Jewish tradition has proposed two principal models for understanding Balaam's job description.
While the Bible designates him clearly as a "kosem"--a sorcerer or soothsayer--there exists a widespread tradition, found most frequently in the Midrash, that classifies him as a prophet--in fact, as one of the greatest prophets, whose abilities rivaled those of Moses himself!
The commentaries have indulged in considerable speculation about how Balaam went about his work. The Midrash, for instance, relates that he possessed a talent for discerning when circumstances would be favourably or inauspiciously disposed towards human undertakings, thereby allowing him to influence a project's outcome by scheduling it at a particular moment. In this way his curses and blessings acquired a reputation for effectiveness.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, ever an enthusiast of astrology, attributed Balaam's reputation to his skill reading the stars. Once the horoscope had determined that a catastrophe was about to occur, Balaam would ceremoniously proclaim a curse, creating the fraudulent impression that his malediction had actually caused the disaster.
The 13th-Century commentator Rabbi Bahya ben Asher asked why, if Balaam's blessings and curses were completely fraudulent and could not truly affect the destiny of the Israelites, did God take such elaborate measures to discredit him and demonstrate the baselessness of his oracles? Let Balaam stand and curse all day! In the long run it won't make any difference.
The answer to this question can be better understood if we realize that the outcome of human actions is not predetermined. As Ibn Ezra suggested, matters could take a course that might mistakenly be perceived as a corroboration of Balaam's curses. It was in order to prevent such a misunderstanding that God took the trouble to discredit Balaam and demonstrate the patent falseness of his pretensions.
Most of the commentators accept some variation on the view that Balaam's sorcery consisted of an insight into future developments. And yet many of these same commentators are equally insistent that Balaam did not qualify as a real navi.
Now these interpretations may strike us as puzzling. Are not insights into the future precisely what defines true prophecy? Were not the great prophets of the Bible famous for their knowledge of the divine plans for future history?
Actually, this perception of prophecy is a misleading one, widespread though it may be. It derives largely from alien influences.
In reality the English word "prophet" is not an accurate translation of the Hebrew navi. Whereas the Hebrew term comes from a root meaning to speak or proclaim, the English one originates in a Greek word denoting the prediction of the future. The concept of Greek prophecy reflects a very different religious culture, in which oracles foretold coming events, and had scant interest in moral instruction.
This is definitely not the case among the Hebrew prophets. The Nevi'im were not concerned with revealing the course of future events. Their messages were invariably aimed at the here-and-now, to proclaim God's word to their contemporaries.
While it is true that several of the prophets do make declarations about what will befall Israel in days to come, about impending conquests or about the Messianic restoration--these matters are never the principal concern of the message. Rather, they are intended to indicate the consequences of disobedience and moral laxity, or the rewards in store for those who maintain their devotion under conditions of adversity. Except perhaps in the most general of terms, none of these "prophetic" visions of the future has the character of an absolute or unalterable scenario. Ultimately, they are all conditional upon the people's response.
Balaam's predictions about the fates of Edom and Amalek are of an oracular sort, and the Talmudic Rabbis were quick to distinguish them from the ethical and compassionate spirit that should direct true Nevu'ah. They were well aware of how the Christian church in their day was ingeniously transforming the Hebrew scriptures into a book of coded prophesies and "prefigurations" that irrefutably heralded the coming of their saviour.
The view that history follows a predictable course is what the Torah ascribes to the "kosem." Ironically, it is precisely the world-view that in our society is widely identified with "prophecy," as anyone will appreciate who has had occasion to listen to the forecasts of Christian televangelists, Israeli messianic extremists, or those who read the Torah as an elaborate supernatural word-search puzzle.
Perhaps this is the crucial point that Balaam misunderstood. He thought he could predict the future by charms or horoscopes, and that this would qualify him to be counted in the ranks of the prophets.
Yet if, as we have seen, Balaam was the antithesis of a true prophet, then why do the sages of the Talmud and Midrash refer to him so often as a "Navi'"? This question was asked by Rabbi Isaac Arama in his Akedat Yitzhak commentary. He replied by pointing out that Balaam is never referred to simply as a Navi, but always as the "prophet of the nations."
According to Arama, the Rabbis' purpose was to emphasize the contrast between the opposed perceptions of prophecy in Israel and among the nations of the world. For Jews, the prophet is ultimately a moral figure, whose insights into the future are relevant only insofar as they guide our conduct in the present. For Balaam, on the other hand, humans are playing out a predetermined scenario over which our actions can exert no meaningful control or influence.
Seen this way, the career of Balaam comes to embody a fundamental conflict between the Torah's ideal of nevu'ah and "the prophecy of the nations."
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