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?

“God is Not a Man”

On a surface level, the Sages used Bilaam as a stand-in for Jesus because we find many superficial similarities between them. For instance, Bilaam is described as riding a donkey, like Jesus did when entering Jerusalem as the supposed messiah. Bilaam knew God, yet joined with non-Jewish idolaters to oppose Israel, just as Christianity emerged among Jews but went on to become a gentile religion that persecuted Israel more than any other. Bilaam’s name means b’lo ‘am, “without a nation”, in the same way that Christianity spread beyond Israel’s borders to become an international religion, detached from the nation of Israel. We know Bilaam spent his early years in Egypt and learned many of his magical ways from their occultism, and Jesus also spent several years of his youth in Egypt. Some of our Sages suggested that Jesus similarly picked up on the occult while dwelling there.

More significantly, the Sages may have been linking Bilaam to Jesus because of Bilaam’s connection to the Erev Rav. Recall that a “mixed multitude” came out of Egypt alongside Israel (among them the two sons of Bilaam), and stood with them at the Sinai Revelation. However, they never abandoned their old idolatrous ways, and caused Israel much trouble, including promoting the false god of the Golden Calf. They had the gall to proclaim the calf as the real “God of Israel” (Exodus 32:4). Later, Bilaam would be the architect of the heresy of Peor, enticing the Israelites to worship the false idol through the Midianite and Moabite women (Numbers 25). One can see the similarities to Christianity, which promotes a man as a god and has led Jews astray to a false belief.

Ironically, it is within Bilaam’s prophecy itself that we find the greatest connection to Jesus and Christianity. It is Bilaam that declared loudly: “God is not a man!” (Numbers 23:19) This may be the reason why our Sages said Bilaam was the “greatest prophet” for the gentiles, just as Moses was for the Jews (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20). There are two main ways to understand this statement. First is if we follow the suggestion that Bilaam is a code-word for Jesus, in which case the Sages are simply stating that Jesus became the greatest prophetic figure among the gentiles of the world, since Christianity became the world’s dominant religion. (Even its closest rival by numbers, Islam, considers Jesus a prophet, second only to Muhammad.) Certainly, no one in the world considers Bilaam a great prophet today, nor in the last several millennia, and he founded no religion, so it makes much more sense that our Sages were speaking about Jesus here! The second way to understand the statement is that our Sages were saying Bilaam had the greatest and most important message for gentiles: “God is not a man!”

Disciples of Bilaam

All of the above can help us understand a famous Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:19). It begins by saying that people who possess three qualities are considered to be the disciples of Abraham, while those who have the opposing three qualities are disciples of Bilaam. Abraham’s disciples are humble, tempered, and have a good eye, while Bilaam’s disciples are arrogant, greedy, and have an evil eye. The result is that Abraham’s disciples “enjoy this world, and inherit the World to Come”, while Bilaam’s disciples inherit Gehinnom, as it is written: “For you, God, will bring them down to the nethermost pit, those murderous and treacherous men; they shall not live out half their days; but I trust in You.” (Psalms 55:24)

The Torah makes no indication that the real Bilaam ever had any disciples; rather, he was a lone, wandering prophet. Jesus, on the other hand, famously had a group of disciples. This is a big clue that the Mishnah is really speaking about the disciples of Jesus, referring to the religious leaders of Christianity. The conclusive proof comes from the final verse that is cited, where King David says the wicked do not merit to live even half a lifespan. This is the exact same verse that was cited in the Talmud above (Sanhedrin 106b) which says “Bilaam” died at age 33. Since King David tells us that a complete lifespan is 70 years (Psalms 90:10), and that the wicked do not merit to live even half a lifespan—meaning 35 years—the clear implication is that dying before then, at age 33 or 34, is a really bad sign!

So, the Mishnah above is really talking about the leaders of Christianity—the priests, bishops, and popes of old—who were arrogant and greedy, adorning themselves with fancy robes and golden ornaments, building massive churches and cathedrals (while the ignorant masses lived in poverty and serfdom), and brought about immeasurable harm to countless peoples around the world through crusades, inquisitions, and the like. These “disciples of Bilaam” are the ones with the arrogance, greed, and evil eye. On the surface, of course, they appear ascetic and holy, abstaining from marriage and worldly pleasures. This is why the Mishnah says the disciples of Abraham enjoy both this world (since Judaism never preached nor required celibacy and ascetism) and the World to Come, while the disciples of Bilaam can’t properly enjoy either world, and ultimately inherit Gehinnom.

