Sunday, July 05, 2009

Bilaam: Fun facts to know and tell

Here are two things you might have said on Friday night to regale your guests and impress your wife or live in boyfriend as the case may be.

1 - The star of the sedra, Bilaam, is also the star of the the earliest reference in archaeological sources to an individual named in the Torah. A plaster inscription, found in 1967 on the wall of a temple at Deir Alla in Jordan, makes reference to the night vision of a seer called Bilaam son of Beor. It dates to 840-760 BCE.

(And allow me to bring redemption to the world by noting that I heard this from the lips (or fingers) of Mis-nagid, four years ago, back when he was brave enough to blog.)

2 - Bilaam was NOT (not, not, not, NOT) a prophet -- at least according to two of the top three Rishonim. Here is the Ramban's commentary to Num 22:31. The translation is Chaval's (pg 258):"...and God-Forbid that they should stretch forth a hand against a prophet of God." On the same verse the Ramban says: "From this verse we learn the Balaam was not a prophet because had he been a prophet how could it be that he required "opening of the eyes... and indeed scripture calls him a Bilaam ben Beor, the soothsayer[Kosaim]"

I know this quote from the Ramban will come as a bit of a surprise to members of the reading audience who were brought up to believe that Rashi is the last, final, and only word on any subject, but the issue of Bilaam's prophecy is hotly debated. Arguments against include the one cited above, along with the fact that he was both handicapped and evil. (The Spanish rishonim, almost to a man, believed that both would have disqualified him from prophecy.)

The correct view on the question of Ballam's prophecy, therefore, is this: WE DON'T KNOW. Anyone who takes a more certain stance is ignorant or trying to sell you something

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