Balaam (Hebrew: בִּלְעָם, Standard Bilʻam Tiberian Bilʻām) is a diviner in the Torah, his story occurring towards the end of the Book of Numbers. The etymology of his name is uncertain, and discussed below. Every ancient reference to Balaam considers him a non-Israelite, a prophet, and the son of Beor, though Beor is not so clearly identified. Though other sources describe the apparently positive blessings he delivers upon the Israelites, he is reviled as a "wicked man" in the major story concerning him. Balaam attempted to curse God's people. He failed all three tries, each time producing blessings, not curses (Numbers 24-10).
- 1 The stories
- 2 Balaam and the donkey
- 3 Balaam in rabbinic literature
- 4 Balaam in the New Testament
- 5 Balaam in the Quran
- 6 Etymology
- 7 Balaam and the Deir Alla inscription
- 8 Balaam in Hellenistic literature
- 9 Notes
- 10 External sources
- 11 External links
- 12 See also
There are two fairly separate accounts of Balaam in the Bible:
- Balaam and Balak, containing a brief aside concerning Balaam and a talking donkey
- Balaam and the Midianites
Balaam and Balak
The main story of Balaam occurs during the sojourn of the Israelites in the plains of Midian, east of the Jordan River, at the close of forty years of wandering, shortly before the death of Moses, and the crossing of the Jordan. The Israelites have already defeated two kings on this side of the Jordan: Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. Balak, king of Midian, consequently becomes alarmed, and sends elders of Moab, and of Midian, to Balaam, son of Beor, to induce him to come and curse Israel. Balaam's location is simply given as his people in the masoretic text, though the Samaritan Pentateuch, Vulgate, and Syriac Peshitta all identify it as Ammon, which is consequently supported by many modern scholars.
Balaam sends back word that he can only do what God commands, and God has, via a nocturnal dream, told him not to go. Moab consequently sends higher ranking priests and offers Balaam honours, and so God tells Balaam to go with them - but with instructions to say only what He commands. Balaam thus sets out with two servants to go to Balak, but the Angel of Jehovah (Numbers 22:22) tries to prevent him. At first the Angel is seen only by the donkey Balaam is riding, which tries to avoid the otherwise invisible Angel. After Balaam starts punishing the donkey for refusing to move, it is miraculously given the power to speak to Balaam (Numbers 22:28), and it complains about Balaam's treatment. At this point, Balaam is allowed to see the angel, who informs him that the donkey is the only reason the Angel did not kill Balaam. Balaam immediately repents, but is told to go on.
Balak meets with Balaam at Kirjat Huzoth, and they go to the high places of Baal, and offer sacrifices on seven altars, leading to Balaam being given a prophecy by God, which he speaks to Balak. However, the prophecy blesses Israel; Balak remonstrates, but Balaam reminds him that he can only speak the words put in his mouth, so Balak takes him to another high place at Pisgah, to try again. Building another seven altars here, and making sacrifices on each, Balaam provides another prophecy blessing Israel.
Balaam finally gets taken by a now very frustrated Balak to Peor, and, after the seven sacrifices there, decides not to seek enchantments but instead looks upon the Israelites from the peak. The spirit of God comes upon Balaam and he delivers a third positive prophecy concerning Israel. Balak's anger rises to the point where he threatens Balaam, but Balaam merely offers a prediction of fate. Balaam then looks upon the Kenites, and Amalekites and offers two more predictions of fate. Balak and Balaam then simply go to their respective homes... for the moment. Deuteronomy 23:3-6 summarises these incidents, and further states that the Ammonites were associated with the Moabites. Joshua, in his farewell speech, also makes reference to it.
Balaam and the Midianites
Nehemiah, Micah, and Joshua, continue in the historical account of Balaam the cursing prophet, who advises the Midianites how to bring disaster upon the Israelites by seducing the people. This accords with the events of the Heresy of Peor, recorded in Numbers after the account of Balaam and Balaak. Much later, during the War against the Midianites, also recorded in Numbers, Balaam is listed amongst the Midianites who were killed in revenge for the matter of Peor.
According to Jewish legend, Egypt's Pharaoh had three advisers to help him prevent a potential Israelite revolt: Jethro, Job, and Balaam. Jethro advises conciliation, Job abstains, and Balaam advises enslaving the Jews.
