Balaam: The Unholy Prophet (2022)

Balaam: a biblical warning against mingling the exercise of spiritual gifts with unGodly living...

Balaam steps into the pages of Old Testament history at the request of Balak, king of the Moabites, at the time when the Children of Israel were on the point of moving into Canaan, the Promised Land. Like the inhabitants of Jericho, the Moabites had heard how Jehovah had rescued the Israelites from Egypt by drying up the Red Sea and by destroying Sihon and Og, the two Amorite kings and - to quote the later words of Rahab the prostitute – "When we heard of it, our hearts sank and everyone's courage failed" (Josh 2:11).

It was because Balak and his people felt threatened by the proximity, strength and reputation of the Israelites that he sent a deputation to Pethor on the Euphrates to ask the well-known soothsayer Balaam if he would come and curse the children of Israel. In fact, Balak and his people need have had no such fear as Jehovah had given strict orders to Moses to pass through their country without hurting them in any way. It was a case of "there they were, overwhelmed with dread, when there was nothing to dread" (Psa 53:5).

Balak's request to Balaam

Balak, filled with fear, sent messengers to summon Balaam to come and curse Israel, in the belief that if the soothsayer did so the Moabite king would be able to defeat them and drive them out of his territory. The deputation brought with them the usual fee for Balaam's services (Num 22:1-7).

Balaam's reply was to give them overnight hospitality while he consulted Yahweh to discover whether it was right to go with these men on the long journey to where the Moabites and the Israelites were in close proximity on the east of the Jordan, where that river runs into the Dead Sea. The reply Balaam received from Jehovah was short but clear: "Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on them, because they are blessed" (Num 22:12). So the deputation returned to Balak and told him that Balaam had refused to come.

Convert to Yahweh

Before going further to discover what special understanding of prophetic character we may learn from the story of this strange man, we must come to terms with the fact that although Balaam was not numbered among the Children of Israel and indeed lived a long way from them, he had come to acknowledge Yahweh as the true God in a remarkable way.

The American scholar William F Albright, whose definitive work shed so much light on this era, described Balaam as "a north Syrian diviner from the Euphrates Valley...who became a convert to Yahwehism" (Journal of Biblical Literature, September 1944, p232).

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There are elements in his way of doing things which are reminiscent of heathen divination (cf. Num 24:1), but it is clear beyond all doubt that Balaam knew the true God and could hear what he was saying.

Although Balaam was not an Israelite, and his ways incorporated elements of heathen divination, he had come to acknowledge Yahweh as the true God in a remarkable way.

A genuine prophet

The prophetic words of Balaam (which together number more than those written by the prophet Obadiah) were not the product of incantations or occultic rites, neither was he in any trance state when he spoke them; they were spoken directly under the direction of the Spirit of God (Num 24:2).

King Balak made three attempts at getting Balaam to curse the Israel people by taking him to different vantage points from which he could see less or more of their encampment (Num 22:41, 23:13, 23:27 and 24:2), but God caused Balaam to bless rather than curse them. Moses said that this was because the Lord loved them (Deut 23:5).

Evidence of genuine prophecy

We have already seen that the manner in which Balaam prophesied showed him to be a genuine prophet. To this we can add the testimony of the Bible writer as he reports the attitude of Balaam when he says; "I must speak only what God puts in my mouth...Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?...I must say only what the Lord says" (Num 22:38, 23:12 and 24:13).

The manner in which Balaam prophesied showed him to be a genuine prophet, speaking directly under the direction of the Spirit of God.

The writer himself records, "The Lord put a message in Balaam's mouth" (Num 23:5). The third line of evidence that Balaam was a genuine prophet may be seen in the subject matter of his prophesying, to which we now turn.

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Balaam's four 'oracles'

Balaam spoke three oracles (an oracle means that which is spoken directly from God, see 1 Pet 4:11) in response to Balak's threefold request that Balaam should curse the Children of Israel (Num 23:7-10, 23:17-24 and 24:2-9). But instead of curses, on each occasion he blessed them. After these he added a fourth oracle describing how Israel would conquer her enemies, including Balak's own kingdom of Moab.

