Balaam and Balak
The purpose of the account is to describe how God turned a curse into a blessing (Deut 23:5, Neh 13:2), by triumphing over a bad situation and turning it into good. Yahweh emerged as the victor over the pagan gods, and demonstrated that the occult has no power over the people of God.
Background of the nations and people involved
Balak was the king of the Moabites. Some scholars believe that he may have been related to the Midians. The Moabites were the descendants of Lot through the incest which his daughters committed with him (Gen 18:37).
The Midianites were the descendants of Abraham through one of his sons, Midian, from his wife
Keturah (Gen 25:1-2). They were a nomadic people whose geographical boundaries are hard to determine. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, was a Midianite (Ex 18:1). In this story, some of them lived in the area near Moab as well as south of Edom. At times they migrated as far away as Mesopotamia.
The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob.
Balaam came from Pethor on the Euphrates in Mesopotamia (Num 22:5, Deut 23:5). It was a 600 km (400 mile) journey each way from Moab to Mesopotamia. The Midianites wandering in Mesopotamia may have been the ones who had told Balak about Balaam.
The Deir Alla Inscription from the ninth or eighth century BC, discovered in Western Jordan in 1967, and now held in the Jordan Archaeological Museum is about a prophet named Balaam son of Peor.
The setting of the scene
Balak had heard rumours about Israel. He had probably heard about their miraculous deliverance out
of Egypt and more recently their battles and victories over Sihon and Og (Num 21).
Balak was afraid of the Israelites, but the sad thing is that he did not need to be afraid of them for
the Lord told the Israelites, “Do not harass or contend with Moab in battle, for I will not give any
of their land for a possession” (Deut 2:9).
Out of fear, Balak formed a coalition with the elders of Midian and their kings. They decided to
attack Israel, not physically, but spiritually, by attempting to put a curse on them (22:4-6). They sent
an embassy made up of the elders of Moab and Midian. They departed with fees for divination and
went to get Balaam.
Balaam the soothsayer
Balaam’s name means ‘devourer’, or ‘swallower-up’. His father's name, Beor, means ‘destroyer’,
or ‘burner’. These names may have been given at birth, or as is sometimes done in the culture, they
were given a name which illustrated their character.
Some have suggested that Balaam came from a family of soothsayers. Balaam is called a soothsayer,
who practised divination, not a prophet (Josh 13:22). These are two different Hebrew words and the
word ‘soothsayer’ is never used in connection with true prophets of God. The Lord said that soothsaying and the things of this sort are an abomination to Him, and that because of these abominations, God used Israel to drive out the nations (Deut 18:10-14).
In the area of Mesopotamia divination flourished. Kings hired soothsayers and they were to tell the
kings what their next move was to be in battle. Balak said of Balaam, “I know that he whom you
bless is blessed and he whom you curse is cursed” (Num 22:6). Balaam had demonic supernatural
power and pronounced effective demonic curses, showing his evil nature. What he practised was an
abomination and Balaam is continually condemned in Scripture. He is condemned as loving gain
from wrongdoing, the way of Balaam is greed and his teachings are condemned (2 Peter 2:15, Jude
11, Rev 2:14 and Neh 13:2).
Magic and soothsaying in Balaam’s time
A magician or soothsayer was thought to have irresistible power with the gods. This power was in him or it came from his incantations. It was considered that soothsayers could influence the gods, and regulate the will of the gods. This is opposite to what God does in miracles, where the power only comes from God. There are examples of divination in the Bible, including Pharaoh’s magicians (Ex 6-11), Laban (Gen 30:27), and Pharaoh’s cup, which may have been used for water divination (Gen 44:5).
Soothsaying was also an attempt to gain secret knowledge by interpreting signs or omens. The gods were induced to impart knowledge, even through the sacrifice of children by burning. Soothsayers sacrificed animals and looked at their entrails, especially the liver. They observed unnatural behaviour of animals like the donkey, and the flight of birds as omens. Divination was also done by water, fire, plates and rods.
Soothsayers also believed that they could get their god to transfer his blessing from one nation to
another. It may be that Balaam thought he could persuade God to transfer his covenant blessing away
from Israel. Balaam may have been trying to manipulate God and control God’s will as to who he blesses and curses. “And he sent and invited Balaam the son of Beor to curse you, but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I delivered you out of his hand”. (Josh 24:9). “Because they (the Moabites) hired against you Balaam to curse you. Nevertheless, the Lord your God would not harken to Balaam but the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you because the Lord your God loved you” (Deut 23:4).
