Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.
The Old Testament’s Book of Numbers is unique in its own right. It lays out God’s rule for the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. It also tells of the wars led by Moses and the wrath of God for those who violated his rules. In addition, it briefly breaks away from the Moses’s narrative to focus on a diviner and prophet named Balaam.
Balaam is not a beloved prophet. Despite going against a king bent on destroying the Israelites, Balaam eventually falls out of favor with God. In addition, several books in the Old and New Testament symbolize him as a “bad teacher” and a wicked prophet for hire. The change is sudden and inexplicable, at least through the perspective of reading the bible. However, the reason for this transformation could be the result of Balaam’s non-Jewishl origins and biblical teachings against greed and fortune telling.
Balaam in the Bible
To understand Balaam, one must look at his most famous -- and enduring -- narrative from the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old Testament in the Christian Bible). Balaam entered the bible late in the book of Numbers. From Chapters 22 through 24, he became the protagonist of a narrative referred to as the “Balaam’s Periscope” (two or more literary narratives). His arrival marked a contentious point in which the people of Israel – led by Moses and his brother Aaron – started their push to take back the land that God had promised them.
Having conquered many kingdoms in their wake, the Israelites were on the edge of the kingdom of Moab. The king, Balak of Zippor, sent for help to quell the encroaching threat. One person came to mind: Balaam, son of Beor, who was at “Pethor, near the River (Euphrates)…”
Balak’s message -- brought by the elders (later referred to as princes) from Moab and Midian, included a divination fee to sweeten the plea. The message was:
- “A people have come out of Egypt, they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. Now, come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country. For I know that those you bless are blessed, and those you curse are cursed (Num. 22:5 -6).”
The message was the first clue to his identity; he was a man of great magical power. Or, to be precise, a diviner, which was a magician of sorts from the Transjordan tradition (more on that later). Further, Chapter 22 revealed that Balaam did more than conjure up curses. He appeared to have the ability to talk to Yahweh, the biblical name for God. This made him similar, in some respects, to Moses.
Balaam Talks to God
As written in the narrative, Balaam had a conversation with God while Balak’s messengers stayed in his palace. In his initial conversation, God told him the following:
- “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed (Num. 22: 12).”
He relayed this message to his guests, who left to tell Balak that Balaam refused his offer.
Balak didn’t take “no” for an answer. He sent more messengers to persuade him. This time, he offered to reward Balaam handsomely. However, after another conversation with God, Balaam turned down the offer, stating:
- “Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God (Num. 22:18).”
Later that night, however, God gave him another message:
- “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you (Num. 22:20).”
This led to the best-known biblical tale involving Balaam, as well as some curious contradictions in the account.
Chapter 22’s verses 21 through 41 has a subheading of “Balaam’s Donkey”. Historically, this account was once popular in Judaic and Christian sermons during the Middle ages. It inspired artistic renditions from paintings, poems, music, sculptures, and miracle plays. Over the centuries, the story lost its luster (most likely due to the negative reputation of Balaam in later passages).
“Balaam’s Donkey” told of his journey to Moab with Balak’s messengers. The story focused on him, his donkey, an angel and God. Inexplicably, Balak’s messengers vanished from the text. Also inexplicable was God’s anger toward Balaam for going on the journey, despite what he told him the night before.
As the story progressed, Balaam and the donkey saw one of the Lord’s angel appear. The angel drew his sword while blocking the road ahead of them. The donkey panicked and turned away. In anger, Balaam beat the poor donkey until it continued the journey. Then, the angel reappeared before them. The donkey reacted in the same way, as did Balaam.
Then, in "Verse 28", God spoke through the donkey and asked, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
Finally, it happened a third time. This time, the donkey laid down before the Angel. Not realizing the gravity of the situation, Balaam beat the donkey, again.
Then, in "Verse 28", God spoke through the donkey and asked, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
Balaam responded by saying, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand I would kill you right now.”
God/Donkey replied, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” Balaam replied by saying no.
In response, the following happened:
- Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown (Num. 22:31)
In what can be best described as foreshadowing for the entire Balaam saga, the Lord’s angel warned Balaam that if he continued the journey and ignored the donkey, death by the sword was inevitable. In this case, Balaam got the message and was allowed to continue his journey…as long as he listened to the Lord’s command.
