I’ve been studying the Pentateuch, specifically spending time in the book of Numbers, and I wanted to record some notes on Balaam the Prophet.
He comes up three times in the New Testament, and always with a negative view as a prototype for a specific type of teacher.
- Says Jud 9-11, be careful with these false teachers who rail against what they don’t understand—these False Teachers who for money plunge willingly into the error of Balaam.
- The Apostle Peter (2 Peter 2:13-16) brings up a similar point speaking about these false teachers who for the love of money in payment of wrongdoing, up and leave the Right Path.
- And you have Rev 2:14 where our Lord is speaking to the Church at Pergamum and he states that one of the things he has against them is that there are some among them who hold to the teaching of Balaam. Now whatever that teaching is in the church at Pergamum, the Lord states the point by reminding them of what Balaam did: he taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.
The two previously mentioned passages deal with a similar negative quality: the false teachers (like Balaam) willingly go the wrong way for money. The third New Testament passage focuses, not on the money, but on the teaching to embrace and use idolatry and immorality.
In the Old Testament, Balaam comes up several times but it’s usually a reiteration of what occurs in the Numbers 22-24. The details of the story, I think, are important but a lot of commentaries tend to cut up the story as if it is silent to the character of Balaam. One commentary I read (I can’t remember which) says that Balaam is actually pretty admirable in these chapters and it is only years later, after the Old Testament is written, that Balaam is finally an example of an openly evil character. Weird reading of the text, that.
Anyway, some notes of how Balaam looks, at first blush, as doing the right thing.
- He checks with God, twice, before going to Balak. (Num 22:8, 19)
- He refuses to speak a word outside of what God says. (Num 22:18; 23:12, 26; 24:12-13)
- He stands firm stating that whatever money is sent, God is the one who decides. (Num 22:18-19; 24:12-13)
- He moves when God tells him to move (Num 22:13; 21, 35)
- He repents (Num 22:34)
- His prophecies contain personal hopes that recognize God’s goodness towards Israel (Num 23:7-10)
Several commentaries I’ve read also take the story of Balaam, the Angel of the Lord, and his ass as some random story that was (mis)inserted in the middle of the Balaam story to add some extra information—but it really has nothing to do with anything except for maybe building tension. That just strikes me as strange and ignoring the use of story in ancient literature.
Story, when place next to story, illustrates a Point without outright stating the point. In this story, Balaam drives his ass forward three times, with beatings, driving her down the road to meet Balak (Num 22:23, 24, 26) and each time the ass is being beaten for saving Balaam’s life: the angel of the Lord is standing in Balaam’s way. It’s ironic because soon, Balak will be driving Balaam to curse (three times) and the Lord will be standing in Balak’s way.
Another bit of irony: the last time, when the Lord makes the ass speak, Balaam says that if there was a sword nearby he would use it to kill the donkey: there is a sword nearby but it’s not for the donkey, it’s for Balaam!
Be that as it may, the Lord is angry with Balaam because he is going to Balak ( Num 22:22) and that is after God tells Balaam to go (Num 22:20) and even ends this story with telling him to go (Num 22:35)
I think that the passage highlights something off about Balaam’s character and it brings up questions to my mind.
- If the Lord already gave a firm no (Num 22:12), why did Balaam feel the need to ask twice (Num 22:10, 19)?
- Why would he abuse the animal the way he did if it never has acted that way before (Num 22:30)?
- The angel was planning to kill Balaam—why is he wonder “if” the way of Balaam is displeasing? Isn’t it obviously displeasing (Num 22:34)?
To me, it points to a man who is accustomed to having his own way, even if he passively ingratiates himself with requests and conditional statements. The commentators would tell me I’m reading into the text with this point but I think that this comes out later as well.
When Balaam prophesies the first three times, he has Balak set up an altar with offerings (Num 23:1-3, 13-15, 29-30). It is the forth time, not at the request of Balak, and giving up on the omens for divination, he just starts speaking what the Lord has him say (Num 24:1-2). What’s interesting here is that the giving up of the omens indicates that the man was trying to grease the wheels to still get his own way. His responses to Balak, therefore, don’t sound like mere defense of a man dedicated to speaking the words of God but an ass of a man realizing that to say otherwise, even noting that the gifts of appeasement aren’t helping things, would result in his death.
So in this story, Balaam is refused payment (Num 22:17; 23:37, compared to Num 24:11) and goes home his separate way (Num 24:25) but, later on, Israel winds up killing Balaam in the process of killing the Moabites and Midianites (Num 31:8).
I have to ask: if Balaam had parted in bad company, why and how was he numbered with the dead leadership? I think that’s where the next verse is helpful:
“Behold, these 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.” (Nu 31:16 // NASB95)
The passage is speaking about the Israelite failure in Numbers 25 where they were joined in idolatry and immorality with the surrounding nation. It looks like Balaam wound up having his own way. He didn’t get a chance to curse (for money) like he wanted to, but he got a chance to set up a trap that resulted in a cursing and a slaying of some 22,000 Israelites: that’s a success for the enemy of the People of God.
This all helps me think about the false teachers that can creep in: the kinds that are seeking their own desires for money, fame, reward and prestige. The kind that do not bend their will to the desires of God but consistently seek what’s right in their own eyes, to the detriment of the People of God.