Sunday, March 27

Who Was Balaam And What Is His Importance?

In the third book of the Hebrew Bible, Numbers, chapters 22-25 (and briefly in 31) convey the account of a man named Balaam son of Beor. (Hebrew: בִּלְעָם, Standard Bilʻam Tiberian Bilʻām) Balaam was summoned by Balak son of Zippor, who was the king of Moab, to come and put a curse upon the Israelites. Thrice he tried to curse, yet all three times God used Balaam to bless Israel. This individual is mentioned in other parts of Scripture, and has both a prophetic and archaeological importance - archaeology which confirms his existence and veracity of the biblical account. *Note: This entry is double-length. (Photo credit: Rembrandt van Rijn, 1626; Livius)

The main account we have concerning Balaam occurs during the sojourn of Israel on the plains of Midian near the close of the forty years of wandering, just before the death of Moses. By this time, the Israelites have defeated Sihon of the Amorites and Og, King of Bashan. Balak, King of Moab sends ambassadors to Balaam, to ask for him to put a curse on Israel. When the elders of Moab and Midian came to Balaam, they stayed the night, and the following morning, after having been visited by God in a dream, Balaam conveys that he cannot go.

God had said to Balaam, "Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed." (Numbers 22:12, NIV) The officials returned, but Balak sent "other officials, more numerous and more distinguished than the first." (Numbers 22:15) Again, Balaam sought the counsel of God at night, and God said to Balaam: "Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you." (Numbers 22:20) Balaam left in the morning with the officials on his donkey.

From Numbers 22:21-41 we can easily glean that God wanted to make a point to Balaam. God sent the Angel of the Lord, (who is often identified as the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ) to stand in front of Balaam. Numbers 22:21-25 says, "When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand. it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road. Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam's foot against it. So he beat the donkey again."(See entry: "Who Is 'The Angel of the Lord?'", "The Holy Trinity (Part Two)")

The donkey would not be swayed. Note that Balaam did not yet see the angel (messenger) of the Lord. Numbers 22:26-28 continue, "Then the angel of the LORD moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then the LORD opened the donkey's mouth, and it said to Balaam, 'What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?'"

Ordinarily, if one were to ride on a donkey, and all of a sudden that donkey turns and begins to speak, you think you would be frightened or taken aback! No such awe was seemingly found in Balaam. "Balaam answered the donkey, 'You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.' The donkey said to Balaam, 'Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?' 'No,' he said. Then the LORD opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown." (Numbers 22:29-31)

From: Rembrandt van Rijn, 1626
Skeptics love to point out passages of Scripture like Jonah in the belly of a huge fish (Jonah 2, Matthew 12:40) and the talking donkey to illustrate the "ridiculousness of Scripture." Quite the opposite. This passage simply illustrates for us another clear example of God's control of all creation: even speaking through a donkey. There are a few ideas on whether or not it was the donkey that actually spoke or the LORD, but it was likely God using the donkey to make a point to Balaam.

In fact, Peter elaborates on this as a historical event in 2nd Peter 2:15-16, "They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, [also called Beor] who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey - an animal without speech - who spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet's madness." The angel of the Lord proceeded to speak to Balaam:

"The angel of the LORD asked him, 'Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.' Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, 'I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back. The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, 'Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.' So Balaam went with Balak's officials." (Numbers 22:32-35)

Josephus, first century Jewish historian, writes in The Antiquities of the Jews 4.6.3, "but when his ass, upon the angel's continuing to distress her, and upon the stripes which were given her, fell down, by the will of God, she made use of the voice of a man, and complained of Balaam as acting unjustly to her; that whereas he had no fault to find him in what he was now going about, by the providence of God. And when he was disturbed by reason of the voice of the ass, which was that of a man, the angel plain appeared to him, and blamed him for the stripes he had given his ass; and informed him that the brute creature was not in fault, but that he was himself come to obstruct his journey, as being contrary to the will of God."[1]

Balaam was asked thrice by Balak to curse the Israelites, and thrice God told him to bless Israel. Though Balaam was a corrupted and false prophet, God still used him. Numbers 24:1-2 reveals, "Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not resort to divination as at other times, but turned his face toward the wilderness. When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God [Holy Spirit] came on him." Balaam proceeded to give five more prophecies.

