A Non-Jewish Prophet Like Balaam Or Muhammad – OpEd


“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses,” says a verse in the Torah’s final book of Deuteronomy (34:10). “But one has arisen among the (non-Jewish) nations!” states the rabbinic Midrash titled Sifrei Deuteronomy (357). 

This pagan prophet receives some respect, as well as lots of contempt, in Rabbinic tradition. An internationally famous holy man, the Moabite king Balak, hired Prophet Balaam to curse Israel Numbers  22:6 …”for I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”

But Prophet Balaam insists he will do nothing but transmit God’s words. Hinting it might take back its insult to Moses’ supremacy, Sifrei adds that, of course, there is a difference between pagan and Israelite prophecy. But Sifrei then digs the hole deeper by offering a list of reasons why Balaam was actually superior to Moses. 

Prophet Balaam recognized God from the start, unlike Prophet Moses, baffled by the burning bush. Balaam knew when God would come to him, unlike Moses, surprised by God’s voice. And God came to Balaam even when he lay in a visionary trance, while Moses had to stand waiting in attendance on God like a servant. 

“And there did not arise a prophet since in Israel like Moses” (Deuteronomy 34:10): None has arisen in Israel, but one has arisen among the (non-Jewish) nations. Who was he? Balaam son of Beor. Translation from Reuven Hammer’s Sifre: A Tannaitic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy (Yale University Press 1986).

Balaam’s declarations are among the most linguistically difficult in the Torah. The great Israeli linguist Shlomo Morag argued that Balaam’s language was archaic, noting parallels with the ancient North Canaanite poetry of Ugarit in today’s Lebanon. Thus Prophet Balaam may have been much older than Prophet Moses and/or a direct descendant of Prophet Ishmael. 

In accordance with the spirit of religious pluralism, I offer a rabbinic explanation of the first part of a passage that seems meant for Jews only; but could also be expanded to include the revelations of other monotheistic religions in other languages.

“This is the blessing Moses, a man of God, pronounced upon the Israelites before his death. He said: The Lord came from Sinai and revealed himself to Israel from Seir. He appeared in splendor from Mount Paran, and came forth with ten thousand holy ones. With his right hand he gave a fiery law to them. Surely He loves the people [of Jacob]; all your holy ones are in your power. They sit at your feet, each receiving your words. Moses delivered to us a Torah, an inheritance for the assembly of Jacob.”  (Deuteronomy 33:1-4)

Those Rabbis who did see Prophet Muhammad as a legitimate non-Jewish Prophet must have known the rabbinic Midrash (understanding) of one verse in the final prophecy of Moses: “The Lord came from Sinai; and rose up from Seir unto them. He shined forth from Mount Paran; and came with tens of thousands of saints. From His right hand went a fiery law for them.” (Deuteronomy 33:2)

 The third or fourth century Midrash (Sifre Devarim Piska 343) interprets this verse as follows: “When God revealed Himself in order to give the Torah to (Banu Israel) He did not do so from just one direction, but from all four directions, as it says: “The Lord came from Sinai (north); rose from Seir (west); shined forth from Mount Param” (east) and what is the fourth direction? “God comes from Teman” (south Arabia/Yemen) (Habakuk 3:3) 

Then the Midrash continues: “When God revealed Himself by giving Torah to Israel; He spoke to them not in one language but in four: Sinai=Hebrew; (Bible); Seir=Eastern Roman (Greek New Testament); Mount Paran=Arabic (Qur’an); and with ten thousands of saints from His right hand went forth a fiery law for them=Aramaic (this refers to the thousands of holy Prophets and Messengers God sent to all the other tribes, peoples, languages and nations: like the Zoroastrian, Manichian, Mandaean, Vedic and Upanishad scriptures etc.). (Sifre Devarim Piska 343)

This amazing prophecy of Prophet Moses predicting the rise of a non-Jewish monotheistic Islam 1800 years in the future is a tribute to the greatness of God’s Prophets, and a sign that there can be no conflict between God’s revelations, if they are correctly understood. The Gospels and the Qur’an do not replace the revelations that preceded them; they are intended to expand them to include more people. 

Jews believe that the long period of Jewish prophecy that began with Prophet Abraham, ended about 1.000 years later with Prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, who lived towards the end of the century that began with the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. 

Perhaps this is the reason many first century Jews believed Jesus was not an original prophet; but was a revived Biblical prophet: “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man [the term Jesus used to describe himself] is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the [other] prophets.” (Matthew 16:13-14, Mark 8:27-28, and Luke 9:18-19)

And perhaps this is why Jesus stresses so strongly that he has not come to replace, but only to enhance Judaism: “Do not think that I have come to abolish Torah laws, or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not a dot, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished. 

“Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same; will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them, and teaches them, will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds  that of the [synagogue] scribes and Pharisees [Orthodox Jews]; you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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