Now Balak was a great magician. Whenever he wanted to perform magic he consulted a special bird he had made. Its feet, body, and head were made of gold, its mouth of silver, and its tongue came from the ancient Yadua bird. For seven days Balak would offer sacrifices to this magical bird, and then its tongue would begin to move. Then he would prick it with a golden needle, and it would utter terrible secrets and mysteries. But now as Israel approached Moab, a flame suddenly leapt up and burned the golden wings of the bird. Thus Balak knew that disaster was in store for his kingdom.

So he sent messengers to Midian, where Moses had once dwelled, and asked them, "What is the secret of this man's strength?"

And the Midianites replied, "His mouth."

So they decided to seek out a man whose strength was also in his mouth, and set him against Moses. That man was Bil'am, the greatest and last of the heathen prophets, grandson of Laban, who had long been an enemy of Israel. Bil'am's name meant "devourer of nations," and he did indeed use his sorcery to curse and defeat kings and princes.

Balak first sent several elders to Moab and Midian to Bil'am to request that he come to Moab to curse Israel.

But Bil'am said to them, "Stay with me overnight, and I will consult God to see what I am to do."

God appeared to Bil'am that night and asked him, "Who are these men with you?" In asking this question, God was testing Bil'am as Cain had once been tested. For when Cain killed his brother, God had asked him, "Where is your brother Abel?" And instead of answering, "O God, all is known to You. Why then do You ask me?" Cain had replied, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

Bil'am also failed the test, for instead of answering God's question, " All is known to You. Why then do You ask me?" he boasted, "Even though You have not made me famous in the world, still kings come to ask my help. See, Balak, King of Moab, has sent for me to curse Israel!"

Bil'am's arrogant reply angered God. "Those whom you wish to curse will instead be blessed by you. Israel is the apple of my eye, and you wish to curse it! Now your own eye shall be blinded!" and Bil'am immediately lost sight in one eye.

The next morning Bil'am sent Balak's messengers away, saying, "You are not distinguished enough to be ambassadors to someone like me." For he hoped that his answer would insult Balak so that he would send no more messengers, because Bil'am now understood that he could not curse Israel, and he knew that he might be humiliated if he tried.

But Balak did not take offense at Bil'am's answer, and instead sent back even more noble messengers. And again Bil'am asked them to stay overnight while he sought God's counsel, saying, "Even if Balak were to give me a house full of silver and gold, I can only do what God commands me."

This time God told Bil'am, "Go with these men, but you will speak only the words that I put in your mouth."

So Bil'am rose the next day, thinking that he now had God's permission to curse Israel and reap a great reward from Balak. He saddled his ass and started on his way.

This was no ordinary ass that Bil'am rode, for it had been created at twilight on the sixth day of Creation, along with the other miracles. Jacob gave the ass to Bil'am as a bribe so that he would not give wicked advice to Pharaoh in whose court he served as a magician. But Bil'am did give evil counsel to Pharaoh, urging him to make the Israelite slaves make bricks for his treasure-cities, and he later urged Amalek to attack the Israelites from the rear. So wicked was Bil'am that even the Angel of Mercy turned against him, and now, as Bil'am rode to meet Balak, it was this angel who appeared to his ass and blocked her way with a drawn sword. But to Bil'am, the angel remained invisible.

Three times the ass refused to advance against the angel, and three times Bil'am beat her, for he did not see the angel or his sword. Finally the ass lay down in the road and refused to move another step, and Bil'am continued to beat her until God opened the ass's mouth, and she said to her master, "What have I done to you that you have beaten me three times?"

Bil'am replied, "You mocked me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you!"

"If you cannot even kill one ass without a sword," answered the ass, "how do you expect to defeat an entire people with only your mouth?"

And Bil'am could not answer her.

Then the ass said to him, "Am I not your beloved ass whom you have known as intimately as a man knows his wife?"

Then God opened Bil'am's eyes and he saw the Angel of Mercy standing before him, and he fell down on his face in fear.