Balaam and the donkey
While speaking animals are a common feature of folklore, the only other case in the Old Testament is that of the serpent in Eden. Classical Jewish commentators, such as Saadia Gaon, and Maimonides, taught that a reader should not take this part of the story literally. Rather, they explained, it should be read as an account of a prophetic experience, which are experienced as dreams, or as visions, and consequently, the donkey did not actually speak. Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, one of the great Jewish biblical commentators of the 20th century, writes that these verses
- "...depict the continuance on the subconscious plane of the mental and moral conflict in Balaam's soul; and the dream apparition and the speaking donkey is but a further warning to Balaam against being misled through avarice to violate God's command."
Similar views have been held by E. W. Hengstenberg and other Christian scholars, though others, e.g. Voick, regard the statements about the donkey speaking as figurative; the donkey brayed, and Balaam translated the sound into words. Contrary to these views there are many other more fundamental Christians who continually take this instance in scripture as literal being that if God inspired the writer of this scripture to say that the donkey spoke, God being one of Truth, gave the donkey the ability to speak to the prophet.
According to textual critics who support the documentary hypothesis, this portion of the tale is unique to the Hebrew version of the tale. In this view, God deliberately intended the donkey to be considered to have physically spoken, and the whole episode is designed to mock Balaam. As the paragraphs immediately preceding this episode are usually assigned to the Elohist, this treatment tries to explain why God, in a dream, tells Balaam to go with the princes to Balak, only to immediately send an Angel to prevent Balaam from going with the princes to Balak.
All the prophecies that Balaam makes take the form of (Hebrew) poems:
- The first, Numbers 23:7-10, prophesies the unique exaltation of the Kingdom of Israel, and its countless numbers.
- The second, Numbers 23:18-24, celebrates the moral virtue of Israel, its monarchy, and military conquests.
- The third, Numbers 24:3-9, celebrates the glory and conquests of Israel's monarchy.
- The fourth, Numbers 24:14-19, prophesies the coming of a king who will conquer Edom and Moab
- The fifth, Numbers 24:20, concerns the ruins of Amalek
- The sixth, Numbers 24:21-22, concerns the destruction of the Kenites by Assyria
- The seventh, Numbers 24:23-24, concerns "ships of Kittim" coming from the west to attack Assyria and Eber
The poems fall into three groups. The first group consists of two poems which characteristically start immediately. The third group of three poems also start immediately, but are much shorter. The second group, however, consists of two poems which both start:
- Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said: He hath said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open ....
Of these, the first and third groups are considered, in the documentary hypothesis, to originate within the Elohist text, whereas the second group is considered to belong to the Jahwist. Thus the Elohist describes Balaam constructing giving two blessings, making sacrifices on seven altars, at the high places of Baal, before each, then deciding not to seek enchantments after the third set of sacrifices, but to set his face upon the wilderness, which Balak views as a third blessing, and so Balaam then gives the three final predictions of fate. Conversely, in the Jahwist source, Balaam arrives, the spirit of God comes upon him, and he simply delivers a blessing and a prophecy, in succession.
Nevertheless, the poems themselves are considered to predate the Jahwist and Elohist, and simply to have been embedded by them in their works. While the Elohist took off whatever introduction was present in the poems they chose, the Jahwist left it on. An archaeological discovery in 1967 uncovered references to a Book of Balaam, from which these poems may have originally been taken. The first four poems are commonly regarded as ancient lyrics of the early monarchy of Israel and Judah, although there is some suspicion amongst several critics that they have been edited from either less edifying oracles, or oracles which did not refer to Israel.
There are several odd features about the poems. Agag, mentioned in the third poem, is described as a great king, which does not correspond to the king of the Amalekites who was named Agag, and described in I Samuel 15, since that description considers Amalek to be small and obscure. While it is the Masoretic text of the poem which uses the word Agag, the Septuagint, other Greek versions, and the Samaritan Pentateuch, all have Gog (i.e., king Gyges of Lydia, (716 BC to 678 BC), implying a very late date for the poem. These names are consequently thought to be textual corruptions, and Og has been suggested as the original, though it does not make much of an improvement.
The final three poems do not refer either to Israel or Moab, and are thus considered unusual, since they seem to have little relevance to the narrative. It is thought that they may have been added to bring the number of poems either up to five, if inserted into the Elohist source, or up to seven, if only inserted once JE was constructed. While the sixth poem refers to Assyria, it is uncertain whether it is an historical reference to the ancient Ninevah, or a prophecy, which religious commentators consider refers to the Seleucid kingdom of Syria, which also took the name Assyria. The seventh is also ambiguous, and may either be a reference to the Sea Peoples, or, again in the view of religious commentators, to the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great.
In the view of textual criticism, the thin narrative, excepting the episode involving the donkey, is simply a framework invented in order to be able to insert much older poems. Whether the poems themselves are considered to constitute prophecies, or simply poems created after the events they appear to prophesy, tends to depend on whether the commentator is religious or not.