Perhaps one of the most important was the fourth message that he gave (the second after receiving the Holy Spirit), found in Numbers 24:17a, "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel." (cf. Matthew 2) This prophecy has been used in the context of the Star of Bethlehem that heralded the birth of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, around 1400 years after this prophecy was given. (For more, see entry: "Prophecy And The Birth of Christ")

Balaam's final message, the seventh (fifth after receiving the Spirit), conveys, "Ah, who can live when God does this? Ships will come from the shores of Cyprus; they will subdue Ashur and Eber, but they too will come to ruin." (Numbers 24:23b-24) This prophecy has been interpreted a few different ways, the most prominent of which say that the prophecy refers to the Sea Peoples who some scholars allege invaded Cyprus, or the interpretation which says that Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) is the one who led this invasion.[2]

Sadly, Balaam showed Balak how to seduce the Israelites. "While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to sacrifice to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the LORD's anger burned against them." God was angry with good reason. The Israelites had violated the covenant made with God on Mount Sinai not forty years prior. 

In Numbers 31:8, we find out the fate of Balaam. "Among [the Israelites victims in the fight with Midian] were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba - the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword." In verse 16 we read, "They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the LORD's people." Thus ended the life of Balaam. He is, however, mentioned elsewhere in Scripture.

Deuteronomy 23:4 reads, "For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim [Northwest Mesopotamia] to pronounce a curse on you." From this verse we can glean that Balaam was from Pethor in Aram. Joshua 24:9-10 says, "When Balaak son of Zippor, the king of Moab, prepared to fight against Israel, he sent for Balaam son of Beor to put a curse on you. But I would not listen to Balaam, so he blessed you again and again, and I delivered you out of his hand."

Micah also makes reference to Balaam. Micah 6:5a says, "My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered." We can also look at Jude 11, when Jude is referring to false teaching. Jude 11 says, "Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit in Balaam's error; they have been destroyed in Korah's rebellion." Also, Revelation 2:14 makes reference to Balaam: "Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality."

Balaam was obviously a conflicted man. As elaborated in the Oxford Companion To The Bible, "On the one hand, Balaam is often portrayed as an example of an evil diviner who would sell his prophetic powers to the highest bidder, often in conflict with God's will (Num. 31.8, 16; Deut. 23.4-5; Josh. 13.22; 24.9-10; Neh. 13.2; Mic. 6:5; 2 Pet. 2.15; Jude 11; Rev 2.14)... On the other hand, Numbers 22-24 as a whole portrays Balaam in a favorable light. When the Moabite king Balak hires Balaam to curse his enemy Israel as they cross his territory on the way to the Promised Land, Balaam replies piously that as a prophet he can speak only the words God gives to him (Num. 22.18; see also Num. 24.13)."[3] As noted, we can clearly see in Balaam's character internal conflict.

Philo, a biblical philosopher, described Balaam as a great magician, and of "the sophist Balaam, being," symbolizing "a vain crowd of contrary and warring opinions" and again as "a vain people." Both of these were based on a mistaken etymology for the name Balaam, yet regardless, Philo recognized the historicity of the existence of Balaam when referring to him.[4] The name Balaam means "Lord of the people; foreigner or glutton, as interpreted by other."[5] Early in the entry, it was mentioned that Balaam not only had a prophetic importance (the prophecy concerning the star which heralded Christ's birth) but also an archaeological importance. Let us now take a look at the archaeological evidence for Balaam, son of Beor.

In 1967, in Deir Alla, Jordan, an archaeological dig found an inscription made in red and black in on plaster walls. "It described a prophecy from something called the book of Balaam. Balaam was described as the son of Beor, as is the Balaam we read about in the book of Numbers, In this prophecy, however, he is further described as a prophet for Shamash, the sun god worshiped by the Babylonians and Sumerians."[6] Three times in the first four lines alone, Balaam is called the "son of Beor." 

