This strange story portrays a false prophet whose message was legitimate—despite his desperate desire to fulfill his evil commission from King Balak and strike it rich. He’s almost the mirror image of Jonah, who was a true prophet with a desperate desire to avoid completing his merciful commission from the King of kings.
Some reckon Balaam to be a bona fide prophet who went off kilter pursuing King Balak’s money. Others judge Balaam to be a sinister prophet, whom God coerced into blessing Israel. Actually, the Bible story mixes up imagery when describing Balaam. On the one hand, Balaalm took pains to portray himself as an obedient servant of the Lord. He claimed to speak the words of the Lord and disclaimed the ability to say anything but what the Lord allowed (Num 22:1–21, 31–41; 23:1–24:25). On the other hand, the narrator refuses to call him a prophet and keeps depicting him with almost comical satire, as a “seer” who’s quite unable to “see” what any ass can see (22:22–30). A later book described him as one “who used magic to tell the future” (Josh 13:22), and the rest of the Bible record certainly consolidates a totally negative reputation for him (Num 31:8, 16; Deut 23:3–6; Josh 13:22; 24:9–10; Judg 11:23–25; Neh 13:1–3; 2 Pet 2:15–16; Jude 11; Rev 2:14).
So Balaam was a rental prophet, an exorcist and curse expert available for hire. Hiring someone to curse your enemies has a long and despicable history, from ancient Near Eastern times through to at least the Roman period. An unknown thief steals something, you go to a temple and pay a curse expert to put a curse on the undetected culprit—may the gods strike him with disease, financial ruin, and death in his family. You prepare to go into battle, you call in the curse expert to lay a crippling curse on the enemy camp—may the gods throw them into confusion, provoke an insurrection among the enemy soldiers, or turn them into trembling woman on the day of battle. This kind of stuff would have been Balaam’s speciality. Today he would probably have a web site, a late-night call-in TV program, and a toll-free number to call to get a free information packet.
Balaam appeared to have had an international reputation. He was from Beor in Mesopotamia, the region of modern Iraq. Balak the king of Moab ruled the region alongside the southeastern bank of the Dead Sea. Just as the wise old sages of the larger region were known in foreign courts, it appears any king’s address book would have contact information on a few curse masters from near and far.
Even though we see that Balaam was unable to curse Israel and earn his fees as a curse expert, he eventually succeeded in seducing Israel into worshiping the Baal of Peor (Num 25). He couldn’t curse Israel, but he succeeded in getting Israel to live so that God himself would curse them (Num 31:16).
Balaam refused the Balak’s first offer, in spite the rich commission he dearly wanted to collect (Num 22:1–14). But he accepted a second offer in which Balak upped the fees (22:15–21). Balaam spoke of “the Lord my God” (22:18), perhaps hinting that since he served Israel’s own God Yahweh he might be more successful than others at making good on a curse against Israel. God told him no, but then let him go with a strong warning not to do anything but what he told him to do (22:20). But God threw up barriers when Balaam made haste to take Balak’s curse contract (22:22–35), and only his donkey could see the barriers; Balaam had an eye only for payday. When he came before king Balak, Balaam warned that he probably wouldn’t be able to deliver on a curse (22:36–41).
Balaam’s first ritual and prophecy described a people whom God had already blessed (23:1–12). His second ritual and prophecy announced, “no curse can touch Jacob; no magic has any power against Israel” (23:13–26, esp. v. 23). No high-priced international curse expert was going to lay a glove—or tongue—on Israel. In disgust, king Balak told Balaam, “Fine, but if you won’t curse them, at least don’t bless them” (23:25). In spite of that frustrated flare-up, king Balak opted for one more try (23:27).
Finally, Balaam dropped the rituals of a pagan curse expert; “he did not resort to divination as before” (24:1). All along he had been claiming to operate as a prophet of the Lord but actually operating as a pagan (see Deut 18:9–14). And the result in Balaam’s third prophecy was the outright blessing that king Balak had feared. I suppose Balaam feared it too. It would certainly cost him his paycheck, and it could have cost him his life.
Balaam’s fourth prophecy turned to one of the noblest of the Old Testament messianic prophecies (24:14–19). This was a pagan prophet; if ever there were a case in the Old Testament, the words of Peter describe what Balaam was doing: “No prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:20–21). As much as he hated it, Balaam had no curse for Israel.
Indeed, he had moved from implying a blessing on Israel (23:1–12), to pronouncing an explicit blessing (23:13–26), to threatening Israel’s enemies in general (23:27–24:13), and to threatening Moab itself (24:14–19).
Naturally, Jewish literature soon began interpreting Balaam’s prophecies messianically. For example, the Qumran community who lived around the western shores of the Dead Sea looked for the star and scepter, a future priest and king. Some hailed the leader of the second Jewish revolt (a.d. 132–135) as Bar-Kochba (“Son of the Star”). Some Christian commentators play down any idea of direct messianic prophecy here; they see Balaam’s prophecy fulfilled essentially in the Davidic dynasty. Indeed, David provided the initial fulfillment of this prophecy; however, in so doing, he foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah.
Certainly the New Testament usage of Balaam imagery (Matt 2:2, 7, 9–10, 16; Rev 2:28; 22:16) is in keeping with the expectation that Jesus Christ was the ruler that Balaam prophesied (John 1:20; 4:25–26; Matt 26:63–64; Mark 14:61–62; Luke 22:67–70). The trajectory set out in Balaam’s prophecy is fulfilled when we hear, “the world has now become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15).
Questions, Reflections and Commitments?
- Reflect on how the blessings of God cannot be denied to those who follow him (Num 22–24), but note that disobedience and apostasy can’t be faced with calm assurance of divine blessing (Num 25; 31:16).
- Note how Balaam should warn the modern believer: (1) Even signs that God is using you and even speaking through you is no guarantee of your salvation; (2) mixing the call of God and a love for money is the way to hell (2 Pet 2:15).