Friday, July 20, 2012

The strange story of flying Bilaam

Bilaam had the power of flight? Why yes, according to several midrashic sources, and Rashi who indirectly cites them in his comment on Num 31:6
the sacred utensils: The holy Ark (Sifrei Mattoth 34, Num. Rabbah 22:4) and the golden showplate (Mid. Aggadah), since Balaam was with them and through sorcery was able to make the Midianite kings fly, and he flew along with them, he [Phinehas] showed them the showplate on which God’s Name was engraved, and they fell down [to earth]. For this reason it says, concerning the Midianite kings, “upon their slain” (verse 8), for they fell from the air on top of those slain. Likewise, it says in the book of Joshua (13:22) in connection with Balaam,“upon (sic) their slain.” - [Mid. Tanchuma Mattoth 4]
Let's unpack this. The problem Rashi appears to be addressing is the presence of more than one sacred utensil. Battle practices described elsewhere tell us that the Holy Ark was brought along by the soldiers, but what else did these soldiers carry? Numbers 31:6, in full, reads:
Moses sent them the thousand from each tribe to the army, them along with Phinehas the son of Eleazar the kohen to the army, with the sacred utensils and the sound-making trumpets in their possession.
In Hebrew, the last phrase is: וּכְלֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ וַחֲצֹצְרוֹת הַתְּרוּעָה בְּיָדוֹ, which can be hyperliterally translated as the "sacred utensils and the sound-making trumpets were in his hand." The idiom is "in their possession", but the word בְּיָדוֹ is singular and its antecedent is Pinchas, son of Eleazer. The only one of the sacred utensils small enough to carry in your hand is the showplate, or tzitz

The next part of Rashi's comment is self-explanatory. Two verses later we have וְאֶת מַלְכֵי מִדְיָן הָרְגוּ עַל חַלְלֵיהֶם  Literally this means, the kings died on their corpses. This can be interpreted in at least three ways (1) They were killed "together" with the other corpses (though if this was the intent the word "im" rather than "al" would have been a better choice) (2) They  were killed  "because" of the corpses, namely the 24,000 Israelite corpses that precipitated the war against Midian. (3) Or they were killed  "on" the corpses.

Rashi, following the midrashim takes the third meaning, which presents the image of the kings crashing down on the corpses. How did they end up dying on the corpses? They were flying above them until something interrupted their flight causing the fatal landing. That something is understood to have been the tzitz. Why?

When we first meet Balaam, he is being visited by Balaks emissaries who, we are told, carrying their charms (קְסָמִים) in their "hands". Whatever Eleazer carries in his hand is seem as a counterweight to what the Midianites have in their own hands.They're able to fly, thanks to the קְסָמִים held in their hands, so shouldn't their flight be interrupted by the tztiz held in Pinchas's hand? (The charm carrying emissaries are called Malachim, which can be re-read as Milochim, or kings.) 

Finally, Rashi points us to Joshua, where we find a word-for-word repeat of 31:8, aside for two changes. (similarities in red; differences in blue; changes in green; parts of the verse that aren't parallel left in black (Remember, the assignment of verses didn't occur until the 16th century)

Numbers 31:8 reads

אֶת מַלְכֵי מִדְיָן הָרְגוּ עַל חַלְלֵיהֶם אֶת אֱוִי וְאֶת רֶקֶם וְאֶת צוּר וְאֶת חוּר וְאֶת רֶבַע חֲמֵשֶׁת מַלְכֵי מִדְיָן וְאֵת בִּלְעָם בֶּן בְּעוֹר הָרְגוּ בֶּחָרֶב:

Joshua 13:21-22 reads
וְכֹל֙ עָרֵ֣י הַמִּישֹׁ֔ר וְכָֽל־מַמְלְכ֗וּת סִיחֹון֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר מָלַ֖ךְ בְּחֶשְׁבֹּ֑ון אֲשֶׁר֩ הִכָּ֨ה מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֹתֹ֣ו ׀ וְאֶת־נְשִׂיאֵ֣י מִדְיָ֗ן אֶת־אֱוִ֤י וְאֶת־רֶ֙קֶם֙ וְאֶת־צ֤וּר וְאֶת־חוּר֙ וְאֶת־רֶ֔בַע נְסִיכֵ֣י סִיחֹ֔ון יֹשְׁבֵ֖י הָאָֽרֶץ
ואת־בלעם בן־בעור הקוסם הרגו בני־ישראל בחרב אל־חלליהם׃

As you can see the word עַל (on) becomes אל (to) and in Joshua Bilaam is identified specifically as a kosem, or wizard, a designation that is missing from Numbers. The point of calling him a kosem here, I think, is to tell us that Bilaam has performed one last trick. He's given himself and the kings the power of flight. Rashi has no reason to mention the parallel verse in Joshua that I can see, unless he wishes to specifically draw our attention to the fact that the second-telling emphasizes Bilaam's magic-making abilities, an emphasis which supports the suggestion that the kings and Bilaam flew which in turn supports his reading of  עַל חַלְלֵיהֶם as "on the corpses", which in tern tells us why an extra sacred utensil, the tzitz, was needed (to counteract the flying charms the kings held).

ATTENTION APOLOGISTS: If you're interested in allegorizing this story, you can probably find some symbolism for the tzizt to represent - i.e. God's close relationship with the Israelites - that can serve as a counter-effect for what ever the Midianite charms are meant to represent. As you know, I tend to view such allegories as afterthoughts. The Sages thought the kings were flying becuase it says they died on top of the other corpses. Also Bilaam was a wizard. Also Pinchas carried the tzizt to war. All of that, to the rabininc reader, is clearly stated in the verses. If you already believe in magic (as the Sages did) flying kings are not impossible. 

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