Shabbat Balak: Prophecy

July 14, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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Three people are called prophets in the Torah Abraham, Miriam, and Moses.

And yet Moses, the greatest of them all is normally referred to not as a prophet but as a teacher, Moshe Rabbeynu. The Hebrew words used in the Bible for what we call a prophet are Navi, from the root “to bring (a message), Chozeh, “someone who has a vision,” Roeh, “someone who sees things clearly” and Cholem, “a dreamer.”

The Torah gives us very mixed messages as to what the nature and the role of a prophet was. In Abraham’s case, he was described as a prophet who could pray to God to cure people. In Miriam’s case, it was simply her charisma and leadership. And in Moses’s case, it was his closest of all relationships with God who “mouth to mouth” conveyed the Torah to him for him to teach it to the children of Israel. Which is why he was the great teacher.

Chapter Deuteronomy describes the role of the prophet more specifically. He or he is an inspirational guide to remind people of God’s will. A dreamer who comes with a message and may back it up with  “a sign, a wonder.” One might think from the wording that this implies predictions, and forecasts, all backed by wondrous signs, even miracles. Although most Biblical prophets ( after Elijah and Elisha) did not get involved with signs or wonders. Besides the Torah says even if signs come true, but the message is to abandon Torah, then they must be ignored. Anyone can turn tricks. It is the message at counts.

The later books of the Bible fleshed out the role of the prophet. As someone not appointed by anyone. But who emerged by dint of their human qualities which is why there were women prophets too (not only jobs for the boys). They taught the poor and served as healers and advisors. They resisted authority often at great risk to themselves and often ended up pursued and even jailed. They often had to encounter false prophets and of course, competing pagan influences. The great Biblical prophets all attacked corruption, hypocrisy, and inhumanity, and yet they also saw their mission as trying to guide and improve other nations too.

This week we read about someone called Bilaam Ben Beor who was a renowned prophet and magician in Mesopotamia. He was invited by Balak king of both Moabites and Midianites, to come and curse the Israelites to prevent them from invading. Our reading this week devotes three chapters to the magnificent, poetic blessings that Bilaam ended up praising the Israelites against his will. Even so, after initially abandoning his mission, he returns to advise Balak on how to defeat the Israelites by devious means.  Now Bilaam is not called a prophet in the Torah although the Talmud bestows this title on him as a prophet to the non-Jews ( a title given both to Isaiah and Jeremiah). And one wonders why the Torah devotes three chapters to Bilaam and his talking ass not to mention the 50 times his name is in Torah.

There really was a Bilaam beyond the Torah. In 1967 archeologists at Deir Alla, Jordan, discovered an ancient text, with nothing to do with Judaism, mentioning the activities of a renowned magician and prophet named Bilaam the Son of Beor. Speculation only places the text around the time of King Uzziah and the prophet Amos at about 760 BCE. But clearly, he was a well-known figure. Bilaam was obviously a renowned magician, and he could converse with donkeys! It is true he finally obeyed God when it came to blessing Israel instead of cursing. But even if he was said to  “know the superior mind,” he had plenty of other loyalties. It was the later sages who gave Bilaam his title of prophet.

The Talmud was written long after prophesy ceased. Once the Second Temple was built and a new form of meritocracy emerged of scholars whose role was to teach and study Torah and preserve its integrity. They specifically ruled that prophets could play no part in the legal, halachic process (even if the Bible gives examples to the contrary). But they admitted that it was the prophets who kept Judaism alive during the hundreds of years when both priests and kings often failed in their mandate to preserve Jewish identity and values.

I suggest the Bilaam episode is significant not just because of the magnificence of the poetry of his visions, the accuracy of his predictions, and his reluctant admiration of the Israelites.  Rather it was because no matter the source or signs and wonders, no matter what a person’s fame or reputation, it was the message itself that mattered. Bilaam said nothing about abandoning Torah for some other system or reneging on the Sinai covenant with God. Unlike many so-called prophets who came after him.

When all is said and done, miracles, and signs or only helpful if they can bring people to become better humans. Not if they simply reinforce corrupt hypocrisy or self-serving ideologies. And being better people is the essence of the Divine message that the role of the prophet was meant to reinforce. There are plenty of people nowadays in every religion, who claim to speak in God’s name. But no prophets. Prophecy is out of fashion nowadays. Too many failed prophets. And the qualities of charisma have been abused too often.

Numbers 22-25


One Response to “Shabbat Balak: Prophecy”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    *Too many failed prophets. And the qualities of charisma have been abused too often.

    Wise words from Jeremy Rosen and a great read.

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