One of the great downfalls of our tradition’s historical memory is that we tend to make sophisticated and rich characters into black and white caricatures. Complex intricacies of Biblical personalities are ignored. Where once no true heroes and villains stood, now moments are made simple by painting pictures of saints and scoundrels. And our ancient Rabbis are the prime culprits.
Perhaps no person receives the ire of unfair Jewish memory more than Balaam, the foreign prophet sent by a neighboring king in this week’s Torah portion to curse the Children of Israel only to bless them instead.
There is little question that our Rabbis hate Balaam. In one fascinating account of his exploits in the afterlife they imagine that because he enticed the women of Moab to bait the men of Israel by providing them a curriculum of seduction - teaching them first to lure the men into their tent to see their linens, then inviting them for a drink, then inciting their passion, and finally teaching them to worship idols (see Talmud, Sanhedrin 106b) - he was fated to be cooked for all eternity in boiling semen as “just rewards” for his scheming (Talmud, Gittin 57a).
Ironically, while this seduction of Israelite men is chronicled in the Torah, there is no evidence outside of the Rabbis’ imagination that Balaam was the architect of this deception. Yet, because they have a picture of Balaam as evil, our Rabbis consistently read the worst into him.
The beginning of Balaam’s story actually paints the foreign prophet in a somewhat flattering light. After being approached by a King named Balak who asked him to curse the Israelites, Balaam waits for a sign whether to go:
God came to Balaam and said, “What do these people want of you? Balaam said to God, “Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, sent me this message: Here is a people that came out from Egypt and hides the earth from view. Come now and curse them for me; perhaps I can engage them in battle and drive them off.” But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak’s dignitaries, “Go back to your own country, for the LORD will not let me go with you.” The Moabite dignitaries left, and they came to Balak and said, “Balaam refused to come with us.” Then Balak sent other dignitaries, more numerous and distinguished than the first. They came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak son of Zippor: Please do not refuse to come to me. I will reward you richly and I will do anything you ask of me. Only come and damn this people for me.” Balaam replied to Balak’s officials, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the LORD my God. So you, too, stay here overnight, and let me find out what else the LORD may say to me.” That night God came to Balaam and said to him, “If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do.” When he arose in the morning, Balaam saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries. (Numbers 22:9-21)
Here, Balaam seems to be the paragon of faith, following God’s orders and ready to deal with the consequences of turning down a powerful request. Unfortunately our Rabbis do not read his response in such a generous light. Here are two examples:
- When Balaam refuses the dignitaries for the first time our Rabbis notice that he says “Go back to your own country, for the LORD will not let me go with you.” They note that Balaam could have said directly that God does not want him to curse the people. His statement actually created an ambiguity, leaving open the possibility that he chose not to go with them because he wanted higher powered dignitaries at his side, in essence saying “God may not let me go WITH YOU, but I could go with someone better.” (Midrash Tanchuma Balak 6)
- The second time that Balaam refused the dignitaries he says “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything…” Balaam’s answer is a common one we all give. How many of us have said “If you paid me $1,000,000, I still wouldn’t do that.” Yet, coming from him during this episode our Rabbis see it as gauche and greedy. The fact that he entertains any form of payment especially one that fills a royal palace must mean that he had been dreaming of this reward and thus considering and envisioning the monetary gains of his task. (Midrash Tanchuma Balak 6)
These are just two of many examples where the Rabbis pick apart texts that could have been read graciously and see them as further proof of Balaam’s cruelty and moral turpitude.
Ironically, while it’s easy to look with surprise at our Rabbis for doing this, we too often do the same. In psychological language, it is human nature to fall victim to a “confirmation bias,” a tendency we all possess to seek out information that proves our existing beliefs and discounts those that complicate our narratives. We can see this at play most saliently in the political arena. We give politicians the benefit of the doubt when they are part of our party and read the worst into those who are on the opposite side. Thinking like this leads to polarization and divided camps within society.
The best way to battle this phenomenon is to look with empathy at the other side. True, with a narrow and uncharitable read, one could find selfishness and hate in nearly all of Balaam’s words. Yet, if we apply Occam’s Razor and ask “what is the most likely reason he spoke the words he did” then we might find that Balaam deserves a new look.
We humans are more complicated than the simple black and white depictions that our confirmation biases often evoke. Deconstructing any story, whether those told to us today or those we have known for some time will guide us toward a middle path to truth that may be less defined but certainly more textured.