The account of Balaam begins in Numbers 22:1-2 with a brief introduction to the king of Moab, Balak. “Then the sons of Israel journeyed, and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan opposite Jericho. Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.” The reputation of the Israelites had been circulating in the land of Canaan, only because of the mighty works of God. While unbelievers will sometimes compliment us on achievements in this life, we must be sure to give God the credit (Philippians 4:13). “So Moab was in great fear because of the people, for they were numerous; and Moab was in dread of the sons of Israel” (22:3). Without even realizing it, the Israelites had the upper hand in the land of Canaan. If they had only just had more faith in God, they could have used this fear and dread to their advantage!
Balaam’s services are requested
“So he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the River, in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, ‘Behold, a people came out of Egypt; behold, they cover the surface of the land, and they are living opposite me’” (22:5). “Balaam” means “the destroyer” or “the destroyer of people,” and he must have already had quite a reputation as one who was able to bring curses upon people. Such a profession was often hereditary, even to this day in parts of the world, and many magicians liked to give themselves malicious names in order to strike fear into the object of their proclamations (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. II, 291). “Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may 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” (22:6). Like most heathens, Balak would have a sincere belief in the power of Balaam’s curses or blessings, although that belief is misplaced. 22:7-8 – So the servants of Balak, as well as the Midianites for whom Balak must have been speaking, proceed to ask for Balaam’s services and are encouraged to stay the night at his residence.
“Then God came to Balaam and said, ‘Who are these men with you?’” (22:9). It is unclear whether or not the voice of God came as a surprise to Balaam, who had long been abusing his powers for personal profit. Perhaps this man was blessed by God with some kind of mystical powers, but he wasted his talents. Or he may have simply been a con artist – the sudden appearance of God seems to be of no surprise to him, just as his talking donkey does not phase him later in the chapter. Perhaps he has become so accustomed to the “strange” in his line of work that nothing seems to startle him anymore. In any case, he possesses some knowledge of the true God, because he refers to Him as a singular entity (22:8). 22:10-13 – For whatever reason, Balaam obeys the voice of the Lord and tells the servants of Balak to return to their master, much to their disappointment.
22:14-17 – Once again, Balak sends representatives, though much more distinguished than the first batch (22:15) and offering a much higher wage. “Though 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” (22:18). On the outside, it would seem that Balaam is putting his foot down for the Lord. It may have only been fear, though, that motivated him to refuse Balak’s offers. If Balaam is just a con artist, then it would most likely strike him greatly to actually hear God’s voice for once! “And now please, you also stay here tonight and I will find out what else the Lord will speak to me” (22:19).
“So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and went with the leaders of Moab” (22:21). What transpires on the journey to Moab is a series of events that leaves Balaam thoroughly embarrassed and humiliated and his donkey vindicated. “But God was angry because he was going…” (22:22) Even though God had allowed Balaam to go, He was aware of the improper motives behind the mission.
22:22-35 – Because of His anger toward Balaam, God sends a mighty angel to block the road, yet only the donkey can see it. To avoid the angel, the beast veers into a field and is swiftly punished by Balaam. The angel appears a second time in the middle of the road, this time at a place that is banked by rock walls on either side. Once again, the donkey tries to avoid the angel and ends up running Balaam’s foot into the rocky outcrop. At the third appearance of the angel, the donkey simply stopped and laid herself down. Balaam’s anger was rekindled and, after dismounting, he begins to beat the donkey with the stick. “And the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’” (22:28) While most any person would be extremely startled, even dumbfounded, by the voice of the donkey, Balaam actually begins arguing with her (22:29)! The donkey pleads with her master and explains that she has never been disobedient before (22:30), and it is at this point that the angel reveals himself. If not for the actions of the donkey, explains the angelic figure, Balaam would have been killed by him (22:33). Sometimes our sins blind us so thoroughly that we cannot distinguish reality from fantasy:
22:36-41 – When Balaam meets Balak, he warns him that what he will say is not under his control (22:38).
The Four Discourses
Numbers 23:1-10 – It seems that Balak had been so eager to get on with the deed that he had everything prepared for Balaam, and anything that was not already done (such as the construction of the seven altars) was completed with haste (23:1-2). On a “bare hill” God met Balaam and put a word into his mouth (23:4-5), and commanded the crooked prophet to give the exact message to Balak. His first discourse actually ends up being a blessing to the people of Israel. He exclaims that no nation is like Israel in honor (23:9) and that the death for the righteous is more desirable than any other kind.
