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Title: Bilaam's Role

Major Focus: Bilaam

Minor Focus: Responsibility

Abstract: We know that the Israelites polluted themselves with Moabite and Midianite women, but why were we not told of Bilaam's role earlier?

Format: Rabbinic Argument


"While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshipped that god. Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and God was incensed with Israel."

Numbers 25:1-3

"Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, 'You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Bilaam, induced the Israelites to sin against God in the episode at Peor, so that God's community was struck by plague! Now therefore, kill every male among the children and every woman who is no longer a virgin, but spare every female who is virgin.'"

Numbers 31:14-18

    We know the Israelites polluted themselves with Moabite and Midianite women. Why were we not told of Bilaam's role in this before?

  1. Leibowitz: This is the first occasion on which the Torah names Bilaam as the instigator of the plot to lead the Israelites into sin at Baal-peor. During the whole Scriptural account of the deed, in the previous chapters, no mention of Bilaam was made. On the contrary, the Torah says the people committed acts of immorality with the Moabite women and worshipped their god.

    We know already that God punished them with a devastating plague, killing twenty-four thousand of them. God then commanded Moses to harass the Midianites for their share in the trouble at Baal-peor, but Bilaam was never mentioned. Why is this first being revealed to us now?

    1. Where is the commentator leading us, in saying the Torah clearly blamed the people for what happened at Baal-peor, but left out Bilaam's role?
    2. Have you ever used "half-truths" along the way in the process of confronting someone with their crimes or guilt?

  2. S.D. Luzzatto: On his way back home, Bilaam passed through Midian and heard how the Israelites had sinned with the daughters of Moab, how they had been led into idolatry. He realized this was the only sure method of undermining Israel. He advised the Midianites to send their finest young women to seduce the Israelites into idolatry and whoring. In this way he would defeat them. God would abandon them.
    1. Why would God abandon the Israelites because of their whoring behavior? Does that mean God does not love men who frequent prostitutes?
    2. Where would you place family values and sexual morality on the scale of things that keep nations and people's strong or vital?

  3. Leibowitz: I understand that, but you still have not explained why the Torah never told us of these matters until after the death of Bilaam. It seems to me that Bilaam was an evil genius who knew he could destroy Israel by destroying the purity of their family life. Even so, the ultimate moral responsibility rested on the Israelites themselves. They were guilty.

    In Chapter 25 it was clear that the people sinned, Bilaam was not mentioned, even though he may have thought up the plot. It was the people who sinned and brought the tragedy of a plague on themselves.

    Every individual is responsible for their own acts. Provocation does not free the victim of responsibility. The Torah first emphasizes the guilt of the Israelites and their just punishment. Only later does it address the guilt, responsibility, and retribution that belonged to Bilaam. Bilaam was killed in battle by the Israelites.

    1. What does that mean, "Provocation does not free the victim of responsibility"? Can you give examples?
    2. Is this a question of whose guilt was greater, the Israelites or Bilaam's, or is it a question of where to focus the responsibility in terms of teaching a moral lesson?