What’s the Deal with Balaam?


Numbers 22–24, which tells the story of Balaam, is one of the more amusing and perplexing stories in the Old Testament. Amusing due to the occurrence of the talking donkey, and perplexing due to the confusing interactions between Balaam and God.

Check out Numbers 22–24. In this passage we meet a soothsayer or seer named Balaam, son of Beor at Pethor. Balaam is in northern Mesopatamia during the time of Moses. At this point in Numbers 22, the Israelites had built the tabernacle and been wandering around the desert for some time (complaining, mostly). A Moabite king named Balak sees that God is giving Israel victory after victory over their enemies, and so he sends for Balaam, trying to hire him to curse the Israelites (Num 22:2-6).

At first God speaks to Balaam and tells him not to accompany Balak’s messengers, nor to curse Israel. Balaam relays the message, and Balak essentially says “try again.” God again speaks to Balaam, and this time he permits him to accompany Balak’s messengers, but still not to curse Israel.

2So Balaam follows the men, and as he’s going on his merry way (on his donkey) he encounters the angel of the Lord, with sword drawn. Balaam doesn’t see the angel, but the donkey does, and swerves aside several times. Balaam thinks the donkey is simply being irritating, and beats it. Finally the Lord opens the mouth of the donkey, who then rebukes Balaam and mentions the angel in the road, ready to kill. Eventually the angel of the Lord gives his permission to continue on, but still with the stipulation of not cursing Israel. However, they head up to a mountain top and try several times to curse Israel. Earlier Balaam had stated that he can only speak what Yahweh allows, and this is proved true: each time he opens his mouth to curse Israel, he ends up speaking oracles of blessing on them. Whoops.

Now there are several reasons why this passage is perplexing. First, because other Scripture speaks very negatively about Balaam (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Revelation 2:14), as though he actually had cursed Israel rather than blessing them. And second, because the angel of the Lord seemingly tries to kill Balaam for doing what Yahweh had already permitted.

But is answering those questions what is ultimately important about this passage in the book of Numbers? The prophet Micah doesn’t think so.

O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised,
and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the righteous acts of the LORD.

Micah 6:5, ESV

We all like sensational things. Who can resist a story about God correcting someone through a dumb ass? But that’s not the point of this story. The point of Numbers 22–24 is God’s faithfulness to save Israel. Balak says “curse them!” and God says “No, they are my people. I will turn the curse in your mouth to a blessing.” God’s faithfulness demonstrated in his righteous acts toward his people is on display beautifully—and colorfully, I might add—in the story of Balaam.

There are many other wonderful lessons to be learned from Numbers 22–24, and plenty of fodder for fruitful study. But don’t lose sight of the refrain: God is faithful.


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