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Reference: Balaam


BALAAM is the subject of a remarkable and intricate narrative in Nu 22; 23; 24, connected with the arrival of Israel in the Promised Land, and the relationship of the chosen people to Moab and Ammon. Balaam was a soothsayer of Pethor on the Euphrates, called by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites, who were lying encamped in the Jordan valley. He had difficulty in undertaking the task, and he found, whenever he essayed to curse Israel, that the Lord had forbidden him to do so, and that his burden must be blessing instead. At the request of Balak he changed his position again and again on the heights above the Dead Sea, in the hope of obtaining a different oracle, but the message he had to deliver remained the same, and he foretold the future splendour of Israel (Nu 24:2 ff.). Sent away by Balak without the reward promised to him if he would deliver an oracle adverse to Israel, he returned to his own land. According to one narrative, his end was full of shame. He was accused of having induced Israel to commit immorality in connexion with religious worship, a feature common in the Semitic nature-cults. It was through this charge that he became known to subsequent ages, and his name became a name of infamy (Nu 31:8,16; 2Pe 2:15; Re 2:14; Josephus Ant. VI. vi, 6). The inspiration of Balaam, contrasted with his subsequent sin and disgraceful death, his knowledge of the will of God, together with his intense desire to grasp the rewards of unrighteousness, have given rise to a notable sermon literature. Bishop Butler speaks of the self-deception by which he persuades himself that the sin he commits can be justified to conscience and to God; Newman regards him as an instance of the trouble that can come on a character, otherwise noble, when the thought of material advancement is always allowed to dwell with it; Arnold adduces him as an instance of the familiar truth that the purest form of religious belief may coexist with a standard of action immeasurably below it; F. W. Robertson makes him the text for a sermon on the perversion of gifts.

This complexity of character is, however, greatly simplified by the recognition of the various strata in the narrative. It is clear that the account of Priestly Narrative connecting Balaam with Israel's uncleanness has nothing to do with the original narrative. This original narrative is contained in Nu 22; 23; 24. According to it, Balaam was a prophet of Pethor on the river Euphrates. His fame had spread across the wilderness, and, when Balak found himself in straits through the advance of Israel, he sent for Balaam to come and curse Israel. Balaam asked God whether he should go, and was refused permission. Balak therefore sent yet greater gifts, and once again Balaam asked counsel of God. This time permission was granted. So far there had been no indication of God's displeasure; but now follows (Nu 22:22-34) the story of the ass, through which God's anger at the refusal of the seer to accept His answer, given once and for all, is manifested. If, however, the reader will pass from Nu 22:21 to Nu 22:35 he will find that the narrative runs smoothly, and that he is still viewing Balaam's character from the same not unfavourable standpoint (Nu 22:35 [cf. Nu 22:20-21] is the effort to join up the threads of the story after the interpolation). When Balaam is brought in sight of Israel, he breaks out into a burst of praise (Nu 24:5-9) which rouses the wrath of Balak. Balaam justifies himself by reminding the king that he had warned him of the constraint of the Lord (Nu 24:13). He then utters another oracle predicting the glory of Israel and the destruction of Moah and Ammon (Nu 24:17-19).

This analysis leaves out of account Nu 22:22-34,23, which seem to belong to a narrative dealing with the same facts, but placing a more sinister interpretation on the conduct of Balaam. The story of the ass is plainly out of harmony with the narrative just outlined. It is a story belonging not to the wilderness, but to a land of vineyards. It ignores the embassy that has been sent to bring Balaam back across the wilderness (Nu 22:15,21), for it represents Balaam as travelling alone. It is also extremely unlikely that so long a journey as that from the Euphrates to Moab would be attempted upon an ass. Then ch. 23, with its elaborate building of altars and offering of sacrifices, seems to belong to a later date; while the constant shifting of position in the effort to secure a more favourable oracle presents Balaam in a much more unfavourable light than before. Although the details of this analysis are not certain, we may take it that the original story proceeds from Jahwist, and that the second narrative, more complicated both in psychology and ritual, is from Elohist.

The narrative of Priestly Narrative ascribing the sin of Baal-peor to Balaam is out of touch with both the other narratives. According to it, Balaam was a Midianitish seer who tried to bring about the ruin of Israel, in default of other means, by persuading them to give way to lust (Nu 31:8,16, Josephus Ant. VI. 6. 6). 'It has been conjectured that this story arose partly out of a difficulty on the part of the priestly narrator in conceiving of a heathen being an inspired prophet of God, partly from the need of accounting for the great sin of the Israelites' (Dictionary of the Bible I. 233). Balaam thus seems to have fallen in the estimation of Israel from being a seer of alien race, who distinguished himself by his faithfulness to the truth he knew, to becoming synonymous with temptation of a kind that was always especially insidious for Israel.

R. Bruce Taylor.

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