The Confusing Example of Balaam

Author’s Note: As promised in my first post, some of my writings will deal with the topic of religion. Although this is the first one to omit politics, I do hope my regular readers find this discussion to be of interest.

Out of the multitude of people in the Old Testament, one person that has consistently held my interest is Balaam son of Beor. Who, you might ask? Certainly he is not a very well known figure, but he still played an important role in the history of the Israelite people. He primarily appears in Numbers chapters twenty-two through twenty-four. I encourage you to reread (or read) the passages if they are not fresh in your mind; however, for the sake of everyone I will be paraphrasing the events in question.

For a bit of back-story, if you will recall, the Israelites left captivity in Egypt and were heading to Canaan, the land promised to them by YHWH (commonly referred to as The LORD). As they traveled, they came upon the kingdom of the Moabites. Now the king of Moab, Balak son of Zippor and his people were afraid of these foreigners and did not want them passing through their territory. Here is where Balaam enters.

“…So Balak, king of Moab sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor, who was living in his native land of Pethor near the Euphrates River.” Numbers 22:4-5 (NLT). Apparently Balaam possessed the power to both curse and bless with very noticeable results. Interestingly, when the messengers of the king approached Balaam with this request, Balaam replies that he must ask YHWH first. Note that he is asking the same god as that of the people of Israel. Apparently understanding of The LORD was not restricted to just the Hebrew people and others too not only knew of him, but claimed him as their god (or one of their gods). Balaam then engages in a dialogue with God. He is told not to go to Balak and not to curse these people. Balaam willing complies. So King Balak sends more messengers asking Balaam to reconsider, “but Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak were to give me a palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the LORD my God.” Numbers 22:18 (NLT) Note that for some undisclosed reason be it for love, respect, or fear, Balaam refuses to go against the command of God.

Now we come to a very curious part. Afterward, at night, God told Balaam to go with the messengers of Balak. However, when Balaam did go, it made God very angry. Why would God be angry with Balaam for following his instruction? As you might remember from the most famous portion of the story, an angel blocked Balaam’s path causing a significant vocal and physical quarrel between Balaam and his donkey. After Balaam finally sees the angel too, the angel threatens Balaam with death for his sin. Balaam repents and offers to return home, but as before, the angel tells Balaam to continue on his journey. This encounter only poses further questions. If it was a sin for Balaam to travel here, why was he permitted to continue? When Balaam arrives, he again professes his loyalty to God saying; “…I will speak only the messages that God gives me” Numbers 22:39 (NLT). Next, on three occasions, after either meeting God or being filled with the spirit of God, he blesses the people of Israel instead of cursing them as Balak intended. Needless to say, Balak is quite displeased by Balaam’s efforts and sends him home without any payment.

Although Balaam is not mentioned in the next section, we are not yet finished with him. Here is where things get even more interesting. First, in chapter 31, it is written that the Israelites “…also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.” Numbers 31:8. (NLT) Later, Moses says, ‘“Why have you let all the women live?’ he demanded. ‘They are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the Lord at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD’s people.’” Numbers 31:15-16 (NLT). Why would they kill Balaam? Apparently, he was killed because he encouraged idolatry and marrying with the native women, which was forbidden to the people. When did these events happen? Why are these details not to be found? Now Balaam appears again sporadically in the Old Testament, but the main gist of his story is here.

You may be asking, why would a man who blessed Israel three times want to lead them astray? The New Testament offers several clues to the fate of Balaam as well as presenting a darker version of his character. For example, Peter writes of false teachers, “They have wandered off the right road and followed the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved to earn money by doing wrong. But Balaam was stopped from his mad course when his donkey rebuked him with a human voice.” 2 Peter 2:15-16. (NLT) Then in Revelation, “And yet I have a few complaints against you. You tolerate some among you who are like Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to worship idols by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin” Revelation 2:14 (NLT).

How could a man like Balaam, who supposedly revered God and even spoke to him, turn against him? If he did so, he would not be alone. The Bible is filled with this kind of behavior. For example, foreign wives led King Solomon, who knew so much, into idolatry. Previously the lust of his father, David, caused the death of an innocent man and his own child.

I cannot help but feel, however, that the story offered by the book of Numbers does not tell the whole tale. Doesn’t it seem a bit strange that Balaam follows God’s command to go to Balak only to be rebuked for it later? Why would a man who refuses to speak as only God commands, a man who blesses Israel three times, later try to turn them away from God? Would a man who refuses a reward in order to speak the truth fall so easily to avarice? Why would a man who lives near Euphrates River have anything to do with the people of Israel once he returned home? Now perhaps something was lost in my translation, but I think from the way they wrote, the authors of Numbers, Peter, and Revelation knew a bit more to the story of Balaam than I. Was he motivated by self-interest rather than pleasing God?

The best answer I can find to these questions so far comes from the historian Flavius Josephus in his work Antiquities of the Jews written several years before 100 AD. As he was obviously not present at the events himself, he would have written in accordance with Jewish tradition or some other related source. Balaam appears in Chapter VI of Book IV. Apparently in an effort to win favor from Balak after he was unable to curse the Israelites, as a temporary solution Balaam advises the king to send Midianite women to the Israelites in order to seduce the men. Presumably he was motivated by the desire to regain at least some small portion of his promised reward from King Balak. As a result, the men began to worship the Midianite gods, and therefore incurred the wrath of YHWH. In section 13, Josephus writes,

This was the cause why Moses was provoked to send an army to destroy the Midianites…although this Balaam, who was sent for by the Midianites to curse the Hebrews, and when he was hindered for doing it by Divine Providence, did still suggest that advice to them, by making use of which our enemies had well nigh corrupted the whole multitude of the Hebrews with their wiles, till some of them were deeply infected with their opinions…

Accordingly, this affront led to the death of many Midianities and Balaam himself as described in the beginning of Numbers, Chapter 31.

Even though I didn’t find all the answers to my questions, I still think that Balaam is a multifaceted person who should be remembered and studied in greater detail for both good and ill. If you are more familiar with this particular historical and biblical issue than myself, I encourage you to enlighten us all through the comments section.