Balaam (Hebrew: בִּלְעָם, Standard Bilʻam Tiberian Bilʻām, English pronunciation /ˈbeɪlæm/ ) is a diviner in the Torah, his story occurring towards the end of the Book of Numbers (Hebrew: במדבר). The etymology of his name is uncertain, and discussed below. Every ancient reference to Balaam considers him a non-Israelite, a prophet, and the son of Beor, though Beor is not so clearly identified. Though other sources describe the apparently positive blessings he delivers upon the Israelites, he is reviled as a "wicked man" in the major story concerning him. Balaam refused to speak what God did not speak and would not curse the Israelites, even though King Balak of Moab offered him money to do so. (Numbers 22–24). But Balaam's error and the source of his wickedness came from sabotaging the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land. According to Numbers 31:16 and Revelation 2:14, Balaam returned to King Balak and informed the king on how to get the Israelites to curse themselves by enticing them with prostitutes and unclean food sacrificed to idols. The Israelites fell into transgression due to these traps and God sent a deadly plague to them as a result (Numbers 31:16).
Balaam and Balak
The main story of Balaam occurs during the sojourn of the Israelites in the plains of Moab, east of the Jordan River, at the close of forty years of wandering, shortly before the death of Moses and the crossing of the Jordan. The Israelites have already defeated two kings on this side of the Jordan: Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. Balak, king of Moab (Numbers 22:2), consequently becomes alarmed, and sends elders of Midian and his Moabite messengers (Numbers 22:4–5), to Balaam, son of Beor, to induce him to come and curse Israel. Balaam's location, Pethor, is simply given as "which is by the river of the land of the children of his people" in the masoretic text and the Septuagint, though the Samaritan Pentateuch, Vulgate, and Syriac Peshitta all identify his land as Ammon.
Balaam sends back word that he can only do what YHWH commands, and God, Elohim has, via a nocturnal dream, told him not to go. Moab consequently sends higher-ranking priests and offers Balaam honours; Balaam, in his covetousness, continues to press God, and God finally gives him over to his greed and permits him to go but with instructions to say only what he commands. Balaam thus, without being asked again, sets out in the morning with the princes of Moab and God becomes angry that he went, and the Angel of the Lord (Numbers 22:22) is sent to prevent him. At first the angel is seen only by the donkey Balaam is riding, which tries to avoid the otherwise invisible angel. After Balaam starts punishing the donkey for refusing to move, it is miraculously given the power to speak to Balaam (Numbers 22:28), and it complains about Balaam's treatment. At this point, Balaam is allowed to see the angel, who informs him that the donkey is the only reason the angel did not kill Balaam. Balaam immediately repents, but is told to go on.
Balak meets with Balaam at Kirjat Huzoth, and they go to the high places of Baal (Biblical Hebrew: בעל), and offer sacrifices on seven altars, leading to Balaam being given a prophecy by Yahweh, which he speaks to Balak. However, the prophecy blesses Israel; Balak remonstrates, but Balaam reminds him that he can only speak the words put in his mouth, so Balak takes him to another high place at Pisgah, to try again. Building another seven altars here, and making sacrifices on each, Balaam provides another prophecy blessing Israel.
Balaam finally gets taken by a now very frustrated Balak to Peor, and, after the seven sacrifices there, decides not to seek enchantments but instead looks upon the Israelites from the peak. The Spirit of God comes upon Balaam and he delivers a third positive prophecy concerning Israel. Balak's anger rises to the point where he threatens Balaam, but Balaam merely offers a prediction of fate. Balaam then looks upon the Kenites, and Amalekites and offers two more predictions of fate. Balak and Balaam then simply go to their respective homes ... for the moment.
However, Balaam's story did not end after their departure. Evidently, Balaam returned to King Balak and explained how he was unable to curse the Israelites on account of God's having control of his tongue, and he instead explained to the king how he could get the Israelites to curse themselves, thereby removing the protection God had given them. He counseled that King Balak and his people ensnare God's chosen people by offering them prostitutes and unclean food sacrificed to idols. Numbers 25:1-9 describes how Israel engaged in sexual immorality and idolatry with the women of Moab, resulting in God's anger and a deadly plague. Numbers 31:16 attributes this to the advice of Balaam: "Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD."
