In this blog post, you are about to meet one of the most mysterious and compelling characters in the Old Testament. Balaam is a prophet called upon by Balak, the king of the Moabites, to curse Israel. God tells Balaam not to meet with Balak, but he does anyway and proceeds to offer three prophecies. Each prophecy is a blessing to God’s people instead of a curse, and Balak becomes furious.
In the concluding score, Balaam demonstrates his lack of personal integrity by teaching Balak how to bring Israel down through idolatry. These are dark days for Israel, and God’s judgment falls.
Let’s Read Numbers 22:1-41 together.
Now this story of Balaam and Balak has a much more theological depth to it than is on the surface. The Gentile Christian world mainly remembers this episode because of the talking donkey, with the message that if God can’t get a man to do his bidding or speak His Word, He can even use an animal. And truth be known, that is probably the least of what is being taught to us here.
A reasonable first question to ask about this story is: is this an actual event, or is it a Hebrew fable? I know that question probably instantly bothers some of you that I would even dare to broach such a possibility. So let me answer it in a way that I hope will relieve you.
Jesus often taught using a literary device scholar’s call a Parable. Were the Parables of Jesus real stories of actual happenings? Were there ten virgins dressed in white carrying their oil lamps at night? How about the wheat and the tares?
A Parable is a truth, told using an illustration, a word picture. Yeshua didn’t invent the utilization of a Parable; a Parable was a standard literary device of that age and developed centuries earlier. The Bible makes liberal use of metaphors, and they are often meant to shock.
The illustrations did not have to be an actual event, although something similar might have occurred so that the people who were listening got the picture because they could identify with it.
Often enough the Parables were so vague that even Yeshua’s closest disciples thought them to be riddles. So if you find it challenging at times to understand Jesus’ parables and need a teacher to explain them, don’t despair; the very men who Yeshua mentored found them perplexing.
Now just because a Parable is a story designed to embody a Godly principle, but was not always the recounting of an actual event, doesn’t make it a lie or fantasy.
- We’ll find the poetic license in the Bible, lots of it.
- We’ll find exaggerations (hyperbole) to make a point (the Apostle Paul was a real champion of an exaggeration).
- We’ll find the recording of men making false statements (King David for instance) about what happened (so that we see they are lying),
- We’ll see men do terrible things,
- We will see people say something totally incorrect about the Lord.
And this is all part of how the Bible communicates absolute truth and light to us.
Taking the Bible as literal does not mean that we are to take exaggeration as if it weren’t, nor a metaphor as if it were a direct analogy; nor are we to grasp a poem as though it were unemotional history, nor history as though each event had deep spiritual meaning.
Very probably the story of Balak and Balaam is an embellished story based on something that happened: a historical event that had been expanded as a fable.
There may have been a seer named Balaam, and a king named Balak. Balak might have been terribly concerned about this giant Israelite tsunami that was coming his way and sought divine help to counter it.
- The main giveaway that it is almost certainly at least part fable is the talking donkey; and
- Secondarily is that the entire story simply appears as a detour in the historical recounting of Israel’s approach to the Promised Land.
- Thirdly we see that this whole story was an insertion into the book of Numbers from a slightly later date and that it was probably added in pieces.
Just like the Parables of Christ, what is being taught throughout this story is divine truth, and some of it is prophetic. There is probably more theological meat condensed in this telling than any other single place in the Scriptures.
What we have in this story of Balaam and Balak is a Bible within the Bible or a Torah within the Torah. For that reason, we’re going to examine it pretty closely.
This theological legend begins with one King Balak, king of Moab, which was a vassal nation ruled by the Amorites. Balak was worried about all these Israelites who were on his border.
It is interesting that we’re told that Balak was the son of a fellow named Tzippor because it harkens back to Moses’ wife’s name, Tzippora. Yes, it is the same name. Tzippor is the masculine, Tzippora the feminine, and it means bird.
Now how is it that Balak’s father and Moses’ wife would have the same name, especially since that name is found in ONLY one particular culture: Midian?
That question is pretty well answered for us in verse 7 because it says that the elders of Moab got together with the elders of Midian to see what they should do with this Hebrew problem.
In other words, there was a regional alliance being described between Moab and Midian. And this still happens today in tribal as well as royal societies, intermarriage and the adopting of individual elements of a hoped for ally’s culture, and customs (mainly adopting names) is the usual route to cementing this kind of alliance.
As we saw some time ago Tzippora (Moses’ wife) was a Midianite; Tzippora was a rather ordinary Bedouin name. So what we can readily see is that Balak’s father had adopted a Midianite name, Tzippor, to show favor to his ally, Midian.
