Thursday, December 13, 2007

Balaam and Moses: Prophets of God

In one of the most famous comparisons in Midrash, the heathen prophet Balaam and the Jewish prophet Moses are equated. It is said that their powers are equal, that God deliberately granted the nations a prophet so that they could not protest that had they only had a messenger of God’s they too would have followed His laws and obeyed His edicts. There is no question that Balaam was an intensely powerful and gifted individual. But unlike Moses, he “counseled the nations to give up their moral course of life and to become addicted to lewdness.”[1] He also differed from the Israelite prophets in his cruelty; they had “such pity for the nations that misfortune among the heathens caused them suffering and sorrow, whereas Balaam was so cruel that he wanted to destroy an entire nation without any cause.”[2] Indeed, Balaam’s actions were so evil that God decided to withdraw the gift of prophecy from the heathen nations.[3]

Balaam was Moses’ equal in every way; he was not “inferior to Moses either in wisdom or in the gift of prophecy.” He even excelled Moses, for Moses had to pray to God to “shew him His ways,” whereas Balaam was the man who could declare of himself that he “knew the knowledge of the Most High.”[4] Moses excelled Balaam as well in that God actually called to him whereas he merely “happened upon” Balaam. Nevertheless, these two men are dramatic and dynamic personalities, standing at the forefront of their respective nations.

Despite the simplistic understanding of Balaam which associates him with all that is evil and cruel, it is clear that he and Moses have more in common than we would sometimes like to think. They are not only prophets but they face similar challenges; they both have the power of their voice and yet God controls their tongues. Just as God angrily informs Moses, “Who made man’s mouth? Or who makes a man dumb, or deaf, seeing, or blind? Is it not I the Lord?/ Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt speak,”[5] so too does God master Balaam’s curses. God informs Balaam that “only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do.”[6] Neither man can control his own tongue; as Balaam famously exclaims, “Told not I thee, saying, All that the Lord speaketh, that I must do?”[7] He has no choice.

Both Balaam and Moses are confronted with the incomprehensible, situations which make no sense. Moses comes across a burning bush that is not consumed while Balaam is faced by a donkey that shies away from an invisible enemy. Moses and Balaam are characterized by their responses to these situations. Moses comes upon the burning bush because he is tending his flock, engaged in a caring occupation and ensuring the safety of every lamb. He is a shepherd, an occupation that typifies caring for he must guard the animals, watching over and protecting them. Balaam, on the other hand, is characterized as a man who ungratefully beats his donkey, hurting the animal that has faithfully served him. His is not the personality that allows for caring or gratitude. It is interesting that both Moses and Balaam strive to evade the will of God, making Him angry in the process. Balaam does this by going forward despite God’s evident displeasure, though he later explains that he “has sinned”[8] because he did not know the angel stood against him. In a precisely opposite situation, it is Moses’ refusal to assume his responsibilities that angers God, who finally informs him that if he will argue then Aaron shall aid him, but he will not be able to avoid his task.[9]

Balaam appears to be better at listening than Moses. After all, he explained to Balak’s princes that he must await God’s orders. God visited his dreams and informed him that “Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed.”[10] Balaam hears this response and does not fight it; he does not argue with God. Instead, he informs the princes of Balak that they should return to their land for God will not give him leave to go with them. But it is precisely that phraseology which demonstrates where his heart truly lies; it is only because God will not grant him leave that he will not accompany them. Nevertheless, he listens. He obeys God.

This is very different from Moses, who is informed by God that he cannot and will not enter the land of Israel. This is something that Moses truly desires; it would seem that it is even his due reward. But he does not accept defeat. He does not accept God’s command, will not take it for what it is worth; instead he argues and questions and fights, to no avail. Moses does not wish to be defeated by God. He begs him, “Let me go over, I pray thee, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country, and Lebanon.” [11] But by this time God has had enough; he does not heed Moses and instead says “Let it suffice thee; speak no more to Me of this matter.”[12] Where Balaam accepted God’s decree with grace, Moses passionately protests.

