I finally got around to one of my requests! Tara and I have been discussing several topics, such as the Priesthood Ban, Polygamy, and Abraham, and the story of Balaam always seems to come up. She takes the position that Balaam is a fallen prophet, but I think he never was a prophet. Here’s my case. What do you think?
Balaam has to be one of the most intriguing characters in the Bible. He is one of only 7 gentile prophets mentioned in the Bible. The others are Beor (Balaam’s father), Job and his 4 friends. My favorite part of the story of Balaam is the talking donkey–it is the only place where an animal speaks (unless you count the serpent in the Garden of Eden.) Ascertaining Balaam’s character can be a bit of a challenge. On the one hand, the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24 says the he not only talked with God, but a destroying angel appears to prevent him from cursing Israel. On the other hand, he is referred to as “the wicked one” in Revelations. So which is he?
Let’s get some background and a brief synopsis of the story of Balaam.
Wikipedia tells of some Talmudic and Midrashic thought on Balaam. To quote,
In rabbinic literature Balaam is represented as one of seven gentile prophets; the other six being Beor (Balaam’s father), Job, and Job’s four friends (Talmud, B. B. 15b). In this literature, Balaam gradually acquired a position among the non-Jews, which was exalted as much as that of Moses among the Jews (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20); at first being a mere interpreter of dreams, but later becoming a magician, until finally the spirit of prophecy descended upon him (ib. 7).
The Book of Numbers Chapter 21 details the wandering of Moses and the children of Israel after their escape from Egypt. This is the chapter where God sends fiery serpents among the complaining Israelites. Moses fashions a brass serpent and promises them they’ll be healed from the serpents simply by looking at the brass serpent.
As the chapter finishes, Moses and the children of Israel wipe out the Ammonites and the Amorites, taking several cities. Numbers 21:24-25 says,
24 And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from Arnon unto Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon: for the border of the children of Ammon [was] strong.
25 So they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him alive: and they possessed his land.
Chapter 22 begins with the story of Balaam. As the chapter begins, the leaders of the cities of Moab and Midian are concerned about the Israelites. Apparently Balaam has quite a reputation among non-Israelites. Some Bible commenters have even compared Balaam to a gentile version of Moses. The King of the Moabites (Balak) believes Balaam has a special gift of cursing. He tries to strike up a deal with Balaam to get him to curse Israel in Numbers 22:6, “I wot [know] that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed. ”
Curiously, in verse 9, “And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men [are] these with thee?” I say curiously, because Moses was the prophet of the God of Israel. Why would he be speaking to Balaam–a non-Israelite–at this time, if the God of Israel is the only true god, Moses is the living prophet, and Balak and his friends wanted to offer sacrifice to other gods to defeat Moses and Israel? For in verse 7, “the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand;” Divination was a wicked practice according to the Law of Moses.
In verse 12, God tells Balaam not to go with Balak, and further instructions Balaam,
“thou shalt not curse the people: for they [are] blessed.”
This leads some to believe Balaam might be a true prophet, who believes in the true God. So far, so good, right? Well, let’s continue with the story. Balak entreats Balaam to come again. This time, Balaam gets a different answer. God tells him to go. Dutifully, Balaam obeys the Lord.
20 And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do.
21 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.
But strangely, a destroying angel stops Balaam’s donkey, but Balaam can’t see the angel yet, and begins to beat his stubborn donkey. The donkey begins to talk to Balaam, and asks why Balaam is beating him. For me, this is the best part of the story,
Num 22:29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.
Num 22:30 And the ass said unto Balaam, [Am] not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since [I was] thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.
Num 22:31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.
Num 22:32 And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? Behold, I went out to withstand thee, because [thy] way is perverse before me:
Num 22:33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.
Num 22:34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.
Num 22:35 And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
Ok, apparently Balaam is having a hard time understanding God. Don’t go, go, Don’t go, go. Frankly, I’d be confused too. But God tells him to go, and speak his words. But instead of offering sacrifice to Yahweh, the God of Moses and the children of Israel, Balaam and Balak offer sacrifice to Baal, the notorious idol god that Moses, Joshua, and other prophets tell the children of Israel to avoid. They build alters to Baal, but God answers instead.
39 And Balaam went with Balak, and they came unto Kirjath-huzoth.
40 And Balak offered oxen and sheep, and sent to Balaam, and to the princes that were with him.
41 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal, that thence he might see the utmost part of the people.
1 And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams.
2 And Balak did as Balaam had spoken; and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bullock and a ram.
3 And Balaam said unto Balak, Stand by thy burnt offering, and I will go: peradventure the Lord will come to meet me: and whatsoever he sheweth me I will tell thee. And he went to an high place.
4 And God met Balaam: and he said unto him, I have prepared seven altars, and I have offered upon every altar a bullock and a ram.
Balaam blessed Israel. Balak is not pleased.
11 And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether.
The story continues, and Balaam blesses Israel two more times. It is curious, because Balak clearly worships Baal, and they offer sacrifice to Baal, yet God answers. Some might perceive that Balaam is like Rahab the prostitute who hides Joshua and Israeli spies who later tried to take Jericho. However, Balaam is not spared, because curiously, he tells Balak how to defeat Israel: get Israel to sin by introducing beautiful Midianites. Now, why would a true prophet encourage sin?
