Who Is Balaam Son of Beor? Part Two (2022)

Examining the figure of Balaam in later traditions

Nathan Steinmeyer April 29, 2022 2 Comments 6006 views

Christ Tells His Disciples of the Last Judgment by Christoph Murer, 1630. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Balaam is one of the most enigmatic figures in the Hebrew Bible, and one of the earliest to be referenced outside the biblical text. In the first part of our series on Balaam, we discussed how, within his main pericope (Numbers 22–24), he is presented as neither a friend nor foe of Israel. However, among later Christian and Jewish authors, this impartial presentation swiftly changes to one that is overwhelmingly negative. Yet, at the same time, the words of Balaam took on a life of their own, being reinterpreted by both Christian and Jewish writers as a pivotal prophetic text foretelling the coming of the Messiah.

(Video) Old Testament Profiles: Balaam, son of Beor Part II June 28 2022

This Bible History Daily post is the second in a series that will explore this enigmatic figure and what we learn of him from the Bible, texts, and archaeology.

Who Is Balaam Son of Beor? Part Two (2)

Balaam in the Hebrew Bible

While Balaam’s main narrative in Numbers is largely ambivalent towards the figure, save for his final appearance in Numbers 31, in the Hellenistic and later periods, the figure of Balaam takes on the mantle of the detestable enemy and false prophet par excellence. To understand this change, it is necessary to turn to other references to Balaam in the Hebrew Bible. Although Balaam’s main narrative ends in Numbers 24, he is mentioned in four other books as well: Deuteronomy 23:4–5; Joshua 13:22, 24:9–10; Micah 6:5; and Nehemiah 13:2.

Among the four biblical books, only Micah presents Balaam in a slightly more positive light, where his story is included in a list of God’s saving acts. However, the other three books are overwhelmingly negative toward the figure. While Joshua 13 makes a passing reference to Balaam being killed alongside the enemies of Israel, the other mentions go further and completely reinterpret his narrative. In Balaam’s original narrative in Numbers 22–24, he is presented as a reliable spokesperson for the divine. However, the references to Balaam in Deuteronomy, Joshua 24, and Nehemiah claim that he set out to intentionally curse the people of Israel. It was only God who intervened to actively turn Balaam’s curses into blessings. It is possible that this interpretation flows from his appearance in Numbers 31:16, where it states that Balaam had convinced the Midianite women to lead Israel into adultery. These later references do build upon the narrative presented in Numbers, although the development is not straightforward. This is the case even from the two sections of Numbers themselves.

(Video) 2- Sheikh Shabbar Mehdi | The story of Balaam son of Beor | Muharram 2022/1444

Balaam in Jewish and Christian Commentary and Discourse

Among later sources, negative portrayals of Balaam only continue, with mentions of Balaam in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament, Jewish literature, and the early Church Fathers. Except for references to Balaam’s fourth oracle (Numbers 24:15–19, discussed below), the overwhelming majority of these portrayals can be classified as negative. Within the Dead Sea Scrolls, Balaam is mentioned in two separate non-biblical texts. In both, Balaam is included among a list of false prophets who arose in ancient Israel.1 This is consistent with how he is portrayed in other Jewish texts, including the Targum and the works of Philo of Alexandria,2 as well as within the commentaries and writings of the early Church Fathers, such as Origin and Augustine.3

The New Testament references to Balaam continue this theme, although they add another layer, namely Balaam’s love of money. Both Jude and 2 Peter call out the sinful by comparing them to Balaam “who loved the wages of doing wrong” (2 Peter 2:15). These texts seem to reference and build on the original Numbers account, in which the Moabite king Balak pays Balaam a fee to curse Israel. Whereas in Numbers 22–24, Balaam rejects the offer and insists that he will only speak the words that God gives him, these New Testament passages instead reinterpret this narrative in light of the later Hebrew Bible texts, which mention simply that Balak hired Balaam. Revelation adds yet another element, insinuating that the church in Pergamum partook in idolatry and adultery by holding to the “teaching of Balaam” (Revelation 2:14), which echoes Numbers 31:16 and Balaam’s involvement in the incident at Peor.