The confrontation: heathenism vs God
Balaam did not deny that Yahweh had power, or that Yahweh was the God of the Israelites. Balaam may have even called on Yahweh. But for Balaam, Yahweh was just another god to be used, and Balaam’s motive was power and money. What Balaam did not believe, and the truth that he strongly opposed, was that God is the only true God and that all the rest were idols. Thus he was a heathen, much like Simon Magus and the Sons of Sceva and Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24, 19:4).
When the Israelites came into battle against the other nations, the other nations knew that Yahweh
was powerful and that he was the God of the Israelites, but they did not believe that Yahweh was more powerful than their gods, nor did they believe that Yahweh was the only true God. They understood warfare as a battle between their god and Yahweh, and even though Israel had defeated others, they were confident that their god was more powerful than the God of the Hebrews.
If Balak had understood that God was the only true God, that all others were idols, and that God was
all powerful, he would never have put his trust in Balaam. What Balak is accrediting to Balaam should only be accredited to Yahweh, “He whom you bless is blessed and he whom you curse is cursed” (Num 22:6).
Balaam and Balak did not understand that God’s covenant blessing was irrevocable and impervious to magic or hostile contradiction. When Balaam spoke of Yahweh as his he is not speaking of a faith relationship with God. For Balaam, Yahweh is just another god, over whom he must try to gain influence in order to turn him from his purposes concerning Israel. If Balaam had succeeded in doing this then he would have reached his goal of being ‘The Most Powerful Magician’.
The series of events
The elders came to Balaam with fees for divination (22:7). Balaam accepted these fees (Neh 13:2,
Jude 11, Deut 23:5), showing that his problem was greed and that he had been hired for money. Balaam’s time for decision came the first night the men stayed with him, when he sought God (Yahweh) (22:8). God came to Balaam and spoke to him. It may have been a new experience for Balaam, because he usually sought his gods through omens and here God spoke to him directly. God actually speaks, he does not reveal himself through omens and auguries.
God told Balaam not to go with them. He was not to curse the people, because they are blessed (22:12). Balaam only reported the first statement from God. He suppressed the last two statements which revealed the real hopelessness of the situation and the powerlessness of man to control God.
Balaam said, “God has refused to let me go with you” (22:13). This implied to the elders that God might give him leave in the future. It would encourage them to hope for better results in the future. Was Balaam trying to get more money by leading them on, or did he really believe, as was the nature of the pagan gods, that he could persuade God to change his mind.
As one would suspect, Balak did send a larger and more prestigious embassy. They came to Balaam with great promises of honour. “For I will surely do you great honour, and whatever you say to me I will do” (22:15-17). Balaam replied that he cannot go beyond the command of the Lord God. Balaam probably did not understand that God meant what he had said, and that he would not change his mind. Here Balaam was enticed by money and honour and probably swayed by the pressure of the elders.
Balaam went again to see if he could persuade God to change his mind, which was the normal practice of the soothsayers. They believed that they had the power to work upon the will of the gods will to get them to change or do what they wanted them to do.
This time God came and said, “If the men have come to call you, rise go with them; but only what I bid you, that shall you do” (22:20). Balaam probably interpreted this as his ability to con trol God and have sway over him. He probably thought that God changed his mind. Balaam probably believed that he had accomplished the work of a soothsayer and regulated God’s will. He probably was full of pride, thinking of what great power he had as a soothsayer. He thought he was controlling God, but God had a way of showing who is in control.
But God’s anger was kindled as he went with the princes of Moab (22:22). God was angry, probably not because Balaam went with the princes, but because of the attitude and spirit in which he went - to get financial reward. Balaam thought he was on good terms with God. He had persuaded God to change his mind about going. Balaam also was probably planning to pronounce the curse that God had forbidden, because he thought that he could sway God. He was going with an attitude of arrogance and pride.
Therefore God met him to show him his total ignorance of God’s ways and alienation from God. Balaam, your donkey has more spiritual perception and awareness of me than you (22:23).
The three encounters with the angel may be illustrations of God’s dealing with Balaam. In each instance the Lord narrowed down the space that he gave him, until finally he did not allow him any more room, showing Balaam who was really in control. As God narrowed down the space he gave with the angel, he gave him “no power to turn either to the right or left” (22:26), so he restricted what Balaam could do.
