LET’S STUDY ONKELOS
A Guide for Rabbis, Teachers and Torah Students to Study and Teach the Parashat Hashavua through the Eyes of its Most Important Translator
By Stanley M. Wagner and Israel Drazin
Based on the five volume, Onkelos on the Torah Genesis Deuteronomy), Understanding the Bible Text, by Israel Drazin and Stanley M. Wagner, published by Gefen Publishing House,
Jerusalem/New York, 2006–2010.
BALAK (CHAPTER 22:2–25:9)
SUMMARY OF THE TORAH PORTION
Balak, king of Moab, frightened by the military victories of the Israelites, who are
assembled at his border, calls upon the heathen prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites and
render them powerless; God appears to Balaam in a dream and cautions him not to curse
the Israelites, so he refuses to go with Balak’s messengers; God finally permits Balaam to go
to Balak, with the caveat that he must follow God’s instructions; on the way to Balak,
Balaam’s donkey encounters an angel and turns aside; Balaam beats it; God opens the
mouth of the donkey and it berates Balaam for his behavior; the angel makes itself visible
to Balaam and repeats God’s caveat; Balaam calls upon Balak to construct altars and bring
burnt offerings and then, to the distress of Balak, Balaam—on three occasions—blesses the
people of Israel with some of the most poetic utterances found in Scripture; after the failure
of Balak’s plan, the Israelites settle in Shittim and, enticed by Moabite and Midianite
women, they commit acts of sexual immorality and idolatry; God orders the perpetrators to
be put to death; when a public display of the indecent behavior is perpetrated by Zimri, a
leader of the tribe of Simeon, with a Midianite woman, Aaron’s grandson Phinehas
(Pinchas) kills the couple and the plague that had claimed the lives of twenty-four thousand
WAS BAL AM MALEVOLENT OR NOT?
The subject of Balaam and how he is portrayed in the Tanach and other ancient sources
has been reviewed in our Bemidbar introduction. We will excerpt sections from it to provide you with what we think is an interesting Study Guide on the parashah. The ancient sources have different views concerning the pagan anti-Israelite prophet Balaam. Some disparage him, a few extol him, while still others are indifferent. Yet, Onkelos takes no stand on the issue. As usual, our targumist prefers to retain the ambiguous description of the pagan prophet without, as usual, speculating whether he was a true prophet or simply a fake sorcerer, whether he meant well or evil. Good literature is frequently obscure and ambiguous, leaving much to the imagination. The Argentinean writer Jorge Borges (1899–1986) said that the two people who write such good literature are the author and reader, as each may see the story differently. The following, taken from our Introduction, shows how various sources read the biblical story.
BALAAM IN THE TANACH
The story of Balaam* is mentioned in Numbers in chapters 22–24 and 31:15–16. Brief,
neutral recollections are also in Deuteronomy 23:5–6, Joshua 24:9–10, Nehemia 13:1–2, and
Micah 6:5.** The recollections only retell that Balaam attempted to curse the Israelites but
that God turned the curses into blessings.
* The name is pronounced “Bilam.” The unusual spelling “Balaam” is derived from the
Greek translation, the Septuagint.
** Neither Targum Jonathan to Joshua, nor the Targum to Micah change, add, or
subtract from the biblical wordings to disparage Balaam.
The Jewish philosopher Philo, of Alexandria, Egypt (20 BCE–50 CE), portrays and
exaggerates Balaam’s bad character. In De Vita Mosis, he is a liar and a hypocrite. Despite
his claims, God never appeared to him at all. In De Vita Mosis 1:52 §287:
The seer proved himself to be even worse than the king . . . [;] he pressed forward
even more readily than his conductor, partly because he was dominated by the worst
of vices, conceit, partly because in his heart he longed to curse, even if he were
prevented from doing so with his voice.
TARGUMS NEOPHYTI AND PSEUDO JONATHAN
The Palestinian Targums expand the pejorative statements.
Neophyti calls Balaam “wicked,” stating that he lacks understanding, and charging him
with taking advantage of Balak’s messengers in 22:30. Balaam admits “that he has no
portion in the World to Come” in 23:10. He set up his daughters as prostitutes (24:25). Yet,
somewhat inconsistently in 24:3 and 15, Neophyti praises Balaam as being more honorable
than his father, and surprisingly states that “what has been hidden from all the other
prophets has been revealed to him.”