Balaam’s Prediction of the Messiah?

Despite the increasingly negative views of Balaam son of Beor in later literature, there was one feature of Balaam’s narrative that was reframed in a positive light. Although Balaam was viewed as a false prophet, his fourth oracle (Numbers 24:17) is often interpreted in later texts as a prophetic foretelling of the coming of the Messiah. “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.” This oracle appears in three separate Dead Sea Scrolls, the first being 4QTestimonia, which connects it to other prophecies predicting a future messianic figure. It does so by connecting Balaam’s “star” and “scepter” to that future Messiah. This similarly occurs in the famous Damascus Document. The War Scroll also presents this oracle as a messianic prophecy, where it concludes a battle hymn, setting this figure as the Messiah who will crush Israel’s enemies.4

The Adoration of the Magi by Giovanni di Paolo, 1450. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The early Church Fathers similarly gravitate to the oracle of Balaam, connecting it to the messianic figure of Jesus. One particular way that the Church Fathers do this was by linking it with the story of Jesus’s birth and the miraculous star seen by the Magi in Matthew 2:1–12. For example, Irenaeus, writing in the second century, linked the star of the Magi with that mentioned by Balaam and suggested that the Magi were descendants of Balaam.5

(Video) The Deir ‘Alla Inscription: Balaam the Son of Beor - Historical False Prophet or Fictional Figure?

Balaam in Reception History

Although the main pericope of Balaam within the Book of Numbers presents him as a complex, yet unbiased, figure, later traditions and interpretations swiftly moved away from this. Instead, in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and later Jewish and Christian writings, Balaam is presented as an inherently villainous character. Despite this, however, the oracles of Balaam take on an astonishingly different life, being reinterpreted as messianic prophecies. Although both Christian and Jewish writers were aware of this dichotomy, they did not alter this new theological interpretation, thus leading to the multilayered and paradoxical character of Balaam son of Beor that continues to persist today.

Notes:

1 Florentino García Martínez, “Balaam in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in George H. van Kooten and Jacques van Ruiten eds., The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity and Islam (Boston: Brill, 2008), pp. 71–82.

2 George H. van Kooten, “Balaam as the Sophist Par Excellence in Philo of Alexandria: Philo’s Projection of an Urgent Contemporary Debate onto Moses’ Pentateuchal Narratives,” in George H. van Kooten and Jacques van Ruiten eds., The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity and Islam (Boston: Brill, 2008), pp. 131–162.

3 Tord Fornberg, “Balaam and 2 Peter 2:15: ‘They Have Followed in the Steps of Balaam’ ( Jude 11),” in George H. van Kooten and Jacques van Ruiten eds., The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity and Islam (Boston: Brill, 2008), pp. 265–274.

4 See note 1.

5 Johan Leemans, “‘To Bless with a Mouth Bent on Cursing’: Patristic Interpretations of Balaam (Num 24:17),” in George H. van Kooten and Jacques van Ruiten eds., The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity and Islam (Boston: Brill, 2008), pp. 287–299.

Read more in Bible History Daily:

Who Is Balaam Son of Beor? Part One

(Video) Dr Maurice Mizrahi - Was the prophet Balaam good or bad? (Balak)

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Before Tea Leaves: Divination in Ancient Babylonia

Fragments from the Book of Balaam Found at Deir Alla

83 Real Bible People

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

Tags: Ancient IsraelBalaambiblical figuresbiblical interpretationbiblical prophecyDead Sea Scrollsearly Church FatherHebrew BibleinterpretationMagitargum

FAQs

Who was Balaam in the Bible and what did he do? ›

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 kind of prophet was Balaam? ›

According to the primary narrative, Balaam is an honest prophet who speaks only what his god tells him to speak. At first, Balaam rejects Balak's assignment to curse Israel (22,8-13).

What does Balaam mean in the Bible? ›

Balaam. / (ˈbeɪlæm) / noun. Old Testament a Mesopotamian diviner who, when summoned to curse the Israelites, prophesied future glories for them instead, after being reproached by his ass (Numbers 22–23)

What do we learn from Balaam? ›

God is angry with Balaam for going to Moab, knowing that he hopes for some reward from Balak. While on his way, Balaam learns the dangers of displeasing God when his donkey and an angel speak to him. Numbers 22:36–24:25.

What does the name Balaam mean? ›

In Biblical Names the meaning of the name Balaam is: The ancient of the people, the destruction of the people.

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.

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 happened to Balak in the Bible? ›

After his mission with Balaam to curse Israelites failed, Balak decided to ally with Midianites to gather their women in order to lead Israelites men astray in adultery. Sources detailing the story of Balak: Numbers 22–24.
...
Balak
Death placeKingdom of Moab
8 more rows

Why did God speak to Balaam? ›

Balak sent his elders and princes to Balaam with gifts and treasures to pay for the cursing of Israel. The gifts were enticing, and Balaam wanted them, but he knew that he must pray for Heavenly Father's guidance. In answer to Balaam's prayer the Lord said, “Thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.”

Where does the name Balaam come from? ›

The name Balaam first arose amongst the Anglo-Saxon tribes of Britain. It is derived from their having lived in Suffolk, where they held a family seat in the village of Baylham, from which they took their name.

What is the story of Balaam and the donkey? ›

Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, she turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat her to get her back on the road.

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.

Who was looking for the donkey? ›

Now the donkeys belonging to Saul's father Kish were lost, and Kish said to his son Saul, "Take one of the servants with you and go and look for the donkeys."

What did Moab do? ›

According to the Book of Jeremiah, Moab was exiled to Babylon for his arrogance and idolatry. According to Rashi, it was also due to their gross ingratitude even though Abraham, Israel's ancestor, had saved Lot, Moab's ancestor from Sodom. Jeremiah prophesies that Moab's captivity will be returned in the end of days.

Why did God speak to Balaam? ›

Balak sent his elders and princes to Balaam with gifts and treasures to pay for the cursing of Israel. The gifts were enticing, and Balaam wanted them, but he knew that he must pray for Heavenly Father's guidance. In answer to Balaam's prayer the Lord said, “Thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.”

What is the way of Balaam? ›

Now at last we are in a position to understand why Peter says the false prophets have “followed the way of Balaam.” Balaam was a man who was willing to entice the people of God to their destruction—and all for the sake of his own personal profit. This is exactly how Peter sees the false teachers.

What happened to Balak in the Bible? ›

After his mission with Balaam to curse Israelites failed, Balak decided to ally with Midianites to gather their women in order to lead Israelites men astray in adultery. Sources detailing the story of Balak: Numbers 22–24.
...
Balak
Death placeKingdom of Moab
8 more rows

What does Balak mean in Hebrew? ›

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 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 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 did Balaam say to Balak? ›

Balak asked a prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites. However, the Lord directed Balaam not to curse the Israelites, so Balaam blessed them instead. Later, Balaam disobeyed the Lord and taught Balak that he could weaken the Israelites by enticing them to commit sin.

What was the angel that blocked the way of Balaam's donkey doing? ›

When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat her with his staff. Then the LORD opened the donkey's mouth, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?" Balaam answered the donkey, "You have made a fool of me!

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.

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.

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 is the English of Balak? ›

Definition for the Tagalog word balak:

balak. [noun] plan; intention; design; aim.

What does Balak mean in Arabic? ›

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

Videos

1. [CMW | 2020-11-07] ”BALAAM SON OF BEOR”
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2. Balaam, The Last Prophet of the Nations - Rabbi Kermi Ingber
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4. Part 2: Deir 'Alla and the Prophet Bal'am (Numbers 22)
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