Why the Ancient Rabbis Compared Moses to Balaam

Tomorrow, synagogues throughout the Diaspora will read the parashah of Balak (Numbers 22:2 –25:9), which tells the story of a diviner name Balaam who is hired by Balak, king of the Moabites, to curse the Jews, but is led by God only to bless them. The scriptural portrait of Balaam is a deeply, sometimes comically, unflattering one, and traditional interpretations tend to amplify this disparagement. Yet some rabbinic sources, beginning with the ancient midrashic commentary on Numbers and Deuteronomy known as Sifrei, make a point of comparing Balaam with Moses, emphasizing that the former is a great Gentile prophet while the latter is the greatest prophet of the Jews. Simi Peters explores this surprising but fruitful comparison:

Let’s begin by noting some striking parallels between the Balaam narrative and portions of the Moses story. Both Moses and Balaam are prophets of God who engage in confrontations with kings with no apparent fear. Moses’ fearlessness reflects his faith in God. Balaam’s stems from a shrewd, pragmatic opportunism; he knows that Balak needs his help and will pay handsomely, and put up with a great deal, to get it (Numbers 22:5–6, 15–17, 36–37). Both Moses and Balaam are poets, though their use of poetry stems from very different places. The Song of the Sea is Moses’ spontaneous outpouring of gratitude to God for a miraculous salvation; Ha’azinu [Deuteronomy 32] is part of his farewell address to his people, an exhortation that they remain faithful to God. Neither song has been “commissioned” or commanded by God.

In contrast, Balaam’s poetry, though beautiful, is simply a rhetorical vehicle for conveying prophecies imposed upon him, and not a form of spiritual self-expression. As Balaam repeatedly tells Balak, he can only say what God puts in his mouth, whether he likes it or not. Both Moses and Balaam end their relationships with Israel by blessing the nation. Here, too, their motivations differ. Moses’ blessing is born of his love for Israel; Balaam’s is a grudging concession to God’s control (Numbers 24:1). More subtly, the stories of both biblical personalities are marked by many references to sight.

Yet equally revealing, writes Peters, are the contrasts. For instance, while Balaam is so eager to go on his prophetic mission that he persists despite God’s repeated efforts to dissuade him, Moses repeatedly refuses his mission until God cajoles and threatens him into accepting. This contrast suggests to Peters that the real different between the two men is not in their prophetic abilities, but in their moral senses:

Moses might have become Balaam, and Balaam might have become Moses. Each is a gifted poet with a capacity for prophecy and, equally, a potential for defying God. What makes Moses a man of God and Balaam a hated enemy is the manner in which they use their powers, and the choices they make. Moses’ willingness to defy God will be used to serve God; he challenges God fearlessly in defense of Israel. Balaam, though, chooses to sell his talents to the highest bidders for the worst causes. He has entry to the King’s palace, but he would rather be the King’s butcher than His trusted minister.

Read more at Tradition

More about: Hebrew Bible, Midrash, Moses, Numbers, Prophecy

Hamas’s Hostage Diplomacy

Ron Ben-Yishai explains Hamas’s current calculations:

Strategically speaking, Hamas is hoping to add more and more days to the pause currently in effect, setting a new reality in stone, one which will convince the United States to get Israel to end the war. At the same time, they still have most of the hostages hidden in every underground crevice they could find, and hope to exchange those with as many Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners currently in Israeli prisons, planning on “revitalizing” their terrorist inclinations to even the odds against the seemingly unstoppable Israeli war machine.

Chances are that if pressured to do so by Qatar and Egypt, they will release men over 60 with the same “three-for-one” deal they’ve had in place so far, but when Israeli soldiers are all they have left to exchange, they are unlikely to extend the arrangement, instead insisting that for every IDF soldier released, thousands of their people would be set free.

In one of his last speeches prior to October 7, the Gaza-based Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar said, “remember the number one, one, one, one.” While he did not elaborate, it is believed he meant he wants 1,111 Hamas terrorists held in Israel released for every Israeli soldier, and those words came out of his mouth before he could even believe he would be able to abduct Israelis in the hundreds. This added leverage is likely to get him to aim for the release for all prisoners from Israeli facilities, not just some or even most.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli Security