or powers of nature that were powerful, but not inherently or necessarily moral. In the pagan conception, the gods act within nature, and influence human affairs, not as an expression of moral will but as an expression of their power – and, the gods in the pagan conception can be influenced or appeased by offering sacrifices, or by performing some other ritual practice, and by magic or sorcery.
The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is that for the first time in human history God is conceived of not only as a God of power (as a God of creation) but as a God who acts within nature, and within history, as an expression of moral will in order to redeem (as a God of revelation and redemption) – a God who demands morality as an inherent part of God’s nature. This is the basis of Abraham’s remarkable question, “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Genesis 18, 25) – a question which assumes that God is inherently moral. Thus, for the first time in human history, there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, in which the very essence of religion is conceived to be moral character (moral conscience) and moral action rather than ritual practice.
In the Biblical conception, ritual is an integral part of religion. But, not only is ritual subordinated to morality in importance – the function of ritual is transformed, and is in order to change ourselves morally and spiritually as human beings rather than to influence God as in the pagan conception. In contrast to ritual practice, magic or sorcery is forbidden and an abomination according to the Bible (Deuteronomy 18, 9-13).
The sorcerer was an important religious figure in the pagan world – and, in a sense, functioned much like a scientist in our contemporary world. A scientist in our contemporary world is a source of knowledge about the world – and, knowledge is in turn a source of power. Scientific knowledge allows control over our world through technology (the practical application of scientific knowledge). In the pagan conception, a sorcerer was viewed as a source of knowledge of the realm of the gods, and considered a source of power enabling control over our world. Balak, king of Moab, says of Bilaam, the sorcerer – “For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22, 6).
In the plain meaning of the story of Bilaam, it is Balak, the king of Moab who is depicted as wicked. Balak is afraid of the Israelites (Numbers 22, 2-3) who have left the wilderness of Sinai and are on their way to enter the land of Canaan from east of the Jordan river – and, Balak is afraid that the Israelites will destroy the Moabites as they had already destroyed the Amorites. However, according to the Biblical account, the Israelites had destroyed the Amorites only when the Amorites attacked the Israelites in refusing to let the Israelites pass through their territory peacefully, as the Israelites had requested (Numbers 21, 21-25). Thus, the fear of Balak, according to the Biblical account, is an irrational fear.
There is a parallel in the Biblical text between Balak, king of Moab, and Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, in enslaving the Israelites justified such oppression also out of irrational fear – “behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us” (Exodus, 1, 9). Similarly, Moab, according to the Biblical account, was afraid of the people Israel – “and, Moab was very afraid of the people (Israel) because they were many” (Numbers 22, 3). Balak calls for Bilaam, the sorcerer, to curse the people Israel so that the Moabites can destroy the Israelites – “curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me” (Numbers 22, 6). The Bible is indicating in the parallel between Balak and Pharaoh that Balak is wicked – and, it is Balak who seeks to curse the people Israel in order to destroy them.
In the Jewish tradition, Bilaam is portrayed as wicked. However, in the plain meaning of the story there is no evidence that he is wicked – and, in the Jewish tradition verses are twisted in judging Bilaam in a negative light in order to portray him as evil. For example, Balak sends messengers to Bilaam asking him to come to Moab and curse the people Israel. Bilaam tells the messengers that God does not allow him to go with them to curse the people Israel. When Balak sends messengers even more honorable promising to honor Bilaam if he will come and curse the people Israel, Bilaam says – “if Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do anything, small or great” (Numbers 22, 18). In the Jewish tradition, this is twisted against Bilaam as if he is only interested in power and wealth, and is really asking for more honor and money. However, if we do not judge Bilaam in a negative light, then he is merely saying that he as a sorcerer can only inquire of God and do only that which God decrees. He can as a sorcerer inquire of God again – considering that as a sorcerer he may not have performed the ritual properly in inquiring of God previously, and considering that in the pagan conception God may have a change of mind.
