The Problem: What is Parashat Bilam?
The Talmud offers what may be its most explicit discussion of the biblical canon for two dappim in Bava Batra, 14b-16b. Among the many fascinating matters discussed in that passage – the order of the Biblical canon (different from that of our Bible) and various questions of authorship—is a somewhat perplexing comment enumerating the various texts that Moshe authored:
משה כתב ספרו ופרשת בלעם ואיוב
Moses wrote his book; and the passage of Balaam; and the book of Job.
For the Talmud to say that Moshe wrote “his book,” i.e. Torah, known as the Five Books of Moses, is unsurprising (although the Talmud discusses in further detail how Moshe might not have written about his death). The attribution of the book of Job to Mosaic authorship is intriguing, and itself subject to a multifaceted dispute later in the sugya. But most fascinating is the mysterious work of Parashat Bilam that is attributed to Mosaic authorship. In endeavoring to explain this, we are faced with a dilemma: either Parashat Bilam is a section of the Torah that we already possess, in which case this is redundant to Moshe writing his own book, i.e. the Torah; or it’s talking about some other work, in which case the obvious question is – what composition is that?
Approach 1: Principle of Proliferation of Para-Biblical Texts
Due to the need to disentangle Parashat Bilam from the Torah, we find the suggestion that what is referred to here is not the Parasha about Bilam that we know and love from Sefer Bamidbar but another book entirely. As Ritva (Bava Batra 14b) writes:
והא דאמרינן (לעיל) במשה שכתב ספרו ופרשת בלעם, נראין דברי האומרים שאין זו פרשת בלעם שכתובה בתורה … אלא פרשה בפני עצמה היא שכתב והאריך בה יותר והיתה מצויה להם
Regarding what is written about Moses, that “he wrote his book and the passage of Balaam,” it appears that this is not the passage of Balaam written in the Torah… but is an independent passage that he wrote and expounded upon in further detail, which the [rabbis of the Talmud] had available [but has since been lost].
The Shelah, basing himself on the Ritva and others (including the Ri Ibn Shu’eib’s derashot on Balak), asserts similarly, pointing to other works noted in the Talmud that we lack, such as the original 400 chapters of Hilkhot Avodah Zarah and the story of the battle of Midian portrayed by the Midrash that has been lost. On this basis he argues that Parashat Bilam must be a short book written by Moshe, one lost due to the travails of exile.
Some attempt to assert precisely what this document is. The Megalleh Amukot (Va’ethannan, 118) cites a tradition that this passage relating to Bilam is a set of 18 verses in a passage in Joshua about the war against Bilam, likely a reference to Joshua 13. Although the Talmud will tell us that Joshua authored (most of) the Book of Joshua, this paragraph was originally written by Moshe and later preserved there.
There is a fascinating passage appearing on Sanhedrin (106a-b), in the course of a Midrashic discussion on Bilam’s age. Rabbi Hanina suggested he died at either age 33 or 34, and a certain apostate (min) agreed on the basis of a “note of Bilam:”
שפיר קאמרת, לדידי חזי לי פנקסיה דבלעם, והוה כתיב ביה: בר תלתין ותלת שנין בלעם חגירא כד קטיל יתיה פנחס ליסטאה.
You are saying well. I myself saw the note of Balaam, and the following was written in it: ‘Balaam the Lame was 33 years old when Phineas the Robber killed him.’
No direct reference is made to our Gemara about Parashat Bilam, but some have suggested that Ockham’s razor might favor the identification of these two mysterious documents—the “passage of Bilam” and the “note of Bilam”—with one another.
The discovery of an ancient text in Deir ‘Alla, Jordan, in 1967 set off a flurry of publications on the matter. The text explicitly refers to one “Bilam bar Be’or” and also contains significant thematic parallels to the Biblical Bilam story, albeit with some differences. On this basis, some have suggested that this document, or something very much like it, may be what is referred to by the these Talmudic discussions of extra-biblical Bilam compositions.
Approach 2: Theological Differentiation
All the suggestions to this point set out from the assumption that Parashat Bilam as mentioned in Bava Batra 14b could not possibly refer to what we call Parashat Balak, on account of the fact that it is subsumed within the Torah, written by God and dictated to Moshe, and thus already appears on the list. However, several commentators point to some fundamental difference in nature between the passage in the Torah about Bilam and the rest of the Torah that might account for this apparent redundancy.
The Bilam Passage is Lacking in Some Aspect
There are several versions to this approach. A first angle is that this material, while it appears in the Torah, is in some sense inferior or tangential to the rest of the Torah. As Rashi writes (Bava Batra 14b):
ופרשת בלעם: נבואתו ומשליו אף על פי שאינן צורכי משה ותורתו וסדר מעשיו
The passage of Balaam—his prophecy and parables [were written by Moses] although they are not needed by Moses or his Torah, and the order of its stories.
