A Righteous Balaam: Balaam’s Character According to Maimonides
Guest post by Mark Douek
Mark Douek is from Potomac, MD and is an undergraduate finance and accounting student at the University of Maryland- College Park. He previously attended Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi in Jerusalem, Israel.
I. Balaam in Rabbinic Literature
In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides determines certain characteristics that all prophets must have. One of his required characteristics is moral excellence. Additionally, throughout his discussion of prophecy, Maimonides mentions examples of biblical prophets. One prophet he mentions is Balaam ben Beor. In keeping with his requirement for moral excellence, Maimonides writes that Balaam was righteous when he prophesied.
Maimonides’ stance in The Guide about Balaam’s character is curious for two reasons. One reason is that in biblical and rabbinic writings that predate Maimonides, Balaam is viewed as a wicked individual. He is generally seen as a prophet, but as a wicked prophet. The second reason why Maimonides’ stance towards Balaam’s character is puzzling is because Maimonides himself writes in his Commentary on the Mishna that Balaam was wicked. The Balaam described in Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishna, is not one who meets Maimonides own prerequisites for prophecy.
This article will argue that Maimonides ascribes moral excellence to Balaam for two reasons: One, Maimonides considers the prophecies of Balaam as true, and two, Maimonides’ has a unique philosophical understanding of how prophecy works. These reasons lead Maimonides to take a bold stance against the classical wicked portrayal of Balaam, and instead lead Maimonides to assert that Balaam must have been moral and righteous.
Throughout Talmudic literature and arguably parts of the Bible itself, the biblical character Balaam is depicted as a wicked individual. However, in Parashat Balak1 – the account where king Balak hires Balaam to curse the Israelites – Balaam is not an outright wicked person. He is hired to curse the Israelites, but he time and time again is reluctant to do so. He tells Balak that he must first seek permission from God if he is to curse the Israelites. Balaam asks God and God forbids him from doing so. Balaam very clearly tells Balak God’s answer, and he lets Balak know that he can only prophesy what God forces him to prophesy. If God places a blessing for Israel in Balaam’s mouth, he will bless the Israelites, and if God places a curse in his mouth, he will curse them. In fact, Balaam tells Balak that even a great amount of silver and gold cannot cause him to defy God’s word.
Unlike Balaam’s portrayal in Parashat Balak, later mentions of Balaam in the Bible are seemingly negative. Balaam’s death is mentioned twice after Parashat Balak.2 The Bible specifies that the Israelites slew Balaam in a warlike situation. Deuteronomy 23:5-6 speaks of Balaam coming to curse the Israelites, and God turning Balaam’s intended curse into a blessing for the Israelites:
And because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Aram-naharaim to curse thee. Nevertheless ,the LORD thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the LORD thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the LORD thy God loved thee.
These verses suggest that Balaam wanted to curse the Israelites but found himself unable due to God’s intervention.
Comments about Balaam in early rabbinic literature are explicitly negative, and are more critical than the Bible’s comments about Balaam. Balaam is frequently referred to as “Balaam the wicked one” (Balaam HaRasha). Similarly, the Mishna in Avot contrasts the wicked Balaam with the righteous Abraham:
Whoever possesses the following three traits is of the disciples of our father Abraham; and whoever possesses the opposite three traits is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam. The disciples of our father Abraham have a good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul. The disciples of the wicked Balaam have an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a gross soul. What is the difference between the disciples of our father Abraham and the disciples of the wicked Balaam? The disciples of our father Abraham benefit in this world and inherit the World To Come, and as is stated, “To bequeath to those who love Me there is, and their treasures I shall fill” (Proverbs 8:21). The disciples of the wicked Balaam inherit purgatory and descend into the pit of destruction, as is stated, “And You, G-d, shall cast them into the pit of destruction; bloody and deceitful men, they shall not attain half their days. And I shall trust in you” (ibid., 55:24).3
The Mishna depicts Balaam as an exact opposite of Abraham. Abraham possesses worthy characteristics which Jews should strive for: a good eye, a meek spirit, and a humble soul. Balaam, on the other hand, has an evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a gross soul. Those who follow in Balaam’s ways are said to forfeit the World To Come and instead inherit purgatory.
