Tagged: Balaam

The Angel of the Lord and a Talking Donkey

The background in the previous post helps us better understand the encounter between Balaam and the angel of the Lord. At the beginning of Numbers 22, the Israelites are camped on the plains of Moab near the Jordan River, across from Jericho. They have just defeated the Amorites, and the Moabite king Balak fears the Israelites plan to overthrow him. So, he sends a diplomatic envoy to Balaam of Pethor in upper Mesopotamia, a distance of some four hundred and twenty miles, which requires roughly twenty-five days of travel in each direction. 

Seers of the gods in ancient times are called upon to place or remove curses, pronounce blessings, and provide counsel. Their techniques include divination, incantation, animal sacrifice, and the reading of omens. They are skilled at manipulating deities to bring about the result for which they are paid handsomely.

Balaam’s reputation is well known. An inscription in a temple at Deir ‘Alla, Jordan, discovered during a 1967 excavation, recalls that Balaam, son of Beor, a “seer of the gods,” has a frightening night vision that foretells a period of drought and darkness, of mourning and death, in which the natural order of the world is reversed. Balaam implores the goddesses Ashtar and Sheger to bring light, rain, and fertility to the land. Evidently, the goddesses deliver, for the structure at Deir ‘Alla and its wall inscriptions may have been built to honor them, and to acknowledge Balaam’s successful mediation. In any case, Balak sees a potential ally in Balaam, to whom the king says, “I know that those you bless are blessed and those you curse are cursed” (Num. 22:6). 

The king is counting on Balaam. Ancient Near Eastern texts record the power of priests and prophets to discern, intervene, and even manipulate the will of the gods through means of augury (the interpretation of omens), special sacrificial rituals, and verbal pronouncements of blessing or cursing. Surely, this renowned prophet, who has called successfully on Ashtar and Sheger, is able to manipulate the will of the Israelite God.

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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.

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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

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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.
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