The Error of Balaam

The Missouri Baptist Convention has published a new resource called The Last Apologist: A Commentary on Jude for Defenders of the Christian Faith. The 275-page book is available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon, and in print from the MBC. But we also want to make each of the 16 chapters available online. This post features a portion of Chapter 10: Woe to Them! Cain, Balaam, and Korah

Previously: The Way of Cain


Woe to them! For they have traveled in the way of Cain, have abandoned themselves to the error of Balaam for profit, and have perished in Korah’s rebellion. (Jude 11 HCSB)

What is the error of Balaam?

We find the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24, with additional information in chapter 31. It’s a classic tale of a prophet for hire, someone greatly gifted by God who allows greed to drive him to “madness” (2 Peter 2:16). The Greek word translated “madness” is paraphronia, which literally means “beside one’s own mind.” In other words, Balaam’s fleshly cravings are such that they overcome his ability to think and act rationally.

Interestingly, some commentators believe Balaam is portrayed as a good character in Numbers 22-24, before coming under criticism elsewhere in the Old Testament. But there are hints of his greedy motivations from the start.

Balak, king of Moab, hires Balaam to curse the people of Israel as they wander in the wilderness. Balak sees the Israelites as a military threat and seeks help from inside the Israelite camp to defeat them. Initially, it appears that Balaam is a faithful prophet, but his stall tactics “imply that he hoped to negotiate a higher payment from Balak before performing his prophetic service.” In the end, he accepts Balak’s riches because he loves the wages of unrighteousness (cf. Prov. 11:18).

The Lord knows Balaam wants to curse Israel in exchange for treasure, so God rebukes him through his donkey, who miraculously speaks to the prophet. Balaam is empowered only to bless Israel. But he’s not finished.

Balaam’s motivation

Balaam also is motivated by sexual immorality. So, he tries to ruin the Israelites through moral corruption. He promotes marriage between the Israelites and their pagan neighbors, the Moabites and Midianites (Numbers 25; 31:9-20), despite God’s clear warning against such marriages (Ex. 34:12-16; Deut. 7:1-4; Josh. 23:11-13; Ezra 9:12). In Num. 31:16, Moses identifies Balaam as a corrupting influence: “Yet they [Midianite women] are the ones who, at Balaam’s advice, incited the Israelites to unfaithfulness against the Lord in the Peor incident [in which Balaam counsels the Moabites and Midianites to lead Israel into idolatry], so that the plague came against the Lord’s community.”

John MacArthur comments: “The prophet’s apostasy not only assaulted God’s holiness, but it also threatened the very existence of His chosen people. Although Balaam knew better, he allowed fleshly impulses to guide his choices. And, as a result, he suffered the ultimate penalty of death.”

In referring to Balaam, Jude exposes the motive behind the religious interests of false teachers. They do it, at least in part, for the money, exploiting people, telling them what they want to hear, making merchandise of them as they promise temporal blessings as guarantees of God’s faithfulness. Consider just a few Scriptures that offer a broader perspective on the tie between greed and apostasy:

  • 10:3 – “For the wicked one boasts about his own cravings; the one who is greedy curses and despises the Lord.”
  • Micah 3:11 – “Her [Israel’s] leaders issue rulings for a bribe, her priests teach for payment, and her prophets practice divination for money. Yet they lean on the Lord, saying, ‘Isn’t the Lord among us?’”
  • 1 Tim. 6:10 – “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
  • 2 Peter 2:3a – “In their greed they [false teachers] will exploit you with deceptive words …”

These defectors are not like God’s faithful servants:

  • 1 Tim. 3:2-3 – “An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an able teacher, not addicted to wine, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy …”
  • Titus 1:7 – “For an overseer, as God’s manager, must be blameless, not arrogant, not quick tempered, not addicted to wine, not a bully, not greedy for money …”
  • 1 Peter 5:2 – “[S]hepherd God’s flock among you, not overseeing out of compulsion but freely, according to God’s will; not for the money but eagerly …”

Feeding fleshly desires

In short, the error of Balaam is using God-given gifts to feed fleshly desires. The false teachers seek to enrich themselves, as Balaam does, and to satisfy their lustful passions – all the while claiming God as the source of their messages. They propagate error in order to make money, and yet they may be deceived to such an extent that they actually believe their own messages. While they may not teach their false doctrines in exchange for sexual favors, they likely promote the ungodly view that sexual license is a gift of God’s grace, and thus they lead many astray.

In the parallel passage in 2 Peter 2:15-16, we see a more detailed summary of Balaam’s transgression: “By abandoning the straight path, they [false teachers] have gone astray and have followed the path of Balaam, the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness, but received a rebuke for his transgression: a speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.”

A note in the Scofield Reference Bible adds this thought: “The ‘error’ of Balaam was that, reasoning from natural morality, and seeing the evil in Israel, he supposed a righteous God must curse them. He was blind to the higher morality of the Cross, through which God maintains and enforces the authority and awful sanctions of His law, so that He can be just and the justifier of a believing sinner.”

In Rev. 2:14, Jesus chastens the church at Pergamum for tolerating some who “hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to place a stumbling block in front of the sons of Israel.” The sexual sin at Baal Peor, which snares the Israelites, is attributed to Balaam’s advice (see Num. 31:16). Pseudo-Philo, a Jewish work from the first or second century, portrays Balaam’s advice this way: “Pick out the beautiful women who are among us and in Midian, and station them naked and adorned with gold and precious stones before them. And when they see them and lie with them, they will sin against their Lord and fall into your hands.”

For Balaam, it is all for naught and ends quite badly. In Numbers 31, the Lord instructs Moses to take vengeance on behalf of the Israelites against the Midianites. Moses obediently sends 1,000 men from each of the twelve tribes into battle, where they rout the enemy, killing every male. Among those slain are the five kings of Midian, along with Balaam, son of Beor, who succumbs to the sword (Num. 31:8). A shameful end to a wasted life.

Next: Korah’s Rebellion