Midrash Tanchuma starts out with a seemingly preposterous statement. God did not want the nations of the world to claim that they did not get kings, wise men and prophets as great as those of the Jews. To make it fair God gave the world the prophet Billam and the Jews got Moshe. The Midrash offers the following reason for why this was fair and equitable:
הֶעֱמִיד מֹשֶׁה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהָיָה מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ כָּל זְמַן שֶׁיִּרְצֶה. הֶעֱמִיד לָהֶם בִּלְעָם, מְדַבֵּר עִמּוֹ כָּל זְמַן שֶׁיִּרְצֶה
“Just as Moshe had access to God whenever he wanted, God gave them Billam who could also talk to God whenever he wanted.”
Considering the greedy and perverse character of Billam, how can we possibly make sense of this? Perhaps the answer lies in another perplexing aspect of this parsha.
What was Billam thinking?
The basic storyline in our parsha is that Billam approaches the God of the Jews and says “Listen I have a well paying client that wants to curse the Jews. Can you help me out here? Yes, I know you brought them out of Israel, they accepted the Torah and all that. I get that. But I’m talking really good money here.” Even though Billam had access to God, he sounds like someone completely out of touch.
Another clue is from how this ill-fated mission started? The way it’s described in Midrash Tanchuma it’s a case of faulty research yielding faulty conclusions. When King Ballak saw the Jews marching his way, he felt threatened and commissioned an intelligence report: “What’s the source of these people’s power?” The answer did not come back that an all-powerful God was keeping his promise to Avraham. Rather the investigation revealed that the power behind the Jewish People was solely due to the persuasive powers of one man — Moshe:
אֵין כֹּחוֹ אֶלָּא בְּפִיו. אָמְרוּ לָהֶם, אַף אָנוּ נָבֹא כְּנֶגְדָן בְּאָדָם שֶׁכֹּחוֹ בְּפִיו “His strength is only in his speech, we will bring an opposing prophet with powers of speech.”
Balak concluded: the Jews have someone with great oratory skills to get what they want from god. We need to hire someone with even more outstanding oratory skills to outdo Moshe. There’s only one candidate with that kind of access to God. That’s got to be Billam. He proved himself to be one that can use his god-given powers to curse. Just like he successfully cursed Moav for hire, he’ll be successful in cursing the Jewish People as well.
Rulers reflect the people
The final clue comes from Midrash Tanchuma Chukat which says, in effect, that every country gets what they deserve.
שראש הדור הרי הוא ככל הדור “The head of a generation reflects the (values) of that generation.”
As proof of this, notice how king Ballak expresses his anger with Billam after three failed attempts to curse the Jews:
וְעַתָּ֖ה בְּרַח־לְךָ֣ אֶל־מְקוֹמֶ֑ךָ אָמַ֙רְתִּי֙ כַּבֵּ֣ד אֲכַבֶּדְךָ֔ וְהִנֵּ֛ה מְנָעֲךָ֥ יְהֹוָ֖ה מִכָּבֽוֹד׃
“Now go back to where you came from, I was thinking about honoring you, behold even god withholds his honor from you!” (Numbers: 24:11)
Ballak was outraged that after the huge fee he agreed to pay and all the honor that was given to Billam, he still couldn’t “convince” God to curse the Jews. In the eyes of Ballak, the failure of Billam was simply a case of God belittling Billam. Based on Ballak’s worldview, no other reason made sense
gods as gum-ball machines
Even at this point, Ballak and Billam were clueless about the absurdity of their request of God to curse His chosen people. It seems that both of them were totally caught up in the idolatrous system where gods demand gifts. In return, the gods won’t hurt you – and may even give you whatever you asked for. They couldn’t even imagine a different paradigm where God loved his people and wanted the best for them. Rather than bribes, God wants mankind to reach an exalted state of holiness and morality.
Billam and the nations of the world saw God through the prism of idolatry. Therefore Billam’s exceptional access to God was never utilized as a gateway to spirituality. They didn’t want a prophet to start preaching morality or telling them how to live their lives. Nor did Billam see that as his role. Rather Billam’s privileged status turned him into a hired gun for nefarious purposes.
Therefore the nations of the world could not complain that the Jews got better kings, prophets and scholars.
They got exactly what they wanted.