Tag Archives: Idolatry

The Other Bilaam

‘The Prophet Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell (1859)

This week’s parasha, Balak, features the infamous gentile sorcerer and prophet Bilaam. We see him riding a donkey, being confronted by an angel, and attempting to curse Israel. The Torah later states that Bilaam was slain by the sword when Israel warred with Midian (Numbers 31:8), and according to tradition he was killed by Pinchas. In the Book of Joshua (13:22) we are told again that Bilaam was slain, and here he is called hakosem, “the magician” or “the diviner”. The Sages ask (Sanhedrin 106a-b) why Scripture uses this language; after all, was Bilaam not a true prophet? The answer is peculiar and seemingly makes no sense: “This is in accordance with what people say, that she came from princes and rulers, but was licentious with carpenters.” What does this have to do with anything? More perplexingly, the Talmud goes on to make two more bizarre points about Bilaam.

First, our Sages stated that Bilaam was killed by Pinchas Lista (Sanhedrin 106b). The word lista means something like a “criminal” or “gangster”. There is certainly no way that our Sages could refer to the great and holy Pinchas as lista! Second, the same passage in the Talmud says that Bilaam was killed when he was 33 years old. This is absolutely impossible. We know that Bilaam was an advisor to Pharaoh back in Egypt when Pharaoh had decreed to drown the male children, and we know that Bilaam’s sons instigated the Golden Calf incident some 39 years prior to the events of this week’s parasha. Bilaam must have been a very old man at this point. How could our Sages say he was only 33? How do we make sense of this puzzling Talmudic passage?

Long ago, scholars had pointed out that the description of Bilaam above does not at all match the Torah personality of this week’s parasha, but it does seem to closely resemble another ancient figure. That last number 33 may have given it away, since it is often associated with a person who was killed at that age: Jesus. Could it be that the Sages were actually speaking about Jesus in code, to avoid alerting the Christian censors? Indeed, Jesus was executed at the command of the cruel Roman governor Pontius Pilate—whom the entire Jewish people at the time despised as we know from historical sources—and this is probably why the Talmud says Bilaam was killed by “Pinchas Lista”, ie. Pontius the criminal! And now we can understand the cryptic statement about the woman who “was licentious with carpenters”, since Jesus and his father were carpenters. It seems abundantly clear that the Sages were not actually speaking of Bilaam, but secretly alluding to Jesus.

The big question is: why would the Sages use Bilaam as a stand-in for Jesus? And what is all of this even supposed to teach us? Continue reading

Judaism vs. Christianity

How did Christianity emerge, and why did it split from Judaism to become a religion of its own? In this class we explore the true origins of Christianity, and explain the Jewish position on Jesus. Also discussed is the purpose of Christianity in world history, and some rabbinic perspectives on the religion.

Israel’s Greatest Enemy: The Erev Rav

At the end of this week’s parasha, Bo, the Israelites are finally free and set forth out of Egypt. We are told that along with the Israelites came out an Erev Rav (Exodus 12:38), a “mixed multitude” of people that joined them. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) explains that these were non-Jewish people that wished to convert and become part of the Jewish people, having seen such great wonders and miracles. Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, c. 1089-1092) adds that they were mostly Egyptians, and Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, 1800-1865) says they were Egyptians that had intermarried with Jews. He proves it from Nehemiah 13:3, where the non-Jewish “erev” were separated out of the returning Jewish population. The Zohar (II, 291a) states that many of the Erev Rav were Egyptian magicians, witches, and wizards, who would perform their tricks in the erev ravrava, the “great evening”. The time between sunset and midnight is when the impure forces are most active, hence a “great evening” for those wicked people.

The Zohar teaches that God warned Moses not to accept the Erev Rav, for they would cause nothing but trouble, but Moses had a hard time keeping them away and thought that perhaps they could be redeemed. Not surprisingly, God was right. The Erev Rav went on to cause havoc and mayhem both to the Exodus generation itself, and throughout all of Jewish history, until the present. As we shall see, they orchestrated the Golden Calf and the Midianite catastrophe, among other calamities. While the term “Amalek” is reserved for Israel’s external nemesis, the Erev Rav is the far more dangerous enemy from within. It is of them that the prophet Isaiah said “…those who destroy you and ruin you emerge from within you.” (Isaiah 49:17) Now, more than ever, we need to understand: Who is the Erev Rav? How can we identify them today? And, most importantly, how do we stop them? Continue reading