Satanic Verses in Tanach? – Parshat Balak – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
There is little doubt that this week’s parsha is one of the strangest in the Torah. We hear of miraculous events and incidents that cannot be explained naturally throughout the course of Chumash, but sorcerers, talking donkeys and sword brandishing angels all contribute to a story somewhat out of the ordinary.
Possibly the most oft-asked question on this parsha centers around the following verses:
“That night God came to Bilam and said to him, ‘If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them, but whatever I command you, that you shall do’. Bilam arose in the morning and saddled his donkey and departed with the Moabite dignitaries. But God was incensed at his going….” (Bamidbar 22:20-22)
The problem is obvious. Why is it that after agreeing to allow Bilam to go with Balak’s emissaries does Hashem become angry with him for doing that exact thing?
There are many answers given to this question and we will not examine them in this shiur. Rather, we shall investigate one aspect of this ensuing drama which may also provide a solution to the query posed above.
The Torah continues the story as follows:
“But God was incensed at his going, so an angel of God placed himself on the way lesatan lo, and he was riding on his donkey with his two lads alongside him.”
What does the phrase “lesatan lo” actually mean? When we hear the word satan, we naturally assume that we are dealing with the angel who represents evil. After all, back in the story of Adam and Chava in Gan Eden, the commentator Seforno equates three sources of evil influence, the nachash, the satan and the yetzer hara. Many of us are familiar with the midrashim quoted by Rashi about the sin of the Golden Calf which portrays the Satan as leading Am Yisrael astray at every point of that tragic event. If this is the meaning of satan, then why would Hashem send such a force to confront Bilam? Surely, if Hashem is angry with Bilam and would rather he not continue on this mission, it would have been preferable to send a “good angel” to persuade Bilam to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord.
In order to try to answer this question, let us examine other uses in Tanach of the term satan. Our first instance is towards the end of Sh’muel Aleph when David is about to go out to war as a member of the army of Achish, king of the Pelishtim. On hearing this, Achish’s men become angry and tell Achish that David cannot join them in war “velo yiheyeh lanu satan bamilchama” (Sh’muel A, 29:4). Their concern was that David will affect them badly, will possibly join their enemies and in general will not have a positive effect on their war effort. The word satan is therefore employed here much as we have seen in the midrashic sources quoted above to mean a bad influence. [A similar use of the word satan can be found in Sh’muel B, 19:23]
Towards the end of Sh’muel Bet, David makes the mistake of counting Am Yisrael, an error which results in a plague affecting the people. The exact nature of David Hamelech’s sin involves a discussion which is beyond the scope of this shiur. However, the parallel account of this event in Divrei Hayamim begins with the following words:
“And a satan stood over Israel, and caused David to count Israel” (Divrei Hayamim A, 21:1).
Here the use of the word satan complies with our regular image – the view of the devil seducing us to sin, leading man astray as he constantly attempts to ensure that we abandon our spiritual longings for other pursuits. But, on looking back at the book of Sh’muel we find that the Navi states that Hashem was angry with Israel and He caused David to sin (Sh’muel B, 24:1). We must therefore come to the conclusion that the satan described in Divrei Hayamim is an emissary of God Himself.
Thus far, we have seen two uses of the term satan, both of which relate to bad or evil influence. Let us now examine a different case in which the word satan occurs. Towards the end of the reign of Shlomo Hamelech, idol worship becomes rampant in Yerushalayim. As a result of sins committed by Shlomo and those close to him, Hashem informs Shlomo that the monarchy will henceforth be torn away from him. Shlomo’s descendants will rule over two tribes alone; the remaining ten tribes will be governed by alternate leadership. The Navi then records the following:
“The Almighty then established a satan for Shlomo, Hadad the Edomite, from the descendants of the monarchy, in Edom” (Melachim A, 11:14).
The ensuing verses explain Hadad’s background and then tell us how he caused trouble for Shlomo for many years. (The word satan is actually used again in the very same chapter.) It would seem that satan here could be translated as a nuisance. There is no test or influence involved in this episode. Rather, Hadad is chosen by God as a vehicle to be used to exact punishment from Shlomo. Though we may understand fights between neighboring nations as reflecting political or military disputes, we are told that this hails directly from God. It is also possible that the word satan here stems from the word “sitna” meaning hate.
