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After their victory over Sihon and Og, the Israelites pitched their tents in the plains of Moab. Balak, the king of the Moabites, sent an embassy of elders of Moab and Midian to Balaam, offering to reward him if he would curse the Israelites. After looking to God about the matter, he replied that God had forbidden him to comply with the request. Balak then sent some messengers of a higher rank with more alluring promises. This time God permitted Balaam to go, cautioning him, however, to deliver only the message God gave him. On his way to Balak, Balaam had this command strongly impressed on his mind by the strange behavior of his donkey and his encounter with the angel of the Lord.

Balak took Balaam to the high places of Baal, from which a part of the camp of the Israelites could be seen. To Balak’s disappointment, Balaam pronounced a blessing on the Israelites instead of a curse. Surprised and incensed at the words of the diviner, Balak thought that a fuller view of the camp of Israel might change his disposition. He took him to the top of Mount Pisgah, but the only result was further blessing instead of cursing. Balaam compared the children of Israel to a lion who will not lie down until he has eaten his prey. In desperation Balak now suggested that the issue be tried from a third locality. They went to the top of Peor, and there the Spirit of God came on Balaam and caused him to declare not only that God would bless Israel, but that he who blessed her would be blessed and he who cursed her would be cursed. In his bitter disappointment, Balak angrily reproached Balaam and ordered him to go home without the promised reward. Before he left, Balaam reminded the king that at the very beginning he had said that no amount of money could make him give anything other than the commandment of the Lord. He then uttered a last prophecy—the most remarkable so far—in which he foretold the coming of a star from Jacob and a scepter out of Israel that would defeat Israel’s enemies, including Moab.

Nothing else is said of Balaam until Num.31.1-Num.31.54. There the seer, who had failed to turn away the Lord from his people, tried before long to turn the people from the Lord. He knew that if he succeeded in this, the consequences to Israel would be just as Balak had desired, God’s curse on Israel. By his advice the Israelites were seduced into idolatry and all the vile abominations connected with it. In the judgment that followed, no fewer than 24,000 Israelites perished, until it was evident that the nation abhorred idolatry as a great crime against God. By God’s command Israel brought vengeance on her seducers the Midianites, and in the universal slaughter, Balaam also perished.

In the NT Balaam is several times held up as an example of the pernicious influence of hypocritical teachers who attempt to lead God’s people astray. No Bible character is more severely excoriated.

BALAAM bā’ ləm (בִּלְעָ֖ם, LXX, Βαλαάμ, G962, possibly devourer). Soothsayer from Mesopotamia secured by Balak to curse Israel.

Consternation over invasion.

The concern with problems arising in the Balaam account tends to obscure the picture the OT attempts to paint. Far too often the questions of whether there is more than one Balaam, whether there is one account or two, the strange behavior of Balaam’s animal, and Balaam’s relationship to Jehovah have dominated the scholar’s interest in Balaam. Meanwhile, the real nature of the divine activity in Israel’s history has suffered. The primary concern of the OT is the reader’s view of God and His activities.

The account of Balaam and his nefarious activity is a part of the Biblical record because Balak feared the advancing Israelites. Hebrew accomplishments under Jehovah’s control had struck fear into the heart of everyone in the path of the national advance. The countries through which the incoming nation passed faced not just the challenge of a new neighbor but also the progress of the divine purpose in the world and history. It had been true since the day in which God had said to Joshua, “no man shall be able to stand before thee.” Terror had gripped the nations wherever the story of the advancing Hebrews had spread. First Jericho, then Moab and Midian trembled before Jehovah. This is the Bible’s way of saying that mankind, particularly when it chooses to oppose the divine will, acts out of fear and desperation.

Conflict between magic and providence.

A second part of the picture which the OT attempts to paint is the undeniable superiority of Heb. faith over that of her neighbors and the totally invincible security it provides. This it does through a series of conflicts in which Jehovah is pitted against foreign gods or against the practices carried on under them. Jehovah always emerges the victor. This activity is a part of the redemptive pattern in which Jehovah delivers His people by entering into conflict with hostile forces. The pattern first emerges in boldness in Egypt just prior to the Exodus. It continues as Balak’s attempt to destroy Israel with a curse turns into a contest of who can and will control the fate of the Hebrews. Jehovah’s rigid control of the activities of the pagan Balaam is basically a conflict of powers—a conflict between providence and magic.

