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Bilaam the magician


This essay discusses a new way of looking at the Bilaam story based on the names of God used.

The elders of Midian and the king of Moab send a request to Bilaam to curse the Israelite people.  In the narrative that follows, Bilaam’s intended curses are turned into blessings.

But who is this Bilaam?  Is he a magician, a prophet of God - or perhaps both combined?  


From the Bible, it is very clear that Bilaam’s primary identification was as a “magician”.  


The Israelite leader Joshua, approaching the end of his life, acknowledges in a speech to the Israelites the mercies of God, and reminds the Israelites that Bilaam the “magician”was put to death:


And Bilaam the son of Beor, the magician (הַקּוֹסֵם) (hakosem), the children of Israel slew with the sword among the rest of their slain.” (Joshua 13:22)

Bilaam was recruited because of his international reputation as a master of the nefarious art of black magic:

“For I know [says Balak, king of Moab, about Bilaam] that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you invoke a curse upon is accursed” (Numbers 22:6)


He was a magician and not a prophet of God - although in the ancient world magic and prophecy often went hand in hand.  


To emphasize what their expectations are from him, his recruiters pointedly come with the tools of magic in their hands:


And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian went with charms in their hand וּקְסָמִים בְּיָדָם)) (uksamim beyadom); and they came to Balaam, and spoke to him the words of Balak.” (Numbers 22:7)1


And even when told by God that he has permission only to say what He God puts in his mouth, Bilaam continues using magic to induce God to change His mind.   Old habits are not easily changed.  It is only prior to his third prophecy that Bilaam dispenses with the use of magic:

And Bilaam saw that it was good in the eyes of YHVH to bless Israel, so he did not go as at the other time towards divinations (לִקְרַאת נְחָשִׁים) (likrat nechashim), but he set his face toward the wilderness. (Numbers 24:1)


Yet Bilaam seems to have a relationship with God that would typically be shown by prophets.  He is able to initiate conversations with God almost at will.  He turns immediately to YHVH when Balak’s emissaries come to him.  He tells these representatives the next day that he is not a free agent but can only say what YHVH puts in his mouth.  He talks the talk.  On one occasion, he even states that he is a follower of YHVH: 

“If Balak would give me his household of silver and gold, I am unable to transgress the word of YHVH, my God (elokei), to do anything small or great.” (Numbers 22:18)


It is no doubt because of this that there is a thread of Jewish tradition that Bilaam was a prophet of God to the non-Jewish world.  Hence, in the Talmud one finds statements such as:  “R’ Yochanan said: At the beginning he was a prophet, but at the end he was merely a sorcerer,”2 and: “Seven prophets prophesied for the nations of the world.  These were Bilaam, and his father Job, Elifaz the Teimanite, Bildad the Shuchite, Tzofar the Na’amassite and Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite.”3 


Nevertheless, to have gained a reputation as a master of black magic, Bilaam must have performed magic in relation to numerous pagan deities.  Also, as the Torah will make abundantly clear, does not deal with magic.  A person can be a magician, and there have been those who merited to become a prophet of God - but it is impossible to be both at the same time.  A prophet of God requires a strong moral foundation and knowledge of what God requires from man.  Maimonides regards prophecy as the highest stage of cleaving to God.4  To Maimonides, there can be no greater religious accomplishment than to be in a prophetic state.  How then can this villain be a genuine prophet of God? 

The answer must surely be that Bilaam was not previously a prophet of God, and may not even have been a strict monotheist.   He was a magician who even when speaking to God was unable to dispense with the accouterments of paganism and its magic.

When Bilaam and Balak make sacrifices together in preparation for Bilaam’s cursing, Balak chooses places that are identifiable with the worship of Baal Pe’or. 


Hence, before Bilaam’s first prophecy the Torah relates:

And it was in the morning, Balak took Balaam and brought him up to the Heights of Baal    (בָּמוֹת בעל) (bamos baal), and from there he saw the edge of the people.” (Numbers 22:41)


And before his third prophesy:

Balak took Bilaam to the summit of Peor (ראש הפעור) (Rosh Hapeor) that overlooks the face of the Yeshimon.” (Number 23:28)


It may well be that these places had the highest elevation and therefore provided the best view over the Israelite camp.  However, knowing the sensitivity of God, these locations could have been avoided, or at the very least this extraneous information could have been omitted from the Bible.  


Moreover, when Bilaam advises Balak and the Midianites how to overcome the Israelites through immorality, his intention was clearly to lead the Israelites to paganism and the worship of Baal Pe’or: 

And Israel settled in the Shittim and the people began to act promiscuously with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate and bowed to their gods.  Israel became attached to Baal Pe’or, and the anger of YHVH flared up against Israel.” (Numbers 25:1-3)    

 All this makes it very difficult to consider Bilaam a pure monotheist.  It seems more likely that he was an opportunist YHVH-believer who claimed to have magic powers that could influence a variety of Near Eastern deities.

However, to bring about a reversal in Bilaam’s plans, God needs to communicate with him.5  But he should not be considered a prophet of God because of this.  In the Torah and elsewhere in the Bible, God speaks to non-Jews who have no exceptional moral virtues.  For example. an angel of God speaks to Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, when she is fleeing from Sarah.6  The Philistine Avimelech, king of Gerar, receives communications from God - and other examples can be found in the Bible. 7  On these occasions, God speaks through His aspect of Elohim and these are one-time events.  Moreover, none of these individuals would ever claim to being a prophet of God.

Nachamanides points out that after the first two sacrifices made by Bilaam when attempting to curse Israel, he seeks God and God “chances” upon him.8  This meeting of God is similar to that experienced by individuals who are not on a prophetic level.  For example, the Torah says about Abimelech “And Elohim came to Abimelech”(Genesis 20:3), and about Laban “and Elohim came to Laban” (Genesis 31:24).  Nevertheless, before Bilaam’s third prophecy, a prophecy that was not accompanied by preliminary magic, the “spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2).  This and his next prophecy constitute the pinnacle of Bilaam’s prophesying –he has now truly become a prophet of YHVH.   


The view of Nachmanides would therefore seem most compatible with the plain meaning of the text  - that Bilaam was not previously a prophet of God but was elevated to this position by God in order to prophecy about the Jewish people: 

“Then YHVH opened his eyes …. ”  From this we learn that Balaam was not a real prophet, but required an “uncovering of the eyes” in order to see an angel ….  And as for that which he said “as YHVH shall speak to me...” (v8) [Balaam] called his knowledge of future events by divination “the speech of God.” However, in honor of Israel, God did come to him that night ....  and at the end he rose to the prophetic level of “the vision of Shaddai”.”9 

Clearly then, to understand Bilaam we need to know more about Mesopotamian magic and how the Torah’s viewed magic. 