“Then Balak said to Balaam, ‘What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!’ And he answered and said, ‘Must I not be careful to speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?’” (23:11-12). Balaam once again informs Balak that he will only say what the Lord tells him to say, and nothing else. It is not as if Balaam has not tried to warn his employer about this fact already in Numbers 22:38!
23:13-24 – Balak tries to convince Balaam to attempt the curse again, but from a different vantage point. Overlooking the extreme outskirts of the camp of Israel, the seven altars are built once again and the offerings are placed on them (23:14). The second discourse results in an even clearer blessing than the first, as Balaam declares that no omen or divination exists that can destroy the people (23:23). Furthermore, it is made clear that all the enemies of God will be punished at the hands of the Israelites, who are compared to a lion weighting to strike at its prey (23:24). Notice 23:19, “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” This is an excellent scripture dealing with the unchangeable nature of God (Malachi 3:6). When the Lord makes a promise, He keeps it, and when He sets out to fulfill a mission, it shall be successful.
“Then Balak said to Balaam, ‘Do not curse them at all nor bless them at all” (23:25). At this point, Balak is frustrated and demands that Balaam say absolutely nothing until he can figure out what to do.
23:27-24:9 – A third discourse is taken up, much in the same manner as the previous ones. The altars are set up in another location, this time facing the wilderness, near the top of Mount Peor. In his third blessing, Balaam gives a prophecy concerning the peacefulness of the Israelites once they have acquired the promised land. They will stretch out in the land and relax, eating well and drinking fresh water. Like the Egyptians, all of the enemies of God’s people will be shattered (24:8) and his strength will be like that of a lion’s.
“Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam, and he struck his hands together; and Balak said to Balaam, ‘I called you to curse me enemies, but behold, you have persisted in blessing them these three times!’” (24:10) What Balak seems to be forgetting is that it was not Balaam doing the blessing, but God the whole time. Time after time, Balaam warned the king that everything coming from his mouth would be God’s word only. The power is the Lord’s and we cannot change His will, compromise His laws, or curse what He has so proudly blessed.
24:15-24 – This fourth and final discourse includes several noteworthy sections. First of all, Balaam explains one last time that all of this has been the word of God and not his own (24:16). He then delivers a brief prophecy concerning the Messiah, although he certainly would not have been aware of its significance from his perspective (24:17-19). This Messiah will be like a “star falling” or as a royal scepter proceeding from Jacob. He will crush His enemies thoroughly and have dominion over many. Then Balaam explains that Amalek will be brought low. Even though it was “the first among the nations” it will find destruction in the end (24:20). “Alas, who can live except God has ordained it?” (24:23) This is not saying that God predestines certain people to life and others to death. What he means is that every moment that we are alive is a gift – God could come in judgment at any moment and, therefore, only allows us to live out of mercy.
The Influence Of Balaam
Even though Balaam was not able to directly curse the people of Israel, he may have given some ideas to Balak as to how he might bring about trouble for them, including introducing idols and Midianite women to the men of Israel. One scripture makes it clear that Balaam got himself involved in many of the schemes of Balak, “Behold these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the Lord” (Numbers 31:16). In Numbers 25, we see a number of examples of Israel “playing the harlot” with foreign gods, especially those of the Moabites (Balak’s kingdom). Instead of forcing a curse on the Israelites, Balak was able to make them bring the curse on themselves by exposing them to false religions (25:3). In response, God commands Moses to execute all of the apostate leaders of Israel (25:4-5). If that was not enough, Balak introduces the Israelites to Midianite women in 25:6. That problem is swiftly dealt with by Phinehas as he skewers an Israelite man and his Midianite woman on the same spear. We can assume that other influences may have occurred as well, since a plague wipes out 24,000 unfaithful Israelites (25:9), and God declares that the Midianites played many tricks on them and were hostile (25:17-18).
As for Balaam, he returned to his home (24:25), but must have continued doing wicked things and casting curses on people because he is remembered throughout the Bible as a man of bad scruples (Revelation 2:14, Jude 11, 2 Peter 2:15). He is killed by the Israelites in Joshua 13:22.