A Pagan Diviner Speaks Truth: The Story of Balaam
While we are familiar today with the first five books of the Bible being named as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, they all had very different names in the original Hebrew language. The original Israelite readers referred to these books by the first word of the text. Numbers, for instance, was referred to as Bemidbar, which is a Hebrew word translated as “in the desert.” The vast majority of the book deals with Israel in this time period of being “in the desert,” and the first twenty-six chapters focus on the generation of Israel that has been led out of Egypt by Moses and their years of wandering. At the end of this section of the book, however, there’s a fascinating narrative in chapters 22-24 about a character that, at first glance, seems completely unrelated to the story at hand: the prophet Balaam. Balaam is a confusing character who is seemingly filled with contradictions: he’s a prophet of God yet works with Israel’s enemies. He blesses Israel yet is later killed by Israel. He speaks directly to God yet is unable to see God’s angel standing directly in front of him. What are we to make of this odd story?
The story is preceded by Israel’s utter destruction of the Amorite kings Sihon and Og, and the military might of Israel terrifies another king of the area; Balak, King of Moab. Allied with the tribes of Midian in the area, Balak recognizes that Israel is still too strong militarily for him to defeat. Instead, he seeks to wage a spiritual war against Israel by hiring Balaam to pronounce a curse against the sojourning nation. It is important to read these chapters carefully in order to souse out the kind of man Balaam is. Notice that in 22:7, the leaders of Moab and Midian go to Balaam with “the fees for divination.” This would be a monetary payment given to the diviner/spiritual figure in order to receive the blessing or curse requested, and it was specifically outlawed in the Mosaic Law as a “detestable thing of the nations,” (Deuteronomy 18:10). Note that Balak is aware of Balaam’s reputation (“For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”), so it can be inferred that Balaam is well-known as a diviner for hire. From even this passage, we can already see that Balaam is (at the very least) compromised by pagan practices. This would seem to indicate that while Balaam is aware of Yahweh, it’s likely that Yahweh is but one of several gods he serves. The officials bring this fee and request Balaam to come with them to Balak, and Balaam requests they spend the night so that he can consult Yahweh and bring back word. Surprisingly, however, Yahweh actually speaks to this pagan diviner (possibly in a dream)! Yahweh commands Balaam to not only avoid going with the officials, but to avoid cursing Israel altogether because they are to be blessed (Genesis 12:3; 27:33). Balaam arises in the morning and tells the officials that he cannot go with them because of the Lord’s decrees. Seems like an obedient prophet, right? Notice, however, that he doesn’t tell the officials that he can’t curse Israel, just that Yahweh isn’t letting him go. Perhaps Balaam is hoping for an eventual change in Yahweh’s answer? This idea would seem to be reinforced by the fact that when Balak sends a second delegation, this time with more distinguished officials and promises of greater riches, Balaam does not tell them he won’t do anything. He certainly puts on a display of obedience to Yahweh by saying he couldn’t do anything contrary to his God, but notice he asks the officials to stay the night again in order to see if Yahweh will let him go!
This is where the text gets a little tricky. Verse 20 sees Yahweh come to Balaam at night and give him permission to go with the officials, and verse 21 has Balaam going and doing so. Yet verse 22 then says that Yahweh was angry at Balaam for going with the officials! What’s going on here? Several theories have been given here, but the one that seems to make the most sense is that verses 22-35 should be seen as a “synoptic/resumptive repetition.” That’s a fancy scholarly term for saying that verses 20-21 are a summary of what happened: Yahweh appeared to Balaam in a dream and told him he could go with the officials. Verses 22-35 are a flashback that shows the expanded version of the same story, giving an in-depth explanation of what occurred in the dream of verses 20-21. This might seem odd to modern readers, but this is actually a fairly common literary technique in the Old Testament (for example, the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2 where Ch. 2 explains the sixth day of creation more in-depth after the broad summary in Ch. 1). The idea of verses 22-35 being the dream-vision helps to explain why the Lord is angry with Balaam after giving him permission in verses 20-21: Balaam has already decided in his heart he is going to go with the officials, and is not given permission to do so until verse 35 in the dream (which takes place chronologically before the summary statement of verses 20-21 when Balaam wakes up). It also helps to explain the oddity of a talking donkey and Balaam’s utter lack of surprise at such an event.
