How could Balaam speak on God’s behalf to bless Israel and then advise Israel’s enemies on how to destroy her? What can we learn from Balaam’s life?
Like many people’s lives, the story of Balaam is complex. It is complex because Balaam made some poor decisions—not because God’s way of life and instructions are unclear. At times he seemed to serve as a spokesperson for God, yet his actions most definitely showed he was not a faithful man of God. (This is why this article is posted in the False Prophets section of this website.)
There is humor to this story, as is sometimes the case when people overly focused on wealth are blinded to other more important matters going on around them. And important for us, his story is one that continues to have relevance for Christians today.
To understand the significance of this man’s life, let’s begin with the background to the account of Balaam in the Bible. We’ll then cover his actions and the lessons in them for us today.
The first mention of Balaam in the Bible occurs in the mid-fifteenth century B.C. with the ancient Israelites having traveled around Edom and defeated the king of Arad (Numbers 21:1-3), the Amorites (verses 21-26, 31) and Bashan (verses 33-35). The bordering nation of Moab was fearful that it would soon be the next country defeated by this upstart nation led by Moses. King Balak of Moab decided to take immediate action to protect his people. He called for Balaam, who was living near the River Euphrates in Mesopotamia, to help him deal with this threat to his nation.
Why did the king call for Balaam? Numbers 22:5-6 explains: “Then he [King Balak] sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying: ‘Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.’”
Balaam clearly had the reputation of being able to successfully bless or curse people. Apparently, this ability was based on witchcraft. Albert Barnes states that he was a “celebrated soothsayer, in Mesopotamia” (Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, (Numbers 22:5). Furthermore, King Balak assumed him to be one who practiced magic, as his messengers brought with them a “diviner’s fee” to give to Balaam if he would agree to curse Israel (verse 7). And the scriptural account plainly tells us that Balaam had sought to use “sorcery” (Numbers 24:1).
Faithful prophets of God did not practice sorcery or take diviner’s fees. They were not paid fees for faithfully delivering messages from God. The messages they delivered were often unpopular, and it was quite common for them to suffer the wrath of the recipients to whom they had delivered the messages.
With this background in mind, we are now ready to examine Balaam’s reaction to the repeated requests he would receive to curse Israel.
Balaam: the greedy prophet
After receiving King Balak’s offer to pay him a fee to curse Israel, Balaam tells the king’s messengers, “Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the LORD speaks to me” (Numbers 22:8, emphasis added throughout). Instead of saying, “Yes, I’ll accept the fee and curse Israel for you,” Balaam tells them that he will have to consult God first.
God tells Balaam, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (verse 12). Having heard God’s instructions, Balaam told the king’s messengers, “Go back to your land, for the LORD has refused to give me permission to go with you” (verse 13).
In this initial encounter, it seems that Balaam is a godly man. But Balaam’s response that God “has refused to give me permission to go with you” was the kind of response that could be taken two ways. While Balaam faithfully reported that God hadn’t given him permission to go, it could also be taken as Balaam saying he couldn’t go at this time.
The second time King Balak sent messengers with the same request to come and curse Israel, we learn that Balaam truly did want to go with them, presumably to earn the diviner’s fee (verses 15-21). As a further enticement by King Balak, Balaam was now told that he would be honored and that he could name his own terms for coming. He could set his own price!
Following this offer, God once again talks with Balaam. God’s explicit instruction to Balaam was “only the word which I speak to you—that you shall do” (verse 20). Perhaps God knew that Balaam was a man who would be tempted to ignore parts of His commands. Perhaps God saw that Balaam was greedy for the money and knew that he would be tempted to assist King Balak.
The next morning, rather than waiting to be invited by the men as God had instructed (verse 20), Balaam decided that he now had permission to go (verse 21). As a result, “God’s anger was aroused because he went” (verse 22). Faithful prophets of God don’t add to or subtract from God’s message. They don’t compromise God’s instructions or try to work a deal on the side that is contrary to God’s will.
