Why does Bilaam get such a bum rap?
He is an archetype of evil in rabbinic literature, the antithesis of Avraham. But chapter 22 seems to paint the picture of a faithful servant of God, who repeatedly insists that, no matter what, he can only say what God wants him to say. Follow the text carefully — Bilaam never does a single thing against God’s will.
And yet, God gets angry with him. Apparently the negative treatment of Bilaam doesn’t start with the rabbinic midrashim. But why? What did he do to deserve this divine anger?
The Torah seems to be teaching us a significant lesson about the nature of moral action and choice. According to some schools of religious thinking, Bilaam would seem to be embody the ideal knight of faith, a person who divests himself of any personal opinion, and completely submits himself to whatever God decides. Bilaam claims completely neutrality — he is the UN of prophets. The Midrash plays on the name Bilaam and says that he was, indeed, ‘bli am’ –– he was nationless. He had no allegiance, no personal stake. All he had was the word of God.
This makes God angry. It’s not what God wants from His prophets, or from His people. God is not interested in a person’s worship divorced from their own personhood, a bifurcated worship where religious service stands alone and separate from a person’s identity and commitments. God wants our encounter with Him to always be with the fullness of our being. That’s the encounter of Avraham, of “Hineni“. Here I am. Sometimes it means that Avraham agrees and sometimes it means that he struggles with God’s word and even argues with Him, and this is exactly the relationship God is looking for. The reason that God gives for revealing His plans for destroying Sodom to Avraham is because He knows that Avraham is committed to guarding the path of God, to teach his children righteousness and justice. Avraham does not submit this sense of justice to God’s decree, rather, it brings him to challenge God. This is what it means to walk with God, rather than to hide behind His word.
A practical application of this idea: to maintain that homosexuality is a moral issue only because the Torah seems to say so is to hide behind God’s word without engaging with it. Knowing what science says, and what I know from my own personal encounters from wonderful homosexual individuals, some of whom are in beautiful committed relationships, there’s nothing about homosexuality in our world that I can see contradicts a natural sense of righteousness and justice. And yet the Torah forbids it. Walking with God for me, for now, means living with that tension, not running away from it.