Obedience to the lord is the theme of “Balaam’s Donkey”. It also sets up Balaam’s confrontation with Balak in Chapter 23 and 24.
This portion of Balaam’s Periscope reinforced the message of “Balaam’s Donkey”. In addition, it continued the conflict between him and Balak and further revealed Balaam as a hero, albeit temporarily..
The five oracles mentioned involved several rituals using animal sacrifices (which is not completely different from the type God ordered the Israelites to do in Numbers); however, the sacrificial ritual appeared to be a diversion, in which he could leave Balak behind while he went elsewhere to converse with God.
Balaam’s oracles can be summarized in the following way:
- The First Oracle – Balaam told God he prepared seven altars that included a bull and a ram. God responded by “putting a message in Balaam’s mouth” to pass along to Balak. Balaam stated he can’t curse the Israelites because they are the chosen people of God. Instead, Balaam blessed them, much to the chagrin of Balak.
- The Second Oracle – Not satisfied, Balak took Balaam to another place (the field of Zophim on top of Pisgah) and asked him to curse the Israelites again. In similar fashion, Balaam went off to speak to God and came back with the same message. Despite God passing on the message that he will not change his stance, Balak rejected it.
- Third Oracle – This time, Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, which overlooked the Israelites’ massive encampments. Once again, Balak didn’t get his curse, for God told Balaam not to work any sorcery upon the Israelites. Undeterred, Balak requested a fourth oracle. Balaam warned that he would leave for home, soon.
- Fourth Oracle -- Balaam warned Balak of dire things to come such as Israel defeating Moab in battle.
- Final Oracle – This time, Balaam addressed Amalek, another Canaanite ruler, and the representatives of the Kenites. He informed them that they will face destruction at the hands of the Israelites. Even those that come to help the survivors of the initial onslaught faced a massacre. After that message, Balaam returned home.
Chapter 24 ended the Balaam Periscope and appeared to be his third and final act. Unfortunately, the bible had other nefarious things in store for him.
Balaam Falls Out of Favor with God
Chapter 25 through 30 made no mention of Balaam. However, he briefly returned to meet his fate in Chapter 31 (entitled “Vengeance on the Midianites”), which stated:
- They fought against the Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba – the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam of Beor with the sword (Num. 31: 7-8).
Stunningly, Balaam went rogue and fell out of favor with the Israelites and God. Numbers 31:15-16 revealed a major reason:
- “[The women] were the ones who followed Belaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites from the Lord in what happened at Peor…”
The Baal Peor incident happened in Chapter 25. Balak and his court devised and executed a plan in which Moabite women (most likely prostitutes) seduced the Israelite warriors and turned them into worshipers of the Canaanite false god, Baal of Peor. This resulted in God purging the ranks of the Israelites.
In a scene not found in the narratives, Balaam reentered Moab and convinced its women (and Midianate women, too) to seduce the Israelites. Why would Balaam make such an uncharacteristic move? The bizarre explanation came later in other books in the Old Testament.
For the most part, references to Balaam after the initial story are summaries with a few new details added. The Book of Joshua, Nehemiah, Deuteronomy, as well as the New Testament books of 2 Peter and Revelations give contradicting details.
These passages seemingly throw out his conversations with God or alter it in a way that suggested God manipulated Balaam to follow a path that led to his doom. This seems to be at the heart of the following verse from from Joshua:
- When Balak, son of Zippor, the king of Moab, prepared to fight against Israel, he sent for Balaam, son of Beor to put a curse on you. But I would not listen to Balaam, so he blessed you again and again, and I delivered you out of his hand (Josh. 24:9-10).
Why the contradiction? An earlier verse in Joshua may hold the secret, and it’s based on one word. It states:
- Israelites had put to the sword Balaam son of Beor who practiced divination (Josh 13:22)
The practice of divination is the ability to see into the future through black magic, fortune telling or spirit conjuration. In some respects, it sounds like what a biblical prophet did, except the latter works his ability through the help of God.
Still, Balaam could talk to God and received much of his advice from him.