A short final oracle foretold the ruin of the Amalekites and the destruction of the Kenites. The reference to Asshur being subdued does not refer to Assyria, the mighty kingdom that conquered Israel in later years, but to an Arabian tribe (see Gen 25:3, 18 and Psa 83:8). This reference is therefore no evidence for the late dating of Balaam's story. As Albright (in the article noted above) says, "There is nothing in the matter of these poems which requires a date in the tenth century or later for original composition".

Theology of God

In his oracles Balaam refers to God as 'El' the mighty God, as 'Shaddai' the almighty provider, as 'Elyon' the supreme, and 'Melek' the King, and constantly calls him by his covenant name Jehovah or Yahweh. This reveals, for a heathen soothsayer, an amazing grasp of the nature of God.

He also makes a statement about the utter reliability of the God who keeps his promises, a passage that has brought untold reassurance to God's people in times of testing and doubt: "God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and then not fulfil?" (Num 23:19).

Israel's future

The Lion Handbook of the Bible is right in calling Balaam's words "a remarkable prediction of Israel's future" (p190). Balaam declares that Israel is a separated nation: "I see a people dwelling alone, who do not consider themselves one of the nations" (Num 23:9). Israel is unique in the purposes of God, with its religious rites, its diet and its destiny. Israel is to be numerous like the dust; as God said to Abram, "I will make your offspring like the dust of the Earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted" (Gen 13:16).

Israel will be victorious over all her enemies: "The people rise like a lioness; they rouse themselves like a lion that does not rest till he devours his prey" (Num 23:24). "Israel will grow strong" or, as some translators prefer, "Israel performs valiantly" (Num 24:18b).

For a heathen soothsayer, Balaam had an amazing grasp of the nature of God.

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Balaam shows that the reason for these things is God's special care for her and her future. God acts on behalf of Israel (Num 23:23b). God rescued Israel from Pharaoh (Num 24:8). God's presence is with Israel (Num 23:21 b) and therefore she is protected and no sorcery or divination can hurt her (Num 23:23b). Misery and misfortune are not to be found in her borders (Num 23:21). Balaam draws our attention to God's people saying, "See what God has done!" (Num 23:23b).

The promised Messiah

Balaam is privileged to have his eyes opened to see the coming Messiah: "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not close at hand. A star will come out of Jacob and a sceptre will rise out of Israel...a ruler will come out of Jacob" (Num 24:17, 19). Was it this prophecy of Balaam that was treasured in the East, that brought wise men to Bethlehem because of the sight of an unusual star over the land of Judea?

Universal condemnation

With so much about Balaam that was commendable, why is it that the scriptures of both Old and New Testaments are unanimous in their condemnation of him? We do not know all the reasons but Scripture gives us sufficient information to constitute a terrible warning to any who dare to combine the exercise of supernatural gifts with unholy living.

He is shown to be headstrong and persistently disobedient. When Balak's deputation asked Balaam to go to their king, Balaam was told categorically by the Lord; "Do not go with them!" (Num 22:12). Because of this he sent Balak's deputation back to Moab, refusing to accompany them. However, when a second deputation arrived consisting of a larger number of more distinguished princes (Num 22:15), instead of telling them that God had forbidden him to go, he began to slip, saying he would see whether perhaps God might have changed his mind! (Num 22:19). Remember, this was the prophet who had affirmed that God never did change his mind! (Num 23:19).

Recognising that Balaam was determined to go to Balak, God gave him permission (Num 22:20), but made it abundantly clear through an opposing angel and a speaking ass that he did not approve of Balaam's action (Num 22:21-35).

Though so much about Balaam was commendable, Scripture uses his example as a terrible warning against the exercise of supernatural gifts with unholy living.