The Israelite army had mowed right through the Amorites, so the people of Moab knew they probably couldn’t stop them with the mere force of arms, though undoubtedly they would try. The solution? Magic to enhance their chances of victory. So they sought to hire what must have been a very well known and highly regarded Magician named Balaam.
The key to understanding our story is that Balaam lived up in Mesopotamia; he was a Gentile. He was a seer, a diviner, and a sorcerer.
Balaam lived near the Euphrates River, only about 12 miles from Carchemish. And this is an area that is alternately known as Aram. In a land full of pagan gods and a fully developed Mystery religion system, for some reason, this Balaam seemed to know (perhaps even adopted) the God of Israel. How or why is not explained.
But, let’s also remember that Abraham (who also began as a gentile) was from Mesopotamia and rather easily accepted this God Yehoveh, and we get no explanation as to why Abraham had no qualms about it.
Now it is interesting that Balaam’s character is alternately painted as evil and then righteous. In some ways, there is a kind of neutrality or even-handedness regarding his sentiment towards his culture and the people of Israel.
Yet the very fact that he is called a prophet and a diviner and that his sorcery was found so impressive and useful for Balak and his government, attests to the pagan beliefs and rituals that Balaam must have practiced, and the heathen gods that he also included in his worship. For our purposes, we might as well picture him as running around with a pointy black hat and a magic wand.
However our story puts what Balaam did in quite a positive light. At the least, we see that he certainly knows and respects Yehoveh, and is determined (to some degree) to obey Him.
But as we’ll see in later chapters (and in other books), another side of Balaam was revealed. In fact, in Numbers 31 Balaam was killed by the Israelites.
In Deuteronomy 21 we even find the idea that Balaam fully intended to curse the Israelites for the rather large sum of money Balak and his coalition were offering him, and only God’s intervention stopped it. It wasn’t that Balaam was “doing the right thing” by blessing instead of cursing, Israel; it’s that he feared for his life if he went against Yehoveh.
With all the Biblical evidence in hand, we could say with some confidence that Balaam was probably just a hired gun, utterly ambivalent to right and wrong. Whatever he did he did so to his benefit even if that benefit was only self-preservation.
So what we have in Balaam is a gentile who definitely (at least in our story) received inspiration from the Lord of Israel. And this is such a strange thing: here we have God redeeming and then guiding His now well-established nation of Hebrews, but then Yehoveh turns around and communicates with a gentile prophet who is NOT part of His set-apart people.
There is also no reason to assume that the Lord found special favor with Balaam, and there is no need to consider Balaam holy, or righteous before neither Yehoveh nor that his allegiance was to the God of Israel.
And let me repeat: keep in mind all throughout our investigation, that Balaam was a gentile who was hearing directly from God. So we have a lot to untangle.
Now let me take that one step further, and we’ll close for today. We don’t have to take this incident with Balaam as a Biblical anomaly; that is, this story involving a pagan prophet (what we might commonly term a false prophet) being inspired by God and for that reason accurately telling the future in a particular case is not unique.
So hear me: the Bible confirms that a false prophet can be used of God, and even be allowed to make an accurate prediction for Yehoveh to achieve His purposes.
So while correctly foretelling the future or speaking an inspired message from God or demonstrating some other seemingly legitimate spiritual gift CAN indicate a genuine interaction with the Lord, it does NOT necessarily mean a right relationship with Yehoveh, nor does the Bible use inspiration as a surefire indicator of the holiness of that person.
Deuteronomy 13 tells us that false prophets can at times accurately see the future. We find examples of this throughout the Bible: even though King Saul continued to accurately prophesy he was condemned by the Lord as a wicked king that would lose his throne.
Caiaphas prophesied about the death of Christ in John 11. Jewish sorcerers cast out demons using Yeshua’s name, but they didn’t trust in Him as Messiah OR God.
The Corinthians (perhaps the greatest examples of church behavior gone wild) were said to have had many real and validated spiritual experiences, but they came up pretty short on holiness, love, and any sound doctrine.
This sort of phenomenon was common enough in Christ’s time. In Matthew 7 Yeshua warned that in the end times driving out demons, and ecstatic spiritual acts and the performing of miracles WOULD happen, and it would be real, but these acts were not necessarily to be taken as signs proving that the persons who did these things were guaranteed a place in Heaven. Rather it was only those “who did the will of my Father…”
So in both the Old and New Testaments, we have demonstrations and warnings that God’s inspiration of a man to achieve a purpose is not a particular sign of that person’s status with Yehoveh. And this in itself is a good reason always to be a healthy skeptic: not of God, but of individuals who claim to speak for God.
We’ll continue with the fascinating theological story of Balaam and Balak in my next blog post.