Balaam in rabbinic literature
In rabbinic literature Balaam is represented as one of seven gentile prophets; the other six being Beor (Balaam's father), Job, and Job's four friends (Talmud, B. B. 15b). In this literature, Balaam gradually acquired a position among the non-Jews, which was exalted as much as that of Moses among the Jews (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20); at first being a mere interpreter of dreams, but later becoming a magician, until finally the spirit of prophecy descended upon him (ib. 7).
According to the a negative view of Balaam in the Talmud, Balaam possessed the gift of being able to ascertain the exact moment during which God is wroth — a gift bestowed upon no other creature. Balaam's intention was to curse the Israelites at this moment of wrath, and thus cause God himself to destroy them; but God purposely restrained His anger in order to baffle the wicked prophet and to save the nation from extermination (Talmud, Berachot 7a). The Talmud also recounts a more positive view of Balaam, stating that when the Law was given to Israel, a mighty voice shook the foundations of the earth, so much so that all kings trembled, and in their consternation turned to Balaam, inquiring whether this upheaval of nature portended a second deluge; the prophet assured them that what they heard was the voice of God, giving the sacred law to the Israelites (Talmud, Zeb. 116a).
According to Jewish legend, Balaam was made this powerful in order to prevent the non-Jewish tribes from saying: "If we had only had our own Moses, we would be as pious as the Jews."
Nevertheless, it is significant that, despite the apparently positive description of a Prophet blessing the Israelites, given in Numbers 22-24, in rabbinical literature the epithet rasha, translating as the wicked one, is often attached to the name of Balaam (Talmud Berachot l.c.; Taanit 20a; Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20:14). Balaam is pictured as blind of one eye and lame in one foot (Talmud Sanhedrin 105a); and his disciples (followers) are distinguished by three morally corrupt qualities, supposedly the very opposite of those characterizing the disciples of Abraham (Ab. v. 19; compare Tan., Balak, 6):
- an evil eye
- a haughty bearing
- an avaricious spirit
Due to his behavior with the Midianites, the Rabbis interpret Balaam as responsible for the behavior during the heresy of Peor, which they consider to have been unchastity, and consequently the death of 24,000 victims of the plague which God sent as punishment. When Balaam saw that he could not curse the children of Israel, the Rabbis assert that he advised Balak, as a last resort, to tempt the Hebrew nation to immoral acts and, through these, to the worship of Baal-peor. The God of the Hebrews, adds Balaam, according to the Rabbis, hates lewdness; and severe chastisement must follow (San. 106a; Yer. ib. x. 28d; Num. R. l.c.).
The Rabbis, playing on the name Balaam, call him "Belo 'Am" (without people; that is, without a share with the people in the world to come), or "Billa' 'Am" (one that ruined a people); and this hostility against his memory finds its climax in the dictum that whenever one discovers a feature of wickedness or disgrace in his life, one should preach about it (Sanh. 106b). In the process of killing Balaam (Num. xxxi. 8), all four legal methods of execution—stoning, burning, decapitating, and strangling—were employed (Sanh. l.c.). He met his death at the age of thirty-three (ib.); and it is stated that he had no portion in the world to come (Sanh. x. 2; 90a). The Bible devotes a special section to the remarkable history of the prophet, in order to answer the question, why God has taken away the power of prophecy from the Gentiles (Tan., Balak, 1). Moses is expressly mentioned as the author of this episode in the Pentateuch (B. B. 14b).J. Sr. H. M.
"Ahitophel of the house of Israel and Balaam of the heathen nations were the two great sages of the world who, failing to show gratitude to God for their wisdom, perished in dishonor. To them the prophetic word finds application: 'Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,' Jer. ix. 23" (Num. R. xxii.).
Balaam in the New Testament
An interesting, but doubtful, emendation makes this poem describe the nun of Shamal, a state in northwest Syria. In the New Testament, Balaam is cited as a type of avarice; for example in Book of Revelation 2:14 we read of false teachers at Pergamum who held the "teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication." Balaam has attracted much interest, alike from Jews, Christians and Muslims. Josephus paraphrases the story more so, and speaks of Balaam as the best prophet of his time, but with a disposition ill-adapted to resist temptation. Philo describes him in the Life of Moses as a great magician; elsewhere he speaks of "the sophist Balaam, being," i.e. symbolizing "a vain crowd of contrary and warring opinions" and again as "a vain people" — both phrases being based on a mistaken etymology of the name Balaam.
