Bil’am: Psychological Profile of Anti-Semite
There are three peculiarities in the story of Bil’am, the prophet for profit and infamous anti-Semite, who had the known reputation in the ancient world of being able both to bless and curse with great success whomever he was paid to bless and curse.
These peculiarities in the story we explained previously in the articles The Bil’am story lost in translation and The lesson of the prophet for profit. But here we will summarize them briefly: Bil’am was a prophet of YHVH Elohim; Elohim wanted to kill him for doing exactly what He told him to do. And if that was not odd enough, this anti-Semite blessed Israel with the most beautiful blessing that is cited today in every synagogue around the world.
We will explain the psychological profile of an anti-Semite like Bil’am in due course.
Bil’am and Balak: “brothers” in arm
The defeat of the two kings of the Amorites filled Balak king of Moav with such fear, that he said to the elders of Midian, “Now this multitude is licking up all that is around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field”.
Thus alarmed Balak sent emissaries in Mesopotamia, the land of his people, to entreat the infamous sorcerer Bil’am son of Be’or to come and curse for him the people that came out of Egypt that he might be able to smite them, and drive them out of his land (Num 22:4-6).
Fear of the Israelites drove the Moabites and Midianites into each other’s arms, as if there were other nations in the region. Why did the Moabites choose the Midianites to ally with to smite Israel?
As the old saying says, when two dogs that are fighting one another are being threatened by a wolf, they come together against the common enemy. Here too the survival instinct drove Moav and Midian to bury their old hatred and unite against Israel.
The Moabites might have known that Mosheh lived many years in Midian in the family of Yitro, his father-in-law, and what he did for Israel. With this information already gathered, they wanted to find out more about the “new” people that came from Egypt.
Note: The Midianites are the descendants Midian, the son of Avraham and Keturah (see Gen 25:1-2). Abraham gave gifts to the sons of Keturah and then sent them eastward away from Yitschak his heir (Gen 25:5-6). Yitro was a Kenite, a specific clan of the larger Midianite tribe (Jdg 1:16, Jdg 4:11, 1Sa 15:6). Being direct descendants of Avraham, the reader should not be surprised that the Kenites might have been worshippers of YHVH. The Midianites referred to in our story lived in Mesopotamia and must be distinguished from the tribe of the same stock that dwelt in northwest Arabia, near Mount Sinai, to which Yitro belonged (Exo 2:15-16, Exo 3:1, Num 10:29-30). That branch of the Midianites had been settled for a long time (see Gen 36:35) on the eastern border of the Moabitish and Amoritish territory.
We should also note here that Balak did not request a blessing from Bil’am to be victorious in battle, but rather a curse on Israel. From this we derive that they were both anti-Semites who were more interested in destroying Israel than in winning the war.
Bil’am eventually arrived to Moav at Balak’s request to curse the Israelites.
Bil’am the devourer of people
Who was Bil’am? What is the psychological profile of a religious character of Bil’am?
From the very earliest times opinions have been divided as to the character of Bil’am. Bil’am had the reputation of both to bless and curse for the money; he was the prophet for profit: a professional clergy in the courts of the kings in the east.
In the aforesaid articles, we explained some of the traits of Bil’am’s double-minded character. In the following, we will widen the psychological profile of Bil’am—the world’s first anti-Semite.
In ancient times, the personal names denoted the place of origin, clan, or acquired trade.
The name בִּלְעָם Bil’am is either to be derived from בַּל bal and עָם am, meaning “not of the people”, or from בָּלַע bala and עָם am (dropping the repeated ע), meaning “devourer of the people”, or perhaps from בָּלַע bala with the terminal syllable ָם– am, “devourer, destroyer”.
When we reflect on what we have written above concerning Bil’am, we will find that there are similarities with another devourer in the Book of Revelation: Nikolaos, “the conqueror of people”, the Greek equivalent of the name Bil’am. For more knowledge on this matter, refer to the articles The letter to the church of Ephesus and The letter to the church in Pergamos from the series The Revelation from YHVH.
