Skip to main content

See also:

THE DEAF PROPHET

Billam and the donkey meet an Angel on the road
Billam and the donkey meet an Angel on the road
RICHARD KLEMPNER

In 1967 an ancient manuscript was unearthed at Deir Alla, Jordan. In its first four lines it mentions no less than three times the “cursing prophet...Bilaam son of Beor,” exactly as he is known in this week’s Biblical reading. Written in Aramaic, this remarkable text tells the story of this pagan “seer of the gods.” Was he genuine or a fraud? Was he a diviner of omens or merely a sorcerer of the occult? According to several Midrashim he was a great prophet, equal to Moses, whose “evil eye” sought Israel's downfall.
Leaving all these questions aside, let’s examine - not Bilaam’s power - but the preamble to the story, for it is here that a baffling theological problem arises, namely: what did G-d want? At the outset, when the first emissaries try to persuade Bilaam to curse the Israelites, his answer is a model of propriety: I must consult with G-d. Heaven’s answer is unequivocal: Do not go with them.
So a second, more distinguished group arrives offering significant rewards. Bilaam's reply is once again exemplary: "I could not do anything great or small beyond the command of my G-d." However, he adds a fateful clause: "Nonetheless, stay overnight and I will find out what else the L-rd will tell me."
The implication is clear. Bilaam is suggesting that G-d may change His mind. But this is impossible. That is not how G-d operates. Indeed, Bilaam himself later declares: "G-d is not a man that He should relent." Yet to our surprise, that is exactly what G-d seems to do. That night G-d says to Bilaam: "Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you."
Consequently, Bilaam saddles his donkey and sets out. In response, “G-d was very angry and the angel stood in the road to oppose him.”
The commentaries throughout the ages offer a multitude of answers, mostly based on textual analysis. There is however one solution that does not require insight into Biblical nuances, only an honest awareness of how we humans operate. we all listen to what we want to , and the hardest word to hear in any language is no.
Bilaam asked, G-d said: No. That should have sufficed. Yet Bilaam asked again. In that act lay his weakness. He knew that G-d did not want him to go. Yet he invited the second group to wait overnight just in case G-d changed his mind.
But G-d does not change His mind. Therefore Bilaam's delay is not a reflection about G-d, but about himself. He did not accept the No, since he wanted to hear a Yes. And ultimately, that is what he heard. Not because G-d wanted him to go, but because if we refuse to accept what He says, G-d does not force His will upon us. As the Sages express it: Man is led down the path he chooses to tread.
Thus the true meaning of G-d's “Go” is "If you insist, I will not stop you, but I am angry that you asked a second time." G-d did not change His mind. His Yes was the No Bilaam was not prepared to hear. When G-d speaks and we do not listen, He does not intervene to save us from our choices.
Still G-d was not prepared to let Bilaam proceed as if he had Divine consent. Instead He arranged the ‘subtle’ demonstration with a donkey to clarify the difference between true and false prophecy. The false prophet speaks. The true prophet listens. The false prophet tells people what they want to hear. The true prophet tells them what they need to hear. The false prophet believes in his own powers. The true prophet knows that he has NO power.
Without a doubt, one thing provokes Divine laughter, human pretension. Bilaam had won renown as A great prophet. So G-d proceeded to show Bilaam that even Bilaam’s donkey can (at G-d's discretion) a greater prophet. The donkey sees what Bilaam cannot: an angel standing in the path, barring their way. When human beings think they can dictate what G-d will say, G-d laughs. And, on this occasion, so do we.