Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-two: Abraham and Bala’am

This next verse is a long one, I’m afraid, and a short note.

A good eye, and a lowly soul, and a humble spirit (belong to) the disciple of Abraham: an evil eye, and a swelling soul, and a haughty spirit, to the disciple of Bile’am. And what difference is between the disciples of Abraham and the disciples of Bile’am? The disciples of Bile’am, go down to Gehinnom, for it is said, But thou, O God, shalt bring them down into the pit of destruction, but the disciples of Abraham inherit the Garden of ’Eden, for it is said, That I may cause those that love me to inherit SUBSTANCE; and I will fill their treasures.

Do y’all remember Bala’am (called Bale’am here by Charles Taylor for some reason) who was, I surmise, a very popular superhero wonder-worker in contemporary stories? No? Talking donkey? Yes, that one. R. Travers Herford surmises that for the Sages, Bala’am was a code name for Jesus, and all the stories about the wonder-worker who leads people astray, who hates the people Israel but is confounded in his attacks on it, and who is made mock of, and generally bested in every way, well those were stories about what we used to call JCSD in our undergraduate days, the ways Jews defined themselves against the emerging Jesusites (and vice versa). I am skeptical of this; I think that Jews in the first couple of centuries of the common era were probably much more worried about non-Jewish Romans than about the spread of Jesus-ism and eventually Christianity. Still, I think it’s worth pointing out that there were at this time various wonder-workers in the land, some of whom were fomenting rebellion against the Romans, and some of whom were fomenting rebellion against the Herod, and some of whom were fomenting rebellion against whatever you got. The distinction the Sages are making between the followers of Abraham (and the Old Ways) and the followers of any wonder-worker (and his New Ways) was bound to be political whether the wonder-worker has messianic claims to the Throne of David or not.

Having said that, the sages responded to the various political division, at least in this text, by recommending a good eye (meaning, presumably, the opposite of the evil eye, an eye that wishes good on what it sees), and a lowly soul, and a humble spirit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

2 thoughts on “Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-two: Abraham and Bala’am

  1. Melissa R.

    Once again I have been very much enjoying reading these, though I only rarely comment.


    “Bala’am” is a word I would pronounce “bah-LAHM” or perhaps “bah-LAH-am” if it were up to me. But lately I have had the “Five Constipated Men” song running through my head (apparently it’s a good thing to sing to constipated cats on their way to the vet), and in all the versions I have heard sung, it’s pronounced “BAY-lem”. Think that’s some kind of Anglicization/regionalism, or is this one of those places where the Hebrew just doesn’t sound like it looks in Roman letters?

  2. Vardibidian

    I looked up the Hebrew to be sure and it turns out that I have been saying it wrong. I assumed that it would be three syllables: ba-la-am, with the same vowel in each syllable. In fact, it’s two syllables: bill-am, with the possibility of a tiny intermediate unstressed schwa that would make it something like bill-uh-am. But really, it’s two syllables. Not sure why and how it got into English with the extra a. I will say that BAY-lem is not even close to the Hebrew, tho’ of course the old texts have no vowels, and the pronunciations were brought down as oral tradition, so there’s that. Still, there have been vowels in the text for a long, long, time, and the long a just isn’t there.

    Also: Self-Definition. JCSD was a seminar taught by the great Amy-Jill Levine on Jewish and Christian texts of the first century or two CE. Dunno if she still teaches it at Vanderbilt.



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