Moses and his army did not spare Balaam. In chapter 31 we learn,
Num. 31: 8, 16
8 And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.
16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord.
The ancient historian Josephus explains this “counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord “at this website.
I’ve changed formatting for readability, but according to Josephus, Balaam told Balak to send beautiful women and induce Israel to break the law of chastity. Balaam said,
O Balak, and you Midianites that are here present, (for I am obliged even without the will of God to gratify you,) it is true no entire destruction can seize upon the nation of the Hebrews, neither by war, nor by plague, nor by scarcity of the fruits of the earth, nor can any other unexpected accident be their entire ruin; for the providence of God is concerned to preserve them from such a misfortune; nor will it permit any such calamity to come upon them whereby they may all perish;
but some small misfortunes, and those for a short time, whereby they may appear to be brought low, may still befall them; but after that they will flourish again, to the terror of those that brought those mischiefs upon them. So that if you have a mind to gain a victory over them for a short space of time, you will obtain it by following my directions: Do you therefore set out the handsomest of such of your daughters as are most eminent for beauty, (10) and proper to force and conquer the modesty of those that behold them, and these decked and trimmed to the highest degree able.
Then do you send them to be near camp, and give them in charge, that the young men of the Hebrews desire their allow it them; and when they see they are enamored of them, let them take leaves; and if they entreat them to stay, let give their consent till they have persuaded leave off their obedience to their own laws, the worship of that God who established them to worship the gods of the Midianites and for by this means God will be angry at them (11). Accordingly, when Balaam had suggested counsel to them, he went his way.
9. Now the young men were induced by the fondness they had for these women to think they spake very well; so they gave themselves up to what they persuaded them, and transgressed their own laws, and supposing there were many gods, and resolving that they would sacrifice to them according to the laws of that country which ordained them, they both were delighted with their strange food, and went on to do every thing that the women would have them do, though in contradiction to their own laws; so far indeed that this transgression was already gone through the whole army of the young men, and they fell into a sedition that was much worse than the former, and into danger of the entire abolition of their own institutions; for when once the youth had tasted of these strange customs, they went with insatiable inclinations into them; and even where some of the principal men were illustrious on account of the virtues of their fathers, they also were corrupted together with the rest.
The Bible continues to condemn Balaam.
- 2 Peter 2:15 “Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; “
- Jude 1:11 “they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core.”
- Rev 2:14 “the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
There is an interesting discovery which references Balaam. More information can be found here. It tells of a discovery in 1967 of an ancient text found at Deir Alla, Jordan, in 1967 tells about the activities of a prophet named Balaam. The text references “Balaam son of Beor,” exactly as in the Bible. The website says,
The remarkable text found at Deir Alla consists of 119 fragments of plaster inscribed with black and red ink. It was among the rubble of a building destroyed in an earthquake. It seems to have been one long column with at least 50 lines, displayed on a plastered wall. According to the excavators’ dating, the disaster was most likely the severe earthquake which occurred in the time of King Uzziah (Azariah) and the prophet Amos in about 760 BC (Amos 1:1; Zec 14:5). The lower part of the text shows signs of wear, indicating that it had been on the wall for some time prior to the earthquake.
Written in Aramaic, the text begins with the title “Warnings from the Book of Balaam the son of Beor. He was a seer of the gods.” It is in red ink, as are other portions of the text where emphasis is desired. The reference to the “Book of Balaam” indicates that the text was part of a pre-existing document and therefore the original date of the material is much earlier than the plaster text itself. Balaam goes on to relate a vision concerning impending judgment from the gods, and enters into a dispute with his listeners.
There are a number of similarities between the text and the account of Balaam in the book of Numbers. To begin with, the events described in Numbers 22-24 took place in the same general area where the text was found. At the time of the Numbers 22-24 incident, the Israelites were camped on the Plains of Moab, across the Jordan river from Jericho. Deir Alla is located about 25 miles north of this area, where the Jabbok river flows into the Jordan valley. Balaam was from Pethor, near “the river” (Num 22:5), in “Aram” (Num 23:7; Dt 23:4).
The reference to Aram has led most scholars to conclude that Balaam was from northern Syria, in the vicinity of the Euphrates river. That does not fit well with the Biblical account, however, since Balaam’s home seems to have been close to where the Israelites were camped (Num 22:1-22; 31:7-8).
In view of Balaam being revered at Deir Alla, one would expect that Deir Alla was his home. This is exactly what William Shea has proposed, based on his reading of the name Pethor in an inscribed clay tablet found at Deir Alla (1989:108-11). In this case, the river of Numbers 22:5 would be the Jabbok river and the naharaim (two rivers) of Deuteronomy 23:4 would be the Jabbok and Jordan rivers.
With regard to the references to Aram, Shea suggests that the original place name was Adam, with the “d” being miscopied as “r,” since the two letters are nearly identical in ancient Hebrew. Adam was a town about eight miles southwest of Deir Alla, on the east bank of the Jordan river, where the Jabbok meets the Jordan.
Here are some interesting websites you might like to reference.
- http://www.lds.org/gospellibrary/materials/OT/Start_Here.pdf#search=%22gospel%20doctrine%22 page 73 lesson 16
With all this background, I don’t believe Balaam can ever be considered a legitimate prophet. Respectful disagreement is welcome, and I ask what you think of Balaam and this unusual story?