Character Study - Balaam

1.      Toward the end of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses led the people of Israel to the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho (Num. 22:1). From this place, Israel would soon cross into the promised land. However, Israel had just defeated Sihon and Og (Num. 21:21–35), two Transjordanian kings, putting fear in the minds of the Moabites and their king, Balak. To counteract the threat, Balak tried to enlist the aid of a well-known diviner, Balaam, who lived in Pethor, a site in northwest Mesopotamia (Num. 22:5).

2.      The king wanted to weaken Israel by having Balaam curse the Israelites. However, God made it clear to Balaam that he would not endorse any action against his people.

3.      Balaam at first refused to go with the Moabite messengers, but after being enticed by an even bigger payment, he left for Moab.

4.      God allowed him to go, but with a warning that Balaam could do only what God himself commanded him to do. God emphasized this last point by famously putting an invisible angel in the path of Balaam’s donkey so that it could not pass. In frustration, Balaam whipped the donkey until God gave the animal voice to object to the beating, and then the Lord opened the diviner’s eyes to the angel’s presence. The episode puts Balaam in a negative light, having his donkey alert him, the diviner, to the angel’s presence.

5.      Nonetheless, Balaam continues on his journey, but due to God’s command, he could only bless and not curse Israel. At Balak’s urging, he tries to curse Israel four times, but each time he delivers an oracle of blessing.

6.      The final oracle directed to Israel (Num. 23:15–19) contains the most memorable words of Balaam as he predicts, “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (24:17), which comes to fulfillment in the rise of the Davidic dynasty. Thus, Balak of Moab’s attempt to thwart Israel by prophetic curse fails.

7.      However, Num. 25 reports that a different tactic does succeed in bringing harm, though not utter ruin, to the people of God. Some Israelites start sleeping with women of Moab and Midian and worshiping their gods. The damage is stopped by the swift action of Phinehas the priest.

8.      Although Balaam is not named in this chapter, Num. 31:16 reports that he was the one who originated the plot. Apparently, Balaam was determined to get the payment.

9.      Later Scripture holds him up as a negative example of a false teacher who cares only about money (Judg. 11; 2 Pet. 2:15; Rev. 2:14). The Israelites kill him along with many other Midianites (Num. 31:8).

10.  Interestingly, archaeologists have uncovered an inscription on a plaster wall at Deir ’Alla, a site eight miles east of the Jordan River in the country of Jordan, that mentions Balaam the diviner and states that he had night visions. Thus, we have a rare instance of a biblical character attested in an extrabiblical text. The inscription has been dated to the eighth century BC.