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The Men in the Middle (Balak)

When you study Tanakh carefully, you begin to notice that many of its protagonists bear striking similarities to each other. In literary terms, such characters are referred to as “mirror characters.” We have compared many mirror characters together in the past, including Yitzchak and Noah, Shimshon and Avshalom, and Yosef and Tamar. There are dozens of others.

The Deir Alla inscription in the Museum of Amman. Found in Jordan in 1967, this inscription describes the visions of a certain “Bilaam son of Beor, seer of the gods.” It is the world’s oldest piece of Aramaic literature.

The Deir Alla inscription in the Museum of Amman. Found in Jordan in 1967, this inscription describes the visions of a certain “Bilaam son of Beor, seer of the gods.” It is the world’s oldest piece of Aramaic literature.

Yet of all the mirror characters we might examine, few merit the designation as much as the one whom we shall encounter this week: Bilaam. Bilaam was a Midianite prophet who attempted in vain to curse the Israelite nation on behalf of the king of Moav. What renders Bilaam so intriguing, for the purposes of our present discussion, is that the efforts to associate him with a “mirror character” of sorts begin as early as the rabbinic period—and no less than three candidates have been proposed in this vein. Thus, for instance, the author of an oft-cited Midrash lauds Bilaam as Moshe’s counterpart among the gentiles, by dint of his extraordinary prophetic abilities.[1] Another Midrash likens Bilaam to Avraham, for both Avraham and Bilaam “arose early in the morning” in their zeal to fulfill some spiritual mission, and both journeyed on donkeys in order to reach their destination.[2]  Yet a third set of Midrashim claim that “Bilaam was Lavan,”[3] as both plotted to destroy the Israelites;[4] in fact, Targum Yonatan routinely renders “Bilaam” as “Lavan” in his Aramaic translation of the Torah.

Apparently, then, the practice of “parallel-spotting” was one of the preferred methodological tools which Hazal employed in their treatment of Bilaam. Perhaps it is for this reason that “parallel-spotting” has also emerged as a fashionable trend in modern literary analysis of the Bilaam narrative. Taking their cues from their rabbinic predecessors, many contemporary scholars of Tanakh have expanded upon the mirror-relationships established in the Midrash, cataloguing connections between Bilaam and Avraham,[5] Moshe[6] and Lavan[7] of which Hazal were undoubtedly aware, but which they never noted explicitly.[8] The value of such studies is (at least) twofold. Minimally, these studies deepen our understanding of Bilaam as a character; more broadly, they heighten our appreciation for the sound textual foundations upon which rests the edifice of rabbinic exegesis.

Let us see, then, if we can contribute one more chapter to this collection of comparisons. We will do so not by further developing one of the three mirror-relationships listed above—of which much has already been written—but instead, by noting a fourth. The relationship with which we shall concern ourselves is that between Bilaam and Yitro. It is a relationship that is already intimated by Hazal, though only vaguely, in a Midrash recorded in the Talmud:

Hiyya bar Abba said in the name of R. Simai: There were three who were present in that consultation [when Pharaoh was deciding how to deal with the Israelites]: Bilaam, Yitro and Iyov. Bilaam, who proposed [their destruction], was [ultimately] killed. Iyov, who said nothing, was punished with suffering. Yitro, who fled, merited to have his progeny serve in the Chamber of Hewn Stone [i.e. in the Jewish court of law].[9]

This Midrash imagines the scene that transpired as Pharaoh debated how to handle Egypt’s “Jewish problem.” In this context, Bilaam is cast as the evil adviser who advocates Israel’s destruction, and Yitro, as the noble adviser who flees the palace rather than participate in the discussion.[10] Now, the fates which purportedly befall Bilaam and Yitro as a consequence of the counsel which each offers certainly serve convenient didactic ends—through them, the Midrash underscores important notions of moral responsibility and divine justice. Still, we might ask: what prompted Hazal to compare Bilaam with Yitro, in the first place?

