Parshat Balak: The Extent of Balaam’s Abilities

“And Bilaam arose in the morning. And he said to Balak’s ministers, “Go to your land for Hashem has refused to allow me to go with you.” (BeMidbar 22:13)

Hashem appears to Bilaam in a vision. He tells Bilaam that he should not respond to Balak’s summons. Bilaam cannot curse Bnai Yisrael. The nation is blessed.

Hashem’s meaning was very clear. Bilaam could not affect destiny. He could merely foretell the future. This ability was the foundation of Bilaam’s illusions. Hashem told Bilaam he could not succeed in this case. Bnai Yisrael was blessed. Bilaam would have no opportunity to curse the nation.

Bilaam told the messengers that he could not return with them to Balak. He did not explain the reason. He did not indicate that he could not help Balak or that Bnai Yisrael could not be cursed. Why did Bilaam conceal this information?

Rashi explains Bilaam’s motivations. He comments that Bilaam told the ministers that he could not proceed with them. This implied that Balak should send a more worthy delegation. This delegation would earn Bilaam’s cooperation. Clearly, Bilaam was attempting to conceal his limitations.[1]

The effect of Bilaam’s response is predictable. Balak understood Bilaam’s message. He sent a new delegation. This group was composed of ministers of higher rank. These ministers arrived at Bilaam’s home. They assured Bilaam he would be amply rewarded for his services. They assured him of Balak’s complete cooperation.

Of course, Bilaam’s situation remained unchanged. He knew that only the Almighty shaped destiny. Bilaam could not truly curse or bless anyone. He was forced to reveal this limitation.[2] He told the messengers they must wait with him. He must receive guidance from Hashem.

Bilaam’s behavior seems bizarre. He knew that ultimately he must follow Hashem’s command. Hashem had told him that Bnai Yisrael was blessed. Bilaam would not be able to satisfy Balak’s request. Why did he mislead Balak?

Don Isaac Abarvanel explains that Bilaam was involved in an immense internal conflict. He enjoyed the attention he was receiving from Balak – the king of Moav. Balak’s entreaties appealed to Bilaam’s vanity. He did not want this attention to end. He needed to provide Balak with encouragement. This required Bilaam to create the impression that he had volition. However, Bilaam had no freedom. He could not act without Hashem. This eventually was revealed.

Bilaam’s situation was further complicated by his very claim. He presented himself as the true prophet of the Almighty. This implied that he was subject to the Almighty’s authority. This created an absolute contradiction. Bilaam implied freedom and subjugation simultaneously.

Bilaam could not resolve this conflict. This is reflected in his actions. He attempted to continue his charade. But in the end was forced, by his own claims, to admit his limitations.

The most revealing aspect of this entire incident is Bilaam’s immediate reaction to the second delegation. Essentially, the delegation asked Bilaam to name his price. This angered Bilaam. He responded that all of Balak’s wealth could not force a prophet to violate Hashem’s command. Why did Bilaam react so sharply? Bilaam had implied that the proper delegation could enlist his support. Balak rightfully understood this to imply that Bilaam had the ability to make a decision. He challenged Bilaam to exercise his freewill. This angered Bilaam. Balak had implied that Bilaam was not a true prophet. Bilaam immediately responded that he must obey Hashem. He was forced to confess his limitations.[3]

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 22:13.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 22:18.

[3] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 22:7.