Very often in the Scripture the names of people are given along with the names of their fathers. Likewise, we are given to know that Bil’am was the son of Be’or, who lived in the city of Pethor.
Hence, we see that the name Bil’am is related to that of his father בְּעוֹר Be’or, which is derived from בָּעַר ba’ar, to burn, to consume (by fire or by eating); also to be (become) brutish, to eat up.
King Balak sent emissaries to Bil’am in the city of Pethor in Mesopotamia. The city of Pethor is unknown. The supposition that the name פְּתוֹר Petor, is derived from פָּתַר patar, which means “to interpret dreams”, as this word is found in Gen 41:8, may designate the city of פְּתוֹר Petor as a seat of the possessors of secret arts and divinations.
It is very probable, therefore, that Bil’am belonged to a family and culture in which the mantic character, or magical art, was hereditary. And Balak must have believed in the real power and operation of the blessings and curses pronounced by the sorcerers of Pethor.
Bil’am’s double game with Elohim
Whether Bil’am received his name at birth, as a member of a family in which the sorcery was inherited, or whether it was given to him to mark him as such, in its true meaning, he bore the name of a well-known dreaded sorcerer.
On the other hand, it is remarkable that Bil’am the sorcerer was not without a certain measure of the peculiar knowledge of YHVH, the Elohim of Israel, and capability for such revelations of the Eternal. Nonetheless, the fact is that Bil’am not only knew YHVH, but he confessed YHVH, even in the presence of Balak. Bil’am asked His will and followed it not without his own interpretation, though (Num 22:8, Num 22:13, Num 22:18-20, Num 22:28, Num 23:12).
Therefore, without being a true prophet of YHVH, we should not be surprised that he was able to give utterance to true prophecies, as he indeed did.
This double-sidedness of the character of Bil’am may be explained on the supposition that being invested with special gifts of seeing and prophesying, he practiced divination and sorcery as a trade, for the money.
This equilibrium of trying to sit on two chairs, thus serving the true Elohim and money, can also be explained from the fact that he had firsthand knowledge of the great things which Elohim had done for Israel in Egypt and at the Red Sea. The reports of these great things had not only spread among all the neighboring peoples, as seen in Exo 15:14, Exo 18:1, and Jos 2:9, but had even reached out to Pethor, in Mesopotamia.
Through the acquired knowledge, Bil’am was no doubt willing not only to acquire more exact information, that he might make more profit from, but also to provide himself to the service of the true Mighty One in order to play on both sides for his own benefit.
At any rate, if Bil’am had been a true prophet of YHVH, he would at once have sent Balak’s emissaries away, as he must have known that YHVH would not curse His chosen people. Moreover, if Bil’am had been a true prophet, Balak would not have sent his men to him in the first place, and we would not have anything to discuss here.
Bil’am the anti-Semite
Bil’am indeed had some knowledge of the true Elohim, but how did he get it, since it was only YHVH who revealed Himself to Bil’am? This is what we learn from the apostle.
And as Yannes and Yambres opposed Mosheh, so do these also oppose the truth: men of corrupt minds, found worthless concerning the faith (2Ti 3:8)
But who were Yannes and Yambres who opposed Mosheh, because we find no such men in Exodus?
And indeed, while Yannes and Yambres cannot be found in the Torah, they can be found in the Book of Yashar, which the apostle quoted here.
Note: The Book of Yashar (HaYashar הַיָּשָׁר Sefer סֵפֶר) is directly quoted by Yehoshua (Jos 10:13) and King David (2Sa 1:17-18). Below, we will quote from Sefer HaYashar published by J.H. Parry & Company, 1887.
According to the Book of Yashar, Bil’am together with his sons Yannes and Yambres counseled Pharaoh how to handle the Hebrew slaves. This is what the Book of Yashar narrates.
Mosheh and Aharon said to Pharaoh that the Elohim of the Hebrews had sent them to Pharaoh with the words, “Send forth my people that they may serve me”. Pharaoh became greatly terrified and sent them away.