In fact, a close reading of the biblical portrayal of Bilaam (Num. 22:2-24:25) against that of Yitro (Exod. 18; Num. 10:29-32)[11] reveals an uncanny degree of overlap between these two characters. Consider:

  • Bilaam hails from Midian (ex. Num. 31:8),[12] as does Yitro (Exod. 18:1).
  • Both are renowned spiritual leaders: Bilaam is a prophet (ex. Num. 22:6) and Yitro is a priest (Exod. 18:1).
  • Both depart Midian in the direction of the Israelite camp after hearing about a war in which Israel vanquished its enemies—Amorites, in the case of Bilaam (Num. 21:21-35); Egyptians, in the case of Yitro (Exod. 18:1;8-11). Furthermore: In the prelude to both narratives, the Israelites offer a song of thanksgiving to Hashem which is introduced with the formulaic “then they sang” (אז ישיר), and which focuses on a miracle that involves water—the waters that drew forth from the well in the wilderness (Num. 21:17), or the waters that split at the Sea of Reads (Exod. 15:1).
  • In both narratives, “ministers” (שרים) feature prominently—they appear ten times in connection with Bilaam (Num. 22:8,13-15,21,35,40; 23:6, 17), and eight times in connection with Yitro (Exod. 18:21,25). Specifically: The Bilaam narrative begins when Balak sends a delegation of ministers to Bilaam, inviting him to curse the Israelites, and the Yitro narrative ends when Yitro suggests that Moshe appoint ministers over the Israelites.
  • However, there are several key distinctions between these ministers:
    • The ministers sent to Bilaam come with bribes (Num. 22:17). The ministers that Yitro recommends to Moshe as suitable candidates are specifically those who “spurn ill-gotten gain” (Exod. 18:21).
    • The ministers sent to Bilaam encourage him to act against the will of Hashem (Num. 22:5-22). By contrast, Yitro twice emphasizes to Moshe that his plan of appointing ministers over the Israelites should only be executed if “God is with you” (Exod. 18:19) and “God commands it” (ibid. 23).
  • Both Bilaam and Yitro are received, upon arriving at the outskirts of the Israelite camp, by the leader of a nation who “goes out” (י.צ.א) to “greet” (לקראת) them. Bilaam is greeted by Balak (Num. 22:36) and Yitro is greeted by Moshe (Exod. 18:7).
  • Both Bilaam and Yitro offer burnt-offerings (עלות) to Hashem (Num. 23:1-4;14-15;29-30; 18:12).
  • Both Bilaam and Yitro offer blessings (ב.ר.ך) directed at Hashem and/or the Israelites (Num. 24:1; 18:10). However, Yitro does so of his own volition; Bilaam, by contrast, initially intends to utter curses, and ends up uttering blessings only because Hashem interferes.
  • Both Bilaam and Yitro are referred to using the metaphor of “eyes” (עין/עיניים): Bilaam refers to himself “the man of open eye” (Num. 24:3-4, 15-16) and Moshe refers to Yitro as “our [nation’s] eyes” (Num. 10:31).[13]
  • Before returning home, both Bilaam and Yitro announce to their interlocutors—Balak and Moshe, respectively—that “I will now counsel you” (עתה… איעצך) regarding “this nation” (העם הזה), i.e., the Israelites (Num. 24:14; 18:18-19). Both then proceed to offer advice concerning the future of the Israelite nation: Yitro proposes a system of administration that will allow Moshe to “make known to the Israelites the path they shall follow and the deeds they shall do (אשר יעשון);” Bilaam predicts “what the nation shall do (אשר יעשה) at the end of days” (Exod. 18:20).
  • Though Bilaam and Yitro are both received with much fanfare, their departures are markedly abrupt. This is highlighted by the structure of verses that close each narrative—a tight structure, shared by both. Its basic outline looks as follows:
    • The text devotes considerable space to Bilaam’s “end-of-days” vision (24:14-24). But following the culminating verse of this prophecy—“ships will come from the Kittites and afflict Assyria and afflict those on the other side, but he too will perish forever” (Num. 24:24)—we are suddenly informed, without any transition whatsoever: “and Bilaam arose, went, and returned home, and Balak went on his way” (ibid. 25). The next verse then introduces an altogether new narrative—again, without transition—which begins by noting the geographic location of the Israelites: “And Israel settled in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of the Moabites” (Num. 25:1).
    • Likewise: The text devotes considerable space to Yitro’s administrative proposal and the implementation thereof (Exod. 18:13-26). But following the culminating verse of this account—“and they would judge the people at all times; the difficult case they would bring to Moses, but any minor case they themselves would judge” (Exod. 18:26)—we are suddenly informed, without any transition whatsoever: “and Moshe saw off his father-in-law, and he [Yitro] went away to his land.” (ibid. 27). The next verse then introduces an altogether new narrative—again, without transition—which begins by noting the geographic location of Israelites: “In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai” (Exod. 19:1).[14]
  • A final connection: both Bilaam and Yitro indirectly arrange relations between a Midianite woman and an Israelite leader—though the circumstances under which they do so are vastly different. Prior to the Yitro narrative, Zipporah, Yitro’s daughter, marries Moshe (Exod. 2:21).[15] In the post-script to the Bilaam narrative, meanwhile, Cozbi, a Midianite noblewoman, seduces Zimri, the chieftain of the tribe of Shimon, and lies with him at the entrance to the Israelite sanctuary (25:1-15). Bilaam is the one who coordinates this affair (see Num. 31:15).
Map of Israel's travels in the wilderness.