The magician Bilaam

Magic in ancient Mesopotamia was inseparable from its religion.  Magicians were found in the temples and as counselors of kings, and the use of magic was pervasive in daily life.   


Mesopotamians were polytheists who considered every aspect of nature to be controlled by gods.  Nothing existed in nature separately from these gods.  The role of man was to serve the gods by working the earth; and since the earth belonged to the gods, human labor was solely for their benefit.  The gods were poorly responsive to man.  The notion that a person could have a personal relationship with a Deity was unknown until the time of Abraham.  Because of this, magic functioned as the means by which it was possible to know what the gods wanted, to divine reasons why the gods had brought on illness and misfortune, to alleviate misfortune by altering the spiritual forces, to divine the future, and to attempt to preempt future misfortune.   


One way of ascertaining the future was by omens.  Since the gods controlled everything in nature, nature itself could provide hints as to its future course.  Omens would be sought in the entrails of sacrificial animals, in astrological events, by enquiring of the spirits of the dead (necromancy), in examining the smoke curling from sacrifices, and numerous other ways.  With this information, it was possible to influence the spiritual world by means of incantations, charms and magic objects. 


Archeologists have found written on cuneiform tablet in Mesopotamia numerous standardized incantations.  The specialist called upon to perform this white magic aimed at protecting people from harm was a “magician”.

Prophecy was another way for determining the wishes of the gods.  Prophecy is usually regarded as an activity confined to the Bible and providing revelations only from God, but analysis of ancient texts reveals that this was not the case.  Prophecy existed in the pagan world and pagan prophets received communications and visions from their gods at night as in the Bible.  The Bible warns about trusting in “false prophets”. 10  These would have been prophets who practiced paganism and received messages from the multitude of pagan gods, or prophets who practiced monotheism but who fabricated messages from YHVH. 


A particularly vicious form of magic was black magic, in which a magician attempted to harm individuals or groups of individuals.  This also was done by means of charms and incantations.  No copies of black magic incantations exist today as they were almost certainly proprietary and probably regarded as extremely harmful.  Bilaam was regarded as a master of black magic.

The use of magic was strictly forbidden by the Torah.  Magic denies the omnipotence of God, even when directed at God Himself.  To the Bible, there can be only one source for the working of nature and one source for knowledge of the future: 

When you come to the Land that YHVH your God gives to you, you shall not learn to act according to the abominations of those nations.  There shall not be found among you one who causes his son or daughter to pass through the fire, one who practices divinations (קֹסֵםקְסָמִים) (kosem kesamim), an astrologer, one who reads omens (וּמְנַחֵשׁ) (umenaches), a sorcerer, or an animal charmer, one who enquires of Ov or Yidoni, or one who consults the dead.  For anyone who does these is an abomination of YHVH ….  For these nations that your are possessing  - they hearken to astrologers and diviners (קֹסְמִים) (kosmim), but as for you – not so has YHVH your God given for you.” (Deuteronomy 18:9-13)11


It is interesting to note other aspects of magic found in this account. 


The name of a deity would be important in black magic.  Without this name, Bilaam would be unable to penetrate into the spiritual world through his magical incantations in order to curse this people.  It turns out that Bilaam does have knowledge of the Tetragrammaton:

“And he [Bilaam] said to them: lodge here tonight and I will bring you back word as YHVHwill speak to me.  And the princes of Moab stayed with Bilaam.” (Numbers 22:8)  


But Bilaam is deluding himself.  YHVH is the God of relationships and the national God of the Jewish people.  YHVH is not prepared to play Bilaam’s game.  The most He will do is answer him through His aspect of Elohim, since this is the aspect of God that has been revealed to all humanity.  However, Bilaam either fails to appreciate this or he deliberately misleads the princes of Balak.  The scriptural verse quoted above continues as follows:

And Elohim came to Bilaam and said: Who are these men with you? Bilaam said to Elohim: Balak the son of Zipor, king of Moab sent to me [saying].  Behold!  The people coming out of Egypt, it covers the eye of the land.  Now go and curse it for me; perhaps I shall be able to make war against it and I shall drive it out.  And Elohim said to Bilaam: You shall not go with them!  You shall not curse this people, for it is blessed!”  

And Bilaam arose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak: Go to your land, for YHVH refuses to give me leave to go with you.” (Numbers 22:13)


Bilaam relates the information he has received from God to Balak’s representatives, informs them he is unable to come with them, and sends them back home.  However, Balak is not prepared to accept no for an answer and sends an even more influential party to Bilaam, since he is convinced that Bilaam would be prepared to come to Midian and influence the God of the Israelites provided he is given sufficient honor and reward.


The scenario is repeated.   Bilaam says will speak with YHVH, and again it is not YHVH but the Deity Elohim who speaks to him:


Bilaam answered and said to the servants of Balam: “If Balak will give me his household full of silver and gold, I am unable to transgress the word of YHVH, my God, to do anything small or great.  And now, you too, please stay here tonight, and I will know what YHVH will add in speaking with me.  And Elohim came to Bilaam at night …. “  (Numbers 22:18-19)


Another point.  During his initial prophecies, Bilaam uses pagan-type magic to reach to God and curse the Israelites, and this is reflected in the text in a number of ways:

  •  Balak takes Bilaam to elevations from whence he can view part of the Israelite camp.  By this means he can accurately direct his curses.  

  • On three occasions, Bilaam asks Balak to build seven altars, and together they offer a bull and a ram on each of the altars.  With the number 7, Bilaam is directing himself into the spiritual world and the residence of the gods.12 

  • Bilaam makes his offerings on a grand scale, and this is probably part of his magic.  Each offering is an oleh in which the entire animal is burnt on the altar.  This is a bribe to God.  In the pagan world, sacrifices are offerings of food to the gods.  The bigger the meal, the bigger the bribe. 

  • In fact, Bilaam makes a point of telling God exactly how many offerings have been brought - “I have prepared the seven altars and offered a bull and ram on each altar.”(Numbers 23:4)  As if He did not know!  


