Is the “Portion of Balaam” Mentioned in the Talmud a Lost Mosaic Book?

According to a talmudic discussion of the authorship of the various books of the Hebrew Bible, Moses composed not only the Pentateuch but also the book of Job and “the portion of Balaam” (parashat Bilam). The identity of the last item has puzzled scholars for centuries: if it refers to Numbers 22-24, which describe the attempt by King Balak of Moab to hire the prophet Balaam to curse Israel, and the divine blessings that Balaam utter instead, why does the Talmud distinguish between this passage and the rest of the Pentateuch? And if it refers to something other than this passage in Numbers, does it refer to a book no longer extant? Shlomo Zuckier discusses the possible explanations floated by rabbinic commentators throughout the ages:

The 17th-century sage Isaiah Halevi Horowitz, [citing earlier authorities], asserts: . . . “the portion of Balaam” must be a short book written by Moses, one lost due to the travails of exile. . . . The discovery of an ancient text in Deir ‘Alla, Jordan, in 1967 set off a flurry of publications on the matter. The text explicitly refers to one “Balaam son of Beor” and also contains significant thematic parallels to the biblical Balaam story, albeit with some differences. On this basis, some have suggested that this document, or something very much like it, may be what the [Talmud] refers to. . . .

However, several commentators point to some fundamental difference in nature between the passage in the Torah about Balaam and the rest of the Torah that might account for [our talmudic passage giving special treatment to the former]. There are several versions to this approach. A first angle is that this material, while it appears in the Torah, is in some sense inferior or tangential to the rest of the Torah. . . .

[Conversely, one ancient rabbinic work] notes that while “no prophet arose in Israel like Moses” (Deuteronomy 34), such a prophet did arise among the Gentiles, namely Balaam. Rabbi Tsadok Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823-1900) explains this to mean that Balaam’s prophecy was of a unique nature, a type that only Moses possessed. . . . Moses and Balaam prophesied by having God, as it were, speak through their mouths. Thus . . . the prophecies of Balaam themselves are exceptional, as they represent the unmediated word of God spurting forth from his mouth. . . . If so, Balaam’s prophecies are exceptional because their inclusion within the Torah is on account not of their Mosaic authorship but of their divine construction. Thus, they belong in a category all their own, and the Talmud appropriately separates them from the rest of the Torah.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Moses, Numbers, Prophecy, Religion & Holidays, Talmud

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy