Balaam is a controversial character in the Old Testament. In this story – at least on the surface – he comes across as a servant of God sincerely seeking His message. Other texts, however, show him to be godless and corrupt. Taking both together and reading this story with open eyes allow us to see him for what he probably truly is – a pagan mercenary only out for himself. What his story shows us is that giftedness doesn’t equate to holiness, and God can use any man to further His ends. Balaam shows us why there will be people on the last day who say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” only to hear Jesus reply, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt 7:22-23).
Israel comes off two battles wherein it completely destroys two kingdoms – Sihon, king of the Amorites and Og, king of Bashan – and settles in the plains of Moab, opposite Jericho. This is the final stop before entering Canaan.
When Balak, king of Moab, sees Israel on his border, he panics. He knows what the people just did to Og and Sihon and knows he doesn’t want to fight them straight up (the irony to this whole story is that his concern is misplaced – God has already told Moses not to touch Moab because of its relation to Israel through Lot – Deut 2:9). Thus he decides to send for a prophet to curse Israel. This is where we may have a hard time understanding the story – how can someone actually think a curse will change anything? It’s hard to know – just as it was hard to understand in the story of Esau and Jacob and the stolen blessing – but in some way blessings and curses are seen as real and depended upon as such. And since the text doesn’t say anything about the validity of Balak’s thinking, we can assume that a curse could have its intended effect.
Balak – after consulting with his neighbors, the Midianites (who Moses is related to through marriage) – sends for a well-known prophet called Balaam (try not to get the names confused – Balak is the king who sends for Balaam the prophet), who lives in a place called Pethor, near the Euphrates River (in modern-day Syria). We know Balaam is well-known, because this is a trip of 350-400 miles from where Israel camps. For Balak to send his messengers this far shows how panicked he is and how far Balaam’s fame has spread. Notice what Balak says in his message – “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” [This should bring to mind God’s covenant with Abraham – “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Gen 12:3). Too bad Balaam and Balak don’t know this. What they’re attempting to do isn’t going to work. Perhaps they could ask Moses for his newly written copy of Genesis so they could read up on it.] Balaam is known for being authentic – he has some kind of power that can affect events and people.
The elders of Midian and Moab take Balak’s message to Balaam. Notice what else they take – a fee. Balaam is a prophet for hire. This is our first clue that he’s not all on the up and up. No prophet of God takes money for his services.
When they deliver Balak’s message to Balaam, he tells them to spend the night so he can check with Yahweh and see if it’s OK to go back with them. This shows he knows who the God of Israel is – even to the point of referring to Him by His personal name. And it’s admirable that he wants to find out if it’s OK to go to Moab. He may be a prophet for hire, but he apparently knows his stuff well enough to know which god to consult and how.
God tells Balaam to not go back with the Midianite and Moabite representatives. He tells Balaam that he’s not allowed to curse Israel because the nation is blessed. So Balaam tells the men he can’t go back with them and they return to Balak. Again, he does the right thing. Other than requiring a fee, Balaam has done everything right to this point in the story.
After Balak hears that Balaam refused to come, he sends another group of emissaries to him. This time, however, he sends more distinguished men and – presumably – a more distinguished fee. The message he sends this time is that he’s desperate for Balaam’s help and is willing to pay whatever’s necessary to get him to travel to Moab.
Balaam tells the men to wait overnight as before. He again goes to God. It’s hard to know if this shows us Balaam’s mercenary heart. On the one hand, the only thing that’s changed from the prior group is that this one is more distinguished and offers more money. On the other hand, perhaps Balaam honestly thinks he should consult with God again rather than dismiss the men without further consideration. Regardless of his motives, he asks God again if he should go, and God tells him to go ahead. God tells him, however, to only speak what God tells him to.
Now comes the strangest part of this story – and the most entertaining. Balaam saddles his donkey and heads off with the group for Moab. For some reason – even though He just told him to go – God becomes angry at Balaam for going. No explanation is given for this and it seems random and arbitrary on first reading. What it could mean, however, is that Balaam isn’t going with pure motives. Perhaps he heard God say to only speak what he’s told, but his plan is to speak whatever gets him paid. This is pure conjecture, but it’s a plausible explanation for God’s response.
Because God’s angry, He sends His angel to kill Balaam with the sword. The angel stands in front of Balaam and waits for him to pass. Balaam – along with two servants (we don’t know where the Moabite escorts are – apparently they’re either far enough ahead or behind that they don’t witness what happens, or at least aren’t mentioned in the story) – travels ahead and doesn’t see the angel. His donkey does see him and turns off the road and heads into a field. The donkey sees the raised sword and refuses to stay on the road.
Balaam – understandably since he doesn’t see anything ahead – becomes angry with the donkey and beats her and guides her back to the road. This time the angel stands in a narrow path in a vineyard that has walls on either side that Balaam has to go through. The donkey again sees the angel and tries to get away by pressing against one of the walls, trapping Balaam’s foot against it. Once again, Balaam becomes angry and beats the donkey until it proceeds. It goes ahead but this time sees the angel in a place where he can’t be avoided. The donkey consequently lies down under Balaam and refuses to go on.
At this point, Balaam’s had enough. He beats the donkey with a stick, which causes the donkey to…wait for it…talk to him. The donkey speaks. Actually, God opens her mouth and causes the donkey to speak. And when the donkey speaks, it says to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” It’s a reasonable question. The donkey doesn’t know that Balaam can’t see the angel. Thus she’s confused. She’s saved Balaam’s life three times and gotten beaten each time. It doesn’t make sense.
When he hears his donkey speak, Balaam simply answers her question. He doesn’t seem phased by her speaking at all. He acts like it’s the most natural thing in the world to converse with a donkey. Just another day in Balaam’s world. He tells the donkey he beat her because the donkey has made a mockery of him. This points to Balaam’s traveling companions (the two servants and maybe the Moabites). All they’ve seen is a man who suddenly can’t control his donkey and who takes weird turns for apparently no reason. So he beat the donkey because she embarrassed him. Even more, he tells her that if he had a sword he would’ve killed her (and, of course, he misses the irony of wishing for a sword when one is actually close at hand).
Amazingly, the donkey continues the conversation and points out to Balaam that she’s been his donkey his whole life and has never acted like she’s acted today. She asks Balaam a question – “Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” She makes the point that she’s not acting arbitrarily. There’s a reason for her erratic behavior. At this point, Balaam knows he’s lost the debate. He simply answers her and says, “No.” He has to admit she’s right. He has to admit HIS DONKEY makes some valid points with which he has to concur. [Here’s where this story is actually better in the KJV. There’s something more poignant about reading that Balaam loses a debate with an ‘ass.’ His ass has a better handle on things than Balaam does.]
This scene is supposed to make Balaam look silly. He not only loses a debate with the donkey, but the donkey is allowed to see God when Balaam can’t. It shows that Balaam perhaps isn’t the man of God we might otherwise think. It also shows that he’s simply God’s instrument, nothing more. He’s not a great man that God needs. He’s a man about to be used by a great God.
After Balaam’s done talking to the donkey, God opens his eyes and he sees the angel and the drawn sword. Balaam immediately falls to the ground in homage. The angel tells him that if it weren’t for the donkey, he would’ve struck him down and spared the donkey. The donkey saved his life three times. He also tells him that Balaam’s way was contrary to me, seemingly meaning that Balaam was not proceeding obediently (Peter will later say that the donkey restrained the madness of the prophet – II Pet 2:16). Again, it’s hard to definitively interpret the angel’s meaning, but it could imply that Balaam wasn’t planning on just saying what God told him to say.
Regardless of what the angel means, the message is heard loud and clear by Balaam. He tells the angel that he sinned (either by beating the donkey or by coming with the Moabites – it’s hard to know which) and he’s willing to turn back if the angel wants him to. The angel tells him to go ahead, but to only speak what God tells him – a message that presumably Balaam hears very clearly and won’t deviate from now.
Balaam travels on and meets Balak on the border of Moab. Balak shows his frustration and essentially asks Balaam, “What took you so long and why was it so hard to get you to come? Did you think I couldn’t honor you enough?” Here again, we get a clue about Balaam’s character. Balak assumes it’s just a matter of payment as to why Balaam didn’t come the first time.
Balak takes Balaam to two different places where he can see the camp of Israel and curse them. In both places, Balaam instructs Balak to build seven altars and offer seven sacrifices. Then Balaam proceeds to bless Israel instead of cursing it. Both times, Balak reacts with shock and dismay and effectively asks him, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING??? You’re supposed to curse, not bless!!” And in both instances, Balaam responds, “I have to say what God tells me to say.”
Balak tries one more location. Why he thinks a change in location will change the prophecy isn’t clear. It would seem that if Balaam can’t curse them, he can’t curse them, but perhaps Balak thinks God is limited by geography and so if he can just find the right place Balaam will be free to utter the curse. He’s already blessed them twice, however, so it’s not clear how the one curse will counterbalance the blessings.
Again, Balaam instructs him to offer seven sacrifices on seven altars (this entire process is very expensive for Balak – two trips to Balaam’s hometown with dignitaries and fees, and 21 sacrifices of very expensive animals). Balaam feels it now and decides he doesn’t even need to consult God this time. He knows what pleases Him. He begins to prophesy and the Spirit of God comes upon him (which somehow means he speaks differently than before – some kind of higher spiritual level). He takes up his prophecy and AGAIN blesses Israel.
This time Balak’s had enough. His anger burns against Balaam and he strikes his hands together (picture a fierce, angry clap). He tells him to get out – go home. And he makes it a threat. He tells him to flee. He also tells him that he’s not going to pay. He says he would’ve honored him, but “…Yahweh has held you back from honor.” It’s interesting that he apparently buys Balaam’s explanation for why he hasn’t cursed Israel. It’s all because God hasn’t let him. Balak essentially says, “If it’s Yahweh, then Yahweh has kept you from a healthy fee.”