And when they had gone Pharaoh sent for Balaam the magician and to Jannes and Jambres his sons, and to all the magicians and conjurors and counsellors which belonged to the king, and they all came and sat before the king. (Yashar 79:25-27)
And Bil’am the son of Beor the magician said to the king, “These are none else than magicians like ourselves. Now therefore send for them and let them come and we will try them” (Yashar 79:30-31). This is what Bil’am counseled Pharaoh.
According to Yashar 67:10-52, it was Bil’am who “predicted” the birth of a child who would take the Hebrews out of Egypt. And it was Bil’am who advised Pharaoh to kill all baby boys to prevent this from happening.
In addition, we find Bil’am serving Egypt’s enemies, like Chittim and Kush, then serving Pharaoh himself; Bil’am appeared to be a well-known and esteemed mercenary, who served whoever would pay more.
And the Book of Yashar gives us the information we needed that Bil’am’s father Be’or was a sorcerer too. So indeed, Bil’am’s magical art was indeed hereditary.
So, how could that peculiarity of being a prophet of YHVH be explained in the light of what we have said above?
In Egypt, Elohim indeed gave Bil’am a few isolated but remarkable glimpses of the unseen knowledge of Himself to prepare the sorcerer for what was about to transpire in our story.
This can be explained by the supposition that when the Omniscient invests a man with knowledge, he also invests him with the power of working in a supernatural realm.
Thus invested with a supernatural power, Bil’am, on account of real connection between his soul and the supernatural realm, was able to gain for himself some knowledge and make it instrumental to his own purpose to practice magic and witchcraft with it.
Even in the narrative itself, the power of Bil’am to bless and curse is admitted. But this was only possible when Elohim turned the curse into a blessing (Deu 23:5, Jos 24:10, Neh 13:2). This power of Bil’am is not therefore to be traced to his own power or much less to the might of his idols, but to the might of the Omnipotent and no one else.
But in this blindness to discern, Bil’am hoped to be able to turn the table in his own favor. The seer, who prided himself on having eyes for divine revelations, was so blind that he could not even see the appearance of the messenger of YHVH on his way to Moav.
The corruption of his heart so much obscured his mind, that he even devised a plan with the intention of obtaining the consent of Elohim to his task.
Why did he believe that he could be successful in achieving it?
As a genuine heathen, he thought that because he could manipulate favorably people and their gods to his purpose of personal gain, he could also manipulate the true Elohim in whom he saw in Egypt nothing more than a “national god” of Israel. Explained in plain words, Bil’am attempted to “twist” the Almighty’s arm.
Learning the hard way (refer to the article The Bil’am story xxx), Bil’am came to the conclusion that the inability to curse Israel was not in him but came from the fear of YHVH Elohim and the dread of His punishment. This was firmly established in Bil’am’s mind, that he could do nothing at all except through YHVH. This knowledge he must have acquired by the means of his natural gifts of seer and experience as a sorcerer, but also from what he learned about Elohim in Egypt. But this clear knowledge of YHVH was completely obscured by the love for money.
Israel’s most beautiful blessing from an anti-Semite
There were two main reasons which rendered it impossible for Bil’am to curse Israel: the first one is that they were a set-apart people from the rest of the nations to YHVH, both outwardly and inwardly different from all other nations, as it is said, “it is not reckoned among the nations” (Num 23:9). And the second one is like it: they were a people richly blessed and highly favored by YHVH.
Such a people Bil’am came to the conclusion he could not curse; he could only wish that the end of his own life might resemble the end of these righteous people, as strange as it may sound from the mount of an anti-Semite like Bil’am.
But again, driven by a personal gain, Bil’am desired for himself all the blessings of Israel. He started the blessing thus,
How do I curse whom El has not cursed? And how do I rage at whom Yehovah has not raged? For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I observe him. Look, a people dwelling apart, not reckoning itself among the nations. Who shall count the dust of Ya’akov, and the number of one-fourth of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his! (Num 23:8-10)
In the hour of death, a righteous Israelite could look back with satisfaction to a blessed life. He could comfort himself with the hope of living on in his children’s life. With such a comfort he could depart with the joyful confidence of being gathered to his fathers and in anticipating of the future fulfilment of the resurrection of the dead.
