In the sidra of Balak, the Moabite king Balak sends emissaries to the prophet Bil'am requesting him to curse the Israelites, for which service Balak is prepared to pay the prophet a handsome fee. Bil'am wants to comply, but first he asks God for permission. God tells Bil'am that he may go with Balak's emissaries, but God will not allow him to curse the Israelites. Bil'am goes anyway, apparently hoping eventually to persuade God to allow him to curse.
Is Bil'am's premise reasonable? In fact, from Bil'am's point of view it is perfectly valid to think that a prophet can change God's mind. Perhaps God's initial statement was just a test to see whether the prophet will be able to adduce the proper argument to rebut God's initial position. After all, didn't Abraham argue with God regarding Sodom? And doesn't Moses, after the sin of the golden calf, successfully argue with God and get Him to rescind His initial edict against the nation of Israel? Perhaps, then, Bil'am is also prepared to argue with God, but first he tries a more positive approach: he has King Balak bring multiple sacrifices to the Lord, while he himself goes off to meditate and pray for prophetic inspiration. But God does not comply with Bil'am's wishes: He places a blessing in Bil'am's mouth instead of a curse. Bil'am tries again, but a second blessing comes from his mouth.
In that second prophecy of blessing we find the words Lo ish Kel viykhazev uven adam veyitnecham – "God is not a man, who lies, nor a human, who will change his mind." It is only when Bil'am speaks these words that he finally realizes the futility of his attempt. But Bil'am is still intent on cursing. Therefore, in his next pursuit of prophetic inspiration, Bil'am no longer turns towards God but towards the desert – vayashet el hamidbar panav. The desert in Egyptian religion is the land of Set, god of evil, and probably also in other near eastern traditions the desert may have been considered the source of evil powers. Thus Bil'am now seeks to receive prophecy from the demonic realm instead of from God, but the spirit of God overtakes him, and he blesses Israel yet again.
© Copyright 2009 by Ben Roshgolin. All rights reserved.