The Mishna in Sanhedrin 10:2 takes Avot’s statement a step further. In Sanhedrin, it is not Balaam’s disciples who are said to forfeit the World To Come; instead, Balaam himself is listed as one of four biblical laymen who are denied entry into the World To Come. The Mishna states: “Three kings and four commoners have no portion in the world-to-come… The four commoners: Balaam, Doeg, Ahitophel and Gehazi”.
Many midrashim also depict Balaam as wicked. Midrash Tanhuma Yelammedenu 7:13 accuses Balaam of planning to destroy the Israelites. Balaam is blamed similarly in other midrashim as the reason why the Israelites sinned with the Midianite women.4 Balaam is accused of devising a plan to cause the Israelites to fall into sin, since he was unsuccessful in cursing them. He is also said to be the catalyst for the plague brought by God against Israel in which twenty four thousand Israelites were killed.5
It is important to note what early rabbinic writings do not say about Balaam. No early rabbi claims Balaam possessed any positive character traits, nor does any rabbi defend Balaam’s actions.
There is only one positive comment about Balaam that appears in some early rabbinic sources. Many early rabbis regard him as a great prophet or at least as one who spoke through the Holy Spirit (Ruah Hakodesh).6 It is important to note, however, that early rabbinic sources do not require a prophet to have perfect moral character. The Talmud states that the divine spirit (Shekhinah) will only rest upon a man who is wise, brave, wealthy, and tall.7 However, Rabbi Yohannan may require a prophet to be moral as he lists the four requirements as brave, wealthy, wise, and humble (anav).8 Despite this, no early rabbinic writing challenges Balaam’s status as a prophet due to his moral shortcomings.
II. Maimonides’ Understanding of Balaam
The first rabbi to require a prophet to be morally upstanding is Maimonides in the 12th century. Possession of a perfect moral faculty is one of three prerequisites Maimonides requires a prophet to posses in order for him to prophesy. Maimonides writes in his Guide of the Perplexed that “a superior individual who is perfect with respect to his rational and moral qualities, [and] his imaginative faculty is in its most perfect state” is one who is fit for prophecy.9 According to Maimonides, a prophet must have perfected three faculties in order to prophesy: the rational, moral, and imaginative faculties.
Maimonides explains in The Guide how one perfects his moral faculty. He writes that perfecting moral habit is “through the turning-away of thought from all bodily pleasures and the putting an end to the desire for the various kinds of ignorant and wicked glorification.”10 A prophet “will have detached his thought from, and abolished his desire for, bestial things – I mean the preference for the pleasures of eating, drinking, sexual intercourse, and, in general, of the sense of touch.”11 Additionally, a man who wishes to prophecy must have “well-tempered human moral habits”,12 which Shlomo Pines understands as observing the golden mean.13 In short, it is impossible for a man to prophesy without first perfecting his moral faculty, and without distancing himself excessive bodily pleasures.
According to Maimonides’ definition of a moral man, and according to Maimonides’ description of Balaam’s character in his commentary on Tractate Avot, Balaam should not be eligible to prophesy:
And it is well known that Balaam the wicked was passionate about money. He came from Aram Naharayim because of the money that was paid to him to curse Israel. As He said, may He be blessed, “and because they hired Balaam son of Beor etc.” (Deutronomy 23:5). And since the greatness of his desire, in the matter of the sexual cohabitations is the reason why he advised Balak to make light of the [Midianite] women in order to fornicate with Israel and place famous prostitutes [amongst them].14 Since, were it not for the great desire that he had, and prostitution being good in his eyes, he would not have ordered him.15 Because the actions16 of mankind go only according to his thoughts, for the good will not instruct to do wicked, rather they will warn against it… And the Sages say that Balaam would cohabit with his she-ass; and there is no doubting this, since he who had his thoughts on this,17 his actions will be too. And indeed he was haughty… He was a man of blood, since he was the cause of the death of the Israelites in the plague. And he is also a man of trickery in his injurious doings to conduct wicked.18
Maimonides’ description of Balaam contains more negative remarks about Balaam than does the Mishna. Balaam is one who overindulges in physical pleasures. He chases after money and has a strong sexual drive. He is also a murderer. Maimonides’ description of Balaam is not one of a man who has “well-tempered human moral habits”, and is certainly not the description of one fit for prophecy.
