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The Talmud (Baba Batra 14b-15a) suggests that, within the book of Bemidbar, there is a complete and autonomous narrative that diverges sharply from the subject matter of the rest of the sefer. That narrative is the story of Bil’am.

Despite its unusual nature in so many ways, the story of Bil’am must be important because the Torah devoted so much space to it. Hence, we must search for the value of this story.


Bil’am’s character is nuanced, neither purely good nor purely evil, and thus the Torah cannot just treat it with simple teachings and related laws. Deconstructing Bil’am’s ‘message’ to the Jewish people requires more. It requires an educational story, one which more subtly allows us to think about and internalize the serious shortcomings of his approach.

Other biblical narratives concerning the more obviously flawed spirituality of idol worshippers, whether gentiles or Jews, are often more parody or derision than anything else. The tirades with which the prophet Eliyahu lambasts his pagan foes, on Mount Carmel, represents the Torah’s general attitude (see, also, Yeshayahu 44:10-20, Yirmeyahu 2:27-8, and Tehillim 115:4-8). When Eliyahu asks the pagan priests whether their deities are taking a nap or went on a trip (I Melachim 18:27), he is mocking their beliefs. The Torah feels that such people and their priests are not worth taking seriously.

The attraction of Bil’am’s approach, however, is different. It seems that the Torah was concerned that his approach to religion could in fact lead even serious Jews astray. Given Bil’am’s claim to true prophecy – a level of prophecy that was sometimes more powerful than Moshe’s (Sifre, Devarim 34:10; Bemidbar Rabba 14:20) – and Bil’am’s acceptance of the supremacy of the universal God, he may have appeared to offer a strong alternative to the Torah’s prescription for spirituality.

The Jews needed to know why they should follow their true prophet and not his rival. The two prophets’ messages, and their fates, were quite distinct. It was imperative that the Torah of Moshe not be confused, or be seen as on par with, the ‘Torah’ of Bil’am. Thus we have the story of Bil’am, at length, to enable us to fully appreciate their distinctions.

{This Dvar Torahwas adapted by Harry Glazer from Rabbi Francis Nataf’s book – Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Numbers: Explorations in Text and Meaning}


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Rabbi Francis Nataf ( is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.