The matters are not particularly central or relevant to the Torah’s main thrust, although they do appear there. The Nahalat Ya’akov (to Balak, 22:5) takes a slightly different tack in a similar direction, arguing that what appears in the Torah is not Bilam’s precise words, because Bilam should not be speaking in Hebrew, and Balak should not be able to read Bilam’s mind as he does in the story. Rather, what we have in the Torah is an account rewritten by Moshe on the basis of what happened, as a reconstruction and translation of what Bilam said. On this perspective, one might argue that a rewritten story lacks something in comparison to an originally written story.
Finally, one might point out that the material on Bilam is different from the rest of the Torah, in the sense that the true protagonist of the story is Bilam (with Balak as a close second). The Jewish People are not at the center of this story but essentially bystanders, in contrast to the rest of the Torah once Avraham arrives on the scene. For that reason as well, one might note that something is different about this story, which would necessitate it being given independent billing on the list of Moshe’s publications.
The Bilam Passage is Superior in Some Aspect
If the approaches above emphasized how the Bilam passage is somehow different by lacking some aspect the rest of the Torah possesses, we also find approaches that emphasize how Parashat Bilam might be superior in some sense to the rest of the Torah.
The Sifrei to Ve-Zot ha-Berakha 357 notes that while “no prophet arose in Israel like Moses (Deut. 34),” such a prophet did arise among the nations, namely Bilam. Rav Tzadok of Lublin (in Peri Tzaddik to Balak) explains this to mean that Bilam’s prophecy was of a unique nature, a type that only Moshe possessed. While most prophets open their oracles with ‘כה אמר ה, “so says God (more or less),” a mere interpretation of the divine word, Moshe and Bilam prophesied by having God, as it were, speak through their mouth. Thus, while most of the story of Balak and Bilam is not unique within the Torah, the prophecies of Bilam themselves are exceptional, as they represent the unmediated word of God spurting forth from his mouth. Most of the Torah, Rav Tzadok argues, justifies its sanctity on the basis of its Mosaic imprimatur; descriptions of events are rendered fit for inclusion in the Bible based on their re-rendering by Moshe (על ידי כתיבתו אותם בהתורה נעשה הכל תורה). However, the prophecies of Bilam are different:
אך פרשת בלעם שבזה לא היה צריך לחדש דבר שהרי באמת היו דבר ה’ רק שהיה בלעם עוקם שפתיו ועושה מעשה מוצאות הפה על זה אמרו ביחוד ופרשת בלעם שאינו בכלל כתב ספרו
For the passage of Balaam, [Moses] did not need to add anything [to have it qualify as scripture], because in truth it already was the word of God, and Balaam was merely moving his lips and doing the action of expressing it through his mouth. About this, and this in particular [Balaam’s prophecies but not the surrounding story] they said that “the passage of Balaam” is not included in “his book” [among the things Moses wrote].
These prophecies are the unmediated word of God, which happen to be physically channeled, unmodified, through the mouth of Bilam. (As Rav Tzadok notes, it is thus very fitting that this story is marked by a donkey miraculously expressing human speech!) If so, Bilam’s prophecies are exceptional because their inclusion within the Torah is not on account of their Mosaic authorship, but of their divine construction. Thus, they belong in a category all to their own, and Bava Batra appropriately separates them from the rest of the Torah.
The Shelah (Balak, Torah Or, 6) offers an alternative understanding to the unique nature of this passage. He asks why it was necessary for Bilam to offer these prophecies—surely Moshe could have presented those same prophecies at least as well! Rather, he argues, the story of Bilam is one of transformation, as Israel is ultimately blessed by the most evil and impure individual (Bilam), through a divine transformation of the most hateful curses into the greatest blessings. This indicates a fundamental unity between good and evil, which all ultimately stem from God in some sense. If that is so, Parashat Bilam and its special message of integration of all perspectives for the good of Israel offers a unique message that must itself be distinct from the rest of the Torah that Moshe wrote, as is indicated by the Gemara’s separation between them.
Whichever approach one takes among this survey of interpretations, the miniscule passage in Bava Batra 14b does a lot of work, sparking analyses that expand our view of Bilam and the nature of Torah. We either learn about Mosaic extra-Pentateuchal compositions on Bilam, or else about theological perspectives on the nature of his prophecy, and indeed prophecy in general. This is a testament to the power of interpretive tradition, where every word is expanded into heaps and heaps of wisdom. Moshe may be buried, but our interpretations still pour forth from the Torah of his lips.