Balaam doesn’t cower in fear and he doesn’t leave. As a matter of fact, he prophesies again. And this time he goes all out. He doesn’t stop with saying what Israel will do in the near future. Now he looks far in the future and either tells about David or tells about the coming Messiah (both seem to fit – both could meet the description of verses 17-19 – the fact that he refers to a star coming forth from Jacob, however, probably means that he refers to the Messiah). He goes on to prophesy against the different lands that Israel will conquer. It’s a full-fledged blessing of Israel. After he speaks, he goes back to his home and presumably leaves Balak extremely frustrated.
After Balaam finishes his blessings and exits the stage, the people of Israel decide to fall away. The men of the country allow themselves to be seduced by the women of Moab and Midian, and begin to participate in pagan religious ceremonies which presumably include cultic sexual behavior.
God reacts angrily (there is NOTHING worse than breaking the first commandment) and tells Moses to execute the leaders of the people in broad daylight. So Moses tells the judges of the nation to each slay his own men who have joined themselves to Baal.
After Moses issues the order for executions and after Moses and the judges begin to cry out to God at the doorway to the tabernacle, a man of Israel – a leader from the tribe of Simeon – walks by with a Midianite woman that he takes to his family. He does this very openly, in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel.
When Aaron’s grandson – Phinehas – sees what’s happening, he grabs a spear and follows the couple into a tent. There he stabs them both and kills them. The picture is of the two of them in the midst of sex getting pierced through at the same time. As a result of Phinehas’ actions, the plague (which we didn’t know about until now) is checked. Before it’s checked, however, it kills 24,000 people (we don’t know over what time period this happens, but the effect on the nation has to be staggering).
God commends Phinehas and tells him there will be a covenant of peace between them for all generations. He restates that the line of Aaron will be a perpetual priesthood before God.
We find out that the Midianite woman who was slain was a princess of Midian. Her name was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was one of the family heads in Midian (and actually called one of the kings of Midian later in the book – 31:8). So both members of the dead couple were leaders in their respective nations.
God tells Moses to strike Midian because of all the trouble it’s caused Israel. Since Moses is married (or was married, depending on if she’s still alive) to a Midianite woman, it’s hard to know what this means for him.
If all we knew about Balaam was what was in this story, the picture would be of a flawed but generally God-seeking man. He seems to follow God’s commands and blesses God’s people every time he speaks. He also prophesies about the coming Messiah.
However, it’s not all we know. In Chapter 31, we learn that Israel does in fact carry out God’s command of vengeance against the Midianites. They fight against them and come close to wiping them out. They kill Zur, the father of Cozbi (the dead woman in the tent), and also kill – very interestingly – Balaam (who must have come back from his home). Based on what we know about Balaam, this is hard to understand.
Moses explains after the battle. When the military spares all the women of Midian, Moses rebukes them for their mercy and says to them, “Have you spared all the women? 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” (31:15-16). This gives us a clearer picture of what happened. Why did the events of Chapter 25 take place? Because Balaam – apparently after his failed cursing assignment – advised Moab and Midian (perhaps he did this before departing for home or perhaps he traveled home and came back) that if they couldn’t beat Israel militarily, perhaps they could destroy it from within by seducing its men with cult prostitutes (Balaam instructed Balak how to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel – Rev 2:14). Balaam was the mastermind behind the seduction that killed 24,000 by plague.
Why did Balaam do this? Perhaps to earn his fee that he forfeited when he blessed Israel. He knew God wouldn’t let him curse the people and he knew he wouldn’t get paid unless he did. Thus, he came up with a better plan. “We can’t beat them and we can’t curse them – let’s erode them.” And in so doing, he got paid (this is, obviously, pure conjecture). Peter will later say that Balaam loved the wages of unrighteousness (II Pet 2:15). This could be how he earned them.
- God may protect us in ways we’ll never know. Israel had no idea Moab was scheming against it. The people didn’t know that an internationally-known seer had been sent for to curse them. But God intercepted the plans of pagan men and used them to bless His people. God worked while Israel was blissfully ignorant.
- God can use anyone. God used a faithless and pagan man interested only in himself to bless God’s people. The man had his own plans but they were fashioned by God into His own ends. Man’s faithlessness and sin never thwart God’s plans.
- God can gift men who aren’t His. Balaam had a gift and was known for it. Balak said of him, “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” He had power and ability. Even God was able to use him to pronounce blessings and prophesies that came true. But at the end of the day, Balaam was a pagan. He didn’t truly know God or care about Him. And that leads us to another point – giftedness doesn’t equal holiness. It’s why Jesus talks about people doing amazing things seemingly for Him but being totally lost because they don’t know Him at all (see introduction). Ultimately, obedience and holiness are proofs of redemption, not gifts. Men can do amazing things and be damned because they do them for themselves. And gifted men who aren’t what they seem typically reveal themselves through lawlessness. Balaam looked to be a gifted and godly man until he showed himself through the seduction of Israel. It’s why Jesus said we will know true and false teachers and leaders by their fruits (Matt 7:16).