Pseudo-Jonathan identifies Balaam as Laban the Aramean, father-in-law of the patriarch
Jacob. Balaam/Laban was driven to insanity because of his abundant knowledge (22:5). He had no pity upon the Israelites despite their being his descendants (22:5). His ass called
him a fool, criticized him for deceiving Balak’s messengers, and reminded him that he, the
ass, had given Balaam carnal pleasure (22:30). Pseudo-Jonathan praises Balaam, as does
Neophyti, in 24:3–4 and 15, for being more glorious than his father and for knowing dark
mysteries that were hidden from the prophets. Balaam advised Balak to employ seductive
women and place them in inns where food and drink are sold inexpensively, so that the
Israelites would be enticed to come, have sexual intercourse with them, and reject God
(24:14, 25; 31:8). Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, Moses’ grandnephew, later killed him
when he tried to escape by flying through the air by virtue of magical incantations.
Phinehas pronounced the divine holy name, flew after him, seized him by his head, drew
him down to earth, and slew him with his sword.
The Paris version of the Fragmented Targum has Balaam’s ass calling him “wicked and
senseless . . . there is no wisdom or knowledge to be found in you.” Balaam, lying about
everything, deceived Balak’s messengers by telling them, “This is not my ass, I borrowed it”
The Palestinian Targums recognized that Balaam has true prophetic ability (Neophyti
and Pseudo-Jonathan to 24:2) and that his visions are eschatological and messianic
(Neophyti and Pseudo-Jonathan to 23:7; Neophyti to 23:23, Neophyti and Pseudo-Jonathan to
24:3; Neophyti and Pseudo-Jonathan to 24:15, 20-21, 23). Unlike other prophets, he is
granted knowledge of his own death (Neophyti and Pseudo-Jonathan to 34:3; Neophyti and
Pseudo-Jonathan to 24:15, 16).
MISHNAH AND TALMUD
Mishnah Avot 5:19 contrasts “the wicked” Balaam, who has an evil eye, a proud soul,
and a haughty mind, with Abraham, who has a good eye, a humble soul, and a humble mind.
The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 105a–106b, is similar. It states that the name
Balaam denotes “b’lo am,” “without a people,” which signifies that he has no portion in the
World to Come with other people, or “bala am,” “he devoured (or corrupted) a people.” He
is identical with Laban the Syrian. His father was a prophet, but Balaam’s powers were
greater. While he was originally a full prophet, he was reduced to a mere soothsayer as a
punishment for trying to curse Israel. He was wicked. He was blind in one eye and limped
on one foot. He practiced enchantment by means of his penis. He committed bestiality with
his ass. Although he offered forty-two sacrifices for an unworthy purpose, to enable him to
curse Israel, he was nevertheless rewarded for this deed with the privilege of having Ruth
as his descendant. Balaam advised Balak how to entice the young Israelite males. He later
returned to Balak demanding payment for the twenty-four thousand Israelites who were
destroyed through his advice. He was therefore present when the Israelites slew the
Midanites and was killed with them. He was thirty years old when he was killed. See also
the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 15b; Avodah Zarah 4a–b; Ta’anit 20a; and the
Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 5:8, 20d.
Numbers Rabbah 20:6 states that God “raised up Moses for Israel and Balaam for the
idolaters.” It called Balaam a despicable person, “a vessel full of urine.” He destroyed his
soul by going to Balak (20:11).
Balaam appears in a good light, as a tragic hero, in only one early biblical interpreter,
the Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum of Pseudo-Philo. Balaam has no antipathy for the
Israelites, no greed, and no sympathy for Moab’s cause. His only wish is to do God’s will.
Balak whom he pitied deceived him. Finally, realizing his mistake, and that he had no
chance to return to God’s favor, he committed spiritual suicide by giving evil advice to
Sifrei, like Pseudo-Philo, is complimentary. It states that although no Israelite prophet
compared to Moses, the non-Israelite Balaam was comparable and was greater in three
respects. Moses did not know who spoke with him or when the vision would occur, but
Balaam had this knowledge. Moses had to stand during the prophecy, while Balaam was
PIRKEI D’R. ELIEZER
Pirkei d’R. Eliezer 15:5 is also complimentary. It states that among the nations of the
world there had risen no philosophers equal to Balaam.
In contrast to the exemplary portrayal of Pseudo-Philo, Sifrei, and Pirkei d’R. Eliezer, and
the denigration by others, Josephus took a middle path. He wrote (in Antiquities 4:6, 127)
that Balaam was the man to whom Moses did the high honor of recording his prophecies; and
though it was open to him (Moses) to appropriate and take credit for them himself,
as there would have been no witness to convict him, he has given Balaam this
testimony and deigned to perpetuate his memory.