This story of Bilam should be regarded as a polemic against magic.13  This polemic would have had two purposes.  One was to reassure the Israelites that black magic is impotent against them.  The other was to warn the Israelites against practicing magic themselves.  The former reinforces the latter.  For if magic is ineffective, then there is no reason to practice it.  Pagan magicians are also ineffective in foretelling the future, since only God and his designated prophets possess this ability.


To emphasize the impotence of magic, the Torah relates this story in the form of satire with everything connected to magic being turned on its head:


  • The magician Bilaam thinks that he has the ability to change God’s will.  Instead, his own will is changed.  

  • Bilaam sets out to curse the Israelites.  Instead, he ends up blessing them.  

  • Bilaam considers himself on a par with Moses and Abraham in his perception of YHVH, but discovers that he has less awareness of YHVH than his own donkey.  

  • Bilaam regards his pagan-type divinations as having the ability to portend the future and alter it, but discovers that he can foretell the future only as a true prophet of God. 

  • The people of Moab discover that not only are they are unable to weaken the Israelites by curses but that the Israelites are a super-power and that in the future they themselves will become the victim of Israel’s might.  

  • The Israelites find out that whereas with God’s help external forces become powerless against them, their own actions can invite disaster.


The chief players in this story - Bilaam, Ballack, the people of Moab and of Midian, and by extension all of Israel’s foes, are now about to learn these lessons in a most dramatic way. 


Bilaam and his donkey


Balak the king of the Moabites is understandably concerned about the surprise defeat of the Amorite kings, Sihon and Og.  The Israelites have captured most arable land east of the Jordan River, extending from the Armon River opposite the Dead Sea to the current Golan Heights.   The Armon River is the northern border of Moab.  In actuality, this territory was formerly owned by Moab but was taken over by Sihon.14 


It could be argued that Moab should have had nothing to fear from the Israelites, since they had been explicitly commanded not to initiate any aggressive action against Moab because of this people’s descent from Lot.15  Whether Moab knew about this directive is not stated in the text; and it could be that they did not.  This could explain their considerable fear as the Israelites spread themselves out on Moab’s former territory on the plain of Moab:


Moab was very frightened of the people, because it was many, and Moab was disgusted (וַיָּקָץ) (vayokotz) because of the Children of Israel.” (Numbers 22:3) 


The verb vayokotoz is used only a few times in the Torah.  It was previously used with respect to the multiplication of the Children of Israel in Egypt.  Despite being oppressed by the Egyptians, the Israelites continued to multiply and the Egyptians were similarly “disgusted”.16  Rebecca uses this verb regarding the Canaanite wives that Esau brought into the family unit.17  In all these instances, it seems to indicate an exasperation with the situation.  


The Torah may here be justifying the actions of the Moabites, while at the same time contrasting this with the non-justifiable actions of the Midianites.  The Midianites lived far from the future Israelite border and had little reason to partner with the Moabites other than their hatred of the Israelites. 

 To the Moabites, the Israelites seem like “”an ox that chews up the greenery of the field” (Numbers 22:3).  The grass was being eaten and nothing remained behind.18  This nation was too strong and numerous to be defeated, but if they could somehow be weakened and/or reduced in number, they could be engaged in battle and Moab’s territory repossessed.  And this is the reason that Moab and Midian now partner together in bringing Bilaam, the master magician, to curse this foreign people.


A point is raised in the Torah that will subsequently be clarified.  Balak understands that this is a people “coming out of Egypt.” (Numbers 22:5)  But this is inaccurate.  This is a people brought out of Egypt by God.  The difference is important.  For if God had specifically brought them out of Egypt, why would he be induced to change His mind to treat them badly?


When Balak’s messengers return a second time, there was logically no need for Bilaam to speak again to God.  God had already given Bilaam His answer - this is a blessed people and he should not go to Balaak.  Why then was Bilaam asking again for instructions from God?  Very likely is that he, like Balak, thought that with his magic arts YHVH could still be induced to change His mind.  

 Until now, Balak and Bilaam have been the only two active participants in this story.  But this is a satire about the impotence of Bilaam and Balak.  Both of them are now about to be taught a lesson.  From this point on, God begins to manipulate Bilaam: 

YHVH came to Bilaam at night and He said to him: If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them, but the word that I shall speak to you, that is what you shall do.”(Numbers 22:20)

 Bilaam needs no persuading.19  It may even be that thought YHVH was beginning to change His mind.

“Bilaam arose in the morning and saddled his she-donkey and went with the princes of Moab.” (Number 22:21)


There now follows one of the strangest episodes in the Torah – Bilaam conversing with his own donkey after it started talking to him.  


The Torah describes Elohim as being wrathful with Bilaam for proceeding on this journey and that an angel of YHVH stood on the road to obstruct him.  The donkey saw the angel of YHVH with his sword threateningly drawn in his hand, but Bilaam did not:  

The angel of YHVH stood in the path of the vineyards, a fence on this side and a fence on that side.   And the she-donkey saw the angel of YHVH ……” (Numbers 22:23)


The passage was narrow and the donkey squeezed against the wall so as to avoid the angel, thereby pressing Balaam’s leg against the wall.  Understandably, this infuriated its driver who struck the donkey:  

And YHVH opened the mouth of the she-donkey and she said to Bilaam: “What have I done to you that stuck me these three times.  Bilaam said to the she-donkey: Because you have mocked me.  If there were a sword in my hand I would now have killed you ……..  Then YHVH uncovered Bilaam’s eyes and he saw the angel of YHVH standing on the road with his sword drawn in his hand.  And he bowed his head and prostrated himself on his face.” (Numbers 22:28-31)

Bilaam apologizes to the angel of God for going on this journey and offers to return home.  Nevertheless, the angel gives him permission to continue, although he is reminded again that only what is spoken to him by God will he be able to say to Balak.

 Many commentators take the talking donkey in a very literal way.  The mouth of Bilaam’s ass was created on the eve of the first Sabbath states a Mishnah, attempting to diminish somewhat the miraculous aspect of this happening.20 


Nevertheless, the Torah does not write stories that are unbelievable.  Taken literally, this story is unbelievable.  A donkey does not possess vocal cords that would issue human-like sounds.  The most it can do is issue donkey-like sounds.  There is only one story like this in the Torah – and this is the talking snake in the Garden of Eden.  This is an important point.  The speaking snake in the Garden of Eden is an allegory that was never meant to be taken literally.  Neither is this speaking donkey.  