Other passages of Scripture make it clear that there was a financial aspect to Balaam's sin. At first sight this is surprising when we remember that in answering Balak's second deputation Balaam had claimed, "Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold I could not go" (Num 22:18). There are other Bible references however which accuse him of avarice, and Peter states that Balaam "loved the wages of wickedness" (e.g. Jude 11, 2 Pet 2:15). Matthew Henry in his famous commentary remarks, "We may here discern in Balaam a struggle between his convictions and his corruptions".

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The third thing of which Balaam is accused in scripture is sexual immorality. No one would have suspected this had not the Bible made it clear that after his repeated refusal to curse Israel he joined himself to the Midianites and led them to corrupt Israel by blatant immorality (Num 25:1-9, Rev 2:14). The same passage in Revelation also accuses Balaam of idolatry in that he encouraged Israel to eat food sacrificed to idols.

Balaam is killed

In Balaam's first oracle he had expressed a wish concerning his death, which many people have echoed since that time: "Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like theirs!" (Num 23:10b). Sadly, this was not to be his experience, for if we want to die the death of the righteous we must live the life of the righteous.

When the time came for Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites for the way they had corrupted Israel, they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword (Num 31:1-8). Later on, when the time came to divide the Promised Land between the tribes, the record states: "the Israelites had put to the sword Balaam the son of Beor, who practised divination" (Josh 13:22).

If we want to die the death of the righteous, we must live the life of the righteous.

Not a false prophet but an unholy one

The story of this true prophet who lived an immoral life is a very strong warning to any who are manifesting prophetic or other supernatural gifts, but whose lives are at variance with the standards of Christ. Eagerness for financial remuneration and carelessness in the use of funds has wrecked the work of some whose words were irresistibly powerful.

Others have ended their effectiveness in ministry by wrong sexual relationships. Some have turned aside to the occult or to spiritualism, whilst many more have halted the power that once flooded through them by persistent disobedience.

By their fruits..!

Jesus said it was not by their gifts but by their fruit that we are to recognise those who are genuine (Matt 7:16). We reason that if people can hear God and bring a clear prophetic word, if they can bring an accurate word of knowledge or heal the sick, doesn't that prove they are living in a right relationship with God? The answer as seen in Jesus' words and Balaam's life is No! How tragic was the fall of Balaam!

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People might hear God, bring clear prophetic words or words of knowledge, or heal the sick. That doesn't prove they are living in a right relationship with God.

How much more tragic is the fall of those who have much more light than Balaam had and yet whose spiritual gifts are not matched by holiness! Jesus said that many in that day will say to him, "Did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?" They like Balaam will merit the wrath of the Lamb and must at the last hear him say, "I never knew you!"

First published in Prophecy Today, Vol 3 No 3, May/June 1987.

FAQs

What kind of prophet was Balaam? ›

Balaam, non-Israelite prophet described in chapters 22–24 of the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), as a diviner who is importuned by Balak, king of Moab, to place a malediction on the people of Israel, who are camped ominously on the plains of Moab.

What was the biblical meaning of Balaam? ›

Definition of Balaam

: an Old Testament prophet who is reproached by the ass he is riding and rebuked by God's angel while on the way to meet with an enemy of Israel.

What was God's message to Balaam? ›

But God said to Balaam, "Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed." The next morning Balaam got up and said to Balak's princes, "Go back to your own country, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you."

Who was Balaam and what did he do? ›

His name was Balaam. He was a soothsayer (one who professes to foretell the future) who believed in, or at least knew about, the God of Israel to the degree that he could be influenced by the Spirit. The king of Moab tried to hire Balaam to curse Israel so the Moabites could defeat them in battle.

How did Balaam trick Israel? ›

But afterwards, Balaam taught Balak the king to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel; that is, Balak and his people invited the Israelites to their sacrifices, and this led Israel to sacrifice to idols and commit acts of immorality.

