The story of Bilam, the pagan prophet, begins with a bewildering set of non-sequiturs—a sequence of events that seems to have no logic.

First, the background. The Israelites are approaching the end of their forty years in the wilderness. Already they have fought and won wars against Sichon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. They have arrived at the plains of Moab—today, southern Jordan at the point where it touches the Dead Sea. Balak, king of Moab, is concerned, and he shares his distress with the elders of Midian. The language the Torah uses at this point is precisely reminiscent of the reaction of the Egyptians at the beginning of the book of Exodus.

Egypt: “He said to his people: ‘Here, the children of Israel are more numerous and powerful than we . . .’ and they felt a disgust at the children of Israel.”

Moab: “Moab was very fearful because of the people, because it was numerous, and Moab felt a disgust at the children of Israel.”

The strategy Balak adopts is to seek the help of the well-known seer and diviner Bilam. Again there is a literary evocation, this time of the words of G‑d to Abraham:

G‑d to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse.”

Balak to Bilam: “I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”

This time the parallel is ironic (indeed, the Bilam story is full of irony). In the case of Abraham, it was G‑d who blessed. In the case of Bilam, the power was thought to reside in Bilam himself. In fact, the earlier statement of G‑d to Abraham already prefigures the fate of Moab—one who tries to curse Israel will himself be cursed.

The historical background to the Bilam narrative is well-attested. Several Egyptian pottery fragments dating from the 2nd millennium BCE have been found, containing execration texts—curses—directed against Canaanite cities. It was the custom among pre-Islamic Arabs to hire poets thought to be under divine influence to compose curses against their enemies. As for Bilam himself, a significant discovery was made in 1967. A plaster inscription on the wall of a temple at Deir Alla in Jordan was found to make reference to the night vision of a seer called Bilam—the earliest reference in archaeological sources to a named individual in the Torah. Thus, though the story itself contains elements of parable, it belongs to a definite context in time and place.

The character of Bilam remains ambiguous, in both the Torah and subsequent Jewish tradition. Was he a diviner (reading omens and signs), or a sorcerer (practising occult arts)? Was he a genuine prophet, or a fraud? Did he assent to the divine blessings placed in his mouth, or did he wish to curse Israel? According to some midrashic interpretations he was a great prophet, equal in stature to Moses. According to others, he was a pseudo-prophet with an “evil eye,” who sought Israel’s downfall. What I want to examine here is neither Bilam nor his blessings, but the preamble to the story, for it is here that one of the deepest problems arises, namely: what did G‑d want Bilam to do? It is a drama in three scenes.

In the first, emissaries arrive from Moab and Midian. They state their mission. They want Bilam to curse the Israelites. Bilam’s answer is a model of propriety: Stay the night, he says, while I consult with G‑d. G‑d’s answer is unequivocal:

But G‑d said to Bilam, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.”

Obediently, Bilam refuses. Balak redoubles his efforts. Perhaps more distinguished messengers and the promise of significant reward will persuade Bilam to change his mind. He sends a second set of emissaries. Bilam’s reply is exemplary:

“Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the L‑rd my G‑d.”

However, he adds a fateful rider:

“Now stay here tonight as the others did, and I will find out what else the L‑rd will tell me.”

The implication is clear. Bilam is suggesting that G‑d might change His mind. But this is impossible. That is not what G‑d does. Yet, to our surprise, that is what G‑d seems to do:

That night G‑d came to Bilam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”

Problem 1: first G‑d had said, “Do not go.” Now He says, “Go.” Problem 2 appears immediately:

Bilam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab. But G‑d was very angry when he went, and the angel of the L‑rd stood in the road to oppose him.

G‑d says, “Go.” Bilam goes. Then G‑d is very angry. Does G‑d change His mind—not once but twice in the course of a single narrative? The mind reels. What is going on here? What is Bilam supposed to do? What does G‑d want? There is no explanation. Instead, the narrative shifts to the famous scene of Bilam’s donkey—itself a mystery in need of interpretation:

Bilam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the L‑rd standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Bilam beat it to get it back on the road.

Then the angel of the L‑rd stood in a narrow path between two vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the L‑rd, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Bilam’s foot against it. So he beat it again.

Then the angel of the L‑rd moved on ahead, and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the L‑rd, it lay down under Bilam, and Bilam was angry and beat the donkey with his staff. Then the L‑rd opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Bilam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”

Bilam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

The donkey said to Bilam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” “No,” he said.

Then the L‑rd opened Bilam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the L‑rd standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.

The commentators offer various ways of resolving the apparent contradictions between G‑d’s first and second reply. According to Nachmanides, G‑d’s first statement, “Don’t go with them,” meant, “Don’t curse the Israelites.” His second—“Go with them”—meant, “Go, but make it clear that you will say only the words I will put in your mouth, even if they are words of blessing.” G‑d was angry with Bilam, not because he went but because he did not tell them of the proviso.

