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.