What does donkey symbolize in the Bible? ›

In contrast to Grecian works, donkeys were portrayed in Biblical works as symbols of service, suffering, peace and humility. They are also associated with the theme of wisdom in the Old Testament story of Balaam's ass, and are seen in a positive light through the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.

What is the meaning of numbers 22? ›

The number 22 is also a master number, which means it carries additional spiritual power. This number is often seen as a sign of good luck or of positive things to come. If you keep seeing 22, it could be a message from your angels that they are helping you to manifest your dreams into reality.

What happened to Balak in the Bible? ›

Balak tried to engage Balaam for the purpose of cursing the migrating Israelite community. On his journey to meet the princes of Moab, Balaam is stopped by an angel of the lord after beating his donkey. He tells the angel he will return home: "I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood against me on the road".

Is Balaam the prophet of God? ›

Bala'am is not specifically mentioned as a prophet of Yahweh in the Bible, but is called upon by Balak, a Moabite ruler, to curse the Israelites (Numbers Chapter 22).

What does donkey represent in the Bible? ›

In contrast to Grecian works, donkeys were portrayed in Biblical works as symbols of service, suffering, peace and humility. They are also associated with the theme of wisdom in the Old Testament story of Balaam's ass, and are seen in a positive light through the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.

What does the name Balak mean? ›

The name "Balak" means "devastator", "empty", or "wasting". The name apparently derives from the sparsely used Hebrew verb (balak), "waste or lay waste." There are no derivations of this verb besides this name.

What is the teaching of the nicolaitans? ›

As a symbolic reference (according to this view), the "teaching of the Nicolaitans" refers to dominating the people, compared to the "teaching of Balaam" which refers to seducing the people.

What happened to Balak in the Bible? ›

Balak tried to engage Balaam for the purpose of cursing the migrating Israelite community. On his journey to meet the princes of Moab, Balaam is stopped by an angel of the lord after beating his donkey. He tells the angel he will return home: "I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood against me on the road".

What does donkey mean spiritually? ›

Additionally, donkeys are animals that help humans and bring them hope. Among the biblical phrases, donkeys are a representation of the “authority of God's word.” Jesus is also pictured entering the Holy City on the back of a donkey. The wise animal represented here as a symbol of peace.

Why are donkeys so special? ›

Donkeys have an incredible memory – they can recognise areas and other donkeys they were with up to 25 years ago. Donkeys are not easily startled (unlike horses) and have a keen sense of curiosity. Donkeys have a reputation for stubbornness but this is due to their highly developed sense of self preservation.

What lesson can we learn from the donkey? ›

We must surrender our burdens and our weights to God, much like the owner who surrendered his donkey to the two disciples. By relinquishing our own burdens, we can praise and worship God freely.

What does Balak mean in Arabic? ›

Explanation: in Algeria it is : balAk. and it's used for the same meaning (watch out, look out) .

How do you pronounce Balak? ›

How To Pronounce Balak - YouTube

What does BEOR mean in Hebrew? ›

Beor (Hebrew: בְּעוֹר Bə'ōr, "a burning") is a name which appears in relation to a king ("Bela son of Beor") and a diviner ("Balaam son of Beor").

What does the Morning Star mean? ›

Morning star, most commonly used as a name for the planet Venus when it appears in the east before sunrise. See also Venus in culture.

Who are the Nicolaitans of Revelation? ›

2:14-15). We read of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. What he was to the children of Israel in the OT, the Nicolaitans were to the church of Jesus Christ in the New. Balaam is a prototype of those who promote compromise with the world in idolatry and immorality (see also Jude 11 and 2 Peter 2:15).

What is the morning star in the Bible? ›

In the Bible

The Septuagint renders הֵילֵל in Greek as Ἑωσφόρος (heōsphoros), "bringer of dawn", the Ancient Greek name for the morning star. Similarly the Vulgate renders הֵילֵל in Latin as Lucifer, the name in that language for the morning star.

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