Balaam’s fault, according to Josephus, was his misguided desire to please King Balak.
Josephus calls Balaam “the greatest of the prophets at that time,” a man who did not
speak by inspiration, but by “divine spirit.” He went with Balak’s messengers because
he understood that this was God’s will. When he learned through the episode of the
ass that God was displeased with his journey, he prepared to return, but God told him
to continue the trip. Josephus reveals that Balaam advised Balak how to corrupt the
Israelite men with female prostitutes. Yet he warns Balak that the victory achieved
through this scheme would be but a small misfortune and only a temporary setback
for the Israelites.
Our Prior section, taken from our Introduction, continues and addresses Onkelos:
Targum Onkelos does not deviate from its translation technique in treating the verses
concerning the seer Balaam. The translation contains no additions to clarify his character.
In fact, Targum Onkelos’ deviations from the biblical text in respect to Balaam do not differ
from those employed for Moses. As a result, the Targum reflects Sifrei’s view (in
Deuteronomy 34:10) that Balaam was a great prophet.
This conclusion is borne out by looking at the figures. There are 301 differences in
Targum Onkelos from the Masoretic text in chapters 22–24, and all are designed to
accomplish in these chapters what they do elsewhere in the Pentateuch. For example, 141
are changes or additions for the sake of adding clarity; the letters for “the” and “of” are
inserted twenty-three and thirty-seven times, respectively; anthropomorphisms are
avoided in twenty-three instances; conjugations are changed in nineteen verses; and
“qadam” and “memra” appear in thirteen and nine passages, respectively. In 22:29, where Balaam’s ass criticizes the seer, and where the translators and commentators who disparage Balaam elaborate at great length with insults, Targum Onkelos softens the ass’s criticism. Rather than rendering “hitalalt” literally, “you have acted ruthlessly,” our translator inserts “you mocked me.” This is similar to the changes that he makes to protect the honor of Israelite ancestors.
In 22:41 and 23:11, 14, and 27, Balaam is not “taken” like an animal or inanimate object,
but is “led” with dignity. The same change is made for him as for Israelites in 3:12, 41, 45;
8:6, 18; 20:25, 25:4; 27:18, and other passages.
Similarly in 23:3, when other targumists and commentators elaborate upon the unusual
word “shefi” and insult Balaam, our translator uses the kind and spiritual “he went off
alone” to commune with God.
Chapter 24 continues the fair treatment of the seer, employing changes used for
Israelites. When Balaam saw that he was unsuccessful, he ceased his former ruses and used
“only” enchantments (24:1). The Onkelos translator adds “prophecy” in 24:2 to show the
high level of Balaam’s ability. He changes the undignified “yet with open eyes” (24:4),
which would suggest that the seer slept with open eyes, to the dignified “it is revealed to
him.” The Hebrew verb “flee” (24:11) suggests that Balak was telling Balaam to flee
fearfully and ignobly from the fruits of his anger, so our targumist alters it to the dignified
“go.” Discuss your own views on the character and personality of Balaam. Was he an evil
heathen prophet, or, as the targumist would have it, a more benign figure? If the actual
biblical text does not reflect a wickedness, why would so many sources suggest that Balaam
was so wicked? Was that a fair evaluation?
Why do you think that the sages named a Torah portion after one of Israel’s arch
enemies? One could ask the same question about Korach? It is one thing to name a
parashah after Jethro and Pinchas. But why bestow such honor on enemies of the Jewish
people, or rebels within the nation? Isn’t the answer that the currently-used titles for
biblical portions do not indicate their content; the portion is named after its first significant
According to the predominant tradition, Balaam wished to curse the Israelites, but God
caused only blessings for the people to emanate from his mouth. But curses and blessings
are only words. Do they really work? If they do work, who really has the power to curse or
bless? What is the source of that power?
FOR FURTHER STUDY
1. See 22:5 and commentary, “ARAM” (page 205). Exactly where did Balaam come from?
The targumist and others clarify.
2. See 23:4 and commentary, “A WORD FROM BEFORE” (page 214). Did Balaam meet with
God, or an angel, or did God simply communicate with him, or was this a dream? The
targumist makes a choice.
3. See 23:9 and commentaries, “WHO ARE DESTINED TO POSSESS THE WORLD ALONE”
and “NOT BE TOTALLY PUNISHED” (page 217). Onkelos transforms a verse that has