While Jonah is the biblical character often portrayed as the “reluctant prophet”, it is in fact Bil’am (Balaam in the standard English transcription) who most deserves this title. Jonah knows exactly what it is about God’s actions that enrages him, and God teaches him inductively, rather than directly, the theological lesson he needs to learn about mercy and compassion. Bil’am, too, needs a theological refresher course—not surprisingly, perhaps, since he is a non-Israelite prophet.
Bil’am—reluctant? Why, yes, but not, as one might think at first, about accepting Balak’s assignment. While it is true that he demurs after Balak’s first delegation asks him to come and curse the Israelites, Bil’am neglects to mention the Lord’s reason for denying him permission to accept the job: “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed” (Num 22:12). Is that omission just because he thinks his Moabite guests won’t understand that he, Bil’am, is merely a conduit of prophecy, not a magician who shapes events? When the second delegation makes its pitch to him, why does he not reject their request outright? And when he reports to Balak’s emissaries that he has received permission to make the trip, why does he neglect to note the condition the Lord has set for his participation: “But whatever I command you, that you shall do” (22:20)?
Bil’am’s real reluctance is toward passing up the commission of a lifetime. When the second delegation quotes Balak as offering Bil’am “great honour”, it is Bil’am who coyly brings up the idea of monetary reward: “Even if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold…” (22:18). As a weak student of prophecy—or a weak-willed prophet—Bil’am is able to parrot truisms about the prophetic calling: “I could not do anything, large or small, contrary to the command of the Lord my God”—but he nevertheless hopes against hope that somehow he can walk away with the grand prize. As the late Maurice Samuel has written of Bil’am at this juncture, “He had got round the prohibition to accept Balak’s invitation; he would get round the prohibition to curse the Israelites” as well. If his integrity is to be a bit tattered at the end, so be it. The prize will be worth the price.
Even his encounter with the talking ass is an occasion for Bil’am to equivocate. Upon finally seeing the angel of the Lord blocking his path, he sounds a note of contrition:? “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back.” Maurice Samuel’s retort: “This is such a disingenuous falsification that to hear it without losing one’s temper one must indeed have the patience of an angel. Balaam knows that the angel knows that he has God’s command or permission for the journey; and he has taken care to get himself into such a situation that to go back is extremely difficult,” both physically and politically. So, once again, Bil’am has manoeuvered himself a step closer to his goal.
In the end, though, the moment for Bil’am’s theological correction arrives, and for him it is stated directly. He is forced to convey to Balak what he himself needed to learn. (It is the lesson that Jonah learns all too well, making of it an unbending principle.) In Bil’am’s words: “God is not man to be capricious, / or mortal to change His mind. / Would He speak and not act, / Promise and not fulfil?” (23:19). Bil’am, the reluctant prophet, has at last spoken the truth.
Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He serves as Av Bet Din of the Israeli Masorti rabbinic court.