A very plausible suggestion is that of Maimonides that this part of the story was in a dream, although he makes this suggestion in relation to all visions of God and not just the story of Bilaam.21 Admittedly, most commentators find Maimonides’ suggestion difficult to accept, and in particular they are unhappy with his idea with respect to the story about Abraham when three angels appear to him and Sarah.  He is extremely hospitable to them and provides them with a substantial meal.  To commentators such as Nachmanides this entertaining and the involvement of Sarah sounds too realistic to be a vision.22  Nevertheless, the notion that Bilaam’s vision of an angel was in a dream fits in very well with this story. 


Admittedly, the Torah does not say outright that this was a night vision, but the Torah does not want to diminish the significance of Bilaam’s vision and thereby the impact of this story.


Is there anything in the text that would support this interpretation?  There are a number of indicators:

  • Prior to Bilaam’s journey, YHVH had been speaking with Bilaam during the night, so that the donkey episode could be part of this sleep vision.  

  • During his altercation with his donkey, the representatives of Balak are not present and Bilaam is alone except for his two young men.  But would not the princes also have been blocked in their passage if they were accompanying Bilaam?  

  • There seems to be no surprise on Bilaam’s part when his donkey begins speaking to him.  In fact, he holds a conversation with his donkey as if this were an everyday occurence!

  • After Bilaam admits the error of his ways, the angel of YHVH says to him:  “Go with the men, but only the word that I shall speak to you, that shall you speak.  And Bilaam went with the princes of Balak.” (Numbers 22:36)  No mention is made here that Bilaam needed to start out on a new journey rather continue on an old one. 


This is all far from being definitive, but is nevertheless consistent with this being a vision in a dream, either before Bilaam set out or perhaps along the way. 


Nevertheless, we are still left with the question what this vision was meant to accomplish?  After all, Bilaam had been given permission to go on this journey.  Why was God annoyed with him and obstructing him for doing just this? 


Nachmanides suggests that God was angry with Bilaam not because he was going on this journey, since after all he had been given permission, but because he had not revealed all the conditions to these latest representatives of Balak - namely that he could only say what God permitted him to say and that this is a blessed people.  Moreover, by agreeing to accompany them without explanation, he could easily have given the impression that God had indeed changed His mind and that his magic could be effective in cursing this people.23  This is the reason that God is now about to act harshly with Bilaam, even though previously He had given him permission to go – and will in fact soon confirm that permission.


There is, however, another way of looking at this scenario.  God was quite happy for Bilaam to go since He now intends to negate Balak and Bilaam’s plans.  Therefore, since Bilaam wished to go, He gave him permission.  


The episode of the speaking donkey is satire.  Bilaam believes he has access to YHVK in a manner even greater than Moses and Abraham.  At the very least he feels himself equal to them.  But this is not true at all.  The most he has access to is Elohim.  In actuality, his donkey will have more comprehension of YHVH than him.   Only after his donkey has seen an angel of YHVH will Bilaam be permitted a similar vision.


It is also important that Bilaam be aware that the path he has chosen is a very risky one.  If he deviates even slightly from the words of God, he has spoken his own death sentence.24  Significantly, however, God does not remind Bilaam that Israel is blessed.  With this deliberate omission, He opens up the possibility that Bilaam will continue trying to change God’s mind by means of magic.  This is exactly what God intended, since it now provides Him the opportunity for making Bilaam His agent for true prophecy.  

The Structure of the Bilaam Story


The Bilaam story is written in four parts.25  Part one is the approach made by Balak and his princes to recruit Bilaam for cursing the Israelites.  Part two is the angel of God revealing Himself to Bilaam’s donkey and then to Bilaam himself.  The next two parts mirror parts one and two.  Hence, part three is the meeting of Bilaam and Balak in Moab, and part four consists of Bilaam being taken to a high place and making his prophecies.   


There are a number of similarities between parts 2 and 4.  In part 2, the angel of YHVH with his outstretched sword prevents Bilaam’s donkey for proceeding and Bilaam strikes his donkey three times.  In part 4, Balak leads Bilaam to three locations to curse the Israelites before Bilaam realizes he is only able to utter blessings.


In a very nice essay, Rav Samet quotes Professor Yair Zakovitch who has noted that a three-four model is not unusual in the Bible.   Typically, with three repetitions there is no movement, but by the fourth repetition a major change occurs that reaches to a climax. 25,26  With this format, the Bible is making the point that when something occurs in exactly the same way on three occasions it is not by chance - there is a pattern.  It is now up to Bilaam to recognize that after three prophecies of blessing, God’s only intent is to bless Israel – and that no magic will change the situation.  And this is exactly what happens.


At first glance, the fourth prophecy seems to be a single prophecy, but in actuality it is made up of four short prophecies, making seven prophesies in all.27  As for the previous three prophecies, each unit of the fourth prophecy is proceeded by the phrase “he took up his parable” ( וַיִּשָּׂא מְשָׁלוֹ ) (vayisa mishelo). 


As mentioned, Bilaam attempts to magically penetrate the world of spirits with seven sacrifices.  God reverses Bilaam’s intent and Bilaam now utters seven prophecies. With the number 7, God has placed His imprint on each of these prophecies.


Let us now examine them.


Bilaam’s seven prophecies


Bilaam has picked up a touch of humility following his encounter with the angel of YHVH.  For the first time, he admits that whatever Elohim places in his mouth, this is what he will say.28  Nevertheless, he is still hoping that the YHVH aspect of God will come to meet him.29  And in fact from his very first prophecy on, the YHVH aspect of God does speak to him.  Bilaam has now become the prophet of YHVH he originally claimed to be, but saying the very opposite of everything he intended.


All of Bilaam’s prophecies are related to the Torah’s underlying polemic against magic.  Many of the items in the prophecies are directed at issues raised in the first two sections of the story, specifically to counter them.  There is also a sequential order to the prophecies.  


The first prophecy:


The first prophecy reads as follows:


“He took up his parable and said.  From Aram, Balak, king of Moab, led me from the mountains of the east.  Come curse Jacob for me, come bring anger upon Israel.  How can I curse, whom El has not cursed, and how can I execrate whom YHVH has not execrated?  For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him.  Behold, it is a people that shall dwell alone and not be reckoned among the nations. Who has counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered the stock of Israel?  Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like his!” (Numbers 23:7-10)


In this introductory prophecy, Bilaam recounts that which has recently transpired and why he is unable to accommodate Balaak’s request to curse this people: 

  • God does not wish the Israelites to be cursed.