In this dream, the angel of the Lord stands in the way of Balaam as an adversary in order to strike the impudent diviner down. While Balaam and his two servants do not see this, Balaam’s donkey does. Three times the donkey veers off the path in order to save her master until Balaam finally strikes the mule with a stick. The Lord, in quite an unusual occurrence, opens the mouth of the donkey to reprimand Balaam for his unkind treatment. The donkey sagely points out that she has never given Balaam this kind of trouble, and instead of threatening to kill his mount Balaam should recognize the danger he is in! It is at this moment that the eyes of Balaam are opened, and he sees the angel of the Lord preparing to strike him down, and he falls to the ground in a plea for salvation. Yahweh tells him that, if it were not for the donkey, Balaam would have been killed, yet he has abused and mistreated his faithful companion. Balaam (to his credit) recognizes his sin and volunteers to go back home, but the Lord grants him permission to go with the men so long as he only speaks what Yahweh has commanded him. This might seem like an odd change of mind for the Lord, but we’ll see at the end of the story that Yahweh is working all of this to good for His people. In this dream episode, we see Balaam’s true character revealed. While he might take on the aura of a holy man of Yahweh, the reality is that he is less righteous than his own donkey. He is a mouthpiece for Yahweh, but Yahweh shows he can speak through any old donkey. The diviner and mystical seer cannot see what his donkey can, and the supposedly wise man is shown to be a rash, cruel, and wicked man compared even to a lowly mule.
When Balaam comes to Balak, he again offers no promises that he can curse Israel (although, again, notice that he does not tell Balak that Yahweh has explicitly promised that Israel will be blessed). After a fellowship feast with sacrificed meats, Balak takes Balaam to “the high places of Baal.” Seven altars are constructed, and sacrifices are made on all of them before Balaam goes to a bare hill to meet God and seek what words he will be given. Yahweh (again, surprisingly) meets him and tells Balaam what to say. Balaam returns to Balak, but instead of pronouncing a curse on Israel he blesses them! He says he cannot curse what Yahweh will not curse, and that Israel is a nation “who dwells apart” and “will not be reckoned amongst the nations,” (Numbers 23:9). Balaam sees how numerous Israel has been made and pleads “let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like this.” Balaam hopes to end his life as blessed as Israel currently is!
Balak is, understandably, quite confused and upset that Balaam has offered a blessing instead of a curse, although Balaam again tells Balak he can’t go against Yahweh in this. Balak, perhaps thinking the location was the issue, re-creates the same altar scenario at the mountain range of Pisgah. Here Balaam can only see the extreme edge of the camp, rather than the outskirts of the whole camp. Again, sacrifices are made, and Balaam goes off to hear the word of Yahweh, and again Balaam comes back with a blessing! This time the oracle to Balak starts with a commentary on the nature of Yahweh: He is not a liar like men and will never go back on His promises to bless Israel and bring about good for His people (Numbers 23:19). Balaam is powerless to go against the will of the Almighty! Yahweh is like “the horns of the wild ox” protecting Israel from her enemies, and He will make this nation of former slaves into a “lion” that will “drink the blood” of her slain enemies. A terrible foe indeed!
Balak again panics at his hired man, suggesting it might be better if Balaam just doesn’t speak at all! He takes Balaam to Peor, where he can see the entirety of the nation of Israel. This time, however, the text notes that Balaam “saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel.” It’s taken this entire time for Balaam to realize what Yahweh has been telling him this whole time! Again, this is not a shining example of a God-fearing prophet. Now, finally, Balaam recognizes Yahweh is not going to curse Israel no matter how many times he asks. He “does not go as at other times to seek omens,” (confirming that Balaam was using divination to try and get Yahweh to curse Israel) but instead looks in the wilderness to see the entire nation of Israel. We might think that this third blessing of Israel is perhaps more heartfelt and genuine, but notice the first few verses are all about the powers of Balaam: “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, and the oracle of the man whose eye is opened; The oracle of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered,” (Numbers 24:3-4). In this blessing, Balaam uses garden imagery (similar to Eden language) to show how fruitful and blessed Israel is. Note also that Balaam foreshadows the kingdom of Israel here when he says, “his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.” This is actually the first mention of an Israelite king in the entire Torah, and it is significant that it is in a Yahweh-given blessing; while a king was not established until several centuries later, it seems Yahweh knew already that there would be a king in Israel someday. Balaam uses similar imagery from the second blessing, once more noting that Yahweh is the “horns of the wild ox” protecting Israel who will become a fierce lion to her enemies. Balaam closes his third blessing with a repetition of the Abrahamic blessing of Genesis 12:3; “Blessed is everyone who blesses you and cursed is everyone who curses you.”