[This reminds me of a classic Rowan Atkinson comedy skit where he welcomes people to Hell. No offense to anyone who doesn’t find it funny, and it is worth emphasizing that Rowan Atkinson is not Jewish!]

Bilaam in Jesus

I believe the Sages’ linking of Bilaam to Jesus is not just a code word or some kind of loose metaphor, but goes far deeper. It is quite possible our Sages meant, on a mystical level, that Jesus really was Bilaam. Every soul is multi-faceted and contains many sparks, often from different sources and even from different time periods of the past. The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) taught that one part of Bilaam’s soul originated in Abel, son of Adam and Eve (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Vayera and on Balak). Specifically, the part of the soul associated with the hei of Abel’s name (הבל) ended up in Moses (משה), while the beit and lamed ended up first in Lavan (לבן), the father-in-law of Jacob, and then in Bilaam (בלעם). Abel himself was a great figure, and had immense prophetic ability. The purest part of him went to Moses, and the other major part ended up in Bilaam. This is why Moses and Bilaam are described as being near-equals in spiritual power and prophecy.

Before he could achieve his full potential, Abel was killed by Cain. His return in Moses and Bilaam was another opportunity to fulfil his soul mission and to rectify the past. For instance, the Arizal explains that Moses killing the Egyptian slave-master was a measure-for-measure tikkun, a spiritual rectification, since the Egyptian was a reincarnation of Cain! Similarly, both Moses and Bilaam were given the highest degree of prophecy to go out and improve the world. Moses fulfilled his mission; Bilaam did not. The Arizal points out that Bilaam had yet another opportunity in Naval (נבל), who also failed his task and became a major adversary of King David. After that, the spiritual trail goes cold. What happened to the beit-lamed soul fragment?

It is possible that it returned in Jesus. That might explain Jesus’ purported wonder-working abilities, since the beit-lamed spark was the source of Lavan’s and Bilaam’s divination and sorcery. (It is interesting to point out that the value of beit-lamed is 32, the age at which some say Jesus began his “ministry”. Also, Christian scholars long ago saw in Abel’s death a link to Jesus’ death.) More evidence may be drawn from the well-known story in Gittin (56b-57a) where Onkelos raises the souls of several deceased people to speak with them, including Bilaam and Jesus one after the other, further linking the two souls.

It is important to remember that, as explained in the past here, the mythological Jesus that Christians believe in did not exist. However, the historical Jesus, as explored in depth here, never actually sought to start a new religion, did not declare himself a god, and was himself a Torah-observant Jew, some scholars even suggesting he was a Zealot (the most “extreme” faction associated with Beit Shammai). The Sages may have been alluding to this in the Sanhedrin passage above, where they admit he did come from legitimate “princes and rulers”, and had the potential to be a valid prophet, but strayed in the wrong direction and became a “diviner” for gentiles instead.

The big question is: if Jesus did possess the wayward beit-lamed spark, did it finally achieve some sort of rectification in him, or was it yet another complete failure as in Lavan, Bilaam, and Naval? In other words, was the result of Jesus’ work ultimately a positive thing, or a negative one? Rabbis throughout history had varying opinions on Christianity. Some held it was purely idolatrous and only brought much suffering to the world. Others held a more positive view. Whatever the case, history surely follows God’s plan, and no one will doubt that Christianity must have arisen for a reason. Along these lines, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) explained that the purpose of Christianity is “to prepare the way for Mashiach’s coming and the improvement of the entire world”, since through their missionary activity “The entire world has already become filled with the mention of Mashiach, Torah, and mitzvot. These matters have been spread to the furthermost islands to many stubborn-hearted nations.” And so, the stage is set for “the true Messianic king to arise and prove successful.” (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Hilkhot Melakhim u’Milchamot 11:4)

Rabbi Yakov Emden (1697-1776) was even more optimistic, writing at the beginning of his commentary to Seder Olam that the “founder of Christianity” brought two blessings to the gentiles: “removing idolatry from them, and imposing upon them stricter moral obligations…” More surprisingly, Rabbi Emden wrote in his Etz Avot on Pirkei Avot 4:11 that a church is also a knesiah l’shem shamayim, existing “for the sake of Heaven”. And this might further explain our Sages’ statement on how “Bilaam” became the “greatest prophet for the gentiles”. So, perhaps something good did come out of the beit-lamed spark that originated in Abel, at the end of its long and convoluted journey.

For a fuller analysis of ‘Judaism vs. Christianity’ see here: