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Dvar Torah Balak: Whose Prophecies can a Prophet Prophesy?

We speak frequently about the Akivan/Ishmaelian divide, a large segment of which deals with the dispute over how Israel received the Torah — either as a comprehensive, all-inclusive text at Sinai or as distinct and incomplete sections of what we would now refer to as the biblical text over time during the 40 years in the Sinai wilderness, from the time of the Exodus from Egypt until the Israelites’ entry into the Land of Canaan. But it would be misleading to suggest that the debate extends only to this point and no further.

In fact, there are many facets of this debate that spread far and wide to include discussions of even extra-Mosaic authorshipthe most common one focusing on the last bit of the Torah when Moses is said to have died and yet the text continues to talk even though the author is seemingly dying…dying…and dead. But even within the context of agreeing on the parts written by Moses, there is dispute as to how that might have occurred.

Take, for example, this week’s parsha, in which Moses makes no appearance until the very end when the section relating to Balak and Bilaam are over and the text moved to discuss the Israelites’ new found licentiousness with the daughters of Moab, segueing nicely into next week’s parsha, Pinchas. If Moses wasn’t there, how was it that this section made its way into the Torah?

Moses wasn’t there when God spoke to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but by the time Moses was at Sinai, those conversations had already happened and God had made sure to remember exactly what had transpired so as to be able to recount the events to Moses. But as for the prophecy of Bilaam, how did Moses know what Balak said to Bilaam and what Bilaam responded?

So according to R’ Akiva, God told Moses on Sinai what Balak and Bilaam were going to say to each other in the very same way that He told Moses what the small cohort of the Israelites would say when they came to complain about not being able to offer the Passover sacrifice due to their impurity (Numbers 9:6-14) or what the daughter of Tzelofchad would complain about (in next week’s parsha) after the death of their father (Numbers 27:1-11). These conversations did not happen yet, but God, in His existence unfettered in a state of utter timelessness, was able to tell Moses what would be happening later on in the timeline from the perspective of human history.

These narratives make it seem as though the biblical text accounts for the actual words spoken by the people involved in the events described, but they are very brief. The narrative of Balak and Bilaam is considerably longer than any of these other narratives, and yet we are meant to accept, according to R’ Akiva, that these are nearly the word-for-word discussions had by the characters as described. This is all fine in the mind of God, so to speak, but once its committed to physical parchment in our finite world, it becomes a large stumbling block to mull over — that all of Bilaam’s prophecy had already been given over to Moses before Balak had even approached him for hire.

The Talmud (Bavli B Basra 14b, 4th line from the bottom) states that Moses authored parshas Bilaam, “the section of Bilaam.” Did Moses not also author the sections of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the sections of Tamar and Joseph and everyone else — yet no special mention is made of these sections. If it was Moses who wrote down the entire text of the Five Books of Moses, why must the Talmud state that he wrote the section of Bilaam? The sages were astonished by this assertion! One of my favorite commentators, R’ Isaiah Horowitz (the Shelah HaKadosh) asks what this could possibly mean, and answers that sometimes a prophet includes the prophecies of other prophets in his own text, just like King David inluded the prophecies of many other prophets into his work, the Book of Psalms. One issue with this explanation, according to R’ Akiva, would be that this would be a unique example of a prophet (Moses) including the prophecy of another prophet (Bilaam) in his own text (the Five Books of Moses) prior to the other prophet even having received the prophecy yet. In this sense, if the information has already been given over, doesn’t that constitute the prophecy? But according to R’ Ishmael, the question is not one of prematurely accepting Bilaam’s prophecy or predetermining Bilaam’s response but only of how Moses could have known this? Although the words of Pharaoh, for example, were Pharaoh’s own words, God saw fit for them to be written in the Torah and so told Moses to include them. Here, too, God saw fit to include the words of Bilaam (and Balak) and therefore told Moses what had transpired.

Apparently, this was of some trouble in previous generations, for there were some who questioned the authority of this narrative, for how could Moses have known what was said between Balak and Bilaam when he was not present? (I suppose the heretics figured that the narratives of Genesis had been passed down through the generations, while the narrative of Balak and Bilaam would not have been known to any of the Israelites). To counter these claims of inauthenticity, the Talmud (Yerushalmi Brachos 3b) makes the claim that it would have been proper to recite the narrative of Balak and Bilaam daily in the synagogue to emphasize our acceptance of the entire Torah having been given by God and written by Moses, but the sages did not want to burden the community. This tradition is quoted adjacent to that of them having abolished the daily reading of the Ten Commandments, for they also wanted to dispel the heretical claim that, somewhat ironically, the Ten Commandments were being read every day because that was the only section actually revealed to Moses.

To be fair, though, not everyone agrees with the beraisa quoted in respect to Moses having authored parshas Bilaam — it continues to say that Joshua wrote his own book (i.e. the Book of Joshua) and the last eight verses of the Five Books of Moses, and whoever disagrees with that might very well disagree with the part about the section of Bilaam, whatever it means. Others say that Moses wrote another text — a separate book called “the Book of Bilaam,” suggested by the likes of Joshua ibn Shuaib, the Ritva and Menachem Zioni.

R’ Menachem Azariah de Fano maintained that this parshas Bilaam was not a separate text but a section of writing that was indeed so small that it was later incorporated into the Book of Joshua — the textual boundaries of this subsumed text is unclear, but it apparently begins with Joshua 13:15 and continues on to include at least 13:22, which makes mention of Bilaam.

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • ghottistyx July 6, 2012, 8:45 AM

    Does anyone else find the explanations for how Moshe could possibly have written these parshiyot about Bil’am down to be a bit too forced? And especially the Akivan school of thought?

    • DRosenbach July 6, 2012, 11:20 AM

      In general, I find the Akivan perspective either overreaching or contrived — which is why I favor the Ishmaelian viewpoint.

      • ghottistyx July 6, 2012, 12:02 PM

        You’ll have to pardon me, I’m on a bit of a kefiruth kick. Recently finished Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible and currently doing James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible.

        I pretty decidedly have roundly rejected Torah MiSinai. Though as a whole, I haven’t decided on a viable alternative yet, if I had to pick between Akiva and Ishmael, I’d go with Ishmael.

        My guidelines: when rejecting a theory, make sure that the replacement theory is more plausible than the one you’ve just rejected. For example, on the question of who killed JFK, the Warren Commission is clearly flawed. But some of these alternative theories are even more farkakte; I’ve seen theories involving aliens, Atlantis, men in black, and secret cabals involving the unlikely union between the CIA, FBI, KGB , Cuba, US Military, LBJ, etc.
        Many of the Biblical rejections I’ve read are almost as fantasaic as the Bible itself…and thus, I’m still searching.

  • Rabbi Talli Bahn July 6, 2012, 10:01 AM

    One other point to note: “Parashat Bilaam” has no breaks (petuchot/setumot) in it — it is one long section, in fact the longest such in the Torah. It is nearly the entire Parashat Balak (minus the story of Pinchas which is curiously broken into two parts — one for this week one for next).

    And even more relevant to us: In the Parasha, as well as in the blog (e.g. earlier this week) we find that an ass can talk (tip of the kippah to Mr. Cohen).

    • ghottistyx July 6, 2012, 11:09 AM

      Simple answer for that–Bil’am was tripping ballz. Just ask anyone who’s ever done hallucinogenics, they’ll tell you stories about entire conversations they’ve had with inanimate objects–kal v’chomer with an animal.