The Deir Alla Inscription (Credit: Livius)
According to Bryant G. Wood, "The remarkable text found at Deir Alla consists of 119 fragments of plaster inscribed with black and red ink. It was among the rubble of a building destroyed in an earthquake. It seems to have been one long column with at least 50 lines, displayed on a plastered wall. According to the excavators' dating, the disaster was most likely the severe earthquake which occurred in the time of King Uzziah (Azariah) and the prophet Amos in about 760 BC (Amos 1:1; Zec 14:5). The lower part of the text shows signs of wear, indicating that it had been on the wall for some time prior to the earthquake."[7]

By referring to the "Book of Balaam," it is evident that the mentioned document was a pre-existing document, likely around a while before the inscription. Kyle J. McCarter Jr. translated and reconstructed part of the inscription as follows:

"(1) [VACAT] The sa]ying[s of Bala]am, [son of Be]or, the man who was a seer of the gods. Lo! Gods came to him in the night [and spoke to] him (2) according to these w[ord]s. Then they said to [Bala]am, son of Beor, thus: Let someone make a [ ] hearafter, so that [what] you have hea[rd may be se]en!" (3) And Balaam rose in the morning [ ] right hand [ ] and could not [eat] and wept (4) aloud. Then his people came in to him [and said] to Balaam, son of Beor, "Do you fast? [ ] Do you weep?" And he (5) said to them, "Si[t] do]wn! I shall inform you what the Shad[daying have done]. Now come, see the deeds of the g[o]ds!. The g[o]ds have gathered (6) and the Shaddayin have taken their places in the assembly and said to Sh[ , thus:] 'Sew the skies shut with your thick cloud! There let there be darkness and no (7) perpetual shining and n[o] radiance! For you will put a sea[l upon the thick] cloud of darkness and you will not remove it forever! For the swift has (8) reproached the eagle, the voice of vultures resounds. The st[ork has ] the young of the NHS-bird and ripped up the chicks of the heron. The swallow has belittled (9) the dove, and the sparrow [ ] and [ ] the staff. Instead of ewes the stick is driven along. Hares have eaten (10) [ ]. Freemen [] have drunk wine, and hyenas have listened to instruction. The whelps of the (11) f[ox] laughs at wise men, and the poor woman has mixed myrhh, and the priestess (12) [ ] to the one who wears a girdle of threads. The esteemed esteems and the esteemer is es[teemed. ] and everyone has seen those things that decree offspring and young. (15) [ ] to the leopard. The piglet has chased the young (16) [of] those who are girded and the eye ....'"[8]

There are several parallels and similarities between the Deir Alla Inscription and Numbers 22-24. For one, the events described in Numbers took place in the general area that the Inscription was found. As is clearly shown by the biblical text, Balaam was known as a "cursing prophet," as this is reason Balak summoned him. The Deir Alla text clearly shows this as well. There are other general similarities, but most importantly, it is well agreed upon that this archaeological find confirms the existence of Balaam son of Beor.[9]

Troy Hillman

[1] Josephus, Flavius, translated by William Whiston. Josephus: The Complete Works. 1st ed. Nashville, Tennesse: Thomas Nelson, 1998. 129. Print.
[2] "Alexander the Great." History of Macedonia. History of, 2003. Web. 27 Mar 2011. .
[3] Dennis T. Olson, et al. The Oxford Companion To The Bible. 1st ed. New York City, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 72-73. Print.
[4] Philo, The Life of Moses.
[5] "Balaam." Web Bible Encyclopedia. Christian Answers Network, n.d. Web. 26 Mar 2011. .
[6] Stan Campbell, Stephen Clark, et al. "A Donkey Talks." Inside The Mysteries Of The Bible: New Perspectives On Ancient Truths. 2010: 74-75. Print.
[7] Wood, Bryant G. "Is there any evidence to prove the existence of the prophet, Balaam?." Christian Answers Network. Christian Answers Network, 1995. Web. 26 Mar 2011. .
[8] P. Kyle McCarter Jr., The Balaam Texts from Deir 'Alla: The First Combination", Bulletin of the Schools of Oriental Research 237 (1980): 49-60
[9] Ibid, [7]


  1. What country nowaday is South Mesopotamia?

    1. South Mesopotamia is partly in Iraq and partly in Iran.

  2. What country nowaday is South Mrsopotamia? Baalam, descendency is from what tribe?
    I am happy you put this information. It really will help me in my mentoring and bible study.

    1. South Mesopotamia is partly in Iraq and partly in Iran. Every ancient reference that we have regarding Baalam identifies him as a non-Israelite and son of a man named Beor, and therefore has no tribe (at least, not a Jewish origin).