Monday, July 02, 2007

Some final thoughts on Billam

So, of course you realize that the story of Billam as written stands as a rebuke of both polytheists, and by extension, those of you who believe in miracle workers. As satire, it's really quite delicious. Some of the more obvious comedic touches:

-- Billam, the guy who's supposed to be able to destroy the whole, huge nation of Israel merely with his mouth, is made to say to his donkey "If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now." Hello? Zap him with your mouth, Mister Big Shot Prophet!

-- Billam, the guy who's supposedly a prophet able to recognize the moods of God is made to admit that he was unaware when the Lord's messenger was standing directly in front of his face. Oopsie!

-- The third time the angel blocks the donkey it crouches; later when Billam is allowed to see the angel, he performs the same act in imitation of his beast. Loser!

-- Three times Billam's donkey behaves in an unexpected way, causing Billam great frustration; later, when the Lord changes his curse to a blessing, Billam himself behaves in an unexpected way, causing Balak great frustration. In this sense, Billam has been turned into the donkey.

Credit: All of this came (I think) from Alter and/or Rashi. Not sure what belongs to who, though.

Finally, those of you in love (and really its sick how excited this makes grown men) with the idea that Billam and his donkey were romantically linked are defeated by the plain sense of the text. It reads: ותאמר האתון אל בלעם הלוא אנכי אתנך אשר רכבת עלי מעודך עד היום הזה ההסכן הסכנתי לעשות לך כה ויאמר לא׃
This translates as: And the ass said to Balaam, Am I not your ass upon which you have gone all your life till this day? and have I ever done this to you before? And he said, No.

The beastiality idea comes from the fact that a word very much like ההסכן הסכנתי is used elsewhere to describe an intimate relationship. But (a) this isn't how its used here; and (b) Billam contradicts it outright. He says NO.

So what gives? Simple. The author of the aggadah (I forget his name, but the Talmud quotes him) was attempting to make evil Billam look as evil as possible. This is a common approach of the midrash, and its doubtful that the author of this particular aggadah though that Billam and his beast were involved. He's just using the coincidence of a word to make a point about the man's character.

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