Bil’am: The Diviner and Wild Dog of the Nations
Bil’am the diviner is considered the prophet of the nations and the celebrated soothsayer of Mesopotamia. He had the reputation of being able both to bless and curse with great success for his employers and for his personal gain.
Some have regarded Bil’am as a diviner, who was compelled by Elohim against his will to give utterance of blessings upon Israel instead of curses. Others have supposed him to be a true prophet, on account of the blessing he bestowed upon Israel, but who simply fell through covetousness and ambition. Indeed, Bil’am even though was a diviner was not without a certain measure of the true knowledge of Elohim; he even confessed YHVH to be his own Elohim. But was He?
Traditional commentators offer various interpretations of these seemingly contradictory views on Bil’am, namely, whether he was a diviner compelled to work for Elohim, or a true prophet with his weaknesses. But as we will explain in the following vein both views are not grounded well in the text and are therefore indefensible.
For further knowledge on the matter, the reader will do well to read what we have written in our commentary on Bil’am in the articles: The Bil’am story lost in translation, Bil’am: The prophet for profit and Bil’am: Psychological profile of Anti-semite.
For the purpose of this study, we will focus on the events in the Book of Numbers 22-24.
Bil’am the hireling
When two dogs are fighting and they see themselves being threatened by a wolf, they unite against the common enemy. Their survival instinct drives them to become “brothers” in arms.
In Numbers 22-24, such dogs are Moav and Midian, and the fear of the Israelites, who came at the border of Moav, drove these two dogs together.
The king of Moav sent the dignitaries of Midian in Mesopotamia to ask Bil’am the diviner to come and curse the Israelites so that they be defeated in war. The question that arises is that why Balak did not request Bil’am to bless Moav to win the war, rather than cursing Israel to lose the war.
And why did the king of Moav have problems with Israel? Israel was not threatening Moav, which had occupied the land east of the Yarden River; Israel just wanted to cross Moav and settle in the land west of the river.
Balak the king of Moav being a descendant of Lot, Avraham’s nephew, most likely knew about the promise made to Israel to take possession of the land, as the neighboring nations learned about the Exodus. But which land did Balak have in mind? The land lying west of the Yarden River, which was promised to Mosheh, or the land lying between the Nile and the Euphrates, which includes the land of Moav, promised to Avraham? Because if the former was the case, Balak should not have any concerns. But if it was the latter, then the king of Moav indeed had the reason to be troubled.
Because if Balak was concerned about the promise made to Mosheh, a blessing from Bil’am would have sufficed. But if the promise made to Avraham was what troubled him, then he might have decided that a mere blessing on Moav would not have been sufficient, and a curse to Israel would have been a better strategy. Either way Balak alarmed by the news of the coming danger, sent messengers among the dignitaries of Midian to Bil’am the diviner.
When the Midianites arrived and delivered Balak’s message, Bil’am knew very well which nation was involved in the conflict and what implications of his interference would be. Despite that Bil’am said to Elohim, “Balak, son of Tsippor, sovereign of Moav, has sent to me, saying, … (Num 22:10)
By mentioning that Balak was king of Moav, Bil’am wanted to “remind” Elohim that Moav was related to Israel through Lot and their land should not be given to Israel to conquer. He was very practical in hinting at this as he was seeking approval from Elohim.
Bil’am rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and headed for Moav with the Midianites. Upon arrival Bil’am demanded from Balak seven altars with sacrifices. To whom did Bil’am want to sacrifice? The sacrifices were offered unquestionably not to the idols of Moav, from which Balak expected no help, otherwise why would he waste money to hire Bil’am? The sacrifices were slaughtered to YHVH, whom Bil’am wished to use in his plan.
The reason why Bil’am made this conclusion is that if he would speak only the words of YHVH, and Balak wanted YHVH on his side, then the sacrifices must be offered to Him. And Balak erected seven altars.
The erection of seven altars, and the sacrifice of seven animals of each kind, are to be explained from the sacredness of number seven of the creation week. Bil’am being a diviner must have hinted Balak at this.
After unsuccessful attempts to curse Israel, Bil’am lifted up his eyes and saw Israel encamped according to their tribes. And the Ruach of Elohim came upon him and Bil’am said,
The saying of Bil’am, son of Be’or, and the saying of the man whose eyes are opened, the saying of him who hears the words of El, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down, with eyes opened wide: … (Num 24:2-4)
And then Bil’am the diviner uttered the beautiful blessing: “How good are your tents, O Ya’akov, your dwellings, O Israel!” … (Num 24:5-9). We should note here that only when the Ruach of Elohim came upon Bil’am, he uttered the blessing upon Israel and the vision of the coming of Mashiach, the Star of Ya’akov.