Deuteronomy 23:3–6 summarises these incidents, and further states that the Ammonites were associated with the Moabites. Joshua, in his farewell speech, also makes reference to it. With God's protection taken from him, Balaam is later listed among the Midianites who were killed in revenge for the "matter of Peor," which is where Balaam showed King Balak how to trap the Israelites so that God might destroy them. Joshua 13:22 records that Balaam died "by the sword" during a battle for the Reubenite occupation of Moabite land.
All the prophecies which Balaam makes take the form of (Hebrew) poems:
- The first, Numbers 23:7–10, prophesies the unique exaltation of the Kingdom of Israel, and its countless numbers.
- The second, Numbers 23:18–24, celebrates the moral virtue of Israel, its monarchy, and military conquests.
- The third, Numbers 24:3–9, celebrates the glory and conquests of Israel's monarchy.
- The fourth, Numbers 24:14–19, prophesies the coming of a king who will conquer Edom and Moab.
- The fifth, Numbers 24:20, concerns the ruins of Amalek.
- The sixth, Numbers 24:21–22, concerns the destruction of the Kenites by Assyria.
- The seventh, Numbers 24:23–24, concerns "ships of Kittim" coming from the west to attack Assyria and Eber.
The poems fall into three groups. The first group consists of two poems which characteristically start immediately. The third group of three poems also start immediately, but are much shorter. The second group, however, consists of two poems which both start:
Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said: He hath said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open ...
Of these, the first and third groups are considered, according to the documentary hypothesis, to originate within the Elohist text, whereas the second group is considered to belong to the Jahwist. Thus the Elohist describes Balaam giving two blessings, making sacrifices on seven altars, at the high places of Baal, before each, then deciding not to seek enchantments after the third set of sacrifices, but to set his face upon the wilderness, which Balak views as a third blessing, and so Balaam then gives the three final predictions of fate. Conversely, in the Jahwist source, Balaam arrives, the spirit of God comes upon him, and he simply delivers a blessing and a prophecy, in succession.
The poems themselves are considered to predate the Jahwist and Elohist, and simply to have been embedded by them in their works. While the Elohist took off whatever introduction was present in the poems they chose, the Jahwist left it on. An archaeological discovery in 1967 uncovered references to a Book of Balaam, from which these poems may have originally been taken. The first four poems are commonly regarded as ancient lyrics of the early monarchy of Israel and Judah, although several critics suspect that they have been edited either from less edifying oracles or from oracles which did not refer to Israel.
There are several odd features about the poems. Agag, mentioned in the third poem, is described as a great king, which does not correspond to the king of the Amalekites who was named Agag, and described in I Samuel 15, since that description considers Amalek to be small and obscure. While it is the Masoretic text of the poem that uses the word Agag, the Septuagint, other Greek versions, and the Samaritan Pentateuch, all have Gog (i.e., king Gyges of Lydia, 716 BC to 678 BC), implying a very late date for the poem. These names are consequently thought to be textual corruptions, and Og has been suggested as the original.
The final three poems do not refer either to Israel or to Moab, and are thus considered unusual, since they seem to have little relevance to the narrative. It is thought that they may have been added to bring the number of poems either up to five, if inserted into the Elohist source, or up to seven, if only inserted once JE was constructed. While the sixth poem refers to Assyria, it is uncertain whether it is an historical reference to ancient Ninevah, or a prophecy, which some religious commentators consider refers to the Seleucid kingdom of Syria, which also took the name Assyria. The seventh is also ambiguous, and may either be a reference to the Sea Peoples, or, again in the view of some religious commentators, to the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great.
In the view of textual criticism the narrative, excepting the episode involving the donkey, is simply a framework invented in order to be able to insert much older poems.
Balaam in rabbinic literature
In rabbinic literature Balaam is represented as one of seven gentile prophets; the other six being Beor (Balaam's father), Job, and Job's four friends (Talmud, B. B. 15b). In this literature, Balaam gradually acquired a position among the non-Jews, which was exalted as much as that of Moses among the Jews (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20); at first being a mere interpreter of dreams, but later becoming a magician, until finally the spirit of prophecy descended upon him (ib. 7).
According to a negative view of Balaam in the Talmud, Balaam possessed the gift of being able to ascertain the exact moment during which God is wroth — a gift bestowed upon no other creature. Balaam's intention was to curse the Israelites at this moment of wrath, and thus cause God himself to destroy them; but God purposely restrained His anger in order to baffle the wicked prophet and to save the nation from extermination (Talmud, Berachot 7a). The Talmud also recounts a more positive view of Balaam, stating that when the Law was given to Israel, a mighty voice shook the foundations of the earth, so much so that all kings trembled, and in their consternation turned to Balaam, inquiring whether this upheaval of nature portended a second deluge; the prophet assured them that what they heard was the voice of God, giving the sacred law to the Israelites (Talmud, Zeb. 116a).
