Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Balaam Is Laban

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Balaam Is Laban

Article excerpt

Forty years after the Exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel renewed their march to the land of Canaan, intent on conquest. In their path were the peoples of Moab and Midian, who were increasingly apprehensive of the march. Balak, King of Moab, after consultation with the elders of Midian, sent for Balaam, the enigmatic prophet/magician, whom they believed to be a master of magic with an ability to curse a people:

And he sent messengers unto Balaam the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the River, to the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying: 'Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt; behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me. 'Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me; peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land; for I know that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed' (Num. 22:5-6).

Strangely, there is an anachronistic midrashic identification of Balaam with Laban, a figure from the historical stage a number of generations before, part of a cast of personages far removed from Moab and Midian (Gen. 28, 30). The midrashic identification of Balaam as Laban is seen in the Aramaic commentary of Targum Yonatan: He sent messengers to Laban the Aramean, he is Balaam who wished to swallow [Hebrew: bala, to swallow] the people of the House of Israel. (1) A similar tradition is recorded in the Yalkut Shimoni. (2) Another tradition, relating Balaam's father with Laban, is found in the Babylonian Talmud:

A Tanna taught: Beor [the father of Balaam], Cushan-rishathaim and Laban the Syrian are identical; Beor [which is related to the Hebrew word meaning cattle] denotes that he committed bestiality; Cushan-rishathaim, that he perpetrated two evils upon Israel [rishathaim is the plural of risha meaning evil]: one in the days of Jacob, and the other in the days of the Judges (see Shoftim 3:8). But what was his real name? Laban the Syrian (Sanhedrin 105a).

Numbers 22:5 describes the place where Balaam originates as the place by the river. The designation by the river apparently refers to an area near one of the two great rivers: the Tigris or Euphrates. This is supported by Deuteronomy (23:5) and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse thee. Aram-naharaim is the ancesteral home of Abraham and his family (see Genesis 24:4,10). This area will henceforth be referred to in a non-specific manner as Mesopotamia. This may be the source of the midrashic identification of Balaam with a past resident of Mesopotamia--Laban.


The logical difficulty of accepting the above traditions literally gave birth to strong opposition as well as interpretive possibilities. On the verse And Bela the son of Beor reigned in Edom (Gen. 36:32), Ibn Ezra states vehemently:

   [Beor] is not Balaam. Also, Balaam is not Laban the Aramean. It is
   plausible, however, that the interpretive mode indicates that they
   were similar in sorcery, interpreted thus so that the words of our
   sages should not be found to be wanting.

Thus Ibn Ezra offers a figurative meaning in terms of ideological relationship. This interpretation of Balaam and Laban as similar in sorcery and magic is shared by the Ktav Vekabalah (Gen. 22:21). The kabalistic tradition offers a similar approach, describing Laban, Balaam and Amalek as representing the dross and material [klipah] in the universe (Sefat Emet, Ex., Va'erah).

Of more modern vintage is the approach of Rabbi Eliezer Judah Waldenberg, the Tzitz Eliezer. Commenting on the Hagaddah of Passover where Laban is described as wanting "to uproot all," followed by the quote from Deuteronomy 26:5, An Aramean wanted to destroy my father, he interprets "Aramean" as = Balaam = Laban = Amalek, who wanted to destroy all (Tzitz Eliezer 14:24). …

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