Two-Time Sorcerous Loser (Matot-Masai)

Two-Time Sorcerous Loser (Matot-Masai)

An error is the more dangerous in proportion to the degree of truth which it contains. -Henri Frederic Amiel

A couple of weeks ago, we read in the Torah how the sorcerer Bilaam was hired by the king of Moab to curse the nation of Israel. The Moabites allied themselves with the Midianites to fight Israel. Their hope and expectation were that the curse of the powerful sorcerer Bilaam would allow them to rout the Israelites who were getting uncomfortably close to their borders on their desert journey to the land of Canaan. Though Israel had no intention of bothering either of those nations and had explicit instructions from God not to harm the Moabites, these allies either weren’t aware or didn’t believe in the peaceful intentions of the nomadic tribes of Israel who had spent almost forty years in the desert and had recently started making their way towards Canaan.

As we read then, the efforts of Bilaam were a massive failure. Despite his eagerness and enthusiasm to curse Israel, God forces Bilaam to utter beautiful poetic blessings to Israel in front of the Moabite and Midianite leadership. After three botched efforts, Balak, King of Moab, sends the failed sorcerer home. The question arises as to why we see Bilaam unexpectedly mentioned in this week’s reading, seven chapters after Balak sent Bilaam home in ignominy? In this week’s reading, the Israelite army does ultimately attack the Midianites in retaliation for the mass-seduction of Israelite men by the Moabite and Midianite daughters, which followed the episode with Bilaam. The public licentiousness and accompanying idolatry lead to God’s fury and punishment of Israel by plague. What is Bilaam doing in the middle of this later battle with Midian?

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 31:8 explains that Bilaam had indeed failed in his bid to curse Israel and was sent home in shame. However, the Midianites had understood from Bilaam that the way to harm Israel is to get them to sin and that God is particularly hateful of sexual licentiousness. The Moabites and Midianites follow Bilaam’s hint, sending their daughters to seduce the Israelite men, which leads directly to God killing 24,000 Israelite men by a sudden plague. Finally, seeing the vulnerability of Israel due to their fresh and flagrant sin, the Midianites call Bilaam back to finish the job and curse Israel.

Bilaam does indeed return to try to curse Israel again, which explains his unexpected presence at this later place and time. However, this apparently powerful sorcerer didn’t learn from his first failure against Israel and he succumbs to an ignoble fate, to be caught and killed during Israel’s retaliation against Midian.

May God always protect us from our enemies, on all fronts.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the memory of Joseph Wiesel z”l. May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

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