However, the bible is filled with verses denouncing such “sorcery”. Prophesy was a means of going through the power and glory of God while divination was a short-cut attempt to conjure power through heretical means.
Still, Balaam could talk to God and received much of his advice from him. The possibility of this may be explained in the following:
- The sudden fall of grace was the result of different biblical writers interpreting the Balaam narrative.
- That Balaam was not a member of the Israelites and was part of a group (Transjordan societies) destined to “replaced” by God’s chosen people.
There’s another possibility as an archeological discovery revealed.
Older than the Bible
In 1967, an archeological team at an excavation in Jordon discovered relics believed to date back to the 8th century BCE. The relic, fragmented plaster with inscriptions from a wall in a house at the site of Tell Deir Alla, became the oldest recorded account of Balaam.
He is the same Balaam of the bible. In addition, he received direct visions from Shadday gods (a term that would later inspire the biblical term El Shadday, meaning “God Almighty.”). However, the inscription tell a very different tale. The following best describes the complex (and incomplete) inscriptions:
- Balaam receives a terrifying omen from Shadday.
- The message is so disturbing that he can’t eat. Instead he weeps.
- He tells the people that the gods decided to darken the sky, permanently.
- It is believed that this is punishment for the reversal of natural and social orders (such as “hyenas listen to instructions, while the fox’s whelps laugh at wise men.”)
Balaam is not the only biblical character with non-Jewish origins. However, his prominence in the Transjordan tradition, made him stand out Most likely, he became a cultural casualty -- a relic from a bygone religion -- when the Israelites took over the region and instituted their religious beliefs. In the Middle East and Europe, this is not uncommon.
A Negative Symbol of Greed
Another reason given for Balaam’s fall from grace is something that was implied --but not written -- in the bible; Balaam did it for the money. Although not mentioned in Numbers, other passages (especially in the New Testament) eluded to Balaam returning secretly to Moab to get the reward originally promised to him. His tactic was to give Balak a plan that resulted in the Baal Peor incident.
Greed became a motivation, not only for Balaam; it became a devise for the original writers of holy books within the Bible.
Chapter 2 of 2 Peter -- entitled, “False Teachers and Their Destruction” -- focused on those that misled through religious teaching. Among those mentioned was Balaam, which states:
- They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey – a beast without speech – who spoke with a man’s voice and restrained the prophet’s madness (2 Peter 2:15-16)
There are other negative verses referenced in the New Testament. Jude 1:11 and Revelation 2:12-14 ( better known as “To The Church of Pergamum”) reiterate the lesson from 2 Peter. However, Revelation 2:12-14 supposedly came from Jesus in the author’s dream.
Where Balaam Stands in Modern Religion
As it stands, Balaam doesn’t have a good reputation. Several websites and religious blogs refer to him as the wicked person and barely point to the way Balaam was in “Balaam’s Donkey.”
He’s a character marred by contradictory views of the original biblical writers and his stature of being the forbidden diviner. On top of that, being a non-Jewish prophet seemingly altered his prominence in the Bible. As a result, he’s become an allegory for the evil of greed and portrayed as a prophet for hire.
Further excavations in Jordan may change Balaam’s reputation; however, the Bible currently has the last say on him; and God doesn’t appear to favor the diviner from Boer.
© 2020 Dean Traylor
Timothy Whitt from New Jersey on July 09, 2020:
A very well written article on Balaam. I learned some new aspects of his life from reading the article.
Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on January 28, 2020:
Fascinating how religions pick and choose from other faiths and demote deities and prophets where convenient. Fascinating study, very well written.
Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on January 28, 2020:
Yeah, I came across the story a few years ago, and thought it odd that he went from being praised to being a villain within a few passages in Book of Numbers. This is a story where a lot of things were filled in by numerous interpretations within and outside the bible. It will be interesting if more artifacts from the that archeological dig in Jordan produces more information on him as the myths that surround him.
Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on January 27, 2020:
This is interesting, Dean. I vaguely remember the story of Balaam from when I was a kid in Sunday School. Today, I view the whole Old Testament as a history and compilation of folk tales. More so, after studying it in college. To actually believe it, in most cases, is to set religion back 4,000 years.