Friday, November 14, 2008


Like prominent Jblogger DovBear, I'm all for reversing negative perceptions of minor character traditionally cast as villains. Today's selection from Sefer Ha-Aggadah is a perfect chance to do just that.

We have been told that Balaam is a villain. In this agadah, he is compared to cheating moneychanger.
And Goc came upon Balaam, whosaid until Him: "I have prepared seven altars." [...] Balaam was like the moneychanger who gave false weights. The chief of the market, becoming aware of it, asked the moneychanger, "Why are you cheating by giving false weights?" The latter said, "I have already taken care of you with a gift sent to your home." So too Balaam.
We know that much of the specificty of sacrifice laws is designed simply to set apart the practices of the Israelites from their neighbors. No less than Rambam, corroborated by archaeological evidence in the 20th century, asserted that the prohibition against meat and milk (don't boil a calf in its mother's milk) is designed to keep not from eating cheeseburgers, but from participating in a particular pagan ritual where a calf is literally boiled in milk from its own mother's udder.

The point isn't necessarily that the pagan practice is wrong, but that it is wrong for Jews. We are to be set apart through our unique ritual practices.

All of that being said, I prefer to envision Balaam not as an evil man, but as an unaware man. He clearly has a relationship with God--not everyone talks to God with regularity that Balaam does. Indeed, the text describes him as a foreign prophet. A prophet! Is he a prophet of some evil foreign god? Clear not, given his aforementioned relationship with our own God.

Are his seven altars then to be interpereted as some evil pagan machination? No. Though not a Jew, he's also, by definition, not a pagan, given his relationship with God. Is it evil? No. He is unaware of the special nature of the Jews he's been sent to curse and he's baffled at God's insistence that he cut it out.

1 comment:

Richard Friedman said...

This blog comment is not really like DovBear's comment. DovBear explicates the biblical text itself, in order to show that the Torah presents a favorable view of Esav, and thus that the midrashic and commentary literature that his readers know is actually a misreading of the biblical text. (He also argues that there are some midrashim that agree with his reading of the biblical text.)

You don't really offer a close reading of the Torah text to show that it undermines the quoted midrash, nor do you really explicate the midrash itself. Instead, you seem to offer a view of Bil'am that differs from that in the midrash, but without attempting to ground your view in the Torah text -- rather, you say that this is how you "prefer to envision Balaam."

If all that you mean is that you wish Bil'am were this way, even though he's not, that's a statement about you, but it's not clear that it's a statement about any text of Torah (even in its broadest sense). If, though, you mean that you think this is an accurate perception of how the biblical text portrays the character of Bil'am (i.e., you are attempting to make a comment like DovBear's), you'll have to provide a clearer explanation of _how_ the Torah supports this perception and does not support the image conveyed by the midrash you quote. And, since the focus of the blog is on the aggadic texts, it might be nice to speculate on _why_ the midrash came to its different conclusion.