Balaam is a famous character with a timeless message. Life is not about getting rich, and certainly not about using the weaknesses of others against them. Rather, life about knowing God, and helping others to know Him.
By Mark D. Harris
From the earliest days in Sunday School, children learn about Balaam, a magician whose donkey spoke to him. It is a fun story, acted out in person and with toys countless times in church classrooms across America and the world. The story seems simple, as recorded in Numbers 22-25.
- The Israelites under Moses arrive at the border of Moab on their way to the Promised Land. They had just destroyed the armies of Og and Sihon, powerful local kings.
- Balak, the king of Moab, fears that the Israelites will overwhelm him and his people.
- Balaam is a magician from Pethor, a town near the Euphrates River, who is famous for his power.
- Balak sends a delegation to Balaam to ask him to curse Israel and give him military victory.
- Balaam replies that he cannot curse Israel because God has blessed them. In fact, he cannot even travel with the delegation back to Moab. The delegation returns to Moab.
- King Balak sends another, more distinguished delegation, and offers Balaam more money.
- Balaam agrees to go with the delegation but again refuses to curse the Hebrews.
- On the way to Moab, Balaam’s donkey stops in a narrow road. Balaam whips her to move forward, but the donkey then lies down.
- Balaam beats her more and threatens to kill her.
- Balaam donkey speaks audibly to her master, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.”
- God allows Balaam to see that an angel with a drawn sword was blocking the path. Had the donkey not turned away, the angel would have killed Balaam.
- Balak sacrifices to his gods.
- Balaam continues to Moab, but despite Balak’s continual encouragements, enticements, and threats, did not curse Israel.
- Instead, Balaam blesses Israel, incurring the wrath of Balak.
- Balaam departs to his home in Pethor.
Numbers 31:8,16 reveal that Israel later killed Balaam because “Behold, these (Moab and Midian) caused 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.”
Deuteronomy 23:4-5, explains that Moabites and Amorites are excluded from Israel because they hindered Israel and hired Balaam to curse Israel. Micah 6:5 reminds the Jews that God delivered them despite what Balak and Balaam tried to do. Balaam is labeled as a greedy, false prophet in 2 Peter 2:15-16 and an ungodly man in Jude 1:11. Balaam’s final biblical mention is in Revelation 2:14, in which John reminded the church in Pergamum that Balaam made Israel stumble. The stumbling blocks included eating meat sacrificed to idols and committing sexual immorality, which happened at Peor (Numbers 25). The church at Pergamum was in danger of traveling the same road.
Pethor is described as being in Mesopotamia close to the Euphrates River. Beor, Balaam’s father, may have also been the ancestor (“father”) of Bela, one of the kings of Edom (Genesis 36:31-32, 1 Chronicles 1:43). Jewish tradition considers Beor to have been a prophet. Balaam is mentioned extrabiblically on an 8th To 9th century BC fragment of a wall plaster tile from a temple at Deir Alla in Transjordan.
Balaam was not a prophet but a soothsayer, a person supposedly able to foresee the future, a practice called divination. Divination involved reading signs or doing procedures which eliciting knowledge from a divine source. Balaam would have been a recognized expert in one or many of these techniques.
- Chresmology – the use of oracles (1 Samuel 9:9)
- Oneiromancy – interpretation of dreams (Joseph – Genesis 41, Daniel – Daniel 2)
- Astrology – reading the stars (Matthew 2:1-12)
- Necromancy – consultation with the dead (1 Samuel 28:9-19, 1 Chronicles 10:13)
- Haruspicy – studying the entrails or livers of animals
- Augury – analyzing the movements of animals, especially birds
- Omens and portents – earthquakes, eclipses (solar and lunar), heavenly phenomena.
- Cledonomancy – omens related to involuntary human actions, such as a cough or a hiccup.
- Hydromancy – predicting the future from the movements of water (Joseph’s divination cup, Genesis 44:1-5).
- Pyromancy – observing the behavior of fire
- Cleromancy – throwing dice or little bones and observing what is pointed up.
- Sortilege – telling fortunes from plates or rods drawn at random.
- Rhabdomancy – interpretation of the position of objects like rods or arrows.
Soothsayers were condemned in the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 18). However, even these methods and their interpretations were ultimately used by God to effect His will (Proverbs 16:33, Acts 1:26).
The Moabite King Balak enlisted Balaam ultimately to use the spiritual/magical powers that he possessed against the power of the God of Israel. Balak wanted a powerful curse to stop the Hebrews from threatening his people. To do so, Balaam ordered Balak to have seven altars built and seven rams sacrificed at each site. But it did no good for Balak. The God of Israel, however, has ultimate power, even over magicians like Balaam. Balaam had no choice but to bless the Hebrews, no matter what Balak wanted, and would pay Balaam handsomely for. The following are the places that Balak took Balaam to curse Israel.
- Kiriath-huzoth (Numbers 22:39-23:10) – Balaam acknowledges Israel as having great numbers, being upright, and being blessed by God.
- Zophim at Pisgah (Numbers 23:18-24) – Balaam acknowledges the blessing of the Lord on Israel, as well as her military victory.
- Peor (Numbers 24:3-9) – Balaam anticipates Israel’s economic success.
- Final Blessing (Numbers 24:15-25) – Balaam prophesies the coming of the great ruler of Israel, the Messiah. He proclaims the eventual destruction of Moab, Edom, the Kenites, the Assyrians, and all those who oppose the Hebrew people.
Balaam’s fatal counsel
In Numbers 24:11-14, a furious King Balak tells Balaam to flee to his home. Balaam tells Balak that he is going, but that he will tell Balak how to deal with the Israelites. His advice was as effective as it was deadly, for Moab, Midian, Israel, and him.
Corrupt a people you cannot curse, and God will have to chasten them.
Balaam knew human nature, how weak and failing it is. He also knew God, how awesome and righteous He is. God’s righteousness, His utter inability to leave sin unpunished, required Him to punish the guilty. If Moab, and their ally, Midian, could tempt the Israelites to commit sexual immorality and eat mean sacrificed to idols, they destroy Israel without needing a curse.
It worked. Midianite women seduced Hebrew men to break God’s law and to practice Midianite religion. Israel lost 24,000 people in the plague that God sent among Israel due to their sin. That was far more people than Israel had lost in the earlier battles, and more than Moab and Midian together could have inflicted in open war. Only decisive action by Phineas, grandson of Aaron, the High Priest, ended the plague.
Balaam knew much of the character of God and of the nature of man. He used his knowledge of God to bless God’s people. However, Balaam also manipulated the weakness of man, in this case, of Israel, to pad his own pockets. Thousands died, even Balaam himself. Had he only known Matthew 18:6-7:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!
We in the modern day have no excuse. We cannot curse what God has not cursed, and cannot use the weaknesses of those around us to build advantage for ourselves.
 Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Jewish Publication Society, The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford; New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). 312