Balak: The Counsel of Balaam
Balaam, asked by the king of Moab to curse Israel, finds himself in an interesting predicament. The king of Moab asks him to curse Israel, but Balaam is only able to say what God tells him to. After all is said and done, Balaam was not able to curse Israel and collect the reward for doing so, but this is not the last we hear of him.
Moab and Midian see that the people of Israel are powerful and that God is with them. Knowing what has happened to Israel’s enemies and fearing that they will be next, they hire a man named Balaam, who was apparently some sort of well-known mystic in the area. They offer to reward him richly if he will come and curse the people of Israel so that they will be defeated. The Lord appears to Balaam in a dream, telling him not to go. He then tells the messengers this, who are sent back to Balaam once again with the offer of even more riches. Again God appears to Balaam, and says, “If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do” (Numbers 22:20). Apparently, Balaam’s heart is not right in this endeavour, for an angel is sent to destroy him (verse 22). Heeding this warning, Balaam informs the king of Moab that he can only speak what God tells him to.
Balaam proceeds to utter several prophecies, proclaiming blessings upon Israel. It seems as if Balaam will not receive any reward from Balak in this matter, and he almost seems as if he is not such a bad guy after all. But even though he was not able to curse Israel, and in fact spoke blessings upon them to his own financial disadvantage, Balaam is still depicted as an evil person in Scripture. All references to him in the New Testament are negative, and in Jewish literature he is also portrayed as an enemy. Why is this?
Directly following the account of Balaam, Numbers 25 begins by saying that the children of Israel at that place were enticed by the daughters of Moab and commited acts of idolatry. Many have linked these two passages together, claiming that Balaam, even though he was not able to curse the people himself, was still eager in his heart to get a reward: “Rabbi Jehudah said: ‘The counsel of the wicked is far from me’ (Job 21:16). This refers to the counsel of Balaam, the wicked, who advised Midian, and there fell of Israel twenty-four thousand men. He said to them: ‘You will not be able to prevail against this people, unless they have sinned before their Creator.’ They made for themselves booths outside the camp of Israel, and they sold all kinds of merchandise of the market. The young men of Israel went beyond the camp of Israel and they saw the daughters of Midian, who had painted their eyes like harlots, and they took wives of them, and went astray after them, as it is said, ‘And the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab’ (Numbers 25:1)” (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 47: The Zeal of Phineas). In other words, this and other Jewish literature claim that Balaam gave advice to Moab on how to circumvent the blessings he had just uttered by causing the Israelites to fall into sin, thus bringing judgment upon themselves. This is directly confirmed in Numbers 31:16 and Revelation 2:14.
Balaam is used as an example in the New Testament of being eager for dishonest wealth: “But these men revile the things which they do not understand; and the things which they know by instinct, like unreasoning animals, by these things they are destroyed. Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah” (Jude 1:10-11). In 2 Peter we also see Balaam used as an example of the same thing: “They are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse with you, having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed, accursed children; forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he received a rebuke for his own transgression, for a mute donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet” (2 Peter 2:13-16).
It is clear that Balaam’s life as recorded in Scripture contains lessons for us. As emphasised in the previously quoted New Testament scriptures, he is a warning against the pursuit of wealth. When Balaam initially went out with the messengers, his heart was in the wrong place, and so God had to send an angel to redirect his path. Some have used the verse which says he “arose in the morning and saddled his donkey” to say that he was eager to go and make his wage. We see that even after his prophecies, Balaam enticed the people of Israel into sin. One can appear to be a servant of God, but in practice they are not. Even though Balaam uttered blessings and prophecies, in the end his actions were wicked. Yeshua (Jesus) teaches us this same lesson: “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart you from Me, you who practice lawlessness'” (Matthew 7:22-23).
Let us be careful that we do not become like Balaam in his desire for wealth, and let us also be careful not to fall into the hands of those who would wish to deceive us for their own dishonest gain or join with them in their sinful practices. “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Yeshua Messiah to eternal life” (Jude 1:20-21).