  • BZ July 6, 2012, 10:43 AM

    “Apparently, this was of some trouble in previous generations, for there were some who questioned the authority of this narrative, for how could Moses have known what was said between Balak and Bilaam when he was not present?”
    In that case, in what way exactly was Moses a prophet? If they agreed that G-d spoke to him then it is obvious that G-d could have told him anything He saw fit (unless He didn’t know about it either, which opens up a much larger can of worms). If not, questioning who wrote certain portions of the Torah is the least of their problems. Or did they believe that all prophesies were necessarily recorded in the torah? So if it doesn’t say “G-d spoke to Moses” then G-d didn’t speak to Moses? That seems unlikely too.

    • DRosenbach July 6, 2012, 11:28 AM

      The point is subtle, but I think the issue is that Moses’ conversations with God were, in general, either recounts of historical events (such as the conversation God had with Abraham when He instructed him to bring Isaac as a burnt-offering) or new prophecies/messages (such as the conversation God had with Moses on Sinai about having to head down the mountain because the nation was sinning).

      The notion that God spoke to Moses in order to fill him in on the details of other people’s conversations which each other comes up quite often, such as when God instructs Moses to write down the events of the purchase of the Cave of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs or the sale of Joseph. But does God fill Moses in on other people’s prophecies, and does he do so before the prophecy has occurred? I think that’s the issue here.

      And just to review a key point when evaluating the works or God — it’s hardly ever an issue of what God can do, for He can do so many things. Rather, the question is what God did do.

  • ghottistyx July 6, 2012, 11:12 AM

    Similar type of fallacy used in Megillat Esther. The megillah says that when the king asked Haman how to honor one who has helped the king, Haman thought the king was talking about him! How could the author of the megillah know what Haman was thinking? Thus, the megillah must have been written with ruach hakodesh.

    I forget the formal logical term for this fallacy. But yeah, it’s true because the book says it’s true. End of story.

    Similarly, the Kuzari’s argument about the Torah being true because no one argued about the truth of the Torah…but that’ another story for another time.

    • Telz Angel July 6, 2012, 11:23 AM

      Or perhaps *we* have been taking the terminology about prophesy way too literally, as influenced by christian and pagan notions of prophesy. I don’t think Chazal were idiots (at least not the chazal of the gemara and rishonim). They understood language and knew what these words meant to convey. They were not thinking of these words the way people who read Harry Potter think of them.

      The Gemara in Bava Batra is pretty sensible (at least some of the positions). It does not have to be factual to be logical.

      • ghottistyx July 6, 2012, 12:09 PM

        I’m lost.

        I understand it doesn’t have to be factual to be logical. Especially when it comes to aggadeta. Many of them are not factual, they were probably simply homiletics meant to teach a lesson. The darshan would use the Biblical characters because they were familiar; so in these stories, the characters are archetypes, and thus the stories are not meant to report history but to teach a lesson.

        But what is your alternative definition of what Nevu’ah is (the one that is not what fans of Harry Potter would think)?

        • Rationalist July 6, 2012, 4:14 PM

          Read Rambam Shmoneh Prakim. Then read Prof. Yishayahu Leibovitz. Throw in some R’ Israel Drazin. You might find a rational perspective on prophesy that it is not “predicting/knowing the future” but profoundly understanding what “ought to be” and how consequences work.

          e.g. Yonah “is told” (understands via deep insight into social structures) there will be a revolution in Ninvey. There was. Had nevuah been “magically know the future” then he would not have run away. Instead, nevuah is “understand consequences of reality, and not rely upon fate, so that you can guide others.” Thus indeed Ninvey was turned upside down. How? Yonah thought that their revolution would be terrible. It was not. He learned a lesson, that his nevuah was not clear. But he was not wrong.

          Similarly with Bilaam. Bilaam says that the “tents of Israel are good” — which means they are modest. And suddenly we see the story of Pinchas — that the Israelite men are messing around with shiksas. Yet Bilaam was the greatest prophet of the nations. How did he mess up? it shows the irony of nevuah. He’s a great navi, but his donkey sees more than he does. The story is a parody. How do you defeat people by cursing them? Balak is an idiot, Bilaam is an idiot, and Moshe tells us the story of how perception is not reality. Better than anything Shakespeare could have written, and it’s filled with religious insight.

