Friday, June 21, 2013

Abarbanel on Bilaam's Theology

Here is a short piece from Isaac Abarbanel biblical commentary demonstrating his often oddly naturalistic interpretation of texts. He attempts to strip Bilaam of any magical power to curse while preserving a supernatural deity capable of interacting with the world.

It is said that Bilaam’s thought in going was that the [divine] influence only extended to the celestial order. It might come about that God May He Be Blessed will bless the Israelite nation and give them good blessings with his guidance. This does not prevent, according to what the stars show, much suffering, evils, plagues and the execution of judgments. [He assumed that] matters of [divine] influence worked the same. Because of this, he chose, in following his calculations based on his knowledge of the future things that would happen to Israel based on the celestial order, either destruction or exile from one of many times. He wished to inform Balak about these things in order to fulfill his request so that he would pay him. Because his intentions in this matter were bad, God became angry that he went and placed an angel of God on the path. This angel was not able to kill Bilaam as did the angel of God that smote the camp of the king of Assyria. Bilaam did not deserve to die as he went according to the word of God and his permission. Furthermore, he [God] did not wish to prevent him from going for, as I previously explained, God wished for the sake of his righteousness that Bilaam go and bless Israel and publicize among the gentiles God’s love for his people and their future success that will come to them. Because of this, all the prophecies that he sought to tell over among the nations that were to be prophecies of loss, he did not remember. Not exile, not the destruction that will come upon Israel. For God hid it from him and he could not tell it over for the reason I recalled. But the angel of God went forth to oppose him on the path, meaning to remove from Bilaam the thought that he wished to tell the future evils that will befall Israel and to inform Bilaam that it was not in his power to speak, but a matter of God’s will. For God planted the tongue and gave a mouth to man. For behold, his mouth and tongue was no different than the mouth of his donkey that spoke through wondrous means, which was not in its nature to do. This furthermore served to tell him that the celestial order cannot not be spread nor be maintained except through that which does not contradict the higher influence. But in that which influences there is no power in the [natural] order to nullify the influence or challenge it. For God’s plan will stand no matter what. (Abarbanel, Commentary on Numbers 118a.)    


This piece exemplifies both Abarbanel’s general naturalistic scheme and hints at the role played by apocalypticism within it. As a medieval rationalist, Abarbanel’s universe was a distinctly non-magical one with set immutable laws of nature. Human beings like Bilaam have no actual power. As such he is unable, through his own efforts, to actually cause bad things to happen. While this natural order protects people from the likes of Bilaam, it leaves man in a bleak position of utter helplessness against these very laws, which seem indifferent to human welfare. Since man is totally at the mercy of nature and cannot improve his situation, the only meaningful thing for him to do is gain knowledge about the world. Paradoxically, knowledge both liberates man from his state of ignorance, while at the same time trapping him with the awareness of his total helplessness. Bilaam is dangerous in that he is enlightened enough to appreciate his helplessness, but he finds no meaning in this universe beyond using his knowledge for his own material benefit.

The one ray of hope, in what is admittedly a very depressing worldview, is that God exists as the prime mover of the universe. Even this is not immediately a cause for optimism. God is outside of nature, but his working through nature radically limits him by making it as if he were an extension of nature. This is not a God, who can be relied upon to step outside of nature to prevent evil and provide only good. Bilaam knows this and therefore comes to the conclusion that eventually nature, in the form of historical entropy, will catch up with the Israelites. The last joke though is on Bilaam. God may operate the world according to nature, but he is outside of nature and he directs it for a purpose. This purpose is redemption, an act that is both within nature and the divine transcendence of it. As a rationalist, Abarbanel rejected magical solutions that were not rooted in the order of nature. His apocalypticism was thus rooted in this natural order. The same natural laws of history that brought Israel down will also sustain Israel in exile and allow for their return to power. While this remains a natural process, it is ultimately made possible through the divine influence at the root of the natural order.    

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