In the nineteenth century, Malbim and R. Zvi Hirsch Mecklenberg suggested a different answer based on close textual analysis. The Hebrew text uses two different words for “with them” in the first and second divine replies. When G‑d says, “Don’t go with them,” the Hebrew is imahem. When He later says, “Go with them,” the corresponding word is itam. The two prepositions have subtly different meanings. Imahem means “with them mentally as well as physically,” going along with their plans. Itam means “with them physically but not mentally”—in other words, Bilam could accompany them but not share their purpose or intention. G‑d is angry when Bilam goes, because the text states that he went im them—in other words, he identified with their mission. This is an ingenious solution. The only difficulty is verse 35, in which the angel of G‑d, having opened Bilam’s eyes, finally tells Bilam, “Go with the men.” According to Malbim and Mecklenberg, this is precisely what G‑d did not want Bilam to do.

The deepest answer is also the simplest. The hardest word to hear in any language is the word No. Bilam had asked G‑d once. G‑d had said No. That should have sufficed. Yet Bilam asked a second time. In that act lay his fateful weakness of character. He knew that G‑d did not want him to go. Yet he invited the second set of messengers to wait overnight, in case G‑d had changed his mind.

G‑d does not change His mind. Therefore, Bilam’s delay said something—not about G‑d, but about himself. He had not accepted the divine refusal. He wanted to hear the answer “Yes”—and that is indeed what he heard. Not because G‑d wanted him to go, but because G‑d speaks once, and if we refuse to accept what He says, G‑d does not force His will upon us. As the sages of the Midrash put it: “Man is led down the path he chooses to tread.”

The true meaning of G‑d’s second reply, “Go with them,” is: “If you insist, then I cannot stop you going—but I am angry that you should have asked a second time.” G‑d did not change His mind at any point in the proceedings. In scenes 1, 2 and 3, G‑d did not want Bilam to go. His “Yes” in scene 2 meant “No”—but it was a “No” Bilam could not hear, was not prepared to hear. When G‑d speaks and we do not listen, He does not intervene to save us from our choices. “Man is led down the path he chooses to tread.” But G‑d was not prepared to let Bilam proceed as if he had divine consent. Instead, He arranged the most elegant possible demonstration of the difference between true and false prophecy. The false prophet speaks. The true prophet listens. The false prophet tells people what they want to hear. The true prophet tells them what they need to hear. The false prophet believes in his own powers. The true prophet knows that he has no power. The false prophet speaks in his own voice. The true prophet speaks in a voice not his (“I am not a man of words,” says Moses; “I cannot speak, for I am a child,” says Jeremiah).

The episode of Bilam and talking donkey is pure humor—and, as I have pointed out before, only one thing provokes divine laughter, namely human pretension. Bilam had won renown as the greatest prophet of his day. His fame had spread to Moab and Midian. He was known as the man who held the secrets of blessing and curse. G‑d now proceeds to show Bilam that when He so chooses, even his donkey is a greater prophet than he. The donkey sees what Bilam cannot see: the angel standing in the path, barring their way. G‑d humbles the self-important, just as He gives importance to the humble. When human beings think they can dictate what G‑d will say, G‑d laughs. And, on this occasion, so do we.

Some years ago, I was making a television program for the BBC. The problem I faced was this. I wanted to make a documentary about teshuvah, repentance, but I had to do so in a way that would be intelligible to non-Jews as well as Jews—indeed, to those who had no religious belief at all. What example could I choose that would illustrate the point?

I decided that one way of doing so was to look at drug addicts. They had developed behavior that they knew was self-destructive, but it was also addictive. To break the habit would involve immense reserves of will. They had to acknowledge that the life they led was harming them, and that they had to change. That seemed to me a secular equivalent of teshuvah.

I spent a day in a rehabilitation center, and it was heartbreaking. The young people there—they were aged between 16 and 18—all came from broken families. Many of them had suffered abuse. Other than the workers at the center, they had no networks of support. The staff were exceptional people. Their task was mind-numbingly difficult. They would succeed in getting the addicts to break the habit for days or weeks at a time, and then they would relapse and the whole process would have to begin again. I began to realize that their patience was little less than a human counterpart of G‑d’s patience with us. However many times we fail and have to begin again, G‑d does not lose faith in us, and that gives us strength. Here were people doing G‑d’s work.

I asked the head of the center, a social worker, what it was that she gave the young people that made a difference to their lives and gave them the chance to change. I will never forget her answer, because it was one of the most beautiful I ever heard. “We are probably the first people they have met who care for them unconditionally. And we are the first people in their lives who cared enough to say No.”

“No” is the hardest word to hear, but it is also often the most important—and the sign that someone cares. That is what Bilam, humbled, eventually learned, and what we too must discover if we are to be open to the voice of G‑d.