OT SS Lesson #16

The story of Balak and Balaam is a study in the marvelous complexity and richness of Biblical literature.  The pericope includes five narrative sections, four poetic prophecies, and a fable (the tale of the angel and the ass).  It also includes commentaries found elsewhere in the scriptures.

When teaching this lesson in the past, I have started with the narrative sections, which contain the foundation of the story.  The first narrative, found in Numbers 22:1-21, tells of Balak, king of Moab, who becomes distressed because the Israelites have come out of Egypt in a mighty company and he is afraid of their military strength.  He wishes to drive them out of the land, so he seeks out and offers a reward to Balaam, a prophet, if he will lay a curse upon Israel.  Balaam first refuses, but then agrees to prophesy, warning Balak that he will only speak the words that Jehovah gives him to say.  It has been pointed out that very few people in the Bible are as confusing and contradicting as Balaam. As a result there are many views concerning him; was Balaam a true believer in God, a false, pagan prophet, or a back-slidden believer who succumbed to the temptations of life?  This first narrative yields a clue — Balaam refers to the Lord as “Jehovah my God.”  The fact that he uses the tetragrammaton here tells me that although Balaam is a non-Israelite from Pethor, he is intimately familiar with the Hebrew God.  This God speaks to him many times throughout the story.

Those of you who know your BiV will remember how impressed I am by a man who can quote scripture or recite poetry. So it won’t surprise you that I am head-over-heels in love with Balaam when he does both by the end of Chapter 23.  After the second narrative section, Numbers 22:36-23:6, in which Balaam builds seven altars [1] and offers sacrifice in the mountains overlooking the camp of Israel, God speaks to the prophet in the first of four of the most lovely examples of Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament.  Biblical Hebrew scholars will know what I mean, but for the rest, I have translated these prophecies into a poetic form English speakers will recognize. [2]

Balak, the king of Moab from the mountains of the East
Hath brought me from my country to perform a shameful deed:
Come and curse this Jacob, come hinder Israel.
But how shall I rebuke those upon whom God’s mercies dwell?
How can I smite the nation that Jehovah keepeth well?
From high atop the rocky cliff, I see this mighty fold,
From the hills above this place, their army I behold.
A people who shall stand apart and always live alone;
Among the nations’ reckoning, they scarcely shall be known.
But yet the dust of Jacob shall soon be too vast to count;
The tribes of Israel shall be in numbers that will mount.
O may my death be likewise, my rest an endless fount! (Numbers 23:7-10)

In the third narrative, Numbers 23:11-17, King Balak remonstrates with Balaam for blessing, rather than cursing Israel.  He takes the prophet to a smaller hill, where the view of the encroaching army is not so large or terrifying.  There Balaam again builds seven altars and offers sacrifice.  The prophecy comes as follows:

Arise, Balak, and listen; hear now, O Zippor’s son:
God is no man, no liar he, no human who must run.
What he hath spoken he’ll make good, his sayings shall be done;
He bids me bless, and once I bless, constrained, I call back none.
There is no sin in Jacob, no fault in Israel;
Jehovah God is with him, shouting for this King as well.

God brought them out of Egypt’s pox,
Like the lofty horns of a wild ox.
Jacob scorns the enchanter’s pow’r;
To Israel the diviners cower.

Behold this mighty people who now rise up as a lion
And eat the prey and drink the blood — What God hath wrought in Zion! (Numbers 23:18-24)

As expected, Balak is none too pleased with the second prophecy.  But he tries one more time to use Balaam’s power to his advantage.  This is not surprising, for there is evidence from outside the Bible record that Balaam was awell-known seer; a cursing prophet living in the environs of Deir Alla, Jordan. [3] In this fourth narrative, Numbers 23:2524:2, Balaam is taken to an even less advantageous vantage point.  Altars are once again built, and sacrifices offered.  But this time, Balaam approaches God in a more humble spirit.  He goes, seeking not “nechashim” (translated in our KJV Bibles as “enchantments”).  We have encountered this word before — just a chapter before Balaam’s story begins. Nechashim are the serpents which afflicted the children of Israel in the wilderness, a brazen one of which Moses lifted up on a pole to symbolize the Savior.  These serpents are described as “seraphim,” translated variously as “fiery,” “poisonous,” or “enchanter.”  I like to interpret them as being symbolic of false gods, with Moses’ brazen serpent standing for the true Messiah. [4] This would mean that Balaam is turning from any false system of thought that might remain in his beliefs after communing with Jehovah, and striving for the truth.  And the word of the Lord comes to him again:

How goodly, Jacob, are thy tents,
And Israel’s dwellings, tribe by tribe:
As aloes green, as valleys wide,
As gardens by the riverside,
As cedars near the stream abide.

Water from thy branch shall flow,
Thy seed in many waters go;
Thy king be highest, and the best,
Thy kingdom ris’n above the rest!

God brought thee forth from Egypt’s scorn,
Just as the wild ox’s horn
To eat the nations, break their bones
And pierce them through with arrows honed.