So Balaam didn’t think or respond to God’s instructions like a faithful prophet of God. Instead, he was trying to technically (yet minimally) obey God and, at the same time, cultivate a financial opportunity for doing something in opposition to God.
Balaam’s donkey talks
Having gotten off to a poor start that morning because of angering God, Balaam’s day didn’t improve. His normally well-trained donkey kept veering off the road. What Balaam didn’t know was that the donkey saw “the Angel of the LORD” with a sword in his hand and that she was looking out for her master who didn’t see the danger in front of him (verses 22-27).
First, Balaam’s donkey went way off the road into a field. Then she got too close to a wall and crushed his foot against the wall. Having struck her on each of these occasions, Balaam really got angry when she laid down under him. But when he struck her again, a strange thing happened.
“Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’” (verse 28). The next few verses show Balaam having a conversation with his donkey about what had just happened.
Looking at this encounter in hindsight, there is some ironic humor involved. Poor Balaam’s life just wasn’t going very well. When he thought he was finally getting the opportunity to go see King Balak and possibly name his own financial terms, his normally trustworthy donkey let him down. She wouldn’t stay on the road, she hurt his foot, and finally, she had just lain down under him. On top of this, he started having a conversation with her—his own donkey! A lesson here is that once people start disobeying God, their lives often spiral out of control.
Balaam’s way is perverse
At this point, “the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand; and he [Balaam] bowed his head and fell flat on his face. And the Angel of the LORD said to him, ‘Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to stand against you, because your way is perverse before Me. The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times. If she had not turned aside from Me, surely I would also have killed you by now, and let her live’” (verses 31-33).
Balaam then acknowledged his sin (verse 34); and from that point forward, he was careful to only say what God allowed him to say—even blessing instead of cursing Israel as King Balak wanted him to do (Numbers 23:11, 20; Numbers 24:2-9, 17-18). Here again, it looks as if Balaam is now honoring and obeying God. Yet once more, when we closely examine the scriptural record, we see that this isn’t true.
Although Balaam wasn’t allowed by God to curse Israel, he found a way to get around God’s command and harm Israel. What he did was advise King Balak to have the women of Moab invite the Israelite men to the sacrifices for their gods, a form of pagan worship that included ritual prostitution (Numbers 25:1-3; Numbers 31:16). Having enticed the Israelites to sin, the Moabites influenced God to punish them Himself.
In a final series of prophecies uttered by Balaam (Numbers 24:14-25), God had him explain what would happen in the “latter days” (verse 14). Under the inspiration of God, Balaam stated: “I see Him [God], but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and batter the brow of Moab, and destroy all the sons of tumult” (verse 17).
King David’s fulfillment of this prophecy was a type of what will be a final fulfillment. King David defeated the Moabites, and they became his servants (2 Samuel 8:2). The antitype and most important focus of this prophecy is Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. The reference to a “Star” means a prominent person, and “Scepter” refers to rulership. Jesus is called the “Bright and Morning Star” (Revelation 22:16), and He is the fulfillment of the scepter promise to Judah (Genesis 49:10; Isaiah 11:10; Romans 15:12).
Lessons for today
After Christ’s first coming to earth, Peter used the example of Balaam in teaching the first-century Christians and us today how to live.
Warning against false teachers, Peter wrote, “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies … and bring on themselves swift destruction. … They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet” (2 Peter 2:1, 15-16).
In the book of Revelation, Jesus Christ also refers to Balaam. In a message to the church in Pergamos, He said, “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14).
From these passages, we see that Balaam is an enduring example of a man who compromised godly behavior for dishonest gain. He unsuccessfully tried to obey God and still fulfill his own will. As we serve God today, we must serve Him wholeheartedly (Psalm 119:2; Matthew 22:37).
Fully serving God must be our first priority (Matthew 6:33). For those who are tempted to try to serve both God and the world, James admonishes, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8).
The example of Balaam is an enduring example of what doesn’t work with God. God deserves and requires our wholehearted attention and obedience. Don’t be a compromiser like Balaam!
For more study on the prophets of the Bible, see the articles in this section “Prophets.”