Commentators are often troubled by words that appear only once in the Bible. Unless the context reveals the meaning, it leaves the text less than clear. One such hapax legomenon appears in Numbers 23:3. The Hebrew word “shefi” appears here and, perhaps, one other place in the entire Bible (Job 33:21). It describes Bil’am’s attempted consultation with God after being propositioned to curse the people Israel by Balak. Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides separately explain that the word refers to the top of the promontory. They point to a cognate word used in Jeremiah 3:21. If they are correct, then Bil’am goes off on his own to the place where he was to look down on the Israelites and there, perhaps receive God’s guidance. But if this explanation were true, as Professor Jacob Milgrom points out (New JPS Commentary, p. 195), the verb in Hebrew should be “he went up,” and not “he went (off).”
One of the earliest Aramaic translations of the Bible, Targum Yonatan connects the word “shefi” with “shefifon,” meaning snake. In other words, Bil’am slithered off to use his divination, a caustic criticism of both his method and his character. Rabbi Hezekiah Manoah goes in an entirely different direction. Recalling the previous section in which Bil’am’s mule is described as crashing into the walls along the road injuring Bil’am in the process (Numbers 22:25), Hizquni explains that the word “shefi” means “injured.” He comes to this conclusion from Job 33:21. So on his reading. Bil’am despised the Israelites so much that he refused to wait for his injury to heal. Instead, he went injured to fulfill his heinous plot. Professor Jacob Milgrom suggests that the word “shefi” could be rendered “alone.” If so, then either Bil’am, withdraws to practice his divination in private, or, the God of Israel prefers to reveal himself away from the presence of an infidel like Balak.
Perhaps the most compelling explanation is that of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin. He interprets the word “shefi” to mean “slowly.” Bil’am emulated many spiritual practitioners who tried to induce an ecstatic state through meditative self-seclusion that would slowly establish a close and personal relationship with God. To the NeTZIV, as he is known by his acronym, the word “shefi” is not applied as a critique of Bil’am but as a suggestion of how to gain a deeper relationship for God. And that would be a benefit to all.
“Who is wise?” asks Pirke Avot, “he who learns from every person.” Jews can learn something about prayer even from a pagan wizard.