  • This is a unique people.

  • This is a numerous people.

  • There is reason to be envious of it. 


Much commentary has been expended on the sentence “Behold, it is a people that shall dwell alone and not be reckoned among the nations.” (Numbers 23:9)30


However, one need go no further than Moses’ speech in the Book of Deuteronomy to explicate this verse:


For which is a great nation that has a God who is close to it like YHVH our God whenever we call to Him?  And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances such as this entire Torah which I place before you this day.” (Deuteronomy 4:8-9)


There is a relationship between God and the people of Israel through the Torah and His covenant creates a bond between them.  Since this is the case, why would God wish to break this bond? 


Nevertheless, Balak and Bilaam are not prepared to abandon their mission.  The duo yet again find a high place from whence they can direct their malice, and yet again prepare seven altars and offer a bull and ram on each.


However, in this satiric polemic, those who attempt to curse Israel with hate will find their curses turned into blessing.  Bilaam continues:


The second prophecy:

God is not a man that He should lie, nor a human being that He should relent.  If He has spoken, then shall He not fulfill?  If He has spoken then shall He not do?  Behold! I am bidden to bless, and He has blessed and I cannot turn it back.  He has seen no iniquity in Jacob and seen no perversity in Israel.  YHVH his God is with him, and the trumpet blast of the King is in his midst.  God who brought them out of Egypt according to the power of His loftiness.  For there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery with Israel.  Like this time it will be said to Jacob and Israel: 'What has God wrought!'  Behold the people will arise like a lion cub, and raise itself like lion; it will not lie down until it consumes its prey and drinks the blood of the slain. (Numbers 23:19-24)


Bilaam raises the following points in this second prophecy:

  • God’s promises are not like those of men.  They are immutable and will not be reversed.  

  • Israel has nothing to do with magic.

  • Israel is destined to conquer the Land by means of their military might.


Bilaam has been asked to reverse God’s promises through magic, but this is impossible since God does not change His mind.  Israel is immune from magic and does not practice the magic.  Bilaam/God also corrects a misconception that Balak holds – this is not a people that is “coming out of Egypt,” but a people “brought out of Egypt”. (Numbers 24:8)  The difference, of course, is vitally important.  If God brought them out of Egypt then He has a vested interest in their fate.  


The prophecy continues by saying that God is with Israel and Israel has made God their king.  

 In their initial conversation with the elders of Midian, Moab described Israel as a feeding ox.31  This is a poor analogy.  Israel is not an herbivorous ox but a lion that will consume its prey in its battles with the Canaanites.  In practical terms, this means that Balak has no chance of defeating them.  Nor for that matter does any other power in Canaan with whom they will engage in battle.


Nevertheless, within this prophecy, an entrance is provided to Bilaam to a potential source of weakness for Israel.  Bilaam/God states that there is “no iniquity in Jacob” or “perversity in Israel” (Numbers 23:21) that would induce God to change His mind.  This raises the possibility that if there were iniquity or perversity in Israel, then God may indeed be induced to change His mind.  External spiritual forces cannot adversely influence Israel - but their own moral actions can.32


The third prophesy:


One might wonder why Balak was prepared to continue with what had been for him a counter-productive charade, with Israel having been blessed twice.  The answer must surely be that he still had confidence, albeit misplaced, in Bilaam’s magical powers.  However, after his standard sacrifice on seven altars and hearing that “there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery with Israel” (Numbers 22:23), Bilaam has finally caught on and ealizes that there is no way of bending God’s will.  So he “did not go as every other time towards divinations, and he set his face towards the wilderness.”(Numbers 24:1).  Now for the first time he is able to see the entire Israelite camp and now for the first time “the spirit of Elohim” comes upon him and he sees a vision of God with “uncovered eyes” (Numbers 24:4):


The words of Bilaam, son of Be’or, the words of the man with the open eye.  The words of the man who hears the sayings of God, who sees the vision of Shadai while fallen and with uncovered eyes.  How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!  Stretched out like brooks, as gardens by the riverside; as aloes planted by God, like cedars by water.  Water shall flow from his wells, and his seed shall be by abundant waters.  His king shall be exalted over Agag, and his kingdom shall be upraised.  It is God who brought him out of Egypt according to the power of His loftiness.  He shall consume the nations that are his adversaries and crush their bones, and his arrows shall pierce them.  He crouched and lay down like a lion, and as a lion cub who shall rouse him up?  Those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are accursed.” (Numbers 24:4-9)


Bilaam now uses a new designation for God – Shadai.  As discussed elsewhere, this name of God has the connotation of fertility.  This prophecy is also full of the word “water”, since this word is synonymous with fertility – fertility in Israel’s habitations and fertility in its family life.33  Looking at Israel’s tents in the Plain of Moab, Bilaam sees in his mind Israelite settlement spread out through the land of Israel.  Balak wants to reduce this people by cursing them – but this is not going to happen.  To the contrary, because of its fertility it will spread out throughout the land of Canaan.


Commentators are puzzled by mention of the name of the Amalekite king Agag  since his name does not appear in the Bible until the time of the monarchy.34  Moreover, if this sentence is indeed speaking about this particular Agag, then this part of the prophesy is focused on the time of Saul, since he was the king who defeated the Amalekites on the instructions of the prophet Samuel.35  It also seems to be focused on the time of David, since he is the king whose “kingdom will be upraised ( מַלְכֻתוֹv וְתִנַּשֵּׂא ) (vesinasei malchuto).”  Interestingly, a verse in Samuel II describing the kingdom of David uses these very same words:

“David realized that YHVH had established him as king over Israel and that He had raised up his kingdom (נִשֵּׂא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ) (nisei mamluchto) for the sake of His people Israel.” (II Samuel 5:12). 

 However, there is another possibility, that this was the family name for all the kings of Amalek.  In the book of Esther, Hamaan is called an Agagite, and it may that Hamaan was not directly descended from the king Agag executed by Samuel but from other family members.36  


Finally, Bilaam and Balak learn of a notion first communicated to Abraham – “Those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are accursed.” 