According to Jewish legend, Balaam was made this powerful in order to prevent the non-Jewish tribes from saying: "If we had only had our own Moses, we would be as pious as the Jews." The wicked Balaam is included in the list of persons born circumcised along with Moses in the book Abbot De-Rabbi Natan.
In rabbinical literature the epithet rasha, translating as the wicked one, is often attached to the name of Balaam (Talmud Berachot l.c.; Taanit 20a; Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20:14). Balaam is pictured as blind in one eye and lame in one foot (Talmud Sanhedrin 105a); and his disciples (followers) are distinguished by three morally corrupt qualities:
Due to his behavior with the Midianites, the Rabbis interpret Balaam as responsible for the behavior during the Heresy of Peor, which they consider to have been unchastity, and consequently the death of 24,000 victims of the plague which God sent as punishment. When Balaam saw that he could not curse the children of Israel, the Rabbis assert that he advised Balak, as a last resort, to tempt the Hebrew nation to immoral acts and, through these, to the worship of Baal-peor. The God of the Hebrews, adds Balaam, according to the Rabbis, hates lewdness; and severe chastisement must follow (San. 106a; Yer. ib. x. 28d; Num. R. l.c.).
The Rabbis, playing on the name Balaam, call him "Belo 'Am" (without people; that is, without a share with the people in the world to come), or "Billa' 'Am" (one that ruined a people); and this hostility against his memory finds its climax in the dictum that whenever one discovers a feature of wickedness or disgrace in his life, one should preach about it (Sanh. 106b). In the process of killing Balaam (Num. xxxi. 8), all four legal methods of execution—stoning, burning, decapitating, and strangling—were employed (Sanh. l.c.). He met his death at the age of thirty-three (ib.); and it is stated that he had no portion in the world to come (Sanh. x. 2; 90a). The book devotes a special section to the history of the prophet discussing why God has taken away the power of prophecy from the Gentiles (Tan., Balak, 1). Moses is expressly mentioned as the author of this episode in the Pentateuch (B. B. 14b).J. Sr. H. M.
"Ahithophel of the house of Israel and Balaam of the heathen nations were the two great sages of the world who, failing to show gratitude to God for their wisdom, perished in dishonor. To them the prophetic word finds application: 'Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,' Jer. ix. 23" (Num. R. xxii.).
Balaam in the New Testament, Josephus and Philo
An interesting, but doubtful, emendation makes this poem describe the nun of Shamal, a state in northwest Syria. In the New Testament, Balaam is cited as a type of avarice; for example in Book of Revelation 2:14 we read of false teachers at Pergamum who held the "teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication." Balaam has attracted much interest, alike from Jews, Christians and Muslims. Josephus paraphrases the story more so, and speaks of Balaam as the best prophet of his time, but with a disposition ill adapted to resist temptation. Philo describes him as a great magician in the Life of Moses ; elsewhere he speaks of "the sophist Balaam, being," i.e. symbolizing "a vain crowd of contrary and warring opinions" and again as "a vain people" — both phrases being based on a mistaken etymology of the name Balaam.
A man also named Balaam also figures as an example of a false prophet motivated by greed or avarice in both 2 Peter 2:15 and in Jude 1:11. This Balaam is listed as the son of Bezer, which is usually identified as Beor. Some authors claim that Bezer was the Aramaic pronunciation of Boer, while others hold that Peter was attempting to play off the Hebrew word basar or "flesh" to insult Balaam. Later Jewish tradition similarly played with Balaam's name to call him corrupt and imply bestiality. Still, some other authors hold that Bezer and Beor are distinct while still identifying the Balaams of the Old and New Testaments, claiming that Beor is Balaam's father and Bezer Balaam's home town.
Balaam in the Quran
Relate to them the story of the man to whom We sent Our signs, but he passed them by: so Satan followed him up, and he went astray.
If it had been Our will, We should have elevated him with Our signs; but he inclined to the earth, and followed his own vain desires. His similitude is that of a dog: if you attack him, he lolls out his tongue, or if you leave him alone, he (still) lolls out his tongue. That is the similitude of those who reject Our signs; So relate the story; perchance they may reflect.