Map of Israel’s travels in the wilderness.

In light of these compelling parallels between Bilaam and Yitro, we readily recognize Hazal’s basis for comparing the two characters in the aforementioned Midrash. We also understand why these characters were cast in the role of advisers with whom Pharaoh takes counsel (עצה): as we saw, both Bilaam and Yitro are presented by the Torah as individuals willing to volunteer advice (איעצך) regarding the Jewish nation. So our Midrash is indeed quite layered. Through it, Hazal cleverly clue us into a connection between two biblical characters that otherwise may have eluded us.

Let us now see if we can cull from these connections a meaningful contrast. After all, the slew of similarities between Bilaam and Yitro only serve to accentuate these characters’ fundamental difference: Yitro is a friend of the Israelites, but Bilaam is a foe; Yitro comes to bless, but Bilaam comes to curse. This disparity is stark and perplexing. How could two individuals who share so much in common diverge on such a crucial point?

Initially, in fact, neither Bilaam nor Yitro holds a vested interest in the fate of the Israelites—in the wars that precede their journeys to the Israelite camp, their native Midian participates neither as an ally nor as an adversary of Israel’s. This, it seems, is the essential profile of the Midianite: while others do battle, he observes silently.[16] Perhaps that is one reason that both Bilaam and Yitro are associated with “eyes.” It may also explain why each of these characters is portrayed—both in the biblical text, and certainly in the Midrash—as men who lack commitment and conviction. Nowhere is this fickleness more apparent than in the way Bilaam equivocates when pressed, first by Balak, and later by Hashem, to declare decisively with whom his loyalties lie. Indeed, Bilaam’s very name, Hazal teach us, constitutes a contraction of the words b’lo am—“man without a nation.”[17]  Yitro, meanwhile, is referred to in the Tanakh not by a single name, but by seven.[18] He is a man of shifting identities, and Hazal deduced as much: “Yitro was familiar with every form of worship in the world; there was not a single one that he had not worshipped.”[19]