We have, till now, found several uses of the word satan. One refers to negative influence on a person or a group of people while the other employs satan to mean a cause of trouble or nuisance. Neither of these understandings of the term satan would seem to fit with the episode in our parsha.
The most well known mention of satan in Tanach is in the book of Iyov. In the opening chapters of the story, Satan is introduced as a form of being with whom God Himself engages in discourse. Hashem points to Iyov as an example of the ideal servant of God. The Satan, on the other hand claims that Iyov remains loyal to God because he has an “easy life”. Were his existence to become more difficult, states the Satan, Iyov would abandon The Almighty. As a result of their discussion, God gives The Satan permission to taunt Iyov with terrible hardships in order to prove his devotion to God.
In this story, Satan becomes a character with what appears to be his own opinions and his own agenda. However, it would also seem that the Satan has no real power without God. His ability to prove his claims is given to him by Hashem. Although he is described as traveling the world as a free agent, he cannot touch Iyov or those close to him until he is given express permission to do so from Hashem.
How does this view of the Satan relate to the events of our parsha? First of all, as seen in our parsha, satan is more than just a concept. It represents a character who plays a part in the unfolding drama. In the story of Bilam the angel comes “lesatan lo”. This portrays satan as something between concept and character. On the one hand the angel is not described as The Satan as the book of Iyov. On the other hand, the angel has a specified purpose which suggests that his role is similar to that of the The Satan.
But at this point the similarities end. For if The Satan in the book of Iyov sets out to prove the fallibility of his subject, Iyov, there is no need to do such a thing with Bilam. The fact that Hashem is already angry at Bilam means that he does not require The Satan to demonstrate Bilam’s shortcomings. Furthermore, in the case of Iyov, God gives The Satan permission to test Iyov’s loyalty; in the case of Bilam, Hashem Himself sends the angel on his mission.
We must therefore seek a different definition of the concept of “satan”. Rashi, in his comments to Bamidbar 22:22, explains that the satan was “an angel of mercy and wanted to prevent him (Bilam) from sin, so that he should not sin and perish”. This means that satan refers to influence but not necessarily negative. In this case the purpose of the satan was to prevent Bilam from committing a sin as opposed to the definition found earlier that the satan causes sin.
Seforno expands on this idea and states: ” the concept of sitna (we mentioned above the common root of the words satan and sitna) means to oppose a certain action …. The angel goes to oppose Bilam so that his path will not be clear before him…. And this is so he will not sin and perish.”
According to both Rashi and Seforno, satan is understood in this case as causing Bilam to reconsider. We could therefore suggest that whenever the term satan is used in connection with human behavior it refers to a process by which man thinks once again about his plans. At times this means that one who may have been committed to perform a mitzvah reconsiders and does not do the good deed. On the other hand it can also cause man to reconsider an incorrect path of action. If a person has elected to sin, the satan may force him to reconsider.
If we think of the negative influence of the satan, which we may now equate with the yetzer hara, we understand how these work to affect our actions. How often are we about to perform a good deed when a little voice tells us that maybe we can do that later or perhaps we have something else to do which is more important? On the other hand, the same little voice can also tell us when we are about to sin that its not worth it, or that maybe we have a more positive venture we could be involved in at present.
Now that we have gained an insight into the nature of the satan and its employment in this parsha we can return to our opening question. As stated above, there are many answers given to the question as to why Hashem was angry with Bilam for joining Balak’s emissaries despite having given His permission. One explanation is that although Hashem agreed, He was not enamored with the idea. The first time He was asked by Bilam for permission to go and curse Am Yisrael, Hashem responded with a resounding no. The fact that Bilam asks a second time can only be regarded as sheer audacity on his part. Hashem agreed to his request because Hashem did not wish to prevent him from doing that which he wished to do even if it involved committing a sin. [This has ramifications for understanding the concept of free choice.] But obviously Hashem was angry that Bilam chose this path and did not realize that God would have preferred that he remain at home. Hashem therefore sends the angel to make him reconsider, “lesatan lo”. This is an act of mercy on the part of God. It gives Bilam a second chance, an opportunity to correct his mistake. As we all know, Bilam ignored this too and went on only to learn the hard way that Hashem always has the final word.
Hashem always leaves man the possibility to retract from sin and return to the correct path. We should allow that little voice, which often convinces us to sin, to influence us in a positive way too.
As we all know, that little voice is really just inside our head.
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