Maimonides warns his reader, in the chapters on prophecy in The Guide of the Perplexed, to carefully examine the actions and the way of life of one who claims to be a prophet. An individual who plunges “into the foulness of copulation” cannot be a true prophet.19 While Balaam’s faculties of reason and imagination may have been perfected enough for prophecy, his moral faculty lacked too much to allow for prophecy.
Surprisingly, Maimonides does in fact consider Balaam to be a real prophet in his Guide of the Perplexed. This seems to be in conflict with Maimonides requirement for a prophet to be moral. Specifically, Balaam is the only ‘wicked’ character in the Bible whom Maimonides considers to be a real prophet. Maimonides does not consider other wicked biblical characters who have prophetic-like dreams, like Laban, to be prophets or to have had true real prophetic dreams.20
Maimonides considers Balaam to be a full-fledged prophet who prophesies at a rank of prophecy equal to that of the patriarch Jacob.21 Maimonides equates Balaam and Jacob’s prophecies when he discusses four forms in which prophetic speech can reach a prophet. In discussion of the first form, Maimonides cites four proof texts to explain the form. He cites two verses from Jacob’s prophecies and two verses from Balaam’s prophecies. (The two verses of Balaam’s prophecy are from Numbers 22, the story of Balaam before he leaves to curse Israel).22 Maimonides choice of proof texts indicates that Balaam was a real prophet, since prophetic speech reached both Balaam and Jacob in the same form of true prophecy.
Immediately after discussing the four forms of prophetic speech, Maimonides clarifies for the reader that all the prophets he mentioned in that discussion are true prophets; this includes Balaam. He writes concerning the prophets mentioned in those proof texts: “All the dicta that are formulated according to one of these [four] forms are prophecies and those who utter them are prophets” (italics mine).23 He then gives examples of those where “there is no prophecy at all nor is the individual a prophet”. Additionally, Maimonides re-quotes a proof text of Jacob’s prophecy used to describe the first form of prophetic speech. He does this to prove what a verse looks like when it refers to true prophetic vision, as opposed to a verse about non-prophetic visions like the visions of Laban or Abimelech.24
In the very next chapter of The Guide, Maimonides once again equates Balaam’s prophecy with Jacob’s prophecy. He writes the following about Jacob’s wrestling encounter with an angel and Balaam’s encounter with an angel while Balaam is riding his she-ass:
All the wrestling and the conversation in question happened in a vision of prophecy. And likewise the whole story of Balaam on the way and of the she-ass speaking; all this happened in a vision of prophecy, as it is finally made clear that an angel of the Lord spoke to him.25
Maimonides deems the biblical phrase “in a vision of prophecy” as an indicator that a prophet is experiencing true prophecy. In a true prophetic vision, Balaam sensed his she-ass veering out of a straight line, his legs being struck, his conversation with his she-ass, and his conversation with the angel.26
After this comment, Maimonides once again clears up any confusion the reader may have about biblical characters that seem to be prophets, but who are not, based on Maimonides’ rules for prophecy. Chapter 2:42 of The Guide ends with a paragraph about the status of Manoah and Hagar. Maimonides writes that they are not prophets despite similarities in their visions to true prophetic visions like Balaam’s vision in the she-ass episode.27
III. Balaam’s Moral Fluctuations
Maimonides’ discussion of prophecy leads to a bold exegetical description of Balaam that is unprecedented in rabbinic literature. Maimonides fully asserts that Balaam is a prophet. Balaam is not a wicked and false prophet; rather, he is a true prophet and therefore must have perfect rational, imaginative, and moral faculties.