The lesson of the prophet for profit
The term “prophet for profit” suggests one who speaks the Word of Elohim for pay, or “professional prophet” of today. That Bil’am was a prophet for profit is more than obvious, but we must note here something even more peculiar: Bil’am the professional prophet called the Elohim of Israel “Yehovah my Elohim” (Num 22:18); similarities with the modern prophets who make the same claim are not accidental.
After the professional prophet failed to curse Israel despite his wish and the money offered, Bil’am wanted to get even with Israel and gave this advice to Balak, “Let me advise you what this people is going to do to your people in the latter days” (Num 24:14). Concerning the advice Bil’am the diviner gave Balak, which led to the death of twenty-four thousand Israelites, refer to the above referenced articles.
And then he said, “The saying of the man whose eyes are opened, the saying of him who hears the words of El and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down, with eyes opened wide” (Num 24:15-16).
And the prophecy commenced with a picture from the end of the days, all the nations doomed to destruction are mentioned by name and continued with the prophecy of the coming of the Star of Ya’akov. But where is the advice Bil’am promised to Balak?
The abuse of gifts
When Elohim gives a man supernatural powers, whether a diviner like Bil’am or not, he also adds on him the power of working on others in a supernatural way. But man can abuse such powers in order to practice magic and witchcraft. Such a power of Bil’am to bless and to curse while confessing the Name of YHVH is admitted in the Torah.
It should not surprise us that Bil’am knew the Name of YHVH. He is said to have come from the land of Pethor near the River Euphrates (Num 22:5). It is worth noticing also that while Bil’am was indeed addressing to the Most High by the Name, Bil’am, as a genuine heathen was seeing Elohim, as a mere national deity of Israel. He might have derived such knowledge of Elohim from traditions in his land, Mesopotamia; Pethor was near the same place Avraham descended from.
It needs to be pointed out that while Bil’am had spoken of YHVH (Num 22:8, Num 22:13, Num 22:18-19), it is only Elohim who reveals Himself to him (Num 22:9-10, Num 22:12).
But even these facts are not sufficient to explain Bil’am’s personal relationship with YHVH and his knowledge of Israel, because indeed his peculiar knowledge of YHVH is remarkable, but also is the knowledge of Israelites and the promises made to their patriarchs in his prophecies (compare Num 23:10 with Gen 13:16; Gen 28:14; Num 24:9 with Gen 49:9; and Num 24:17 with Gen 49:10).
This can only be explained from the report of the great things which Elohim had done for Israel in Egypt and at the Red Sea, which must have spread among the nations, as we learn from Exo 15:14, Exo 18:1, and Jos 2:9. These great things must have reached even to Mesopotamia, the home country of Bil’am.
Why YHVH Elohim had given to Bil’am knowledge of the unseen is unknown to us; the Scripture is simply silent on the matter. But what we know with certainty is that Bil’am knew what YHVH hated most, and he used against Israel. But whatever knowledge of YHVH Bil’am had was completely obscured by the love for money that ruled his mind.
How Bil’am the diviner became a prophet
In fact, how Bil’am became a prophet of YHVH should be a question, not a statement, because the Scripture never calls Bil’am “prophet”, not even “seer”, as Shemuel (Samuel) was formerly called before he became a prophet of YHVH (see 1Sa 9:9). Nor should he be called a prophet of YHVH, as Mosheh was called.
Such being the case, it is not proper to say that Bil’am was a prophet, unless this title is used in a derogative way, the way we have used it: the prophet for profit.
Nevertheless, the suggestion that Bil’am was a prophet falls short on why there is no mention of it in Numbers or elsewhere. What however Bil’am is called by is “soothsayer” or “diviner”, as Yehoshua indeed called him (see Jos 13:22).
Note: The word divine comes from the Farsi (the language of Persia) word div which means “demon”, hence, a diviner is someone who seeks demons. But the Hebrew word used by Yehoshua is הַקֹּוסֵם ha-kosem, “the diviner”, from the verb קָסַם kasam, to determine by lot or magical scroll.
This raises the inevitable question: Since the Torah never says that Bil’am was a prophet, who made him such, if the Tanak is silent on the matter? Where did the title “prophet” come from? It came from the Rabbinic literature. Not only did the Rabbis make Bil’am a prophet, but they in fact made him a prophet equal to Mosheh, and according to some, even greater than him.
According to Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20, some Rabbis state that Israel had Mosheh and the nations had Bil’am (See also Sifre, Devarim 34:10). The Rabbis go even further, claiming that Bil’am was a prophet equivalent to none other than Moshe himself. They say that Mosheh had three characteristics of prophecy Bil’am did not have, and Bil’am had three characteristics Mosheh did not have.