"Why have you beaten your ass three times, Bil'am, for if she hadn't turned aside when she saw my sword, I would surely have killed you! You are now free to go on your way, but you will only speak the words that I put in your mouth."

When the ass had finished speaking, she died, for God did not wish the heathens to worship her as a god. And God also wished to spare Bil'am the disgrace of having people point to his ass and say, "This creature got the better of the prophet Bil'am!"

When Bil'am at last arrived in Moab, Balak greeted him and said, "Here is this people Israel that covers the face of the land. Curse them now, that my armies might defeat them!"

First the king sacrificed many oxen and sheep on the altars he erected. Then Bil'am and Balak went up to the mountain and looked out over the multitude of Israel.

Bil'am drew upon all his magical arts to curse Israel. He was the only magician on earth who could pinpoint the precise moment in time, lasting only for a fraction of a second, when God grows angry each day, during the third hour of the morning when the pagan kings worship the sun. And he alone knew how to read the sign of its occurrence, when the red rooster's comb turns white.

But so great is God's love for Israel that on this one day, God did not become angry for even this brief moment, so that Bil'am was not able to saddle his curse to God's wrath.

Then Bil'am tried to gain God's consent for his curse by offering sacrifices on the many altars Balak had erected, but God rejected his offerings, saying, "Better is the dry crust and peacefulness than a house full of fatted lambs and discord." But Bil'am was not easily put off, and he offered still more sacrifices.

Then God rebuked him. "Bil'am, enough! Don't you understand that I prefer a dinner of grass where love is found to all your oxen where hatred reigns? Sweeter to Me were the matzah and bitter herbs of the freed slaves than all these sacrifices you offer to Me with gall in your heart!"

Then God caused an angel to lodge in Bil'am's throat so that only blessings could come out of his mouth. Three more times Bil'am tried to curse the Children of Israel, but each time the angel put only words of praise on his tongue. "How good are your tents, O Jacob! Your dwelling places O Israel! Blessed be everyone who blesses you, and cursed be everyone who curses you!"

And God endowed Bil'am's voice with extraordinary power on that day so that every inhabitant of the earth heard his praise for Israel. Not only did he bless Israel, but he also foretold the future kingdom of David and the End of Days. And when he finished speaking, the spirit of prophecy deserted Bil'am, and he fell from the rank of prophet to lowly sorcerer.

When Bil'am saw that he could not prevail against Israel by his words, he devised a different strategy to defeat them. He advised Balak to erect tents near the Israelite camp, and to seat old women in their doorways to sell linen garments to the Israelites. And the old women lured the men inside the tents, where the young women of Moab awaited them, adorned and perfumed. The Israelites became drunk and slept with these women and worshipped their gods. Then God sent a plague, and twenty-four thousand Israelites died.

Thus Bil'am at last succeeded in cursing Israel.

But Bil'am met his end soon after, for when Israel met the Midianites in battle, Bil'am tried to escape by flying up into the air behind a cloud, but Zaliah the Danite, himself a master of sorcery, flew up after him and killed him with a sword engraved with a serpent on both sides and bearing the words, "Kill him with that to which he belongs." So Bil'am died by the sword.

His corpse was not buried but rotted on the ground where it fell, and out of the worm-eaten bones emerged poisonous snakes, which magicians used for enchantments. Only Solomon knew how to reverse these enchantments, and he later imparted these secrets to the Queen of Sheba. But with their deaths the secrets disappeared.



Numbers 22:2-24:25; Zohar III, 184b, 194; Tanhuma Balak 3-13, 17; Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 19-23; B. Sanhedrin 105a-106a; B. Sotah 10a; Midrash Aggadah Numbers 22:21; B. Berakhot 7a; B. Avodah Zarah 4; Yelammedenu (Yalkut Reubeni), I, 765, 771, 785; Targum Yerushalmi, Numbers 31:8.

English language sources: Louis Ginzburg's classic Legends of the Jews III; retold in The Classic Tales: 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore, ed. Ellen Frankel.





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