Balaam is probably one of the most enigmatic figures in the Pentateuch. He plays a pivotal role in blessing Israel even when he is hired to curse them. Plus, there’s an irony in the seer not seeing the angel of Yahweh and being rebuked by a talking donkey. The IVP Bible Background Commentary provides some helpful commentary on Balaam’s location, vocation, religion, and blessings. Keeping reading to learn more about Balaam and the role he played in blessing Israel in Numbers 22–24.

Balaam’s Location

Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will eat up all that is around us, as the ox eats up the grass of the field!” And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time. So he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the Euphrates River, in the land of the sons of his people, to call for him, saying, “Behold, a people came out of Egypt; behold, they have covered the surface of the land, and they are living opposite me.”

Numbers 22:4–5

In 1967 a Dutch archaeological expedition led by H. J. Franken discovered some inscribed pieces of plaster at a site in Jordan known as Deir ‘Allah. The fragments are apparently written in Aramaic and date to about 850 B.C. They mention Balaam son of Beor, the same figure described as a “seer” in Numbers 22–24. Although the text is very fragmentary, with many breaks and uncertain words, it can be established that Balaam was a seer who received a divine message during the night and that his message was not what his neighbors expected to hear. Whether this text refers to the events described in the Bible is questionable, but it does establish a nonbiblical tradition current in the ninth century of a prophet named Balaam. It may be that Balaam’s notoriety was such that he remained an important prophetic figure for centuries.

Pethor is probably to be identified with Pitru on the Sajur River, a tributary of the upper Euphrates, located about twelve miles from Carchemish in northern Syria. Since Balaam is said to have been brought from Aram in Numbers 23:7, this identification seems appropriate.

Balaam’s Vocation

Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed. So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian left with the fees for divination in their hands; and they came to Balaam and repeated Balak’s words to him.”

Numbers 22:6–7

In Joshua 13:22, Balaam is described as a “soothsayer,” while in Numbers 22:6 he is said to be a man whose blessings and curses are effective. He has an international reputation as a true prophet. Throughout the narrative in Numbers 22–24, Balaam continually reminds Balak that he can speak only the words which God gives him to speak (Num 22:18, 38; 23:12, 26; 24:13). Although Balaam uses sacrificial rituals to obtain God’s answer, he is not to be considered simply a diviner. Divination, while sometimes used by Mesopotamian prophets, is more often associated with cultic personnel who examine sacrificial animals or natural conditions (flights of birds, etc.). In each case, Balaam seems to have direct communication with God and then speaks God’s word in the form of oracles to Balak.

What is a curse?

Curses draw the wrath of the deity on persons, groups, cities or places. They may be composed and spoken by anyone, with an intent to bring death, destruction, disease and defeat. Ritual performance was also employed, as in a Hittite text that requires water to be poured and a curse spoken against anyone who gave the king “polluted” water to drink. Curses often accompanied covenant or treaty agreements to involve the power of the gods as cosigners and to put treaty breakers on notice of their peril.

However, cursing can have negative effects on the one who curses as well. The death penalty was imposed on those who curse their parents (Ex 21:17) or God (Lev 24:11–24). In the Israelite tradition expressed in the Balaam narrative, Yahweh alone was capable of carrying out a curse, and no prophet acting, on his own could effectively curse anyone. Yet Balak describes Balaam as one so attuned to the gods that both his blessings and his curses are always effective. In effect, the prophet, as a god’s intermediary or representative, is believed to be capable of interceding for good or ill with the god(s). Balaam discounts this, however, saying he can only speak what God gives him to speak.

It is to be expected that a fee or reward would be paid for vital information (see 2 Sam 4:10). Diviners, as religious practitioners, would be paid for their services (1 Sam 9:8). However, Balaam is not to be paid until after he curses the Israelites (Num 24:11). Thus this may simply be an offer rather than a retainer for services.

Balaam’s Religion

But Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, “Even if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the Lord my God. Now please, you also stay here tonight, and I will find out what else the Lord will say to me.”

Numbers 22:18–19

If Balaam is truly a Mesopotamian prophet who has spoken in the name of many gods, it seems unusual that he would refer to Yahweh as “the LORD my God.” It is perfectly possible that Balaam was familiar with the Israelite God, at least by reputation (see Rahab’s speech in Josh 2:9–11). Or he may always refer to each god he is dealing with in these intimate terms to demonstrate his prophetic authority. Balak’s interest in Balaam seems to be based on his ability to invoke blessings or curses—no matter which god he calls upon. There is little reason to maintain that Balaam served Yahweh exclusively.

In the ancient world direct communication between heads of state was a rarity. Diplomatic and political exchange normally required the use of an intermediary. The messenger who served as the intermediary was a fully vested representative of the party he represented. He spoke for that party and with the authority of that party. He was accorded the same treatment as that party would enjoy were he there in person. Gifts given were understood to belong to the represented party, not the representative. In the same way the Angel of the Lord serves as the messenger, the royal envoy endowed with the authority of the sender of the message.

Balaam’s 1st and 2nd Blessing

Now God met with Balaam, and he said to Him, “I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.” When the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and this is what you shall speak.”

Numbers 23:4–5

The number seven is often attested in the Bible and may be associated with the days of creation or the fact that it is a prime number (see 1 Kings 18:43; 2 Kings 5:10). Nowhere else in the Bible are seven altars constructed for sacrifice. This may relate to a non-Israelite ritual in which each of the altars is dedicated to a different god. It is conceivable that when an international treaty was concluded and the gods were called to witness the agreement, altars to each god would be erected and sacrifices made before them (see Gen 31:44–54). But nontreaty contexts in Mesopotamia also attest the practice of using seven altars in order to offer seven sacrifices simultaneously before the high gods.

Bulls and rams were the most prized and valuable stock animals in the ancient Near East, and thus their sacrifice would have signified a supreme effort on the part of the worshipers to please the god(s) and gain their aid. The sacrifice of seven of these animals is also found in Job’s sin offering for his three friends (Job 42:8).

In the ancient world messages from deity were generally conveyed through dreams, communications from the dead or temple personnel in prophetic trances. The language here of meeting with Elohim suggests none of those options, though the nature of Balaam’s encounter with God is not described.

Balaam’s 3rd and 4th Blessing

When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go as at other times to seek omens, rather he turned his attention toward the wilderness. And Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe; and the Spirit of God came upon him.”

Numbers 24:1–2

As a Mesopotamian prophet, Balaam’s usual procedures when invoking a god or seeking an omen would have been to engage in some form of divination. Having now perceived that Yahweh’s intent is to bless the Israelites, Balaam dispenses with these mechanical methods and leaves himself open to direct revelation from God. At that point he turns toward the Israelites and is empowered by God’s Spirit. He speaks the divine blessing, probably in a trance.

Balaam’s oracle contains a promise of abundance and prosperity for Israel (Num 24:5–7). Looking down on their tents, he likens them to a forest containing aromatic aloe and cedars. Aloes are not native to Canaan, but the metaphor may refer to the immigrant Israelites “planted” in the Promised Land by God. Cedars do not grow near streams, and this may simply refer to any coniferous tree. The image of abundant waters and seed refer to the richness of the land of Canaan and the covenantal promise of children.

While a star is a common metaphor for kings for kings in the ancient Near East, it is seldom used in the Bible (Is 14:12; Ezek 32:7). Its association here with a scepter, the symbol of royal power (Ps 45:6), however, makes this identification more certain. Balaam’s oracle thus predicts the rise of the monarchy in Israel and the extension of its power (like the waving of the scepter) over the lands of Transjordan.

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