Pointing out the different approaches taken by Bila’am in his three endeavors to metaphysically harm the Jews.
In R. Amnon Bazak’s seventh essay on Parashat Balak, “Shloshet HaNe’umim Shel Bila’am” (Nekudat Peticha: Iyunim Ketzarim BePeshuta Shel Parashat HaShavua, Yediot Achronot, Sifrei Chemed, Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rishon LeTziyon, 2018 [new, expanded edition], pp. 353-4) he recounts how the bible describes Bila’am’s three failed attempts to comply with Balak’s request to curse the Jewish people. Not only is Bila’am flummoxed each time he tries to carry out his mandate, but R. Bazak asserts that each “parable” contains a different theme and emphasis.
R. Bazak describes Bila’am’s first words:
And he took up his parable, and said: From Aram Balak bringeth me, the king of Moav from the mountains of the East: Come, curse me Yaakov, and come, execrate Yisrael. 8 How shall I curse, whom God hath Not Cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom the LORD hath Not Execrated? 9 For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. 10 Who hath counted the dust of Yaakov, or numbered the stock of Yisrael? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let mine end be like his!
as primarily concerned with himself (see the 7 [!] words that are underlined above.) R. Bazak notes that in this biblical passage, Bila’am does not particularly attempt to bless Israel; and when he indirectly does so, at the very end, it is only in terms of his own eventual demise that he references the fate of the Jews.
As for Bila’am’s second try to do Balak’s bidding:
18 And he took up his parable, and said: Arise, Balak, and hear; give ear unto me, thou son of Tzipor: 19 God Is not a man, that He should Lie; neither the son of man, that He should Repent: when He hath Said, will He not Do it? Or when He hath Spoken, will He not Make it Good? 20 Behold, I am bidden to bless; and when He hath Blessed, I cannot call It back. 21 None hath beheld iniquity in Yaakov, neither hath one seen perverseness in Yisrael; the LORD his God Is with him, and the shouting for the King is among them. 22 God Who Brought them forth out of Egypt Is for them like the Lofty Horns of the Wild-ox. 23 For there is no enchantment with Yaakov, neither is there any divination with Yisrael; now is it said of Yaakov and of Yisrael: What hath God Wrought! 24 Behold a people that riseth up as a lioness, and as a lion doth he lift himself up; he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.
R. Bazak points out that Bila’am directs his words to Balak, explaining to him why he will be unable to curse the Jews, i.e., God Is on their side, has Promised them to Be their Protector, and there is no basis for such an arrangement being rescinded. Bila’am concludes with a veiled threat to Balak, that this people will respond harshly to its enemies attempting to defeat them.
Bila’am finally bids to curse the Jews a third time, but ends up blessing them directly, much to the chagrin of his patron, Balak:
3 And he took up his parable, and said: The saying of Bila’am the son of Be’or, and the saying of the man whose eye is opened; 4 The saying of him who heareth the Words of God, who seeth the Vision of the Almighty, fallen down, yet with opened eyes: 5 How goodly are thy tents, O Yaakov, thy dwellings, O Yisrael! 6 As valleys stretched out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes Planted of the LORD, as cedars beside the waters; 7 Water shall flow from his branches, and his seed shall be in many waters; and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. 8 God Who Brought him forth out of Egypt Is for him like the Lofty Horns of the Wild-ox; he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows. 9 He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up? Blessed be everyone that blesseth thee, and cursed be everyone that curseth thee.
R. Bazak interestingly compares the “leonine” references in the second and third “parables”:
#2 Ibid. 23:24
Behold a people that riseth up as a lioness, and as a lion doth he lift himself up; he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.
#3 Ibid. 24:9
He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up?…
He surmises that while in #2, the comparison to lions was intended as a warning to the Moabite King, as well as anyone else who wished to “take” the Jewish nation “on”, the reference in #3 is part of the blessing of Israel, i.e., that once Canaan is captured and settled, the Jews will not be summarily displaced.
R. Bazak concludes that once Balak recognizes that not only is Bila’am going to bless the Jews indirectly, but also directly, it stands to reason that the Tora posits:
10 And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together; and Balak said unto Balaam: I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times. 11 Therefore, now flee thou to thy place; I thought to promote thee unto great honor; but, lo, the LORD hath Kept thee back from honor.
The prophet Bila’am is clearly employed as a “foil” by God to demonstrate to all HaShem’s Metaphysical Prowess in the face of man’s best efforts, paralleling the manner in which Pharaoh was Manipulated in order to publicize God’s Physical Mastery—Shemot 7:5 “And the Egyptians shall know that I Am the LORD, when I Stretch forth My Hand upon Egypt, and Bring out the children of Israel from among them.” If Harvey Cox, in The Secular City, depicts Moshe’s confrontation with Pharoah as an early version of the “showdown at the OK corral,” the same could be said about Bila’am attempting to curse the Jewish people despite God’s having Defined Himself as their Protector.
The fact that people continue to sin, both after the Exodus from Egypt, and following Bila’am’s come-uppance with respect to the “black arts,” suggests that denial is a powerful component in man’s mental processing. It is one thing if Jews generations removed from directly witnessing these manifestations of Divine Power, attempt to suggest that perhaps the Mesora (tradition) can be challenged; quite another when even the contemporaries of these events refuse to acknowledge their implications. Such an attitude probably led directly to the period of “Hester Panim” (the Hiding of the Face), when the only miracles that one is able to witness are “hidden” ones, leading to the conclusion that belief in religious tradition is understood to be a narrow function of personality and upbringing, more than a reflection of empirical reality. Naturally, people do not wish to give up their autonomy regarding determining how to live their lives; but if they continue to refuse to acknowledge the importance of deferring to an Entity that is far superior to themselves morally and ethically, it is difficult to understand how human civilization will ever evolve and positively develop.