The Bil’am Story

Posted by on Jul 27, 2016


And Elohim said to Bilʽam, “Do not go with them. You do not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (Num 22:12)

And Elohim came to Bilʽam at night and said to him, “If the men come to call you, rise and go with them, but only the word which I speak to you that you do.” (Num 22:20)

And Bilʽam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey, and went with the heads of Mo’av. (Num 22:21)

But the displeasure of Elohim burned because he went, and the Messenger of Yehovah stationed Himself in the way as an adversary against him. And he was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. (Num 22:22)

And the Messenger of Yehovah said to Bilʽam, “Go with the men, but only the word that I speak to you, that you speak.” Bilʽam then went with the heads of Balaq. (Num 22:35)

If we read the story of Bil’am applying textual criticism we have to agree that it made little sense in the English translation. It looks like God tells Bil’am Do not go with them (v.12), then Go with them (v.20), and in v.22 God wanted to kill him because he went.

Why would God punish Bil’am for doing exactly what He told him to do: first, not to go, then to go. Had God changed His mind, and if so why would He punish Bil’am?

In Hebrew, it is quite different. In the nineteenth century, Malbim and R. Zvi Hirsch Mecklenberg offered a different approach to solve this issue based on close textual criticism.

They say the Hebrew text uses two different words for “with them” in the first and second divine replies. When God says, “Don’t go with them,” (v.12) the Hebrew is imahem עמהם. When He later says, “Go with them,” (v. 20) the corresponding word is itam אתם. However, early in the morning Bil’am went with (im עם) them (v.21).

The two prepositions in question are im עִם and eit אֵת and they have subtly different meanings. Imahem עמהם means “with them physically as well as mentally” but more literally “equally with, accompanying, by reason of.” Itam אתם means “with them physically but not mentally” but more literally “near with, among”, as one travels with other passengers.  In other words, Bil’am could go among them but not equally with, accompanying them, by reason of being one of them, or in other words, sharing their purpose or intention.

The translational issues do not stop here, though. In v.22 the translation of the Hebrew word ki כִּי as “because” causes a problem for the reason that God wanted to kill Bil’am for doing what he was told to do. However, if ki is translated as “when” as in Num_34:2 (in Num 34:2 ki can hardly be translated “because”), then ki simply expresses the time of Elohim’s anger, not the reason as that would be the case with “because.” The reason for Elohim’s anger is already revealed to us in v.21 and also in v. 22, because Bil’am went im them, as already discussed, and because Bil’am’s way is reckless before Elohim (Num_22:32) for the same reason.

In conclusion, Elohim was angry when Bil’am went, because the text states that he went im them, by reason of their mission to curse Israel.

However, the problem does not end even here. In verse 35, in which the angel of God, having opened Bil’am’s eyes, finally told Bil’am, Go with (im) the men.

Had the angel changed Elohim’s command not to go im them but eit them, because Bil’am did exactly that in v. 39, he went im them? Not at all.

We need to know that YHVH has given us a free will to choose. The angel gave Bil’am the permission to do his own will, as he wishes it from the very beginning: to go with the men of Balak and curse Israel for the money. After all Bil’am was a prophet for profit.