          It’s brilliant. But you can’t think of prophecy as magic predictive knowledge. The gemara says nevuah is like looking into a cloudy prism glass (aspaklaria). Hope this helps.

    • DRosenbach July 6, 2012, 11:40 AM

      There’s no fallacy here — it’s either that Haman’s thoughts were private and revealed via prophecy to the author of the Megillah or they were so implicit that anyone either intimately familiar with the major players (such as the proposed authors of the Megillah) could have very easily read between the lines and surmised what Haman might have been thinking. Or it was made up and put in as a very logical thing. I’m not endorsing one over another here — I’m just pointing out that all of these are likely and unforced and don’t amount to any sort of fallacy. I mean, if you’re a creative mind, you could probably have inserted that line in yourself having read it last night if you wanted to jazz it up a bit to include more intrigue.

      And the Torah includes a similar instance of a character’s mindset being revealed: Reuvein suggested that Joseph be tossed into a pit so that when the brothers leave, he could rescue him and return him to Jacob (Genesis 37:21-22)

      I mean, does it require prophecy for the author of the Torah to have written this? No more than is necessary to speculate that Haman figured that the grandeur would be granted to him, for certainly in his eyes, who could be more deserving of honor?

      • ghottistyx July 6, 2012, 12:17 PM

        Yes, if I wanted to be creative, I could have done a good deal of many things. But sometimes, when it comes for a search for the truth, creativity can be obstructive. Though I love a good creative answer just as much as the next person, sof davar I prefer a simple analytic truth.

        The speculative answer I accept. However, the wording does not indicate that it’s speculative at all. And this is where I raise my eyebrows. And for one to say that proof that these were written by ruach hakodesh was that they knew the thoughts of (Re’uven, Haman, etc.) doesn’t work for me. But to say that these verses were meant to be speculation for something that would be obvious to an author who knew his character well enough and nothing more, that makes plenty of sense. However, the verses are definitely not worded as speculations (at least not the way I was taught them).

        But as for the whole it must be true because the Torah said it as proof that something is true: there’s an old joke. How do we know that Ya’akov Avinu wore a black hat? The passuk says “Va’Yetze Ya’akov.” WOULD YA’AKOV AVINU LEAVE HIS HOUSE WITHOUT A BLACK HAT?
        In general, when people bring arguments as such, I find them similar to the joke stated above.

        • DRosenbach July 7, 2012, 7:48 PM

          To say that the author of the bible must have had insight into the thoughts of the characters because included in the text is Reuvain’s thought to save his brother Joseph is laughable, because the text continues on to say that Reuvain returned only to find Joseph gone and to hear that the brothers sold them. It doesn’t serve as a proof that we can read Reuvain’s mind when Reuvain’s actions speak for themselves through the text.

          And no one who understands how to construct an argument maintains that the existence of the Torah is itself the evidence for the Torah’s validity.

          • ghottistyx July 8, 2012, 8:25 PM

            Oh yeah. I for one am SO TIRED of the old Kuzari argument!

      • BZ July 6, 2012, 12:17 PM

        How do we know the entire episode (Achashverosh couldn’t sleep, the book was read to him, Haman showed up, etc) happened in the first place? All anyone saw Haman honoring Mordechai in the streets. Much like with Bilaam, the author had no way of knowing these details unless it was prophetically revealed.

        • ghottistyx July 6, 2012, 12:27 PM

          How do we know that Ya’Akov Avinu wore a bieber hatl? The passuk says “Va’Yetzei Ya’Akov”. WOULD YAAKOV AVINU LEAVE HIS HOUSE WITHOUT WEARING A BIEBER HAT?

        • DRosenbach July 6, 2012, 12:40 PM

          Mordechai could have interviewed him before penning his masterpiece, but it’s unlikely that he got a chance to ask Haman what he was thinking before he was hanged.

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