Bil’am came to the realization that even dying the death of a righteous Israelite must be a blessing he must desire for himself.
How good are your tents, O Ya’akov, your dwellings, O Israel! Like wadis that stretch out, like gardens by a river, like aloes planted by Yehovah, like cedars beside waters. He makes water flow from his buckets, and his seed is in many waters. His king is higher than Agag, and his reign is exalted. El who brought him out of Egypt is for them like the horns of a wild ox. He devours nations, his enemies; and he breaks their bones, and with his arrows he smites. He bowed down, he lay down like a lion. And, like a lion, who would rouse him? Blessed is he who blesses you, and cursed is he who curses you. (Num 24:5-9)
Bil’am predicted in great outlines the good that would come to Israel from YHVH: in the blessed land of Kana’an the dwellings of Israel would spread out like valleys.
In the blessing, Bil’am saw a king whose reign would be exalted. This king is not any one particular king of Israel, but quite possibly the king whom the Israelites would afterwards receive. The king of Israel and his kingdom, whose greatness was foreseen by Bil’am, would be the kingdom established by David and exalted in his offspring, the Messiah into an everlasting kingdom.
Here, seeing that he went too far in the blessing, the anti-Semite’s eyes were open and he said to Balak,
Come, let me advise you what this people is going to do to your people in the latter days. And he took up his proverb and 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, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down, with eyes opened wide“. (Num 24:14-16)
The end of the prophecy indicates that Bil’am possessed the knowledge of the Most High Elohim. The words of YHVH had already been communicated to him before, and here the prophecy is occupied exclusively with the future rise of Israel; but the prophet foretold also his own fall, as his eyes were wide-open to see it.
He said to Balak, “Let me advise you”. What advice could an anti-Semite like Bil’am give to another anti-Semite?
Although Bil’am did not spell out what he advised him, it becomes clear in Num 31:16. Bil’am the prophet for profit gave Balak the advice to cause Israel to trespass against YHVH. And that advice was given for free. This is how much hatred Bil’am had in his heart towards Israel: this time he worked for free.
Bil’am’s double game with men
Another facet of the psychological profile of Bil’am points to a close relationship between Bil’am and the Midianites. After he had been compelled to bless the Israelites in spite of the evil inclination of his heart, Bil’am did not receive his rewards king Balak promised him and decided to play a double game–this time with men.
It is very plausible, that after Bil’am’s departure from Balak, he headed to the camp of the Israelites and there made known his prophecies to Mosheh (this is how we have it in the Torah). This he did in the hope of obtaining from them the reward which Balak had withheld from him.
But since he gained nothing from Israel, he went back to the Midianites, to avenge himself on the Israelites. He went to the Midianites and advised them.
What did he advise them? The same what he told Balak, but this time for pay.
He advise them that even if they would be able to assemble all the armies of the neighboring nations, they would not succeed to overcome them, because they all were no more numerous than the Egyptians, who died in the Red Sea; Bil’am was speaking as a witness.
But, Bil’am continued, if they would make Israel’s “national God” punish them, that would be even better and much more successful than sending armies to fight them.
In order to take revenge, Bil’am advised them how to harm the Israelites through immorality. He told the Midianites to send their women to seduce the Israelites. But that was not all the women had to do. They also had to lure the Israelites in worshipping their idols.
Bil’am learned from his close relationship with YHVH that the Elohim of Israel hated immorality and idolatry. Equipped with this knowledge of the true Elohim, he advised his new employer that the Elohim of Israel would punish them for transgressing His laws. Thus, the Israelites themselves fell into the snares of heathen seduction (Num 25:1-2).
In Num 31:16-18, we understand what Bil’am’s advice was. Mosheh tells us that through the words of Bil’am the Midianite seductresses made Israel trespass against YHVH in the matter of sexual immorality.