The Rabbis however are in disagreement on this issue, as we can find fundamentally different statements among them. For instance, Ramban on Numbers 24:1:1 states, “However, the level of Bil’am’s prophecy was beneath that of all the other prophets”.
While indeed YHVH spoke to Bil’am, and Bil’am had knowledge of Him and also the gift of visions (Num 24:15-16), by no means Bil’am can be even compared to the greatest prophet Mosheh with whom YHVH talked face to face and mouth to mouth like with a friend.
The Rabbis may be divided in two camps: those who consider Mosheh a greater prophet than Bil’am and those who consider Mosheh and Bil’am to be equal in rank, but the common error in both camps is that they all call Bil’am “prophet”, while the Torah makes no such statement. And this is the subject of our study: Bil’am was a diviner or soothsayer, not a prophet.
YHVH can choose one man over the other; how and to whom to talk, whether an Israelite or a gentile. For instance, Mosheh’s father-in-law, Yitro, a descendant of Avraham through Keturah, was chosen to be a priest of YHVH in Midian.
King Koresh (Cyrus) of Persia was chosen by YHVH to be His anointed one (Hebrew, mashiach, messiah) to let His people return to their homeland. And none of the Rabbis has dared to compare King Koresh to King David, who was the anointed one of YHVH too. But Bil’am? Even though Bil’am did bless Israel and foresaw the coming of the Star out of Ya’akov, he did all that contrary to, not accordant with his wish.
So, why had the Rabbis given Bil’am credit he neither deserved nor did ever ask for? Perhaps, they reasoned that since Bil’am had been given such a vision to see the Star of Ya’akov, who is universally accepted to be Mashiach, they might have concluded that Bil’am must have been a prophet on the level of Mosheh. That indeed Mosheh foresaw Mashiach and to learn more, refer to the article To Foresee Yeshua the Messiah – Time of Reckoning Ministry.
But to equate Bil’am to a prophet is to equate divination to prophecy, which prophecy is not. Only after the encounter with the messenger YHVH opened his eyes and he saw the messenger standing in his way with a sword in his hand. The ass had actually revealed Bil’am’s spiritual blindness. In this instance Bil’am was saved by the action of the dumb animal he rode.
We should note in Num 22:35 that from that moment on the messenger of YHVH was charged with supervising the actions and words of Bil’am; he said: “Go with the men, but only the word that I speak to you, that you speak”. Bil’am thus became a mere mouth of the messenger, and even by his admission, he was to repeat “what YHVH had put in his mouth” (see Num 23:12); hardly, this can be seen as prophecy.
And even though YHVH was speaking to Bil’am through His messenger, the diviner was still seeking divine meaning of the omens in the seven altars and in the slaughtered seven bulls and seven rams. And when Bil’am saw that it pleased YHVH to bless Israel, he stopped seeking signs in them, and he turned his face toward the wilderness (Num 24:1).
Why did Bil’am demand seven altars for him, and then he said to YHVH: “I have prepared the seven altars? The text does not say, “I have prepared seven altars,” but “I have prepared the seven altars”. Which seven altars?
With this emphasis on the seven altars, Bil’am was seeking to make the point that the ancestors of Israel had built seven altars for YHVH, and he had prepared the seven altars too: Avraham built four (Gen 12:7-8, Gen 13:18 and at Mount Moriah Gen 22:9); Isaac built one (Gen 26:25); and Ya’akov built two at Shechem (Gen 33:20) and at Beth-El (Gen 35:7).
However, Bil’am might have referred to the seven altars built by seven men: Adam, Kayin, Havel, Noach, Avraham, Yitschak, and Ya’akov.
With that said what verses did the Rabbis use to come to the conclusion that Bil’am was a prophet on the level of Mosheh himself? Probably, the opening verses of the prophecy about the coming of Mashiach. We read from JPS,
And he took up his parable, and said: The saying of Balaam the son of Beor, and the saying of the man whose eye is opened; The saying of him who heareth the words of God, who seeth the vision of the Almighty, fallen down, yet with opened eyes: … (Num 24:3-4 JPS)
Regrettably, this translation is easy to read nonetheless inaccurate. In this translation, Bil’am can be seen as someone who stands on a very high level of prophecy. He describes himself as “a man whose eye is opened” or “unveiled”, meaning that he can see far in space and time.
Bil’am also refers to himself as “one who hears the word of Elohim” (Num 24:3-4 and 15-16), and “one who sees the vision and knows the knowledge from the Most High” (v.16).
In other words, Bil’am has been seen as the one who had unique spiritual powers that allowed him to perceive things in the divine world, even without receiving a direct revelation, like Mosheh did. This is what the Rabbis have taken from the opening to his speech about Mashiach. But are they correct?