No biblical exegete or the Talmud labels Balaam as a moral character. Both the Talmud and exegetes interpret the biblical verses about Balaam in a manner that paints him in a negative light. Maimonides, on the other hand, does not hesitate to paint Balaam in a positive light despite the traditional biblical interpretations of Balaam’s character.
Maimonides’ portrayal of Balaam is due to his steadfast dedication to his philosophical understanding of the principles behind the Torah. Maimonides always interprets scripture in a way that fits his view of both physics and metaphysics. In Balaam’s case, it is Maimonides’ opinion of the metaphysical properties of prophecy that leads him to interpret the verses as he does. Maimonides reads Balaam’s prophetical statements as most exegetes do; Balaam’s words are true prophesies from God. In fact, in Mishne Torah Laws of Kings 11:1, Maimonides quotes Balaam’s prophesies about the Israelites when describing what the messianic era will be like. Yet, Maimonides is faced with a problem that other exegetes and that the Talmud do not face. Namely, Maimonides requires moral excellence to precede prophecy. Maimonides does not allow for any exceptions to this rule. He declares Balaam a prophet and therefore a moral individual too.
What of Maimonides’ comments about Balaam’s moral shortcoming in his commentary on Avot? There are two ways to reconcile Maimonides’ apparent contradiction. One answer is to say that Maimonides changed his opinion of Balaam between the time when he wrote his Commentary on the Mishna and when he wrote The Guide of the Perplexed. This possible answer is unlikely since Maimonides had already formulated opinions on prophecy, which he set forth in his introduction to his Commentary on the Mishna. In his Commentary on the Mishna, Maimonides requires a prophet to have moral upstanding and requires him to fear God.28
A second answer – and the seemingly correct answer – to the contradiction is that Maimonides viewed Balaam as morally upright when he prophesied. The description of Balaam in the Commentary on the Mishna refers to a time when Balaam was not morally upright and was not prophesying.
There is a point in the Bible where Balaam is morally upright. We saw earlier in this study that Balaam prophesied at a level between the eighth and the eleventh degree of the eleven degrees of prophecy set forth by Maimonides.29 These prophecies of Balaam, quoted by Maimonides, come from verses in the Bible beginning from the start of Parashat Balak and continuing through the story of Balaam and his she-ass; these were true and full prophecies which required Balaam to be morally upright.
However, Maimonides also writes in The Guide that Balaam prophesied at the second degree of prophecy.30 But, as Maimonides says himself, degrees one and two of the eleven degrees of prophecy are not true levels of prophecy.31 These two levels consist of the divine spirit resting upon an individual at a lower level of divine inspiration than true prophecy. An individual speaking at one of these two levels is sometimes described as experiencing a divine vision, but he is not a true prophet despite the Bible’s similarity in language when describing true prophecy. For example, a prophetic-like vision can happen upon an individual in a dream, but not be prophecy:
For those who prophesy in a dream, by no means call this state a dream after prophecy has come to them in a dream, but state decidedly that it was a prophetic revelation. Thus Jacob our Father; for after he had awakened from his prophetic dream, he did not say that it was a dream, but stated decidedly… that that was a prophetic revelation.32
When a prophet awakens from a prophetic dream he does not refer to his dream as a dream. Rather, he refers to it as prophecy. On the other hand, when an individual awakens from a prophetic-like dream that is not true prophecy, the Bible refers to the individual’s dream using the term dream. Maimonides writes that even “a perfectly impious man, and moreover an idolater”, like Laban, can have God appear to him in a dream that, of course, is not prophecy.33 God appears to certain righteous individuals too, like Solomon, in a non-prophetic dream, at the second degree of prophecy.34
Maimonides writes the following while discussing those who prophesied at the lower, second degree of prophecy: “Know too that Balaam, when he was righteous, also belonged to this kind.”35 This implies that there were times when Balaam was righteous and times when he was wicked; not that he is exclusively wicked. What Maimonides also has indicated is that Balaam prophesied at the second degree of prophesy at some points in time, and at other points in time he prophesied at the eighth degree of prophecy or higher.