Balaam also figures as an example of a false teacher in both 2 Peter 2:15 and in Jude 1:11. In both of these verses, Balaam is cited as an example of a false prophet motived by greed or avarice. These references harken to the Old Testament account of Balaam in Numbers 22-24 in which King Balak hires the renowned Balaam to curse his enemies (Israel). Even though God intervenes and makes Balaam deliver blessings instead of curses, it's clear that Balaam was normally a prophet for hire. The verses in 2 Peter and Jude are then warnings to the early Christians to beware of religious leaders who are enjoying financial advantages.
Balaam in Apocrypha
In the Arabic Gospel of Youth, the three Magi who came to bear gifts to the child Jesus are identified as priests of the Zoroastrian religion, and Zoroaster, the founder of their sect and their first prophet, who had told to their people how to recognize the Saviour at the right moment, is identified as Balaam. The Arabic Gospel of Youth was written in a geographical region where still Zoroastrian communities were present and well known by Christians, and Balaam was very fit as an identification of Zoroaster because he was considered as a more or less contemporary of Moses, as a non Jew, but also a believer in a Monotheistic religion, and, as so, as able to make true prophesies in the name of the only God.
Balaam in the Quran
[7:175-176] "And recite to them the story of the person whom Our revelations were given to him, but he removed himself from them, and thus the devil followed him, and He became of those who went astray. Had We wished, We could have elevated him by it, but he stuck to the Earth and he followed his desire. His example is like the dog, if you scold him he pants, and if you leave him he pants; such is the example of the people who deny Our revelations. Relate the stories, perhaps they will think."
It is said that this passage refers to Balaam, who knew Ismul Azam (Gods great name) which gave man the ability to have his prayers answered. He was asked to pray against Moses and damn him. He agreed and sat on his donkey to go to a particular place to recite the Ismul Azam against Moses, but the donkey did not budge. He beat the animal to its death. Then he realized that he had totally forgotten the Ismul Azam.
Imam Muhammad al-Baqir said: "Though it relates to Balaam, but Allah intends to set an example for those who receive true guidance from Allah, yet prefer to act according to their own desires in order to lay hands on the worldly gains."
The etymology of the name Balaam is uncertain, and several Jewish, and Christian, sources translate it either glutton, or foreigner. The rabbis, playing on the name, call him Belo 'Am, meaning without people, more explicitly meaning that he is without a share with the people in the world to come, or call him Billa' 'Am, meaning one that ruined a people. This deconstruction of his name into B--l Am is supported by many modern biblical critics, which considers his name to simply be derived from Baal Am, a reference to Am, a Baal of Moab.
It is often supposed that the name given for a king of Edom, Bela, son of Beor, is a corruption of Balaam, and that, therefore, this reference actually points to Balaam as having once been an Edomite king.
Balaam and the Deir Alla inscription
In 1967, at Deir Alla, Jordan, archaeologists found an inscription apparently containing a previously unknown prophecy by Balaam written in a previously unattested dialect with Aramaic and South Canaanite characteristics and employing an idiosyncratic script. The inscription is datable to ca. 840-760 BCE; it was painted in red and black inks, apparently to emphasize the text, on fragments of a plastered wall: 119 pieces of inked plaster were recovered. According to the story in the inscription, Balaam wakes up weeping and tells his people that the gods appeared to him in the night telling him about a goddess threatening to destroy the land. She is to cover the sky and reduce the world to complete darkness. The remarkable text has not received the attention it deserves from Old Testament scholars, who have been inclined to dismiss it. Meindert Dykstra suggests that "the reticence of OT scholarship to take account of the text may be attributable to its damaged state, the difficulty of reconstructing and reading it, and the many questions it raises of script, language, literary form and religious content."
Balaam in Hellenistic literature
- Jewish Encyclopedia
- Jo Ann Hackett, The Balaam Text from Deir ʿAllā. (Harvard Semitic Monographs 31) 1980, released 1984.
- J. Hoftijzer and G. van der Kooij, Aramaic Texts from Deir 'Alla Documenta et Monumenta Orientis Antiqui 19 (Leiden) 1976.
- Meindert Dijkstra, "Is Balaam Also among the Prophets?" Journal of Biblical Literature 114.1 (Spring 1995, pp. 43-64), p. 44.
- Hoftijzer, Jacob. "The Prophet Balaam in a 6th Century Aramaic Inscription," Biblical Archaeologist, Volume 39, 1976 (2001 electronic edition)
- McCarter, P. Kyle, "The Balaam Texts from Deir Allā: The First Combination," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 239. (Summer, 1980), pp. 49-60.
- Olrik, Axel (Kirsten Wolf and Jody Jensen, trs.) Principles for Oral Narrative Research. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1921 (1992 tr.).
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