The Error of Balaam

Remember the story of Balaam? He’s the guy with the donkey that talks. Unlike the Donkey in Shrek, this donkey was warning Balaam about an angel that was going to kill him for not following God’s commands. But that’s only a minor part of this story.

Balaam’s story is detailed from Numbers 22 through 24 and ends in Numbers 31 with his death. I thought this was the last we’d hear of Balaam, but I then did a search to realize that Balaam is used as a parable throughout the Bible. He appears in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Nehemiah, Micah, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelations. While it seems that this guy got around, what is it that he did? How is Balaam remembered?

Please read Numbers 22 through 24 for yourself to get the full story, but I’m going to give a few highlights of these chapters.

While we discuss this topic, there are 2 people whose names I always confuse. Balak and Balaam. It can be difficult to remember who is the prophet and who is the king, so I remember that Balak ends in K and king starts with K.

In Numbers 22, Balak (king of Moab) summons Balaam. Balak desires that Balaam will proclaim a curse on Israel. Balak sends messengers. In this story, you’ll hear Balaam say that he cannot say nor do anything beyond what God tells him (Num 22:18, 23:12, 23:26, 24:13). Balaam’s first mistake is when he disobeys God.

Numbers 22:20-22

Num 22:20 And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do.

Num 22:21 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.

Num 22:22 And God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.

A person may look at this and wonder why God was angry when Balaam went according to His word. Look closer at the passage. It states that Balaam was with his “2 servants” (Num 22:22). In these 3 passages, Balaam is told to wait for another summon from the princes of Moab, but instead he goes without being summoned again. This is one example of God requiring a higher standard for those who represent Him.

We come to the donkey incident in Numbers 22:23. This prophet was known for hearing from God. He chose not to listen and is now relegated to words from an ass (as the KJV and older texts state). Think about how dumb he must look that his 2 servants are watching him argue with the animal he’s riding. All this because Balaam didn’t listen to God when he should have.

Balaam finally realizes that there’s an angel from God standing in the path to kill him. God shows mercy and the angel only gives the warning to Balaam to speak and do only what God tells him. No more, no less (Num 22:35). Balaam then heads to Balak.

I’m going to sum up Numbers 23 and 24 fairly quickly here. There are 4 prophecies that are given to Balak by Balaam. Each time a prophecy is given, Balak is asked to pray or sacrifice with Balaam. Each time Balaam prophecies a blessing on Israel. Each time Balak is frustrated by the blessing when he thought he was paying for a curse on Israel. Each time, Balaam claims that he can only say and do what God has told him.

At the end of the story (Num 24:25), Balaam returns to his home and Balak goes his way. This sounds like a completed story, and we should never hear of Balaam again. Yet, Balaam is being put to death in Numbers 31:8. What happened?

In Numbers 25, Israel is in Shittim. Men begin fornicating with the women of Moab. God then calls for every man who fornicated with the Moabites to be hung before sunrise. Things were so bad that one of the men paraded his paramour in-front of Moses while he’s making this decree.

So, what does this have to do with Balaam? There’s a key hidden in the second prophecy.

Numbers 23:21

He (God) hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.

At some point, Balaam told Balak to send in the women to corrupt the morality of Israel. The Moabites worshiped Baal. Baal was a pegan god that demanded child sacrifices which included the burning-alive of infants. Sex with temple prostitutes was commonplace in Baal worship.

While we don’t know when Balaam gave this advice, it is accounted in the following:

Numbers 31:15-16

Num 31:15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?

Num 31:16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.

Because of Balaam’s actions, he became a warning to Israel. Balaam is mentioned in Joshua, Nehemiah, Micah, 2 Peter, Jude, and even Revelations. His flash in the pan ministry became a long-standing warning to Israel and now Christians.

I have known ministers (on a local level) who started off like Balaam. God gave them chances to do great things. They ultimately screwed it all up. 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 1:11 both say that Balaam got greedy. Peter goes as far as to equate the way of Balaam with the love of unrighteous wages. From what I’ve seen, that would make sense. A person who gets caught up in their own gain can easily place a stumbling block for others.

A major example of this is Ravi Zacharias. His legacy is now tarnished by his actions. People who came to believe in Jesus because of his teachings now question their own beliefs.

As I continue another read of the Bible from Genesis to Revelations, I am struck by these small lessons. Mistakes made that serve as lasting warnings despite their brief mentions. I am not better than these people. They were given so much more, but screwed up so badly. If in their place, what assurance do I have that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes?

Paul claimed to be the chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15). Perhaps it is better that we reflect on our own capacity to make the same mistakes and use them as cautionary tales.