Following this third prophecy, Bilaam is fired.  He has done nothing but praise the Israelites and prophesize their success in the land of Canaan.  Three blessings have been issued.  A pattern has been established.  This is beyond chance.  Without being requested, Bilaam continues to convey the words of God in what constitutes four further prophecies:


The fourth to seventh prophesies:

“He took up his parable and said: The words of Bilaam son of Be’or, the words of the one with the open eye.  The words of one who hears the sayings of God and knows the mind of the Supreme One, who sees the vision of Shadai, fallen down, yet with uncovered eyes.  I see him, but not now; I behold him, but it is not near; a star short forth from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel, and he shall strike down the corners of Moab, and undermine all the children of Seth.  And Edom shall be a conquest, and Seir shall the conquest of his enemies – and Israel will attain success.  One from Jacob shall have dominion, and destroy the remnant from the city.  

And he looked on Amalek, and took up his parable, and said: Amalek is the first among nations; but its end is eternal destruction.  

And he looked on the Kenite and took up his parable and said: Strong is your dwelling-place, and set in a rock is your nest.  For if the Kenite should be laid waste, till when can Assyria take you captive?  

And he took up his parable, and said: Oh, who will survive when He imposes these?  But ships shall come from the realm of Kittim, and they will afflict Asshur, and afflict Eber, and it too will be forever destroyed.” (Numbers 24:16-24)

 It is not our intention to explicate every one of these prophecies. However, a number of important points should be made.  Firstly, these prophecies continue the Torah’s polemic against magic.  In the pagan world there were prophets who foretold the future using magic, either in visions during the night or through omens.  However, Bilaam has already been told that “there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery with Israel” (Numbers 23:23).  This means that only true prophets of God are capable of foretelling the future.  At this moment in time, Bilaam has become a true prophet of God and has the ability to foretell the future. 

 All the prophecies made by Bilaam fit into a sequence.  The first prophecy talks about this people having a relationship with God.  The second that God is not going to change His mind, and that Israel has the ability to conquer Canaan.  The third that the Israelites will be fruitful in their Land and that their chief enemy the Amalekites will be defeated.  This can be by none other than King Saul.  The kingdom of Israel will also be upraised and this will be by King David. 

 What period of time then is this fourth unit of three further prophecies talking about, since the Jewish monarchy has already been discussed?  Another question.  What does the Torah mean when Bilaam says “Come, I shall advise you what this people will do to your people in the End of Days” (בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים) (be’acharit hayomim)?  (Numbers 24:14)  When is this “End of Days”?

 Nachmanides suggests that it means just this – the End of Days in the Messianic era.37  This fits well into the flow of these seven prophecies.  The time of the monarchy has just been discussed.  This prophecy now takes events a step further.  Nachmanides also follows Rashi and Onkelos in identifying the “Kittim” as Rome.38  This fits in well with the Rabbinic notion that Rome will be the final empire to be overcome in the Messianic era.39  Since the Christian church took over the Roman Empire, this current exile has been identified in Jewish tradition as the continuing exile of Rome.

 However, there are a number of problems with this interpretation.40  The phrase “be’acharit hayomim” (בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים) does not necessarily mean the end of days, but can also be an idiom for “in the future”.  For example, Jacob calls his sons to his deathbed and tells them what will happen to them “at the end of days”. (Genesis 49:1)  These prophecies relate to how the tribes will settle themselves in the land of Canaan.  Also in Deuteronomy, Moses speaks about the Jewish people doing repentance in exile “at the end of days”. (Deuteronomy 4:30)  His intent would seem to be a more foreseeable future than a Messianic one.  

 There are other reasons why this prophecy may not be speaking about Messianic times.  At the time of the exile of the northern tribes by the Assyrians, their king Shalmaneser mixed up the nations by transplanting peoples from one land to another.41  In this way he assured himself of a docile empire without fear of revolt.  As a result of this and later historical events, the Moabites and Edomites ceased to exist as nations.  It is no longer possible today to “strike down the corners of Moab” i.e. to destroy the far settlements of Moab.  More likely, therefore, is that the Torah is again talking about David, the “star shot forth from Jacob,” who did devastate Moab (and Seir).38 

 It is also by no means clear that the “Kittim” mentioned here should be identified with Rome.  In Genesis, the Kittim are identified as a Greek nation, and the Torah may well be describing in this prophecy the subjugation of the Assyrians by the Greek empire.42  Under Alexander the Great, the Greeks defeated the Persians and took over the entire Near East and beyond.

 Nevertheless, it is doubtful that the intent of these four prophecies is to provide a detailed review of future world history, but rather to emphasize that those empires that afflict Israel will be destroyed, while those who align themselves with the Jewish nation such as the Kenites will be saved.43  In other words, those who bless the Jewish people will be blessed while those who curse it will be cursed.  Not explicitly stated, but very much implied, is that the Jewish nation will outlive all these nations and survive as an eternal people.

 Yet if one does not accept the Messianic nature of this paragraph, how does one bring these latter four prophesies into an overall sequence, since the Jewish monarchy has already been discussed in the fourth prophecy?  A possible answer is that whereas the third prophecy relates to the time of the monarchy and its establishing itself securely in the Land of Israel, these last prophesies relate to a later stage when the monarchy has already established itself and is now extending its domain beyond its limited borders.  

 This could be the end of the Bilaam story.  Bilaam has been dismissed by Balak and Bilaam has completed seven prophecies foreseeing a successful future for the Israelites in their new land.  But in the Torah scroll this is not the end of the story.   A section in the Torah always ends with letter spaces.  In the Torah scroll, this story continues for another 8 sentences up to the letter breaks, as Israel begins committing harlotry with the daughters of Moab.  The Israelites are invited to the feasts of their gods and begin bowing down to their gods.  Bilaam had not given up on his scheming.  Following his military campaign with the Midianites, Moses said to the people:

Did you let every female live?  See now, they were the ones who caused the Children of Israel by the word of Bilaam to commit a trespass against YHVH regarding the matter of Pe’or; and the plague occurred in the assembly of YHVH (Numbers 31:15-16)

 Bilaam had advised Balak and the Midianites how to overcome the Israelites.  But he should have remembered what he himself said.  Those who curse Israel will be cursed.  In effect, he had confirmed his own demise:

“And Bilaam the son of Beor, the magician (הַקּוֹסֵם) (hakosem), the children of Israel slew with the sword among the rest of their slain.” (Joshua 13:22)

Summing up

 It might well be said that a story about magicians and sorcery has very little relevance nowadays.

 But this is far from being the case.  This is a highly relevant account and one that has had and continues to have considerable influence on the Jewish people. 

