ba'-lam bil`am, ("devourer"):

The son of Beor, from a city in Mesopotamia called Pethor, a man possessing the gift of prophecy, whose remarkable history may be found in Numbers 22:2-24:25; compare Numbers 31:8,16; Deuteronomy 23:4; Joshua 13:22; 24:9; Nehemiah 13:2; Micah 6:5; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:11; Revelation 2:14.

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 Numbers 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.

(1) Was Balaam a prophet of Jeh? For an answer we must look to Numbers 22-24. Nowhere is he called a prophet. He is introduced as the son of Beor and as a man reputed to be of great personal power (compare Numbers 22:6). The cause of this is to be found in the fact that he had intercourse of some kind with God (compare Numbers 22:9,20; 22:22-35; 23:4; 23:16). Furthermore, it is interesting to note how Balaam was enabled to deliver his parables. First it is said:

"And Yahweh put a word in Balaam's mouth" (Numbers 23:5; compare Numbers 23:16), a procedure seemingly rather mechanical, while nothing of the kind is mentioned in Numbers 24. Instead we meet with the remarkable sentence:

"And when Balaam saw that it pleased Yahweh to bless Israel, he went not, as at the other times, to meet with enchantments .... "(Numbers 24:1), and then: "the Spirit of God came upon him" (24:2b). All this is very noteworthy and highly instructive, especially if we compare with it 24:3 the Revised Version, margin and Numbers 24:4:

"The man whose eye is opened saith; he saith, who heareth the words of God, who seeth the vision of the Almighty," etc. The inference is plain enough: Balaam knew the Lord, the Yahweh of the Israelites, but his knowledge was dimmed and corrupted by heathen conceptions. He knew enough of God to obey Him, yet for a long time he hoped to win Him over to his own selfish plan (compare 23:4). Through liberal sacrifices he expected to influence God's actions. Bearing this in mind, we see the import of Numbers 24:1. After fruitless efforts to cajole God into an attitude favorable to his hidden purpose, he for a time became a prophet of the Lord, yielding to the ennobling influences of His spirit. Here was a chance for his better nature to assert itself permanently and to triumph over the dark forces of paganism. Did he improve this opportunity? He did not (compare Numbers 31:8,16).

(2) Is the Balaam of Numbers 22-24 identical with the person of the same name mentioned in Numbers 31? Quite a number of scholars deny it, or, to be more accurate, there are according to their theory two accounts of Balaam:

the one in Numbers 22- 24 being favorable to his character, and the other in Numbers 31 being quite the reverse. It is claimed the two accounts could only be made to agree by modifying or eliminating Numbers 24:25. Now, we believe that Numbers 31:16 actually does modify the report of Balaam's return contained in Numbers 24:25. The children of Israel slew Balaam with the sword (Numbers 31:8). Why? Because of his counsel of Num 31:16. We maintain that the author of Numbers 24:25 had this fact in mind when he wrote Numbers 25:1:

"And .... the people began to play the harlot," etc. Thus, he closely connects the report of Balaam's return with the narrative contained in Numbers 9:5. Therefore, we regard Numbers 31:8,16 as supplementary to Numbers 22-24. But here is another question:

(3) Is the narrative in Numbers 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" (Numbers 23:7-10) he briefly states his reasons for pronouncing a blessing; in the second parable (Numbers 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 (Numbers 24:3-9) he describes the glorious state of the people, its development and irresistible power. In the last four parables (Numbers 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," Numbers 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 2 Peter 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 2 Peter 2:15 because of his abominable counsel. This is done in Revelation 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."

William Baur

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These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'BALAAM'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.