Balak, finally having enough of this, berates Balaam for thrice now having failed to curse his enemies, and tells Balaam to flee from his presence without a reward due to his insistence on not violating Yahweh’s decree. In response, Balaam reminds Balak that he had said he would be limited by what the Lord would allow him to say. He then pronounces a final oracle, this time prophesying about the fate of Israel’s enemies (although, again, he begins by drawing flattery to himself in verse 15 and 16). Balaam foresees a man, “not now…not near,” who will become the “star” and “scepter” of Israel. This man will crush Moab, Edom, Amalek, the Midianites/Kenites, and the Asshurites, and he will raise Israel to be a powerful nation. The star and scepter were traditional images of royal power; the star represented luminosity and brilliance (as well as possible connection to the idea of kings being a “son of God”), while the scepter was the traditional rod of authority held by a king. This kingly figure is not going to come in the near future but will be a powerful fighter against Israel’s enemies. Certainly, the easiest figure to connect this with is King David, who would indeed crush all of these particular nations in his conquests. Yet the Christian cannot help but identify this as a Messianic prophesy as well, even if the original readers would not have seen such a connection. Indeed, all the attributes and accomplishments of King David find their ultimate fulfilment in King Jesus.
After this Balaam leaves and “returns to his place,” and it would be tempting to think that perhaps Balaam has learned the error of his ways and learned to follow Yahweh in truth. Unfortunately, however, the next chapter features one of the most grievous sins of Israel: the sexual immorality with the Moabites and Midianites. Having failed to curse Israel through spiritual means, apparently Balak and his people attempted to seduce Israel to immorality with their pagan gods. Inviting the Israelites to sacrifice, Israel joins itself to “Baal of Peor.” Their harlotry becomes so terrible that one Israelite enters sexual congress with a Midianite woman in front of the congregation at the doorway of the tent of meeting. Thankfully Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, is so appalled by this terrible sin that he slays both the Israelite and the Midianite with a single spear thrust. Despite his zeal for the Lord, 24,000 Israelites die of the plague that the Lord sends to punish Israel for their sins. The Lord commands Moses and Israel to be hostile against the Midianites because of their treachery, but the story does not conclude until Chapter 31. It is there that Moses and the new generation of Israel strike down the Midianites for their wickedness, and utterly destroy the entire nation. Yet, almost as a footnote, Numbers 31:8 notes that “they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.” Wait, why was Balaam with this group of Midianites? In fact, why are the Israelites even aware of Balaam? Remember, no Israelite was witness to the events of Chapters 22-24 (which is a point that will be expanded on in a minute). Moses says in verse 15, however, that “these [Midianite women] causes the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord.” Here the character of Balaam is definitively proven. While he may have paid lip service to Yahweh and not pronounced a curse on Israel, he had still masterminded a plan to have Israel destroyed and lose their blessings from God! Balaam was so in love with his fees and payments that he was not wiling to risk losing it simply because Yahweh had forbidden him from pronouncing a curse, so he instead hatched this scheme of sexual immorality with the Midianite women.
Balaam is a truly horrendous character in the Bible. He is one of the rare, select individuals that God directly speaks to as a prophet, and indeed has the honor of being the first one in the Bible to speak of the Messianic King! Instead of being known as a prophet of God, however, he is reviled even in the New Testament as the pinnacle example of a false teacher; 2 Peter 2:15 says that he “loved the wages of unrighteousness,” and Jude 1:11 warns of false teachers who “for pay have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam.” This is an important concept for us to understand: just because someone is speaking truth doesn’t mean that they are a holy individual. Everything Balaam prophesies comes to pass, and he speaks the direct words of Yahweh. Yet he is a corrupt, pagan diviner who is killed like every other enemy of Yahweh because he valued money and power over righteousness. We too, then, must be cautious to “test every spirit” and be on the look out for such false teachers: men who may speak the truth, but are ravenous wolves seeking to destroy the Lord’s people for their own advancement and power.
Balaam’s story is not just a warning against the dangers of false teachers, however. It is also an amazing look at the love and faithfulness of Yahweh. The Book of Numbers has been filled with Israel repeatedly rebelling and fighting against Yahweh and Moses, but in these chapters the story zooms the perspective out. Israel is down in the valley, complaining and rebelling, and are totally unaware that their enemies are up in the mountains trying to destroy them. Yet Yahweh, in His great mercy, is looking out for and protecting His covenant people! Despite their rebelliousness, Yahweh won’t break His covenant promises and let them be cursed. He defeats Israel’s enemies and turns their curses into blessings and prophesies of their future success. Even when it seems like Balaam and Balak win with their seduction at Peor, Yahweh ultimately leads Israel to triumph over them. That’s what the story of Balaam ultimately highlights: even amid Israel breaking their covenant vows, Yahweh remains eternally faithful to His promises. That should serve as an enormous comfort to us that Yahweh will also remain faithful to the promises made to us, and that someday soon we will be led into our promised land by King Jesus, the Star and Scepter of Israel.