 The Talmud discusses that the passage about Bilaam and the book of Job were written by the hand of Moses.44  An obvious question is why the Talmud would even mention this information about the story of Bilaam, since it is Jewish belief that all the Torah was written by Moses under the direction of God?  One answer must be that Moses and the Israelites were unaware of any of the discussions between Balaak and Bilaam.  Another, that this passage contains prophesies of Bilaam not directly related to Moses or his Torah.  There would have been good reason, therefore, for Moses not to have recorded this passage in the Torah.  Nevertheless, Moses did write this section under the direction of God and it was included in the Torah, presumably because the messages it contains were too important to leave out.  

 The following important ideas are included in this passage:

  • God is not just “a Man of war” (Exodus 15:3) but is on full-time duty protecting the Jewish people from the barbs thrust against them. 

 In the ancient past, magic was thought by the masses to be a potent force.  Nowadays also Israel has many threats against it.  The message of this story is that God will protect the Jewish people against these too. 

  •  With God’s help, this people are destined to be a powerful nation.  

 The Jewish people have never been a militaristic people.  Nevertheless, they will have military might.

  •  The Jewish people will continue to eternity.  

 The promise that the Jewish people are to be an eternal people was first made to Abraham at the Covenant of Circumcision.45  Now this promise is given flesh.   Adversaries will rise and fall – but the Jewish nation will outlive them all.  

 It is difficult to deny that this prophecy has been fulfilled.  The great empires of the past – the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans - are no more, while the Israelite nation continues to thrive in the same country, with the same culture and same religious ideas that it inherited over 3,000 years ago when Moses brought to the Jewish people a contract, the Ten Commandments, sealed in stone by God Himself.  Stone is the closest one can come in this universe to eternity.

 However, many times in the past it has not been so obvious that this nation will remain forever in the history books – and it has been a belief carried through the generations.  

  •  This has given rise to the “Messianic” notion that a glorious future is yet ahead.

 Judaism has always looked wistfully into the past and with anticipation to the future, and this powerful idea provided hope to the Jewish people through the darkest moments of exile and oppression.  In times of extreme difficulty, it could almost be said that the Jewish people lived for the future.  

 It can also be said that this Jewish idea - that there is to be a wonderful future for the Jewish people - has provided the dynamism for western civilization and its continuing technological and social progress.  Progress can only happen when people are looking forward.  The Bible invented looking forward and this was taken up by the other monotheistic faiths.

 It cannot be emphasized enough how novel this idea was when it first introduced by the Torah.  Mesopotamian civilization throughout its thousands of years of existence did not look to the future.  Man was placed on this earth to serve the gods and man’s lot was to make the best of whatever fate brought to him.  He could offer sacrifices and pray to the gods, but the likelihood they would respond was poor.  He could try to improve his lot by means of magic but this also was like shooting into the dark.  Even death was a descent into a dismal pit.46  No wonder then that historians think of Mesopotamian society as one that was existentially depressed.

  •  From the Messianic notion crystalized the idea that a Messianic person -  specifically a descendant of the House of David - would bring about a religious renewal, fight the wars of God, gather the dispersed of Israel and rebuild the Holy Temple.47,48   

 The fourth prophecy of Bilaam has been taken as the main Torah support for this idea - that a single person would rescue the Jewish people from exile and build for them a glorious future.49  

“A star shall go forth from Jacob and a staff shall arise in Israel.” (Numbers 24:17)

 But is this verse really talking about a Messiah?

 Maimonides in his Mishnah Torah understood Bilaam’s prophecy on two levels.  On one level it was referring to the Davidic dynasty.  On another it was foretelling the arrival of a Messiah:

“I see him, but not now: - this refers to David:  “I perceive him, but not in the near future” – this refers to the Messianic King.  “A star shall go forth from Jacob” – this refers to David.  “And a staff shall arise in Israel” – this refers to the Messianic King, “and he shall strike down the corners of Moab” – this refers to David, as it is related (II Samuel 8;2) “He smote Moab and measured them with a line.” “Dominating all of Seth’s descendants” – this refers to the Messianic king whom Zecharia 9:10) prophesies: “He will rule from sea to sea. “Edom will be demolished – this refers to David as (II Samuel 8:6) states “Edom became the servants of David.”  (Seir) will be destroyed – this refers to the Messianic King, as (Obadiah 1:21) prophesies: “Saviors will ascend Mount Zion [to judge the mountain of Esau).50 

 Nevertheless, the notion of a wonder-savior who will save the Jewish people from oppression has not served the Jewish people well.  In the Roman period, Rabbi Akiva considered the military leader bar Kosiba to be the Messianic figure who would break the yoke of Roman oppression.  As the leading Rabbi of his time, his approval of Bar Kosiba was a significant factor in mobilizing the people for war against Rome.  He even gave Bar Kosiba the new name bar Kochba – meaning the son of a star in Aramaic.  

 The resurrection went well for a while, but for a single nation to pit itself against the entire Roman Empire would need a lot of divine help, and this help was not forthcoming.  During the Great Revolt, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed and Jews were exiled from Jerusalem and sold into slavery, but Jewish hamlets remained largely intact.  During the Bar Kochba revolt all of Judea was decimated and hundreds of thousands of Jews died in the revolt and subsequent mopping up operations.  Jews became a minority in the country.  

 Could it be that “A star shall go forth from Jacob” is not a Messianic figure at all, but a person who has been on the world stage already – king David, and that the Messianic idea needs to be modified from the Rabbinic idea of a Messianic wonder-king to a non-miraculous redemptive “process” working through the natural dynamics of history?  This process would herald a future no less glorious for the Jewish people.   

 The story of Bilaam is not fairytale material.  It is a story with highly important themes, some of which are very relevant to current Jewish history. 



1.  A question that is asked is why it was necessary for the elders of Moab and Midian to bring to Bilaam tools of magic?  If Bilaam was a diviner did he not have his own?  Rashi answers that they feared he might not have his own - although this seems unlikely given that this was his profession.  Rashi also links it up with the observation that the princes of Midian did not accept Bilam’s invitation to stay overnight, whereas the princes of Moab did (Rashi to Numbers 22:7).  He therefore suggests that Midian was using these “charms” as a test as to whether Bilam would come with them.  When Bilam told them to stay the night, they assumed he would be ineffective and left.  

