The Error of Balaam

In Numbers 22, the angel of the Lord appears in a most curious scene involving a cursing king, a prophet for hire, a sword-wielding angel, and – strangest of all – a talking donkey. As Old Testament theologian Gordon Wenham notes, “The narrative is at once both very funny and deadly serious.”

The story begins with the Moabite king, Balak, who wishes to curse the Israelites. He approaches Balaam, a smarmy, pagan prophet who, curiously, doesn’t seem so bad at first. Insights from other passages of Scripture clue us in to the prophet’s blackened soul. 

In this scene, the angel of the Lord holds a drawn sword in his hand. This is telling, for there are only two other times in which the phrase “drawn sword in his hand” appears in relation to divine messengers. One is Joshua 5:13-15, where the “commander of the LORD’s army” confronts Joshua. The other is 1 Chronicles 21:16, where King David sees the angel of the LORD standing between heaven and earth, and in his hand is a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. In all three episodes, we see evidence that this “man,” “angel,” and “commander” are the same figure. As we learn in the next chapter, the writer of Joshua 5:13 points us back to the burning bush in Exodus 3, tying the commander of Yahweh’s army to the angel of the Lord.

The error of Balaam

The story of Balaam is a classic tale of a mercenary prophet. God has greatly gifted him, yet Balaam exchanges the Lord’s grace for a sinister brand of greed that drives him to “madness” (2 Pet. 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 override his ability to think and act rationally. 

Moab’s King Balak hires Balaam to curse the people of Israel as they wander in the wilderness. Balak sees the Israelites as a military threat. Evidently, he doesn’t realize the Lord has given Moab a pass (Deut. 2:9). So, he seeks a prophetic ally to manipulate the God of the Israelites in order to defeat them. At first glance, one might think Balaam is a faithful prophet, but the stall tactics he employs over a period of several months imply that “he hoped to negotiate a higher payment from Balak before performing his prophetic service,” according to John MacArthur.

It may help to distinguish between the prophet that Balak thinks he is hiring and the prophet he actually gets. Balak is seeking a sorcerer, one who uses black magic, incantations, necromancy, or other means to manipulate a god and thus change a course of events. In the Ancient Near East, many believed that specific human activities could change the minds of gods and goddesses, resulting in more favorable outcomes for sorcerers and their accomplices. 

Diviners, on the other hand, try to discern the will of the gods as they read omens in the earth and skies, and then provide this information to inquiring – and often, paying – clients. As Dennis Cole notes, “What Balak wanted was a sorcerer’s skill, but what he acquired was a diviner’s Divine direction. In the end Balak became the recipient of that which he had intended for Israel.”

The Lord knows Balaam wants to curse Israel in exchange for treasure, so God rebukes him through a donkey, who miraculously speaks to the prophet. Balaam is permitted only to bless Israel. But the false prophet is not one to give up so easily in pursuit of wealth and prestige.

Besides greed, sexual immorality drives Balaam. He tries to ruin the Israelites through moral corruption. He promotes marriage between the Israelites and their pagan neighbors, the Moabites and Midianites (Num. 25; 31:9-20), despite God’s clear warning against such marriages (Exod. 34:12-16; Deut. 7:1-4; Josh. 23:11-13; Ezra 9:12). In Numbers 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.”

In short, the error of Balaam is using God-given gifts to feed fleshly desires. False teachers in the church today often 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 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 false doctrines in exchange for sexual favors, they promote the ungodly view that sexual license is a gift of God’s grace, and thus they lead many astray. This is the message Peter and Jude declare in their references to Balaam (2 Pet. 2:15-16; Jude 11).

In 2 Peter 2:15-16, we see a more detailed summary of Balaam’s transgression: 

They [false teachers] have gone astray by abandoning the straight path and have followed the path of Balaam, the son of Bosor [Beor], who loved the wages of wickedness but received a rebuke for his lawlessness: A speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.

A note in one 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.

Scofield Reference Bible

In Revelation 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 Israelites: to eat meat sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality.” The sexual sin at Baal Peor, which snares the Israelites, is attributed to Balaam’s advice (Num. 31:16). 

Pseudo-Philo, a Jewish work from the first or second century, portrays Balaam’s advice to Balak 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.

Biblical Antiquities 18:13

For Balaam, it is all for naught – and it ends badly. In Numbers 31, the Lord instructs Moses to take vengeance on behalf of the Israelites against the Midianites. Moses obediently sends one thousand 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, who succumbs to the sword (Num. 31:8). 

Next: The Angel of the Lord and a Talking Donkey

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.