Maimonides quotes Numbers 23:5 and Numbers 24:4 as instances when Balaam spoke at the second degree of prophecy.36 These two verses are from Balaam’s speeches about Israel when speaking on behalf of king Balak. Balaam’s prophecies spoken at the eighth degree or above occur before Numbers 23 and do not mention the Israelites; the prophecies concern only Balaam himself. To rephrase, Balaam prophesied at a high level at the beginning of Parashat Balak, and spoke through divine spirit – but not true prophecy – towards the end of the parasha. Nevertheless, Balaam was righteous when he spoke at both a high degree and at the second degree of prophecy.
It is not uncommon for a prophet to prophesy at different levels:
For just as a prophet may not prophesy continuously the whole of his life, but prophesies at certain moments, so may he also prophesy at a certain moment in a form characteristic of a high degree, and at another moment in a form characteristic of an inferior degree.37
Why does Balaam prophesy at two distant degrees of prophecy? The answer is that Balaam may have been morally inferior at the time when he prophesied at the second degree compared to when he prophesied at the higher degree. He was still righteous when he spoke his second degree prophecies as explicitly stated by Maimonides38 – even though a wicked person like Laban could prophesy at the second degree – but he was less morally upright than before. Therefore, he could not prophesy at a high degree but was only fit to prophesy at the second degree. Alternatively, God may have chose, for divine reasons unknown to man, to withhold higher prophecy from Balaam at that time.
Maimonides’ comment, “[k]now too that Balaam, when he was righteous, also belonged to this kind” should not be interpreted to mean that Balaam solely prophesied at the second degree. We have previously shown that Maimonides equates some of Balaam’s prophecies to prophecies and prophets of the eighth degree or higher, like Jacob.
In Maimonides’ comments about Balaam’s wicked character in his Commentary on Avot, Maimonides’ cites two examples of Balaam’s wicked character. One example is Balaam’s desire for money and the other example is the advice Balaam gives in the story about the Midianite women cohabiting with the Israelites.39 The former occurred before and during Balaam’s prophecies mentioned in the Bible, and the latter after his last documented prophecies. Balaam’s desire for money must then not have been a great moral deficiency since he still was able to prophesy at a high level with this desire. Or, his desire for money, according to Maimonides, might not have began until after prophesying at a high level on his she-ass. Either way, his moral faculty was not insufficient for prophecy at the time of the she-ass event. The second example, when Balaam caused a plague to fall upon the Israelites, happened after Balaam’s last recorded prophecy. Here, there is no reason to assume Balaam still had a perfect moral faculty since he was no longer prophesying, and since he concocted an immoral plan against the Israelites. Additionally, only because of Balaam’s sexually related plan does Maimonides write that Balaam is one who would cohabit with his she-ass, is one who is haughty, and is a man of blood.
Maimonides’ comments about Balaam’s character suggest that Maimonides may have thought that Balaam’s moral faculty decreased throughout Parashat Balak. Balaam was wicked when he caused the Israelite men to cohabit with the Midianite women, but he was righteous – as Maimonides explicitly states – when prophesied at all degrees. Balaam may have been less righteous when he spoke at the second degree than when he spoke at the higher degree, but he was still righteous. Balaam had a perfect moral faculty during the story with his she-ass. In short, Balaam’s moral faculty lessened by the time he blessed Israel – but he was still righteous – and by the time the Israelites cohabited with the Midianite women, Balaam was wicked and deserving of Maimonides’ rebukes.
In conclusion, Maimonides’ portrayal of Balaam differs greatly from the Talmud and other classical commentators’ portrayal of Balaam. According to Maimonides, Balaam was a righteous prophet when he prophesied. Balaam becomes the wicked character portrayed in Talmudic sources after all of his prophecies mentioned in the Bible have occurred. This opinion runs counter to most rabbinic figures’ opinions that view Balaam as nothing more than a wicked prophet. Maimonides’ view differs because of his philosophical understanding of prophecy. Balaam’s prophecies can only be true according to Maimonides if Maimonides admits moral excellence to Balaam, which he does.
Berman, Samuel A. Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu: An English Translation of Genesis and Exodus from the Printed Version of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publ. House, 1995.
