Balaam was one of those unusual Old Testament characters who, though not one of God’s chosen people, was willing to acknowledge that Yahweh (the LORD) was indeed a mighty God. But he did not believe in the Lord as the only true God.
Some of the words in the extended Balaam narrative may lead the reader to believe that he had some sort of relationship with God.
Tertullian and Jerome were among some of the early church fathers who joined some modern thinkers in including Balam among the real Hebrew prophets.
The reader will also note the position taken in this commentary that Balaam was a soothsayer and a false prophet.
Scripture must govern all interpretation; when Scripture provides a clear conclusion, we must accept it. Some interpreters have concluded that we just cannot determine Balaam’s real character, but the Bible ends differently.
His story exposes the deception of maintaining an outward facade of spirituality over a corrupt inward life.
Balaam plainly advised the Israelites to turn away from the Lord (Numbers 31:16). That act of disobedience netted Israel a plague that could have wiped out the nation.
Although the account of Balaam’s activity in Numbers 22-24 seems to portray a prophet reluctant to curse Israel, the notes above proved a different scenario. In truth, he was eager to curse Israel, but God would not allow him to do so.
He was a man ready to obey God’s command as long as he could profit from doing so. He ran after profit with such focus that future followers of greed are tagged with “Balaam’s error” (Jude 11).
But even going beyond loving unrighteousness and its spoils, Balaam “taught Bala to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality” (Revelation 2:14). Joshua quite bluntly said Balaam “practiced divination” (Joshua 13:22).
So how can we account for Balaam’s interaction with God? God allowed Balaam to proceed at certain points, then demonstrated his sovereignty by overruling Balaam’s desire to curse Israel.
Harrison notes that Balaam, a certain polytheist, would have to know the names and some of the history of local gods if he were to be believed as a seer. No doubt he heard of god’s works in Egypt and the great miracles God had wrought in bringing his chosen people out of that house of bondage.
God may have communicated with Balaam, but he did not change his heart and bring the erring prophet into a covenant relationship with himself.
Balaam we conclude was a prophet for hire whose goal was to curse Israel in return for a handsome remuneration. But God “would not listen to Balaam” (Joshua 24:10).
Apparently, the curse was in the works (or the conscientious and intentional plan of Balaam), but God “turned the curse into a blessing” (Nehemiah 13:2). He submitted to God because he learned something about the reality of this God, and he could not overcome his power. He had to yield for his welfare.
Balaam’s address of God as “the Lord my God” should be taken with the same seriousness as Judas’s kiss on the cheek of Jesus.
Harrison correctly concludes: “Balaam was not a genuine Hebrew prophet but was exercising the functions of a Mesopotamian baru (seer) when the God of Israel used him for the revelation of His will.”
He bears no resemblance to a true prophet of the Lord, although at times, we admit, he sounded like one.
This mixture of motives – obedience and profit eventually led to Balaam’s death. Although he realized the awesome power of Israel’s God, his heart was occupied with the wealth he could gain in Moab. There he returned to die when the armies of Israel invaded.
Eventually, each of us lives through the same process. Who and what we are will somehow come to the surface, destroying any masks we may have put on to cover up our true selves. Efforts spent on keeping up appearances would be much better devoted to finding the answer to sin in our lives. We can avoid Balaam’s mistake by facing ourselves and realizing that God is willing to accept us, forgive us, and make us over from within. Don’t miss this great discover that eluded Balaam.
Strengths and Accomplishments
- Widely known for his successful curses and blessings
- Obeyed God and blessed Israel, in spite of Balak’s bribe.
Weaknesses and Mistakes
- Encouraged the Israelites to worship idols (Numbers 31:16)
- Returned to Moab and was killed in war
Lessons From His Life
- Motives are just as important as actions
- Your treasure is where your heart is
They have wandered off the right road and followed the footsteps of Balaam son of Beor, who loved to earn money by doing wrong. But Balaam was stopped from his mad course when his donkey rebuked him with a human voice. (2 Peter 2:15-16).
Chronological Life Application Study Bible
Holman Old Testament Commentary