Bilam is one of the few characters in the Torah for whom we do have an archeological proof of existence. In 1967 an archeological dig found an inscription on the wall of a structure in a city called De’ir Alla. The inscription has been dated to near 9th century BCE. The language of that inscription is a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, and no other inscription has been found in a language with those precise characteristics.
In our Torah, Bilam is portrayed in an interesting relation ship with God. He personally always uses the name for God that the Torah uses, YHV”H, but the text enforces that God, or E-lohim, is the one speaking to him. Which is an interesting point. In the De’ir Alla inscription, Bilam is a clear polytheist, talking to many different gods – but none of the names there is YHV”H. However, if you look into the whole story of Bilam, in verse 24:4 Bilam does use certain names of God of our tradition that do appear in the inscription of De’ir Alla, which are E-l and Sh-adai.
What is interesting from a historical perspective is that Bilam’s words were so powerful that they were deemed worthy of being written on a wall, presumably by his followers – which also make us know that he was an actual seer, apparently famous. Unfortunately that inscription is not complete, and I personally would like to know more about the female donkey.
In that aspect, the story is very instructive. One of the main teachings, aside from the fact that Bilam ends up only saying what God tells him to say, is that animals suffer. This is not to be taken for granted, remember that Decartes saw animals as mere automathons with no conscience and therefore unable to feel pain. I know, sounds difficult to believe, but some thinkers compared the sounds that animals make when they are being beaten to the sounds a drum makes. Kid you not.
The story shows the donkey as seeing the angel, not once, but three times, while the Seer himself can’t see. Similarly, Bilam beats the donkey three times, the third one with the staff. The two other times, presumably, he used his hands.
If you paid attention, it was YHV”H that granted the power of speech to the donkey, and the angel is described as an angel of YHV”H. This is supposed to be a more precise, a more intimate name for God, and E-lohim a much more general name.
So going back to the question of Bilam and his relationship with the Divine, in the Torah Bilam sees himself as being intimate, but that intimacy is not corresponded. But YHV”H is so concerned with the donkey that the donkey receives the power to speak. And what I find quite aazing is that when Bilam answers, he seems completely unfazed by this donkey talking. Moreover, Bilam has his perspective so twisted that he accuses the animal of being the abuser, when in fact he is. Bilam says he would kill the donkey with the sword, when in fact it was the donkey who saved Bilam from the sword. And when the angel speaks, it speaks in defense of the donkey, and sets Bilam straight.
And here comes one of the lessons of the donkey: contrary to Descartes, the Torah never for a moment believes that animals are drums. And I would like to let you know that Decartes did a disservice to kindness to animals, because his views were used for at least a century to justify cruelty towards animals or at least indifference. But there are several instances of curbing animal abuse in the Torah: Unloading an overpacked animal (Exod 23:5); Giving animals rest (Exod 23:12); Giving the mother a week with its baby (Lev 22:27); Not slaughtering baby and mother in one day (Lev 22:28); Shooing the mother bird (Deut 22:6-7); No plowing different animals together (Deut 22:10); No muzzling while plowing (Deut 25:4).
The rabbis will add a few mitzvot of their own, based on their reading of the Torah: Shechitah – the requirement to slaughter animals by cutting the windpipe and carotid arteries in one motion, which causes the animal to die quickly; Ever min ha-chai – the prohibition to consume flesh taken off a living animal; Feeding – the requirement to feed one’s animals before eating (b. Berakhot 40a). The rabbis even coined a term for this, צער בעלי חיים “animal suffering,” the avoidance of which some texts declare to be a Torah principle. (Shabbat 28b, Baba Metziah 32b)
Maimonides, while not avoiding the issue of needing to use animals for both work and food, comments that the angel’s rebuke to Bilam is the source of not inflicting pain gratuitously, and so avoiding the character trait of cruelty. He forbids killing animals just for sport – and reinforces the idea that mitzvot are given to make our souls more refined, more sensitive to others’ suffering (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:17, 3:26 and 3:48).
A contemporary of Maimonides in Ashkenaz, a rabbi called Yehudah He-Chasid, wrote a work called Sefer Chasidim, which has all sorts of moral and ethical ideas. In a paragraph about small cruelties, he talks about the small cruelty of using spurrs on horses. And he says the following:
It is sinful to cause pain to animals. Therefore, don’t place too heavy a burden on an animal, don’t beat it ruthlessly, and don’t pull a cat’s ears to make it scream. According to the Sages, this thought is implied by the verse, “In that day—declares God—I will strike every horse with panic and its rider with madness” (Zechariah 12:4). They expound this to mean that in the future God will punish horsemen for goading their horses with their spurs.
One of the main lessons of Torah is the protection of the vulnerable, and that can be seen throughout the Jewish tradition as a reality. Animals, in that sense, are among the most vulnerable. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his book Horeb, writes the following:
“There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which like man have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In relation to them man so easily forgets that injured animal muscle twitches just like human muscle, that the maltreated nerves of an animal sicken like human nerves, that the animal being is just as sensitive to cuts, blows, and beatings as man.
Thus man becomes the torturer of the animal soul—which has been subjected to him only for the fulfillment of humane and wise purposes—sometimes out of self-interest, at other times in order to satisfy a whim, sometimes out of thoughtlessness, yes, even for the satisfaction of crude satanic desire.”
Let’s forgive him for his male-centered language, and let’s focus on the value he and all the other sages are setting forward – not only animals suffer, but they are to be protected. Even a very famous seer like Bilam needs to know that – and sometimes, just like Bilam, we believe we are so great, and we may end up forgetting that one of the fundamental values in Torah is not to be cruel, and to defend those that are powerless.