Who is Balaam?
All of a sudden a non-Israelite prophet appears. Who is he? Based on Numbers 23:7, Word Biblical Commentary: Numbers, page 263) suggests that he is a Syrian. Is he really a prophet? If no, why not? If yes, in what sense of the word? (Archaeologists have discovered an inscription mentioning Balaam in a probable temple complex in Transjordan. The inscription comes from the 8th or 7th century BC—Ashley, The Book of Numbers 437.)
New Testament writers took Balaam as a negative object lesson. Peter, speaking of those who left the church because of lust, refers to Balaam “preferring the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2: 15-16); Jude compares Balaam’s transgression to Cain’s (Jude 1:11); and the Lord, speaking to John on the Isle of Patmos, speaks of the doctrine of Balaam, who taught “the children of Israel to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication” (Rev. 2: 14). However, it is not clear from the text we have why they would do so (but as we will see, there is at least one hint).
Nehama Leibowitz (New Studies in the Torah: Numbers) suggests a comparison between Balaam and other prophets. In Jeremiah 1:4, Ezekiel 1:3, Hosea 1:1, and Joel 1:1 we see the calling of a prophet described in the same way each time: “The word of the Lord came unto ______.” Or we see something like Ezekiel 1:3: “The hand of the Lord was there upon him.” However, we don’t see anything like that in Balaam’s case. Instead, we see Balaam seeking out the Lord (Numbers 23:1-3, 14-16). As Leibowitz says of the prophets, “Far from seeking [the office of a prophet], it was thrust on them” (284), but the difference in wording may suggest that Balaam sought after the office. Jewish commentators have also noticed that whereas the prophets mark their prophecies with “saith the Lord,” Balaam marks his with “Balaam [. . .] hath said.” (See, for example, Numbers 24:3.) But this difference isn’t unambiguous, for in Balaam’s third experience with the Lord we see that the Spirit came on him (Numbers 24:2) rather than that he sought after it.
So, was Balaam a prophet or not? How do we understand Balaam’s relation to the Lord and to Israel? Does this help us understand, perhaps, what the word “prophet” can mean in the Old Testament? How is that different than what we might at first assume? As you think about Balaam, think also about Melchizedek and Jethro. Do they show us that the ancient world was different religiously than we might have thought?
Verse 1: Where was Moab? Who were the Moabites, and how were they related to Israel (Genesis 19:30-37)? Keep them in mind because Ruth, whom we will study later, is a Moabite, and Christ descends in part from that lineage.
Verses 5-6: Who was Balaam? What led Balak to believe that Balaam could stop the Israelites?
The phrase “in the land of the children of his people” should perhaps be amended to read “in the land of the children of Ammon,” making Pethor a place in Transjordan rather than in Mespotamia. (Ashley 445-46)
Verse 7: The Moabites joined in this venture with the Midianites. Who were the Midianites? Where have we met them before, and why might they unite with the Moabites? What ancestor did they share in common? (See Genesis 11:27.) Is it relevant that Moses took exile in Midian and married someone from there? Of course, Jethro, his father-in-law and a source of important advice (Exodus 18:13-27)—and the Melchizedek priesthood (D&C 84:6)—was a Midianite. He also offered a sacrifice in which Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel took part (Exodus 18:12). What does that tell us about the Midianites? The phrase “the rewards of divination” might be better translated “the price of divination.” What does that tell us? Does it tell us something about Balaam or about how Balak understood what Balaam did?
Verse 13: How do you account for the fact that God talks directly with Balaam. In other words, what seems to be Balaam’s relationship to God and what was his answer to Balak’s emissaries?
What changes characterize the second delegation sent to Balaam—both in composition of the delegation and in the rewards offered? (Compare verses 7, 15-17.) What indication is given that Balak is beginning to panic?
Verse 18: What does Balaam’s initial answer to the second delegation tell one about Balaam’s feelings then? What does the fact that he goes with the delegation tell about his feelings? Are these two in conflict?
Verse 20: Why might the Lord have allowed Balaam to go with the second delegation sent by Balak? Notice the change made in the JST: “rise up, if thou wilt go with them; but .. .“ whereas the KJV has “rise up, and go with them; but . . . .” Does that make more sense of what is happening? What caution does the Lord give Balaam?
Verse 21: In verse 20, the Lord prefaced his permission to go to Balak with “If the men come to call thee.” This verse says nothing about the men coming to call Balaam. It begins simply with “And Balaam rose up.” Is that significant? If so, what does it suggest?
The standard translation of this verse is “God’s anger was kindled because he went,” (italics added) but it is difficult to see why God would be angry with Balaam for going when he had given permission for him to go. Ashley suggests that we can legitimately translate the phrase “God’s anger was kindled when he went” (454). In that case, we don’t know the cause of God’s anger at Balaam.
You may be interested to know that the word translated “adversary” is satan, though in this case the context makes clear that this was an angel of the Lord. The Hebrew word satan is a general term for “adversary” that we also use as the proper name of the adversary, Satan.
Verses 23-33: What do you make of the experience of Balaam and his donkey, of the seer who cannot see? (This is the only place beside Genesis 3:1 where the Bible depicts a talking animal.)
Verses 34-35: When Balaam becomes repentant, why does the angel tell him to go to Balak?
Verse 37: What does Balak think kept Balaam from coming promptly?
Verse 41: This is the first time that we come across the pagan god Baal. We will meet his followers often from this point. To find out about him, go to the Bible Dictionary at the back of your Bible. For more information, see the entry, “Baal,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (vol. 1, page 546—most libraries will have a copy).