After this, God came forth to withstand him (22:32). God said to Balaam that his way was perverse before him, and God said he would have killed him if his animal had not turned aside. Balaam thought that he was in control of God and on good terms with him. These thoughts were perverse and Balaam’s plan to curse God’s people was perverse to God.
God put Balaam in a tight place. Balaam did not understand what God had said to him, because he
said, “if it is displeasing to you, I will return home” (Num 22:34). God had only just said that the way was perverse. And yet he still questions by asking, "if?", showing his stubbornness. Thus God
said, go but you will only be able to say what I permit (22:35).
When Balaam met Balak (22:38) he said to Balak, I have come but it will not do you any good because I have no power to say anything but the word God puts in my mouth. Here is the triumph of God over the soothsayer’s magic. God turned the curse into a blessing (Deut 23:5, Neh 13:2).
The oracles of Balaam
When Balaam came to Moab he met Balak at the capital city. From there they went to Bamoth-Baal from which they could overlook the camp of the Israelites and see the outskirts, or nearest part of the camp. Balaam did not go to look for omens, signs in nature to determine God’s will (Num 24:1), so it can be assumed that on the first two occasions he did go to seek omens, but instead of revealing himself through divination, God put a word in his mouth (23:4-5).
First oracle (23:7-10)
In his first oracle, the main thing is that Israel is said to be separate from the world and righteous. The discourse is in the form of poetry and each thought is in four lines with the last two lines illuminating the first two lines.
Second oracle (23:18-24)
The blessing that Balaam pronounced upset Balak, so he took him to another place where he can see
the Israelites. This time he took him to Pisgah, which is the place where Moses viewed the promised land before his death, where they could see the promised land. In this discourse, God puts a word in Balaam’s mouth and he said, “God is not a man, that he should lie” (23:19). However, God does not lie. God is a Covenant keeper and he will not go back on his word, and, “God is not a man that he should repent”. No human manipulation will make God change his mind. The Lord said that there is no enchantment against Israel and no divination against Israel (22:23). In other words your magic and witchcraft will not work against God’s people. In fact these things are not even to be in the midst of God’s people.
Third oracle (24:3-9)
The third time Balak took Balaam to behold the whole camp of Israel as they camped in their specific formation. Perhaps Balak thought if Balaam saw how many there were he would decide to curse them. This time Balaam did not go to look for omens, but the spirit of the Lord came upon him and he spoke of the blessing of God on Israel and her defeating her enemies. Finally the real truth about blessings and curses came out and the Lord said again as he said to Abraham and Jacob, concerning his people, “Blessed be every one who blesses you and cursed be every one who curses you” (v9). God even gave them an opportunity to be blessed by blessing God’s people.
Fourth oracle (24:15-24)
In the final discourse Balaam foretold the destruction of Moab, Edom, the Amalekites and finally
the Assyrians. In this passage is also a prediction about Jesus, “A star shall come forth out of Jacob
and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (v17).
Balaam was not permitted by God to curse the people of God but his advice (Num 31:16) led to corruption in the Israelite camp. Balaam’s counterattack was to corrupt a people that he could not curse. If he could not defeat them with outside force then he tried to demoralise them from within. If he could not curse them then he led them into sin so that God will have to chasten them, so that they will be stripped of their blessing.
The Bible has nothing good to say about Balaam
“No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor in Mesopotamia, to curse you. Yet the LORD your God refused to heed Balaam; the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loved you.” (Deut 23:3-5).
“Then King Balak, son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand" (Jos 24:9-10).
“O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him” (Micah 6:5).
“On that day they read from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and in it was found
written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not
meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them - yet our God
turned the curse into a blessing (Neh 13:1-2, quoting Deut 23:3-5).
“Along with the rest of those they put to death, the Israelites also put to the sword Balaam son of
Peor, who practiced divination” (Josh 13:22).
In his message to the church in Pergamum, Jesus declared, “But I have a few things against you: you
have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication” (Rev 2:14).
Describing the false teachers, Jude likens them to Balaam, “Yet in the same way these dreamers also
defile the flesh, reject authority, and slander the glorious ones” (Jude 8). “Woe to them, for they follow the way of Cain, and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain, and perish in
Korah’s rebellion” (Jude 11).
Peter also describes the false teachers as being like Balaam, “They have left the straight road and
have gone astray, following the road of Balaam son of Bosor, who loved the wages of doing wrong,
but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and
restrained the prophet’s madness” (2 Pet 2:15).