Thou shalt couch down as a lioness,
And bless all those who call thee blessed,
And curse all those who fail the test. (Numbers 24:3-9)

A cursing at last!  But not upon Israel, rather, her enemies.  Following this prophecy, the narrative tells us (Numbers 24:10-14), Balak is furious.

“I was going to promote you to great honor,” he tells Balaam.  ”But now, forget it!”

Balak replies by making it abundantly clear that though the king might offer him a house full of silver and gold, he cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord. And then he gives a final prophecy, for good measure, one he says concerns the latter days. This one turns out to be Messianic. Fifteen hundred years later, seers from the East will take these words seriously and use them to find a babe in an obscure location in Israel:

Balaam, the son of Beor am I –
I hear the words of the Most High,
I see his vision with mine eye,
Yea, I behold him, but not nigh.

A star from Jacob in the skies
From Israel, a scepter rise;
Smiting Moab’s corners ’round
And breaking Seth’s descendants down.

Edom, too, shall be possessed,
Seir, the adversaries, pressed –
Israel doeth this with zest.

From Jacob, One will have the rule,
And shall destroy the remnant cruel.
Amalek was first of all,
But in the end the great shall fall.

And Cain, though firm from every knock,
A nested one upon a rock
Nonetheless shall wasted be,
When Assyria comes for thee.

God appoints this: do not boast.
Ships shall sail from Kittim’s coast,
Afflict Assyria by ploy,
And Eber also shall destroy. (Numbers 24:15-24)

Now, you Sunday School teachers will have noticed that what I have written above gives a different interpretation than our Lesson Manual.  I find it curious that the indications we have that Balaam was not a completely righteous prophet come from later scriptures, namely the following:

  • Num 31:8: Moses’ warriors slew Balaam
  • Num 31:16: Balaam counseled the Midianites how to cause the Israelites to commit sin.
  • Deut 23:3-6: The Lord turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing
  • Josh 13:22: The Israelites slew Balaam, who was a soothsayer
  • 2 Peter 2:15-16: Balaam loved unrighteousness, was rebuked for his sin when his ass forbad his madness.
  • Jude 1:11: Woe unto those who run greedily after the error of Balaam for reward
  • Rev 2:14: Balaam taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.

There are additional passages which mention Balaam, but not in a condemnatory manner.  This leaves open the possibility that the Balaam pericope was initially quite positive.  Later attitudes toward toward Balaam may have changed when Israelite misfortunes at the hands of neighboring nations, with whom Balaam was identified, brought him into disrepute.

And NOW it is time to discuss the story of the angel and the ass.  (Did you think I’d forgotten?)

Many Biblical scholars conclude that the Tale of Balaam’s Ass is a distinct literary entity which derives from a separate source.  This fable is an adaptation of an originally independent folktale in a mode similar to ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature.  The Tale reflects the late, hostile evaluation of Balaam common to other Biblical passages. [5] As I read Numbers 22:21-35, it seems quite clear that this fable has a different purpose than the rest of the scripture block.  There is a sudden switch, from verse 20, where God tells Balaam to go with Balak’s men, to verse 22, when without explanation God’s anger is kindled against the prophet for taking the journey.  The story of an angel trying to prevent Balaam from proceeding seems extraneous to the story as a whole, whereas the speaking donkey lends a comical and fantastical air to what otherwise is a sober and spiritual message.

The student of the Bible must decide how the fable and the later Biblical verses referencing Balaam fit in with the primary passages.  Were these parts added as Balaam became associated with surrounding hostile nations?  Is this a more likely explanation than more conservative, traditional views that Balaam’s allegiances changed, or that found in the OT SS Manual that Balaam’s greed for wealth and lust for honor swayed him from his determined course?

As you have studied this prophet and poet, do you concur with Bruce R. McConkie, as quoted in our manual, that “Balaam, … inspired and mighty as he once was, lost his soul in the end because he set his heart on the things of this world rather than the riches of eternity”?


[1] Look up the symbolism of the Hebrew number seven!

[2] Hebrew poetry doesn’t use rhyme, but uses other techniques readily recognizable as poetry, such as parallelism. Here I have used meter and rhyme to render the Hebrew poetry into English.

[3] In 1967 an ancient Aramaic text was found in Deir Alla, Jordan, dating to the time of the Biblical Balaam. The text begins with the title “Warnings from the Book of Balaam the son of Beor. He was a seer of the gods.” Much of the document describes curses uttered by this prophet.

[4] The Hebrew word “nachash” is used as an adjective (bright, brazen) and as a noun (serpent, hiss, enchantment) I also like to think of the “nachash” in the Garden of Eden as a wordplay using all the meanings in the semantic range of this word: an enchanter, deceiver, or false god, who was shining or serpentine in appearance.

[5] see Jonathan D. Safren, “Balaam and Abraham,” in Vestus Testamentum XXXVIII, 1, 1988.