Balaam, The Improbable Prophet (Part 1)

Anyone who has traveled with small children will remember the question that inevitably arises from at least one of them during a trip, “Are we almost there?” Sometimes the query is, “How much longer before we get there?” These and similar inquiries often are voiced by eager young ones only fifteen minutes into an extended trip!

Can you imagine how many times these questions were heard from little children during the Israelites’ forty-year journey to the Promised Land? Not only the children who came out of Egypt, but also their children must have asked those questions hundreds of times. The answer they most often probably received was, “We don’t know when but we do know that God will lead us to our land someday.”

When the Israelites finally reached the plains of Moab, however, that answer must have changed to “Soon we will be there, children.” The plains of Moab were “beyond the Jordan at Jericho” (Num. 22:1). The people could look across the narrow river in its gorge and see the Promised Land. It had been a long and tedious journey, and they now were almost home. They had endured dozens of trials and conflicts during their wilderness experience, but as they were camped on those plains, they would experience the most severe attack of all. The ironic thing about this trial, however, is that none of the Israelites—not even Moses—knew anything about it when it was taking place!

Numbers 22-24 records the account of Balaam, the seer from the east, who was hired to curse Israel but ended up only blessing them. This fascinating, yet perplexing, account was considered so important by ancient Jews that the rabbis in the Talmud referred to this section as the sixth book of Moses! A current evangelical scholar also has written, “Many OT theologians have seen in the Balaam narrative the quintessence of the theology of the Pentateuch. Who was this Balaam? What did he say about Israel? What did he also say, if anything, about Israel’s Deliverer?”

To put it simply, Balaam was a pagan soothsayer from the ancient region known as Mesopotamia (Num. 22:5; cf. also Deut. 23:4 and Josh. 13:22). When Balak, king of Moab, saw the Israelites passing through his land, he knew he could not defeat them militarily. One of the ironies of this account is that Balak’s fear of Israel was actually groundless because God already had told Moses not to harm the Moabites (Deut. 2:9). Nevertheless, Balak sent a group of messengers to “hire” Balaam to come and curse the Israelites so they could then be beaten.

Balaam must be seen as one of those non-Israelite individuals who had preserved some knowledge of the true God. Other examples in the Pentateuch are Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20) and Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law (Ex. 18:1). Many also believe that Job was not of Israelite ancestry. In Balaam’s case, however, his information about the true God was mingled with pagan concepts of polytheism.

The account in Numbers 22:8-22 about God’s forbidding Balaam to go, then allowing him to go, and then being angry with him for going has perplexed many readers. Although Balaam’s initial response seems to be noble (“Go to your own land, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you”—Num. 22:13), it must be understood that Balaam longed deeply for the monetary reward and was motivated by covetousness and greed. Both Jewish tradition and the New Testament join in exposing the sinful heart of this evil man. Consider, for example, this statement in the Talmud: “Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul are among the disciples of the wicked Balaam. His disciples inherit Gehenna [i.e., Hell] and descend into the well of destruction” (Abot 5:22). The three NT references to him are all negative: 2 Peter 2:15 warns of the greedy “way of Balaam”; Jude 11 describes the covetous “error of Balaam”; while Revelation 2:14 exposes the evil “teaching of Balaam.”

In light of this, we should view God’s anger at Balaam in the account in light of God’s knowledge of Balaam’s true heart condition. Balaam’s heart was set on going; and as the divine wisdom allows men always to act in freedom, so here it is permitted Balaam to go, seeing he was so fully bent upon it. Perhaps a parallel reference would be Psalm 81:12: “So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.”

On his way, the “angel of the LORD” three times impeded Balaam’s progress, although Balaam himself could not see him at all (Num. 22:22-35). Balaam’s donkey, however, was able to see the angel all the while. When Balaam had struck his recalcitrant animal for the third time, “LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’ ” (22:28). This famous incident is usually all that most Christians know about the Balaam story, but many readers miss another example of irony in this account. The lowly donkey is able to see the angel, while the so-called “seer” is blind to the presence of a real spiritual being! This rebuke, from a normally dumb beast, must have further humbled Balaam’s proud heart. In other words, God’s message to him through this incident was, “Your seeing is not going to accomplish anything. I will put the words into your mouth.”

When Balaam finally arrived, he knew that he could only speak a message from God. He would not be allowed to follow his covetous heart and fulfill Balak’s wishes. Yet, Balak, probably in desperation, still made elaborate sacrificial preparations for Balaam to proceed with the ritual of cursing (Num. 22:39-23:2).

What did he say? (See Part 2)

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Ed Vasicek's picture

Balaam's part in the Israel's wilderness wandering is a fascinating study -- and the Balaam approach that lives on.  Looking forward to part two.


Some legends say Balaam founded the Magi.  I think Henry Morris and others suggest that Balaam was Zoroastrian.  And then there is that obscure ancient graffiti about Balaam mentioned (with photo) by Kenneth Kitchen in his book, "On the Reliability of the Old Testament."


Anyone done research on these matters?



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