By nature, then, both Yitro and Bilaam prefer to strike a neutral posture. That neither does so in the case of the Israelites is a product not of a principled political stance, but of the role that the interested parties play in luring these Midianites off of the sidelines. For Yitro, the pull-factor is his personal relationship with his son-in-law: “And Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, the priest of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel… and Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, and Moshe’s sons and wife, came to Moshe, to the place where he was camped…” (Exod. 18:1-5). The emphasis in these verses is clearly on Moshe (as opposed to the Israelites as a whole). Yitro, in other words, is not a card-carrying philosemite. His sympathies for Israel grow out of his attachment to a single Israelite.[20]

Now return to Bilaam. Like Yitro, Bilaam, too, receives reports of an Israelite war. But whereas the messenger who brings tidings to Yitro (from Moshe?)[21] tells of “all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel, His people, whom He had taken out of Egypt”—and whereas Moshe himself “recounted [to Yitro] all that Hashem had done to Pharaoh and Egypt on Israel’s account… and that Hashem had rescued them”—and whereas Yitro then “rejoiced over all the good that Hashem had done for Israel by rescuing them from the Egyptians,” and “bless[ed] Hashem” for “rescuing the nation from under the hand of the Egyptians”—the narrative to which Bilaam is exposed is markedly darker. “And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites…” (Num. 22:2): in Balak’s view, Israel is not the oppressed, but the oppressor. That, in turn, is the view that is presented to the unsuspecting Midianites—“now this assembly will eat up everything around us, as the ox eats up the green of the field” (Num. 22:4)—and that is the view transmitted to Bilaam as well: “a people has come out of Egypt… and they have covered the view of the land, and they are stationed opposite me… and they are too powerful for me” (Num. 22:5-6). Nor does Bilaam ever encounter any dissenting voices. Indeed, the entire episode of Balak and Bilaam is recounted from the perspective of non-Israelites; it is the only account following the exodus in which the Israelites are completely absent from the script.

In that absence, it seems, lies the key to comprehending why Bilaam’s attitude towards the Israelites departs so greatly from that of Yitro’s. Like Yitro, Bilaam harbors no inherent affinity for the Israelites, qua Israelites—but he harbors no inherent apathy towards them either.  Nor does he appear keen to partner with Balak in the sordid business of cursing these people, if he can avoid it. That may be partly why he hems and haws in response to the overtures of the Moavite monarch: on some level, this is a bid for time, as Bilaam searches for an appropriate way to extricate himself altogether from involvement with Balak.  But meanwhile, nobody from the other side supplies Bilaam with a sound rebuttal to the propaganda being pushed his way; in all likelihood, the Israelites are not even aware that an attempt has been made to turn Bilaam against them. So they never dispatch a delegation of their own “ministers” to rebuff the diplomatic offensive of their Moavite counterparts—and their leaders never not “go out” to “meet” Bilaam, as Balak had, to present the prophet with the case for Israel. Bilaam, in other words, never receives the resources that would have helped him immeasurably in resisting the pressure being exerted upon him.

None of this, of course, absolves Bilaam of moral culpability for his actions. Bigots are the ones to blame for bigotry, not the party against whom their bigotry is directed. That said, it is important acknowledge that Bilaam was not born as an enemy of the Israelites; under different circumstances, he might well have become a Yitro. This idea bears implications for us, beyond analysis of the particular Torah portion we are studying. It reminds us that though “it is a well-known rule that Esav hates Yaakov” (Sifre Num. 9:10), antisemitism—or, in its modern incarnation, anti-Zionism—is, in many cases, not a foregone conclusion. We therefore cannot afford to resign ourselves to its existence. Nor should we rely on the expectation that whoever plays the part of Bilaam in our particular generation will exit the stage of history as swiftly and unceremoniously as did his or her scriptural antecedent.

Instead, it is our responsibility to confront and combat any form of hatred that targets the Jewish people or the Jewish State—or anybody else, for that matter.  Like Moshe, we must build bridges with the leaders of other communities; like Moshe, we must share our story, and do so proudly, for it offers much to be proud of. And though the Balaks of the world will not be moved by our message, the Bilaams out there just might.

Shabbat shalom!


[1] Sifre Deut. 34:10.