Cohen, Binyamin N. Perushei Rishonim Al Masechet Avot. Jerusalem: Hotzaat Toshia, 1998.
Ḳehaṭi, Pinḥas. Sanhedrin. Eliner Library, Dept. for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, 1994.
Maimonides, Moses, and Isaac Shailat. Haḳdamot Ha-Rambam La-Mishnah. Yerushalayim: Maʻaliyot, 1992.
Maimonides, Moses, and S. Frankel. Sefer Shoftim. Jerusalem: Hotzaat Shabse Frankel, 2001.
Maimonides, Moses, and Shlomo Pines. The Guide of the Perplexed. [Chicago]: University of Chicago, 1963.
Potok, Chaim, Nahum M. Sarna, Jacob Milgrom, and Jeffrey H. Tigay. The JPS Torah Commentary: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
- Numbers 22:2 – 25:9 ↩
- Ibid., 31:8 & Joshua 13:23. ↩
- Avot 5:17 ↩
- This story immediately following the story of Balaam in Parashat Balak. ↩
- Midrash Tanhuma Yelammedenu 10:12 ↩
- For example: Midrash Tanhuma Parashat Balak 17:1, Numbers Rabbah 14:20, Sifre Habrekhah 357. ↩
- Shabbat 92a ↩
- Nedarim 38a ↩
- Guide of the Perplexed 2:32, pp. 361 in Pines’ edition. ↩
- Ibid., 2:36, pp. 372. ↩
- Ibid., 2:32, pp. 361. ↩
- Ibid., 2:36, pp. 371. ↩
- Footnote 7 on pp. 371 of Pines’ The Guide of the Perplexed. ↩
- Maimonides is referring to the story immediately following Balaam’s prophecies. This is where the Israelites sin through fornicating with Midianite women and through worship of foreign gods (Numbers 25:1-9). Balaam is blamed in rabbinic literature for advising Balak to send Midianite women to fornicate with the Israelites and for causing the Israelites to worship Baal Peor. ↩
- I.e., Balaam would not have ordered Balak ↩
- Lit. commands ↩
- I.e., sexual thoughts ↩
- Commentary on Tractate Avot, 5:17 ↩
- The Guide, 2:40, pp. 384 ↩
- Ibid., 2:41, pp. 387. Interestingly, Maimonides makes no mention in his writings of Pharaoh’s prophetic-like dream (Genesis 41) as an example of non-prophecy. It is likely that Maimonides did not consider Pharaoh’s dreams to be prophecy for two reasons: (1) Maimonides does not call Pharaoh a prophet in any of his writings, while he does single out other characters in the book of Genesis as prophets such as Shem, Eber, Noah, Metuselath, and (2) because Maimonides states that when a prophet sees a parable in his dream, the solution to the parable is also revealed to him in the dream. Joseph was the one who solved the parables in Pharaoh’s dreams. ↩
- Maimonides distinguishes between the rank of Moses’ prophecy and all other prophets’ prophecies. He also defines eleven ranks of prophecy in the latter prophets in chapter 2:45 of The Guide. ↩
- The Guide 2:41, pp. 386 ↩
- Ibid., pp. 387. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 2:42, pp. 389. ↩
- Numbers 22:21-35 ↩
- The Guide 2:42, pp. 390 ↩
- Haḳdamot Ha-Rambam La-Mishnah, pp. 31 ↩
- See footnote 20 ↩
- See The Guide 2:45, pp. 398 ↩
- Ibid., pp. 396-400. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 399. ↩
- Ibid., 2:41, pp. 387. ↩
- Ibid., 2:45, pp. 399. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 398. ↩
- In Mishne Torah Laws of Kings 11:1, Maimonides quotes the visions of Balaam, where he tells of the future of Israel, as true statements. ↩
- The Guide, 2:45, pp. 396 ↩
- “Know too that Balaam, when he was righteous, also belonged to this kind” The Guide, 2:45, pp. 398 ↩
- This story occurs in the last paragraph of Parashat Balak, but does not mention Balaam at all in this account of the story. ↩