Why then was Balaam punished? Did he not accept God’s decree? The answer is that he did in the practical sense, but he still thought that he could outwit God. This is obvious due to the message the angel relays to him after Balaam offers to return home; “Go with the men, but only the words that I shall speak to thee, that shalt thou speak.”[13] Balaam remained at home when God commanded him to do so, but he thought that he could outwit God, that he could somehow manage to speak his own words and not those mandated by his Creator. This is the reason that God becomes angry with Him; it is because Balaam is foolish enough to think that he has the ability to control his own tongue, to defeat God. This speaks to a difference of temperament. While Moses is passionate, angry and strong, he displays a kind of honesty, allowing God to see that he does not agree. Balaam, on the other hand, is more crafty. He is quiet, theoretically obeying God’s decree, but he harbors other ideas within his bosom, slyly thinking that he can outwit Him. He is colder than Moses, less angry. He is the kind to outwardly obey while plotting to assassinate a man while Moses’ face would betray him in such a situation.

Both Moses and Balaam display their humanity when they blame their faults upon others. Balaam explains to the angel that “I have sinned, for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me; now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back.”[14] This is the Abimelech defense, echoing in every way that king’s innocent “In the simplicity of my heart and the innocence of my hands have I done this.”[15] Balaam claims that it was simply the fact that he was uninformed that caused him to sin, in effect placing the blame upon God. Moses is different in that he places the blame for his sin squarely upon the people, stating that “the Lord was wroth with me for your sakes.”[16] Neither man desires to claim responsibility for his actions.

What then is the difference between Moses and Balaam, the Israelite prophet and the heathen? They are both men of incalculable skill and power, both men whose tongues are ruled by God, both flawed and very human individuals. They differ in their temperaments and personalities. Moses cares passionately about animals; it is his caring for his flock that leads him to his first confrontation with God. He is honest with God, unable to listen to a demand that requires him to give up his dream; he fights loudly and strongly, passionate about his ideals. Balaam, on the other hand, has the ability to dismiss an animal that has long served him due to its momentary disobedience; he does not feel as Moses does for its plight. He is crafty, able to pretend to obey while inwardly harboring devious thoughts. He seems cold, more calculated. He is flawed, just as Moses as flawed, but their flaws are different. One man is open and wears his faults on his sleeve. When he blames others, it is obvious, for he places responsibility upon his people. The other is closed and pretends to be what he is not. He claims to be innocent when he knew perfectly well that God did not desire him to accompany Balak’s princes; he seems to obey when he truly desires to do evil. It is this falseness which typifies him.

Within the context of Midrash, where each personality is archetypal, it seems that the core message is clear: in this confrontation between Israelite and heathen, both equally matched, both prophets, the Moses character is preferred. Moses may be loud, tempestuous, prey to stormy moods and anger; he may be passionate and fight with God but he is open, easily read, a man who means what he says. Balaam is far more dangerous; he pretends to obey but truly desires to subvert, he innocently informs God that He is to blame for the misunderstanding that takes place; he is able to beat an animal who has consistently served him well. Balaam is cold and he is devious; the hotheaded Moses is presumed better because he is honest. Not for him, these crafty plots and subtle excuses; he is straightforward in his arguments, open with God. And this is how we should be as well; it is better to be straight and honest with God than to pretend to listen only to await the opportunity to disobey.


[1] Legends of the Jews , Volume 1 by Louis Ginzberg, page 760
[2] Legends of the Jews , Volume 1 by Louis Ginzberg, page 761
[3] Legends of the Jews , Volume 1 by Louis Ginzberg, page 761
[4] Legends of the Jews , Volume 1 by Louis Ginzberg, page 761
[5] Exodus 4:12
[6] Numbers 22: 20
[7] Numbers 23: 26
[8] Numbers 22: 34
[9] Exodus 4: 14
[10] Numbers 22: 12
[11] Deuteronomy 3: 25
[12] Deuteronomy 3: 26
[13] Numbers 22: 35
[14] Numbers 22: 24
[15] Genesis 20: 5
[16] Deuteronomy 3: 26


Anonymous said...

That was a fascinating comparison. Such subtle and yet immeasurable differences between the two men!

Keep up the great work.

Allen said...

That was a fascinating comparison. Such subtle and yet immeasurable differences between the two men! Keep up the great work.