The Muslim commentators explain that Balaam was a Canaanite who had been given knowledge of some of the books of God. His people asked him to curse Moses (Musa) and those who were with him, but he said, "How can I curse one who has angels with him?" They continued to press him, however, until he cursed the Israelites, and, as a consequence, they remained forty years in the Wilderness of the Wanderings. Then, when he had cursed Moses, his tongue came out and fell upon his breast, and he began to pant like a dog.
The story as told by Tabari is somewhat more Biblical. Balaam had the knowledge of the Most Sacred Name of God, and whatever he asked of God was granted to him. The story of Balaam and the ass, then follows at length. When it came to the actual cursing, God "turned his tongue" so that the cursing fell upon his own people and the blessing upon Israel. Then his tongue came out and hung down on his breast. Finally, he advised his people to adorn and beautify their women and to send them out to ensnare the Israelites. The story of the plague at Baal-peor and of Cozbi and Zimri follows.
According to another story which al-Tabari gives, Balaam was a renegade Israelite who knew the Most Sacred Name and, to gain the things of this world, went over to the Canaanites. Al-Tha'labi adds that Balaam was descended from Lot. He gives, too, the story of Balaam's dream, his being forbidden by God to curse Israel. Another version is that Balak, the king of Bal'a, compelled Balaam to use the Most Sacred Name against Israel. The curse fell automatically, and Moses, having learned whence it came, entreated God to take from Balaam his knowledge of the Name and his faith. This being done, they went out from him in the form of a white dove.
The etymology of the name Balaam is uncertain, and several Jewish, and Christian, sources translate it either glutton, or foreigner. The rabbis, playing on the name, call him Belo 'Am, meaning without people, more explicitly meaning that he is without a share with the people in the world to come, or call him Billa' 'Am, meaning one that ruined a people. This deconstruction of his name into B—l Am is supported by many modern biblical critics, which considers his name to simply be derived from Baal Am, a reference to Am, a Baal of Moab.
It is often supposed that the name given for a king of Edom, Bela, son of Beor, is a corruption of Balaam, and that, therefore, this reference actually points to Balaam as having once been an Edomite king.
Balaam and the Deir Alla inscription
In 1967, at Deir Alla, Jordan, archaeologists found an inscription with a story relating visions of the seer of the gods Bala'am, son of Be'or, who may be the same Bala'am mentioned in Numbers 22–24 and in other passages of the Bible. This Bala'am differs from the one in Numbers in that rather than being a prophet of Yahweh he is associated with Ashtar, a god named Shgr, and Shadday gods and goddesses.
The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies describes it as "the oldest example of a book in a West Semitic language written with the alphabet, and the oldest piece of Aramaic literature." The inscription is datable to ca. 840–760 BCE; it was painted in red and black inks, apparently to emphasize the text, on fragments of a plastered wall: 119 pieces of inked plaster were recovered. According to the story in the inscription, Balaam wakes up weeping and tells his people that the gods appeared to him in the night telling him about a goddess threatening to destroy the land. She is to cover the sky and reduce the world to complete darkness. Meindert Dykstra suggests that "the reticence of OT scholarship to take account of the text may be attributable to its damaged state, the difficulty of reconstructing and reading it, and the many questions it raises of script, language, literary form and religious content."
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- II Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Revelation 2:14
- Revelation 2:14
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- J. Hoftijzer and G. van der Kooij, Aramaic Texts from Deir 'Alla Documenta et Monumenta Orientis Antiqui 19 (Leiden) 1976.
- Meindert Dijkstra, "Is Balaam Also among the Prophets?" Journal of Biblical Literature 114.1 (Spring 1995, pp. 43–64), p. 44.
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This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Balaam". Balaam. Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- Bibliography on Balaam
- Biblical Hebrew Poetry – Reconstructing the Original Oral, Aural and Visual Experience
- The Oracles of Balaam (poetic portions of Numbers 23:7–24:24) Reconstructed
- The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), James Orr, M.A., D.D., General Editor – 1915 (online)
- Easton's Bible Dictionary, M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., published by Thomas Nelson, 1897. (online)
- Hitchcock Bible Names Dictionary (online)
- Nave Topical Bible, Orville J. Nave, AM., D.D., LL.D. (online)
- Smith's Bible Dictionary (1896) (online)