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Who was Balaam in the Bible?

Balaam was a diviner known for effective curses and blessings. It was said to him, "he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed" (Numbers 22:6). When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and defeated the Amorites, the neighboring nation of Moabites "was overcome with fear of the people of Israel" (Numbers 22:3). So their king, Balak, tried to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites and bring victory to the Moabite army.

Balaam decided to inquire of God about whether or not he should curse the Israelites (Numbers 22:8). God forbade Balaam from going with the men to Moab to curse the Israelites explaining, "You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed" (Numbers 22:12). The Moabite king persisted, however, so when Balaam asked God a second time, God replied, "If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you" (Numbers 22:20). Second Peter 2:15 explains that Balaam was motivated by greed because he "loved gain from wrongdoing."

On his way to Moab, Balaam's donkey saw an angel of the LORD blocking their path, so the donkey first turned off the road into a field. Balaam struck his donkey to return her to the road. When the angel blocked the path where it was narrow with a vineyard wall on either side, the donkey pushed against the wall and crushed his foot, so he struck her again. Finally, the angel blocked the way where it was so narrow, the donkey simply lay down on the road, which angered Balaam even more. As he struck his animal, "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?'" (Numbers 22:28). Balaam did not seem phased by the fact that his animal now spoke in human language. Instead, he responded angrily that she had made a fool of him and he wished he could kill her. "Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face" (Numbers 22:31). The angel explained that the donkey had seen him and that had she not turned aside, the angel "would have killed you and let her live" (Numbers 22:33). Balaam immediately recognized his sin and offered to turn back (Numbers 22:34). But the angel said, "Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you" (Numbers 22:35).

Under these sobering circumstances, Balaam arrived in Moab. "Balaam said to Balak, 'Behold, I have come to you! Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak'" (Numbers 22:38). Twice Balaam used divination to try to curse the Israelites, but God put blessing in his mouth to speak over the people of God. He said, "How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?" (Numbers 23:8). In his second blessing he pronounced, "God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? Behold, I received a command to bless: he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it" (Numbers 23:19–20). Finally, "When Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens" (Numbers 24:1). In other words, he stopped his practice of divination and when he did, "the Spirit of God came upon him" (Numbers 24:2). With this anointing, Balaam spoke a blessing over Israel.

Of course, the Moabite king was furious saying, "I called you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have blessed them these three times" (Numbers 24:10). Since Balaam could not curse the Israelites, he did offer to prophesy the future of those nations surrounding Israel. "Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days" (Numbers 24:14). He then enumerated how the Israelites would defeat the surrounding kingdoms. Included in this oracle was a messianic prophecy: "I see him, but not now; / I behold him, but not near: / a star shall come out of Jacob, / and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; / it shall crush the forehead of Moab / and break down all the sons of Sheth" (Numbers 24:17). Numbers 24:25 records, "Then Balaam rose and went back to his place." However, we later learn that Balaam advised the Moabites of another way to try to defeat Israel.

Moses declared about the Moabite women, "these, on Balaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD" (Numbers 31:16). Revelation 2:14 further explains, "Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality." So Balaam suggested that the Moabite women seduce the Israelite men and convince them to turn away from worshipping the one, true God. For this act of rebellion, God sent a plague that killed 24,000 Israelites (Numbers 25:9). Then the nation of Israel waged war against the Moabites and claimed victory. As part of that victory, "they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword" (Numbers 31:8). Thus Balaam and the Moabites ceased to be a threat to Israel's success in the Promised Land.

Balaam understood God's sovereignty (Numbers 22:18), sought God's council, and spoke God's messages, yet his heart was not dedicated to God's purposes. He "loved gain from wrongdoing" (2 Peter 2:15) and was therefore willing to engage in sorcery and divination for hire (Numbers 22:7). When he learned of God's plan for Israel's success, he found a way to work against it despite not being able to curse them. So he will forever be remembered as a wicked prophet whose "speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet's madness" (2 Peter 2:16).


Related Truth:

Who was Moses in the Bible?

What do we know about the Moabites?

Who was Caleb in the Bible?

Can we trust biblical prophecy? Does biblical prophecy really predict the future?

What does the Bible say about false prophets?


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