Verses 1-3: What ritual does Balaam engage in before going to enquire of the Lord? Why does he call the offering Balak’s burnt offering? (Compare verses 3 and 6.)
Verses 7-10: What is the substance of the answer Balaam gives to the assembled elders of Moab and Midian? The King James translation calls Balaam’s utterance a parable. “Oracle” and “discourse” are other translations. Balaam gives his prophecies in poetic form (Numbers 23:7-10; 23:18-24; 24:3-9; 24:15-24), though the KJV doesn’t show that. How do you explain the ending of verse 9, in which Israel is portrayed as alone and insignificant, and the beginning of verse 10, in which Israel is portrayed as innumerable? To whom and how could an innumerable nation be insignificant?
Verses 11-12: What might one expect if a king has been dealt with as Balak thinks he has been dealt with (verse 11)? In verse 12, Balaam no longer uses Balak’s kingly title in referring to him. (Compare Numbers 22:10.) What might this suggest?
Verse 13: Why does Balak move Balaam to another place to view the Israelites, hoping he will curse them from that location? In other words, what does he seem to hope this move will accomplish? Notice that seven more altars are built and seven more sacrifices offered at this new location. Why?
Verses 19-24: What new information is added in Balaam’s second report to Balak?
Verse 25: Why does Balak tell Balaam that if he is not going to curse Israel, at least not to bless them?
Verses 27-30: Why is the location changed again? Is there perhaps something like Christ’s temptation in the wilderness going on here, an analogy to Lucifer taking Jesus to three different locations to tempt him?
Verse 28: Balak has taken Balaam to three different places to offer sacrifice and to demand that God curse Israel: the high places of Baal (Numbers 22:41), the field of Zophim (Numbers 23:14), and the top of Peor (verse 28)? Why has he moved him about this way? One commentator points out that the first was a place of worship of the god of fertility and material plenty, the second the place of worship of a god who foretold the future (Zophim means “lookers” or “watchers”), and the third to the place of worship of a god of sexual licence. (See Leibowitz 316-317.) Does that help explain why Balak chose the places he did? How?
Verses 1-9: How is what Balaam does this time different than the previous two times (verse 1)? Why does he mention that his eyes are open while he is in the trance (verses 4 and 15)? Is this a parallelism, and if it is, what are we to see from it? Notice that Balaam uses a lot of figurative speech in this blessing. In verse 6, for example, there are four consecutive similes, all related to a well-watered garden. What is the symbolic significance of that theme? What is the theme of the end of verse 7 and verses 8-9? How are the themes of verses 5-7a and 7b-9 related to each other? How is this blessing related to the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:2-3, among other places—it may be interesting to compare this blessing to the several versions of the Abrahamic covenant)? What is different in Balaam’s experience this time as he comes before the Lord? (Compare verse 9 with Judah’s blessing in Gen. 49: 9.)
Verses 10-11: Striking one’s hands together seems to have been a sign of contempt. (Compare Lamentations 2:15 and Job 27:23.) Of whom or what is Balak contemptuous? Why? Notice that Balak tells Balaam that God has kept Balaam from honor (verse 11). Do those who wish to serve often have to forego honor? Why?
Verse 13: Leibowitz (326-27) notes that there is a gradual change in how Balaam responds to Balak: “Can I say anything? Whatever God shall put in my mouth that I shall speak” (Numbers 22:38; Leibowitz translation); “Surely that which God shall put in my mouth that shall I observe to speak” (Numbers 23:12; Leibowitz translation); “Surely I have told you saying: All that the Lord shall speak that shall I do” (Numbers 23:26; Leibowitz translation); and here “I cannot violate the word of the Lord to do good or evil out of mine own heart; that which the Lord shall speak, that shall I speak” (Leibowitz translation). Does that gradual change denote a change in Balaam? If so, of what kind? If so, is it for good or for worse?
Verse 14: Is Balaam giving comfort to Balak by saying, “This is what Israel will do to your people, but not until the last days?” In other words, “Don’t worry, all of this is a long time from now.” If so, might this be part of the reason that Balaam has become a negative figure for Israel?
Verses 17-25: What is to be the fate of the pagan nations, according to Balaam? When will this be fulfilled? Who is the “Star out of Jacob,” the “Scepter out of Israel,” that shall smite the corners of Moab? (This is among the earliest of the major Messianic prophecies given in the Old Testament. Note the references that parallel Judah’s blessing [Genesis 49:10]). Why Judah? Might the star in the eastern heavens that appeared at the birth of Christ have any association with this prophecy?
Verses 1-6: What is the composition of the army sent out against the Midianites? It is ironic that Moses’s last act before his death / translation is to respond to a call to send an army to destroy the Midianites. After all, he himself had been sheltered by them for forty years of his life and had married one of their daughters: his children are half Midianite. What does it mean that the priests took “the holy instruments” into battle against the Midianites (verse 6)? Are the Israelites taking the Ark of the Covenant with them into battle? Why might they do this? Is it significant that neither Moses nor Aaron goes with them into battle?
Verse 8: What finally happens to Balaam? Why might the Lord allow this? (See Deuteronomy 23:3-6; and Joshua 13:22 and 24:10.)
Verses 15-17: Though this goes slightly beyond the assigned reading, do these verses give us any understanding of the earlier events? Do they help us understand Balaam’s negative reputation in the New Testament?
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