Bil'am is the epitome of topsy-turvy. He talks to his donkey, and his donkey talks back. He himself can't see the world as it is (he is blind in one eye) but his donkey can. The King of Moav looks to curse Israel, and is cursed in their place. And the curse intended for Israel is turned into a blessing. Just like the Purim story.

Bil'am's ass, Ukraine, second half of 19th century

In the story related in the book of Numbers [1], Balak, King of Moav, engages the renowned pagan soothsayer Bil'am to curse the Israelites in order to impede their further progress. Bil'am consents only when he receives the Lord's permission and, further, warns Balak that he will speak only as the Lord directs him. God thwarts the design altogether, causing him to bless Israel instead of cursing them.

Told in prose and poetry with much charm and humor, the story, when it opens, seems to promise a clear and dramatic encounter between the would-be cursers and Israel. The topsy-turvy quality of the story becomes evident when the divine messenger who appears is seen only by Bil'am's ass; it is reinforced when the animal speaks suddenly to its master wryly and sarcastically. When Bil'am arrives at the king's court, the stage is set for a still more surprising conflict.

Bil'am delivers four prophecies in place of the curses desired and expected by Balak. In the first two he proclaims that he is speaking in the name of God; both times Balak fails to grasp that his intention has been thwarted. Blinded by his preconceptions, he thinks that mechanical preparations for the oracles are simply incomplete and that, if proper arrangements are made, the desired curses will be pronounced.

Bil'am's oracles, put into his mouth as a direct divine inspiration, are cast in poetic form. They sing of Israel, its place among the nations, and its relationship to God. In the first oracle Bil'am speaks of Israel's nature, of its protection from curse and foe; in the second oracle, of God's unalterable promise to Israel and His continuing presence in its midst. When challenged a third time to curse, Bil'am sings of the beauty of Israel's habitation and predicts that Israel will be victorious over its enemies. Before he returns to his home, he prophesies once again: first legitimizing his own special connection with the Almighty and then predicting the downfall of Moav as well as that of some neighboring nations. Thus the circle closes: Balak seeks to curse and is cursed in turn.

If this story weren't topsy-turvy enough in the Bible, along come the sages and given it another, altogether opposite ending. The following is the tale of Balak and Bil'am, embellished with midrashim and retold over the centuries, in which Bil'am at last succeeds in cursing Israel.

After the Children of Israel had defeated the giant Og, they came to Moav and camped there. When Balak, King of Moav, saw their vast numbers and heard what they had done to Og and his brother Sihon, he was terrified for his own kingdom.

Read the complete story as it evolved in the Midrash   > > >

[1] Numbers 22:2-24:25

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