The ill-fated attempt to derail the train of historic events and to grind its progress to a halt provide another grand demonstration that divine purposes cannot be thwarted. Balak sent to Mesopotamia for Balaam who was not a navi’ (prophet) but a hakkisim (soothsayer) whose activity was condemned (Deut 18). It appears most likely that Balaam belonged to a family in which magical arts were hereditary. Space does not permit discussion of the ancient practice of attempting to control another’s fate by use of magic, but it was given a wide place among Israel’s neighbors. The importance of this case is the fact that it was directed against a nation whose future already had been determined by covenant promise of a providentially controlled welfare.

It is not known how Balaam had become acquainted with Jehovah or His covenants with Israel, or how he had come into relationship with Israel. It should not come as any surprise to learn, however, that should Balaam’s magical arts be practiced against Israel, the magician’s activity would come under divine control. Balaam was forced to seek God’s permission to accept Balak’s invitation (Num 22:14ff.). That permission was preceded by refusal cannot be taken as evidence of weakness or indecisiveness on God’s part. It must be regarded as a part of those activities which create the controls under which Balaam must act. A further part of these activities included the experiences leading to the strange behavior of Balaam’s beast.

The appearance of the angel of the Lord and the animal’s unexpected movement to avoid Him, coupled with Balaam’s rebuke following his outburst of temper were a part of the cautions against any attempt to step out of line and violate Jehovah’s strict guardianship of Israel’s future. To argue that an ass does not possess the necessary vocal cords for speech is to beg the question. God can and has spoken to man with no human instrument present, as with Saul of Tarsus or Moses on Mt. Sinai. The point is that Balaam got the message without raising the question of the possibility of such a phenomenon. The occurrence appears in history not to demonstrate that God can make an animal speak, but that He can use any circumstance to communicate His message. Balaam may now proceed to answer the call of Balak but with cautions he cannot ignore.

There is still another part of the Biblical picture to be painted. The divine blessing is irrevocable and not subject to hostile counteraction. Such a blessing carries with it a providential guardianship which is totally impervious to magic or any of its kind. Not only was Balaam prevented from effecting a curse, but he could only strengthen what had been done.

This was manifestly evident in each of the three places where Balak attempted to set up a curse—at Bamoth-Baal, Pisgah and Peor. An analysis of the oracle which Balaam delivered at each place reveals a remarkable confirmation of Israel’s spiritual heritage and a total defeat of any attempt to destroy it. At Bamoth-Baal Balaam made it clear that Israel stood alone in her remarkable security. Being accounted righteous her end was assured. Balaam could not curse—he could only envy! “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his!” (23:10b)

At Pisgah the soothsayer repeats his inability to oppose Jehovah’s will successfully and makes a ceremonial declaration that because of the nature of the divine control no enchantment or divination can possibly succeed against Jehovah’s blessing. It is no wonder that Balak spoke in a rage. Balaam had just pronounced one of the most far-reaching truths ever uttered in any theology.

“There is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, ‘What has God wrought!’” (23:23)

At Peor Balaam’s oracle was in superlatives! Israel under Jehovah constituted the most beautiful picture in all religious history. While the oracle was intended to magnify Jehovah and His love for Israel, it threw the door wide open to universal opportunity. “Blessed be every one who blesses you, and cursed be every one who curses you” (24:9b).

The teaching of Balaam.

In a fit of anger Balak sent Balaam home without reward, but the soothsayer’s greed was not to be denied. The warning and experiences had been enough to convince Balaam that cursing Israel was out of the question. There may be other ways of attaining the end, however. Balaam’s counsel might be worth more to Balak than his magical arts. After the king’s anger had cooled Balaam sent a plan of action to the frustrated monarch. His teaching involved the most contemptible action ever conceived in an unregenerate heart. Corrupt a people you cannot curse and God will have to chasten them. In short, this means to take a people under divine blessing and deliberately lead them into sin to strip them of the divine blessing. Note the NT interpretation of the act.

They have followed the way of Balaam...who loved gain from wrongdoing” (2 Pet 2:15).

“...who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality” (Rev 2:14).

Following Balaam’s advice Balak made friends with Israel and led them into temptation, corruption and ultimately to downfall. This is known in the Bible as the matter of Baal-Peor.

Balaam’s death.

Balaam’s cry, “let my end be like his” was not to be. His death was a part of the judgment upon Moab and Midian. Because of their failure to meet Israel at their borders with friendship and hospitality, God disallowed their entrance into Israel for ten generations, and ultimately sent Moses to avenge the indignities Israel had suffered at their hands. The women were not permitted to escape the judgment because they had been used to follow Balaam’s advice and to lure Israel into immorality. At the same time Balaam, as instigator of the plot, was put to death (Num 31:8).