[2] Bereshit Rabbah 55:8. Hazal also contrast Bilaam with Avraham in Avot 5:19.

[3] Sanhedrin 105a.

[4] Targum Yonatan Num. 31:8.

[5] See for instance Ricky Novick’s “Abraham and Balaam: A Biblical Contrast” in the Jewish Bible Quarterly 35.1.

[6] See for instance the similarities between the “bridegroom of blood” incident and Bilaam’s journey, catalogued in Shmuel Klitsner’s Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity and Freudian Slips in Genesis.

[7] See for instance Pinchas Kahn’s “Balaam is Laban” in the Jewish Bible Quarterly 35.4.

[8] Also of note is Nathaniel Helfgot’s essay on the parallels between Balak and Pharaoh in Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and its Interpretation. The comparison focuses more on the narratives than on individual characters and is therefore also relevant to our discussion.

[9] Sotah 11a.

[10] The nature of Iyov’s involvement in this episode is a subject for another time.

[11]  Num. 10:29 reads: “Then Moshe said to Hovav the son of Reuel the Midianite Moshe’s father-in-law…” Whether Hovav is identical to Yitro depends on how one punctuates this verse. We will follow the traditional reading and assume that the reference here is indeed to Yitro.

[12] Bilaam is located in Pethor, not Midian, when Balak sends messengers to him. However, Balak’s decision to involve Midianite ministers as part of the delegation sent to Bilaam (Num. 22:7); the mention of Bilaam’s death among the list of Midianite casualties of war (ibid. 31:8); and Moshe’s explicit association of Bilaam with the Midianites (ibid. 31:15), all suggest the Bilaam was indeed a Midianite.

[13] Indeed, “eyes” functions as a key-word in Bilaam narrative, appearing a total of eleven times: Num. 22:5, 11, 31, 34; 23:27; 24:1-4 (four instances), 15, 16. See also Avot 5:19, where an “evil eye” is listed as one of the three traits that distinguish Bilaam’s descendants. See also “Outside Opinions,” where we examined the significance of the eye motif in the Yitro narrative and its aftermath.

[14] Interestingly, the account of Hovav’s (=Yitro’s) departure recorded in Num. 10 is even more abrupt. Moshe pleads with Yitro not to leave the Israelite camp, but Yitro insists that he shall; Moshe pleads again, and this time, the text records no response whatsoever for Yitro. Instead, the next verse introduces a new subject altogether, leaving us wondering whether Yitro ultimately left or stayed. (The relationship between the accounts of Exod. 18 and Num. 10 is a subject for another time).

[15] Note also the similarity between the names Zipporah (Yitro’s daughter) and Zippor (Balak’s father).

[16] Midian is geographically distant from both Egypt and Canaan and it is not listed as one of the nations that registers a reaction to Israel’s triumph over Egypt at the Sea of Reeds (see Exod. 15). The Midianites would probably have preferred to remain uninvolved in Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors—and they would have gotten away with it too, had it not been for that meddling king! Yet even after Midian provokes Israel—and Israel responds (Num. 25, Num. 31)—that nation never emerges as a significant player in the geopolitics of Israel. At one point, the wife of a certain Midianite aids the Israelites in slaying a certain general (Jud. 4:17-24); a few decades later, the Midianites join the Amalekites and Kedemites in annual raids of Israel for a period of several years, and a war ensues (Jud. 6-8). But beyond that, there is next to no interaction between Midian and Israel through approximately five centuries of biblical history.

[17] Sanhedrin 105a.

[18] See Mechilta Exod. 18:1: “Seven names was he called: Yeter, Yitro, Hovav, Reuel, Hever, Putiel, Keni.” To be sure, it is not clear, at the literal level, that all of these names indeed refer to Yitro. At any rate, R. Shalom Carmy once noted to me that the names Reuel and Hovav both mean “friend (of God)” / “friend,” respectively. The same is true of the name “Hever.” Perhaps this emphasis on friendship reflects the priority Yitro places on maintaining good relations with a wide network of contacts.