Elohim indeed punished His people for having sinned with women of Midian, and many lives were lost in the punishment. Bila’m went to receive his reward for the twenty-four thousand Israelites whose destruction he had caused by his advice. But his ultimate reward the prophet for profit received at his own death by the sword (Num 31:8).
But before this Bil’am continued his prophecy,
I see him, but not now. I observe him, but not near. A star shall come out of Ya’akov, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Mo’av, and shall destroy all the sons of uproar*. (Num 24:17)
*JPS and KJV have it “all the sons of Sheth”. Why did the translators feel it was necessary to render the Hebrew word as “Sheth” as this would not agree with the textual context employed here?
The human race has never been called by the name of שֵׁת Sheth the son of Adam, and the translation of Num 24:17, in JPS and KJV, that a king would arise out of Israel to destroy all mankind, would be altogether incorrect. These words themselves beg for an explanation.
The phrase כָּל־בְּנֵי־שֵׁת “all the sons of Seth”, signifies rather “all the sons of uproar” by which, according to the analogy in Num 24:17-18, Edom and Seir, and the Moabites are to be understood as such. שֵׁת shet is a contraction of שֵאת, “devastation” in Lam 3:47, and derived from שָאָה sha’a “to desolate”. In Jer 48:45 it is correctly rendered sha’on שָאֹון benei בְּנֵי, “sons of tumult”. Therefore, from a purely textural point of view, we may argue that it would have been appropriate then to render בְּנֵי־שֵׁת benei shet as “all the sons of terrorism”, which would make more sense at the given circumstance today.
The prophecy that follows is divided into four different prophecies by the fourfold repetition of the words, “he took up his parable”. The prophecy commences with a picture from the “end of the days”, wherein all the nations doomed to destruction are mentioned by name:
- The first of these refers to the two nations that were related to Israel, Edom and Moav (Num 24:17-19).
- the second to Amalek, the archenemy of Israel (Num 24:20).
- the third to the Kenites, who were allied to Israel (Num 24:21-22).
- and the fourth proclaims the overthrow of the great powers of the world (Num 24:23-24).
Still on the same words of prophecy, a star is a natural image and symbol of kingly greatness and splendor, that it has been employed in this sense in the national symbols of almost every nation today. This may serve to explain the belief of the ancient world, that the birth and accession of great kings was announced by the appearance of stars.
In the prophecy, this rising star represents a glorious future king of Israel, paralleled by “a scepter arises out of Israel”, a scepter as a symbol of kingship in Ya’akov’s blessing (Gen 49:10). This king would destroy all the enemies of Israel. Moab and Edom are the first of these that are mentioned.
If, we compare Bil’am’s prophecy of the star and the scepter with that of the patriarch Ya’akov, of the scepter that shall not depart from Yehudah, until Shiloh comes, it is easy to observe that Bil’am foretold a mighty king who will destroy all the enemies of Israel.
History proved that these nations, all arch-enemies of Israel, disappeared from the stage with the destruction of Judea by the Romans, but only to reappear in the recent history as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and “Palestinians“.
Today the people who called themselves “Palestinians” being pathological anti-Semites are not interested in their own wellbeing, and in the prosperity and future of their children, but in the destruction of the people they extremely hate. Just like Bil’am was.
In conclusion, knowing what we have learned so far, it should not come as a surprise the words of the apostle speaking of “the error of Bil’am”.
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 Bil’am’s error? As we showed above, Bil’am was blessing and cursing for money; he taught that mixing the truth with paganism would be more effective in destroying Israel than involving them in warfare in which the Mighty One of Israel would fight for them.
Therefore, Bil’am advised, instead of facing their enemies in battle, make them sin before their Elohim, then they had to face a punishment from Elohim in judgment.
The error of Bil’am, the apostle speaks of, was two-fold: firstly, he was motivated by personal gain, and secondly, he exploited the knowledge of YHVH to harm others. Bil’am paid for it, and we shall have no more to say upon this point presently.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.