What had the diviner really said?
Let us see deeper into the Hebrew text. Bil’am said, “the gever whose eye is opened; the saying of him who hears the words of Elohim, who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen down, and [with] his deprived eyes“. Let us say it again that these words were put in his mouth.
First, what is gever? And why did the translators feel it was necessary to render gever into “man” (Hebrew, ish) as this would not agree with the language employed here?
Gever גֶּבֶר is a man who makes his presence felt, a valiant man or warrior [see also v.15] sometimes used for the general “person”. It is derived from the verb גָּבַר gavar, to be strong; by implication to prevail, act insolently, be great, be mighty, be valiant. Its negative meaning can be best seen in Job 21:7 and Jer 9:3. (See other mistranslations, as in Deu 22:5).
Then, Bil’am uttered the word נָפַל naphal, which means to fall, in a variety of applications, literally or figuratively: to cast down, cease, die, fail, fall away, down, be judged, to overthrow, throw down.
And the third Hebrew word in question, translated “opened” is different from “opened” in the first half of the verse. It is גָּלָה galal, which means to denude (especially in a disgraceful sense); by implication to exile captives being usually stripped; figuratively to reveal, to uncover.
Thus explained the words the Ruach of Elohim put into Bil’am’s mouth reveal a different picture of him, namely, he was a fallen villain, who was used to deliver a blessing and prophetic vision of the coming of Mashiach.
This prophecy compares Mashiach to a star at a distant time that will pass from the ends of heaven, and there will rise out of it the scepter of a ruler, and he will smite through the corners of Moav.
There is no doubt that the rising Star represents a glorious future king of Israel, for it is paralleled with “a scepter arises out of Israel”; a scepter as a symbol of kingship in Ya’akov’s blessing in Gen 49:10. This king will destroy all the enemies of Israel with Moav and Edom are first mentioned.
The Rabbis correctly interpret the prophecy of the comings of two “anointed ones”, which says twice the same message in parallel: “Star shall come out of Ya’akov, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel”. They say that the first Mashiach is David, who saved Israel from its enemies (2Sa 8:2), and the last Mashiach, who will be his descendent and who will save Israel in the end of days: this is the King Mashiach. The first Mashiach is David, for it is said, “I see him, but not now”, and second Mashiach is his son; “I see him, but he is not near”.
The error of Bil’am
In his short letter, the apostle Yehudah gets to the point that some have turned the grace of Elohim into a license to sin and ultimately have denied the Messiah. He warned against drifting away from faith by giving as an example the fate of fallen messengers, who did not keep their first estate but drifted away, of Sodom and Gomorrah by giving themselves over to abominable sexual relations on account of the flesh, of Kayin, who killed his brother, and of Bil’am, who divined for money, of the rebellion of Korach, who wanted more esteem than what he had received. He wrote,
Woe to them! Because they have gone in the way of Kayin and gave themselves to the error of Bil’am for a reward and perished in the rebellion of Korach. (Jud 1:11)
What was the error of Bil’am, the apostle warned against?
In these three articles, we already explained how Bil’am attempted to cast a curse over Israel for money. And when he failed, he gave his advice to Balak how to get the children of Israel punished by YHVH Elohim.
He thought that because YHVH spoke to him and gave him some gifts of vision and supernatural powers, and because he saw himself as a professional prophet and called the Elohim of Israel “Yehovah my Elohim”, because all of that, he erred to assume that he could abuse the Word of YHVH to harm others for a personal gain.
The error of Balaam is two-fold: firstly, he was motivated by personal gain, and secondly, he took advantage of the knowledge of YHVH to harm others for reward.
Years after the episode with Balak and Bil’am, Yehoshua who was a direct witness of the events, delivered his farewell address to the nation (Joshua 24). He said:
Thus said YHVH: …Balak son of Tsippor, king of Moav, arose and fought against Israel, and he sent and called to Bil’am son of Be’or to curse them. But I did not deign to listen to Bil’am, and he blessed you with a blessing – and thus I saved you from his hand (Jos 24:9-10).
If anyone has had the conviction that Bil’am was a true prophet of YHVH, this short statement proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was not.
If we examine the arguments that have been cited above, we are fairly convinced that the Torah did not wish to associate Bil’am with a statement which may lead the reader to conclude that he was a prophet. This is not so, because Scripture does not come to make things obscure but to explain. The Torah is silent and so should the commentators be.
But why do we also disagree with those who regard Bil’am as a diviner, who was compelled by Elohim, against his will, to bless Israel? Because Elohim has given free will and does not force anyone against it, as we explained in the article Predestination vs Free Will Paradox – Time of Reckoning Ministry.
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May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days!