[19] Mechilta Exod. 18:11.

[20] Interestingly, Ruth—another convert whose name means “friendship” (from the word רעות)—also comes to Judaism through her connection to an individual Jew. “And Ruth said to Naomi, ‘Do not entreat me to leave you, to return from following you, for wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God’ (Ruth 1:16): first comes Ruth’s commitment to Naomi; then to Naomi’s people; and only then, to Naomi’s God. See “Nietzsche and Naomi,” where we commented on the implications of this idea. The connection between Ruth and Yitro is particularly interesting given that the Torah portion of Yitro and the Book of Ruth are the two central texts of the Shavuot holiday. Perhaps there is more to be discussed here.

[21] Exod. 18:1 reads: “Now Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, the priest of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moshe and the Israelites…” From whom did Yitro “hear” this? The news of the exodus was presumably common knowledge. On the other hand, Yitro does not merely receive a generalized report of the exodus; he also hears about “all that God had done for Moshe,” specifically. Perhaps, then, it was Moshe himself who sent this report to his father-in-law (and, by extension, to his wife, Zipporah, and his two children). It is certainly not uncommon for sons/husbands who depart on extended journeys—and particularly on dangerous ones—to write home periodically to assure loved ones that they are safe, and to share with them whatever successes they may have enjoyed.


  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Superb essay Alex, thank you. Really appreciated the Scooby-Doo reference in Note 16. 🙂 Shabbat Shalom.

  2. georgsimmel says:

    Excellent and stimulating analysis. Thank you. You also stimulated me to contemplate the many parallels and contrasts between Bilam and Moshe, which could be behind theme in chazal that compares them. Moshe too was approached by a king (G-d) in Midian to go on mission for that king. Moshe too was of unclear national identity (was he Egyptian? Was he a Hebrew? Was he a Midianite?). And Moshe too provoked G-d’s ire when he kept insisting resisting G-d’s command (Shmot 4:14)– this is the first time in the Torah where it is recorded that G-d was angry at someone. The other connections have to do with seeing manifestations of G-d or His will and speaking on His behalf. This is an incredibly powerful theme in Shmot 3-4 and in many ways it serves as a counterpoint to parashat bilam. In particular, whereas the Torsh dramatizes Bilam’s spiritual blindness through his failure to see the angel (that even an ass can see), Moshe has no trouble seeing the burning bush and the angel in its midst. Meanwhile, while Bilam is eager to speak on Balak’s behalf and has no qualms about being recognized as a seer, Moshe is very reluctant to speak on G-d’s behalf and uses his being a poor speaker (note possible connection between כבד פה וכבד לשון and the כבוד theme in Bilam) and the worry that the Israelites will be skeptical that G-d had really appeared to G-d (לא נראה אליך ה). And of course G-d’s statement of control over human vision and speech in Shmot 4:11 could almost be a header for parashat bilam.

    The interesting question is what does all this imply. Perhaps it says something about Moshe’s greatness and how it contrasts with men who might have had equal spiritual potential but failed to realize it. In particular, Moshe’s reluctance came from excess modesty (indeed, the only other time in the Torah G-d gets angry at specific individuals in Bemidbar 12, it is at Aharon and Miriam for not recognizing Moshe’s greatness; and note the speech and vision theme in that story too). And as revealed in the event where Moshe first “saw” something (I.e., the suffering of his brothers), he– unlike Yitro or Bilam– had no trouble choosing sides and he chose the side that was morally correct rather than the one that happened to pay for his services. In this sense, perhaps growing up in the palace parallels the riches Bilam was expecting. Moshe got riches from a king and it made no impression him, choosing instead to serve G-d. Bilam sought riches from a king and instead got no riches and ended up serving G-d despite himself).

    As you can see, I think this dovetails with your broader theme and I thank you for inspiring it.

    Shavua tov and an easy fast.

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