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    From sorcerer to prophet – Balak

    Bilam blessing the Israelites, from the 1728 Figures de la Bible

    Nobody has a very high opinion of Bilam even though we like his words, “How goodly are your tents, O Israel, your dwelling places, O Jacob”.

    One of our doubts is whether – despite the grandeur of these words – he really deserves to be called a prophet.

    It’s true that the Biblical idea of prophecy underwent a development over the centuries and became a sophisticated spiritual movement exemplified by Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

    But real prophets find themselves prophesying automatically, taken over by the Divine spirit almost in spite of themselves. The Lord God speaks to them and they can do nothing but prophesy. Not so Bilam.

    Several times (it’s almost a comical interlude) he offers sacrifices in the hope that God will reward him with a prophetic revelation. He tries to bribe the Almighty to ensure that He “will happen to him” (Num. 23:3, 6 and 29).

    Maimonides is dubious about whether God can be influenced to grant Bilam or anyone else a prophetic moment.

    Nechama Leibowitz suggests that though Bilam seems to be, at least in the beginning, nothing more than “a common sorcerer”, in time he becomes a prophet.

    At that point God takes over his mind and personality, and when He says there is something impressive about Israel’s tents and dwelling places, Bilam cannot hold back his words of praise of Israel.

    That’s why the Midrash says that Bilam is a prophet like Moses himself.

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