J. B. Payne, An Outline of Hebrew History (1954), 68, 69; E. J. Young, My Servant the Prophets (1955), 20-29; J. Bright, A History of Israel (1959), 126.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

1. History:

When the children of Israel pitched their tents in the plains of Moab, the Moabites entered into some sort of an alliance with the Midianites. At the instigation of Balak, at that time king of the Moabites, the elders of the two nations were sent to Balaam to induce him, by means of a bribe, to pronounce a curse on the advancing hosts of the Israelites. But, in compliance with God’s command Balaam, refused to go with the elders. Quite different was the result of a second request enhanced by the higher rank of the messengers and by the more alluring promises on the part of Balak. Not only did God permit Balaam to go with the men, but he actually commanded him to do so, cautioning him, however, to act according to further instructions. While on his way to Balak, this injunction was strongly impressed on the mind of Balaam by the strange behavior of his ass and by his encounter with the Angel of the Lord.

Accompanied by Balak who had gone out to meet the prophet, Balaam came to Kiriath-huzoth. On the next morning he was brought up "into the high places of Baal" commanding a partial view of the camp of the Israelites. But instead of a curse he pronounced a blessing. From there he was taken to the top of Peor, yet this change of places and external views did not alter the tendency of Balaam’s parables; in fact, his spirit even soared to greater heights and from his lips fell glowing words of praise and admiration, of benediction and glorious prophecy. This, of course, fully convinced Balak that all further endeavors to persuade the seer to comply with his wishes would be in vain, and the two parted.

Nothing else is said of Balaam, until we reach Nu 31. Here in 31:8 we are told of his violent death at the hands of the Israelites, and in 31:16 we learn of his shameful counsel which brought disgrace and disaster into the ranks of the chosen people.

2. Problems:

Now, there are a number of interesting problems connected with this remarkable story. We shall try to solve at least some of the more important ones.

(3) Is the narrative in Nu 22-24 the result of combining different traditions? In a general way, we may answer this question in the affirmative, and only in a general way we can distinguish between two main sources of tradition. But we maintain that they are not contradictory to each other, but supplementary.

(4) What about the talking of the ass and the marvelous prophecies of Balaam? We would suggest the following explanation. By influencing the soul of Balaam, God caused him to interpret correctly the inarticulate sounds of the animal. God’s acting on the soul and through it on the intellect and on the hearts of men--this truth must be also applied to Balaam’s wonderful prophetic words. They are called meshaliym or sayings of a prophet, a diviner.

In the first of these "parables" (Nu 23:7-10) he briefly states his reasons for pronouncing a blessing; in the second parable (Nu 23:18-24) he again emphasizes the fact that he cannot do otherwise than bless the Israelites, and then he proceeds to pronounce the blessing at some greater length. In the 3rd (Nu 24:3-9) he describes the glorious state of the people, its development and irresistible power. In the last four parables (Nu 24:15-24) he partly reveals the future of Israel and other nations: they are all to be destroyed, Israel’s fate being included in the allusion to Eber. Now, at last, Balaam is back again in his own sphere denouncing others and predicting awful disasters. (On the "star out of Jacob," Nu 24:17, see Astronomy, ii, 9; STAR OF THE MAGI.)

3. Balaam’s Character:

This may furnish us a clue to his character. It, indeed, remains "instructively composite." A soothsayer who might have become a prophet of the Lord; a man who loved the wages of unrighteousness, and yet a man who in one supreme moment of his life surrendered himself to God’s holy Spirit; a person cumbered with superstition, covetousness and even wickedness, and yet capable of performing the highest service in the kingdom of God: such is the character of Balaam, the remarkable Old Testament type and, in a sense, the prototype of Judas Iscariot.

4. Balaam as a Type:

In 2Pe 2:15 Balaam’s example is used as a means to illustrate the pernicious influence of insincere Christian teachers. The author might have alluded to Balaam in the passage immediately preceding 2Pe 2:15 because of his abominable counsel. This is done in Re 2:14. Here, of course, Balaam is the type of a teacher of the church who attempts to advance the cause of God by advocating an unholy alliance with the ungodly and worldly, and so conforming the life of the church to the spirit of the flesh.


Butler’s Sermons, "Balaam"; ICC, "Numbers."

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