2.  TB. Sanhedrin 106a 

3.  TB, Bav Basra 15b 

4.  Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, Part II, chapter 36

5.  This is the explanation of Nachmanides (Nachmanides to Numbers 22:20).  Abarbanel also agrees that it was God’s will to have a prophet of the non-Jewish world bless Israel, since this would strike fear among Israel’s foes. 

6.  Genesis 16:8

7.  Genesis 20:3

8.  Nachmanides to Numbers 23:4

9.  Nachmanides to Numbers 22:3

10.  Deuteronomy 18:17-22

11.  Rashi To Deuteronomy 18:10-11 brings the Jewish oral tradition as to what these practices involved.  One who practices “divinations” uses his staff to guide the future (Hosea 4:12).  One who reads “omens” bases his decisions on common events that befall him (such as a deer blocking his path or a staff falling from his hand (Sifrei 171).  The Bilaam story gives particular mention to divinations and the use of omens.  However, none of these explanations touch on magical incantations and it is possibile that “kesamim” is better interpreted as charms (see Rashbam to Numbers 22:3).

12.  See Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides to Numbers 23:1

13.  In a more exegetical mode, Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 20 suggests that the point of this story was to teach the non-Jewish world that the spirit of prophecy was removed from Bilaam because of the wicked things he attempted. 

14.  Numbers 21:26

15.  Deuteronomy 2:9

16.  Exodus 1:12

17.  Genesis 27:46

18.  Tanchuma 3 states that just as an ox tears out the grass by the roots, so will Israel not leave even young children when it decimates the Canaanites.

19.  Rashi to Numbers 22:21 based on TB Sanhedrin 105b notes that in his hatred for the Israelites Bilaam deviated from normal behavior and saddled his ass himself rather than leaving this to his servants.  A similar phrase is used with regard to Abraham in sacrificing his son (and who also went enthusiastically) although with Abraham the text says he awoke early, which it does not say with regard to Bilaam. (Tanchuma 8),

20.  Mishna Pirkei Avoth 4:8

21. Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed II, 42  The Ralbag also agrees with this interpretation.

22.  Nachmanides to Genesis 18:1

23.  See Nachmanides is his comments to Numbers 22:20.  Similarly Ha’amek Davar explains that it was Bilaam’s choice whether to go, but not to curse and harm Israel.  By contrast, Rashi explains that in reality God did not wish Bilaam to go, and Bilaam should have realized this, but He was still prepared to let him go for his own financial benefit.  However, Bilaam thought that this approval meant that God could still be persuaded to change his mind (Rashi to Numbers 22:20).

24.  Sforno to Numbers 22:32 and 35: God went to this extreme to persuade Bilaam to repent and to teach him that his plan of cursing Israel would not succeed.  But he allowed him go with them as long as he followed God’s agenda, but acting as if he was only there at their request.

25.  The significance of the Story of Bilam’s Donkey by Rav Elchanan Samet, Parshat HaShavua, Yeshivat Har Etzion,

26.  On Three …. And on Four” by Professor Yair Zakovitch, 1979. In Hebrew

27.  A Commentary on Balaam’s Prophecies by Rav Tamir Granot in Torah MiEtzion, New Readings in Tanach. Bemidbar, Editor Rav Ezra Bick, Maggid Books, Yeshivat Har Etzion

28. Numbers 22:38

29. Numbers 23:3

30. Ibn Ezra sees this sentence as indicating that the Jewish people will not assimilate but will remain with their laws.  Nachmanides opinions that the Jewish people do not bring other people under their wings, but their nationality and religion are one.  Sforno sees their aloneness as indicating Divine providence.

31.  Numbers 22:4

32.  Rashi to 23:21 takes the very opposite approach.  He quotes Tanchuma 14 that the subject of this comment is not Israel but God, in that He has a high threshold for Jewish violations of His law.  This would mean in practice that Israel’s blessings are somewhat immune even from their own sinning.

33.  In Genesis 13:10 Sodom is described as being in the eyes of Lot like the “garden of God” because of its abundant water supply. 

34.  Numbers 24:7

35. Nachmanides to Numbers 24:7-11

36. Esther 3:1

37.  Nachmanides to Numbers 24:14 

38.  Nachmanides to Numbers 24:22-24.  Also Rashi to Numbers 24:23-24.  Nachmanides attempts to reconcile his ideas with the vision of Daniel.  There is further discussion about the ethnic origin of the Romans in a footnote on p559 of The Torah: with Ramban’s Commentary Translated, Annotated, and Elucidated , Artscroll Series, Bamidbar/Numbers, Mesorah Publications, 2009 - since Rome is usually associated with Edom.  A suggestion quoted by Jossippon, chapter 2 is that Campania in Italy was the ancestral home of the Kittites and that Zepho, Easu’s grandson, fled there.  Esau’s descendants are from Edom.

39. TB Avoda Zarah 2b, Bereishis Rabba 44:15, Shemos Rabbab 51:7 and others.

40.  Rashi and Ibn Ezra associate this paragraph with non-Messianic times.  See, for example, Rashi to Numbers 24:17 who interprets “the rod has risen from Israel” and who will strike down Moab as being David.

41. 2 Kings chapter 17

42.  Genesis 10:4

43.  It could be asked why this prophecy did not even mention the Persians who were defeated by the Greeks?  A possibility is that the Bible was focused here on nations with whom the Israelites were familiar, and the Persians were well beyond their horizon.  There is likely a word play in this prophecy with regard to the “Kenites” (קָיִן) (koyin) and your “nest” (kinecha) (קִנֶּךָ) (Numbers 24:21-22).  In other words, the Kenites will have security with Israelites – but not with Amalek. It is related in Judges 1:16 that the Kenites dwelt in the territory of the tribe of Judah in the Judean Desert. King Saul advised the Kenites to separate from the Amelekites when he struck the former (I Samuel 15:6).  There is no textual information as to what happened to the Kenites during the Assyrian exile.  Nachmanides writes that Bilaam’s prophecy suggests that the Kenites would be redeemed together with the Jews from the Babylonian exile (Nachmanides to Numbers 24:22).

44.  TB Bava Basra 14b

45.  Genesis 17:13

46.  The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld in Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, the Flood, Gigamesh, and Others by Stephenie Dalley, p154. Oxford University Press, revised edition, 2000

47. II Samuel 7:13

48.  Maimonides Mishna Torah, Hilchot melachim u’Milchamoteihem 11:4

49.  Deuteronomy Rabba 1:20

50.  Maimonides Mishna Torah, Hilchot Melachim U’Milchamoteihem 11:1


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