There is actually one piece of clear evidence that Bilaam does become wicked following the story of Bilaam. After the story of Bilaam (Numbers 22, 2 – 24, 25), at the very end of the Torah reading of Balak, there is a seemingly unrelated story (Numbers 25, 1-9) of an attempt by the Moabites and Midianites to corrupt the Israelites through sexual immorality and idolatry – and, only much later (Numbers 31, 16) does the Bible tell us that this attempt was the advice of Bilaam. Why does the Bible not tell us this in the story of Bilaam itself – as if the Bible does not want us to know at this point of the story of Bilaam (in the Torah reading of Balak) that he will indeed become wicked?
In my view, the key not only to understanding why the Bible withholds the information that Bilaam does become wicked, but also to understanding the story of Bilaam in the Torah reading of Balak, is a question that God asks Bilaam when the messengers of Balak request that Bilaam come with them to Moab to curse the people Israel and Bilaam inquires of God – and, God asks Bilaam “who are these people with you?” (Numbers 22, 9). The question of God is obviously a rhetorical question. It is clear that these are wicked people who are requesting of Bilaam to use his powers as a sorcerer for a wicked purpose – to curse the people Israel in order to destroy them. God will allow Bilaam to go with them, and to use his powers as a sorcerer on their behalf, as God will not deny Bilaam his moral (or immoral) free choice – but, God makes clear in asking Bilaam from the beginning “who are these people with you?” that in going to serve such people Bilaam is willing then to use his powers as a sorcerer on behalf of people he knows to be wicked.
This is the central issue of the story of Bilaam – Bilaam is not wicked in an active sense, but in a passive sense of being devoid of moral conscience (and moral conscience is of the essence of religion in the Biblical conception). Bilaam is not himself seeking to curse the people Israel. However, he is devoid of moral conscience in being willing to offer his services as a sorcerer to the wicked Balak – under the pagan assumption that perhaps God will have a change of mind and curse the people Israel.
Bilaam, the sorcerer, is much like those scientists during the Nazi holocaust who used their scientific knowledge to help Nazis – and, argued that their own hands were clean and that they had committed no wrongdoing. This is perhaps true in a technical sense, but, this is the fight of the Bible in the story of Bilaam – the use of knowledge and power to help wicked people, though no wrongdoing has been committed in an active and direct sense, is nevertheless wickedness in a passive and indirect sense. It is now possible to understand why the Bible in the story of Bilaam withholds the information that Bilaam does become wicked in an active sense – as the Bible, in my view, is teaching in the story of Bilaam that even had he not become wicked in an active sense (of giving advice to the Moabites and Midianites to corrupt the Israelites through sexual immorality and idolatry), he is in any case wicked in the passive sense of being devoid of moral conscience and being willing to offer his services as a sorcerer to wicked people who seek to destroy the people Israel.
The story of the talking donkey of Bilaam is a satire of Bilaam as a sorcerer. Bilaam, though, actually as a sorcerer even attains a level of prophecy – “And Bilaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe, and the spirit of God came upon him (Numbers 24, 2). In the continuation as a part of Bilaam’s prophecy, it is written of Bilaam – “The saying of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High” (Numbers 24, 16). I am not aware of any other figure in the Bible of whom it is written that he or she knows the knowledge of God as is written here of Bilaam. After Bilaam decides to go to Moab and give his services as a sorcerer to the wicked Balak, the donkey sees the angel of God standing in the way – preventing the donkey upon whom Bilaam is riding to continue forward in the direction of Moab. In my view, the story is teaching that one does not need great knowledge (such as that of a sorcerer, or of a scientist), and not even prophetic knowledge of God, in order to recognize the difference between right and wrong, good and bad – and, the story is satirizing Bilaam that even a dumb ass recognizes the difference between right and wrong, good and bad and can see that God disapproves of Bilaam going to Moab to give his services as a sorcerer to wicked people. In the plain meaning of Scripture, then, the wickedness of Bilaam is in the passive sense of being devoid of moral conscience and insisting upon going to Moab to help wicked people.