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In a plain reading of the text it seems that Bilam acted righteously. He always did as Hashem commanded, prostrated immediately before the angel that he met, blessed the Jewish people and forthrightly stuck to his principle in following Hashem's instructions the whole way through Bamidbar chapters 22 - 24.

When Bilam fist met with messengers from Balak's party, Bilam asks Hashem if he should go, Hashem replies (22:12):

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-בִּלְעָם, לֹא תֵלֵךְ עִמָּהֶם; לֹא תָאֹר אֶת-הָעָם, כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא

Bilam tells Balak's party that he cannot go, on account of Hashem's edict; he send's Balak's party on their way... "more honourable" servants return after giving word to Balak to curse the Jewish people. Yet, still, Bilam is insistent (22:18):

וַיַּעַן בִּלְעָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-עַבְדֵי בָלָק, אִם-יִתֶּן-לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ, כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב--לֹא אוּכַל, לַעֲבֹר אֶת-פִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹהָי, לַעֲשׂוֹת קְטַנָּה, אוֹ גְדוֹלָה.

Bilam then tells these servants that he will 'sleep on it', expecting Hashem to answer him in a dream (22:20):

וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל-בִּלְעָם, לַיְלָה, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִם-לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם; וְאַךְ, אֶת-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ--אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה.

It's not clear what the plain meaning of "אִם-לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים" is. However, the follow up shows that Bilam did do something wrong is in Bamibar (22:22):

וַיִּחַר-אַף אֱלֹהִים, כִּי-הוֹלֵךְ הוּא, וַיִּתְיַצֵּב מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה בַּדֶּרֶךְ, לְשָׂטָן לוֹ; וְהוּא רֹכֵב עַל-אֲתֹנוֹ, וּשְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו עִמּוֹ

Despite doing something (unobviously) wrong Bilam never gives the impression that he will ever curse the Jewish people. Hashem had initially told Bilam not to go with them (period), however, it seems like this was only on the condition that he doesn't curse them; which he continuously says that he wont.

He is immediately repentant upon discovering the identity of the angel, blesses the Jewish people and always shows righteous allegiance to the word of Hashem regardless of following Balak's servants! There is obviously something that Bilam does wrong to invoke Hashem's anger. However, this is a far cry from Bilam being evil; it seems, from the plain reading of the text, that Bilam acted righteously. Do any commentaries mention this?

It was always my understanding that both Balak and Bilam had evil intentions. Balak's bad intentions are clear from the text, however, Bilam's are certainly not clear.

Was Bilam indeed evil?

  • See here, especially this section. – Alex Jul 2 '18 at 22:33
  • Very similar: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/73830/170 – msh210 Jul 3 '18 at 0:01
  • See also the famous midrash on Sanhedrin 106a – Kazi bácsi Jul 3 '18 at 8:11
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    @bondonk It seems fairly direct in Bemidbar 22:11. To consider - while his response seems to merely state "Balak told me to curse", of course, he can refuse the request. Which, he does, but only after asking G-d. If he had good intentions, he didn't need to ask G-d. Secondly, see Rash"i on this verse who states that the word Kava is worse than ara, both means "curse" but in different ways. We have a MY question explaining the distinction. Point is, that he added more to the request by Balak. – DanF Jul 3 '18 at 14:18
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When G-d told Bilam not to go, the Pasuk says "לֹא תֵלֵךְ עִמָּהֶם", don't go with them. The word imahem implies "In mind and in deed"; whereas when the second Pasuk says, "קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם", itam implies "Go with them physically." While it's true that Bilam went with them only when G-d told him to, G-d was telling him to only go with them physically, but not with their evil intentions. Bilam is wicked (besides for all of the Midrashim and Gemaras that speak of his evil) because although he listened to what G-d said he ignored what G-d intended, and went with the intention to curse the Jewish people.

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    A source for your derash would be useful. – ezra Jul 2 '18 at 22:38
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    As I recall this is also the view of Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cites the Malbim and R. Zvi Hirsch Mecklenberg on this matter as well. – sabbahillel Jul 2 '18 at 23:39
  • This is a subtle distinction. Can we now call him evil because of that? There are plenty of Jewish prophets who arguably act more reprehensibly – bondonk Jul 3 '18 at 7:54
  • Some explanation (forgot who) says that in the verse after the one mentioned, here, it says that Bil'am arose in the morning and saddled his donkey. The only other mention of someone doing that (early rise and saddling his own animal) was Avraham. G-d was angry that Bil'am was so haughty as to compare himself to Avraham. Haughtiness, is not the same as evil, but it leads to evil, frequently. – DanF Jul 3 '18 at 13:52
  • @DanF good point. But he was presumably commanded by Balak or his servants to accompany him i.e. I imagine they set the time... – bondonk Jul 3 '18 at 14:24
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According to the Gemara, Bil'am was evil (and punished) for indirectly causing the Jews to sin with the women of Midian and Moav. This is clear from the Talmud (Gittin 57a, Sefaria translation):

אזל אסקיה לבלעם בנגידא אמר ליה מאן חשיב בההוא עלמא א"ל ישראל מהו לאידבוקי בהו א"ל (דברים כג, ז) לא תדרוש שלומם וטובתם כל הימים א"ל דיניה דההוא גברא במאי א"ל בשכבת זרע רותחת

Onkelos then went and raised Balaam from the grave through necromancy. He said to him: Who is most important in that world where you are now? Balaam said to him: The Jewish people. Onkelos asked him: Should I then attach myself to them here in this world? Balaam said to him: You shall not seek their peace or their welfare all the days (see Deuteronomy 23:7). Onkelos said to him: What is the punishment of that man, a euphemism for Balaam himself, in the next world? Balaam said to him: He is cooked in boiling semen, as he caused Israel to engage in licentious behavior with the daughters of Moab.

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    I'm not sure this answers the question, since chronologically it doesn't fit with the specific question. At the point in the story that the question is asking on, Balaam had not yet implemented the plot with the Moabite women. – Salmononius2 Jul 3 '18 at 0:56
  • This doesn't address the fact that the text, plainly read, suggests that he acted righteously, although there is definitely an allusion in the text that he did something wrong. This is a far cry from the "outright evil" label that he is normally given. Why do chazal paint him this way? – bondonk Jul 3 '18 at 7:58
  • Put there Sanhedrin 106a, I suppose that's more convincing – Kazi bácsi Jul 3 '18 at 9:07

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