Who Exactly was Balaam – Numbers

According to Nili S. Fox, the commentator for the Book of Numbers, Numbers is divided into three major units with the third unit being the encampment on the plains of Moab, the preparation to enter Canaan and the story of the Moabite king, Balak, and the prophet Balaam. Referring to Balak and Balaam, Fox, in his commentary for the beginning of Numbers 22 writes “this independent composition, possibly originating from a different scribal circle than those associated with other portions of Numbers…At times amusing and somewhat mocking of the non-Israelite prophet, the message is serious…The intent of the Lord reigns supreme and cannot be superseded. Even the powers of a well-known non-Israelite prophet are ultimately controlled by God.”

Throughout the books of the Bible where Balaam is noted, there is disparity between the personalities attributed to Balaam. In Numbers 22, God manifests himself to Balaam and tells him he may go with the Moabites. Balaam obeys God and goes with them yet God is angry with him for going. Although God has chosen Balaam as his emissary, a person to speak for him, Balaam next appears to be cruel by beating his donkey. Commentary states “This episode of Balaam and the she-ass derives from a different tradition that contradicts the favorable view of Balaam expressed by the main story. In this version, God is very angry with the prophet and in turn depicts the donkey as the actual visionary. Balaam becomes the object of mockery: he is portrayed as being blind to divine will; it is the ass that sees what the seer cannot.”

In Numbers 23, when Balaam has gone to King Balak, God again uses Balaam as an oracle on four different occasions. In the third oracle, God puts very beautiful words into Balaam’s mouth:

“How fair are you tents, O Jacob
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water;
Their bough drip with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water

This verse in particular, uttered by a mortal in God’s stead makes it appear that Balaam was pleasing to God but in Jeremiah 30:18 he is referred to as “the pagan prophet”.

In Numbers 31:8 and Joshua 13:22 it is written that Balaam was killed by the Israelites. The commentary by Fox states that Balaam was killed for his association with the Midianites through whom he incited the Israelites to the apostasy (per meriam-webster.com: renunciation of religious faith) of Baal-Peor. Numbers 31:16 reads: “Yet they (the females) are the very ones who at the bidding of Balaam induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor so that the Lord’s community was struck by the plague.” This description of Balaam’s personality seems to be in direct opposition to the person portrayed previously. What is interesting is in Numbers 24:25 it says after the fourth oracle “…Balaam set out on his journey back home…” which seems as though Balaam left immediately after the fourth oracle. Numbers 25:1 states “While Israel was staying at Shittim; the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshiped that god.” In Fox’s commentary to Numbers 25:1 he writes: “Ramban (R. Moses ben Nahman, a Talmudic scholar) suggests that it was Balaam’s evil advice that provoked the incident. Otherwise, he reasoned, why would the Israelites have killed Balaam?” There are no other direct references to Balaam’s interactions with the Israelites. It is not known what the time span was between the oracles and there being a lengthy time span would account for Balaam having been able to influence the Moabites. If not, if Balaam left Moab immediately after the fourth oracle, when did he do these things attributed to him?

Just who was Balaam? Was he good? Was he evil? Was he a seer? Was he a pagan prophet? Was he real? Was he a saint? Was he a sinner? Or was he just a normal human who manifested different personality characteristics? As a commentary introduction to Numbers 22, Fox writes “A visionary named Balaam is attested outside the Bible on a fragmentary inscription on wall palster (late 9th to 8th century) from a temple at Deir Alla in Transjoran which records the night vision of a certain Balaam. The seer of the Deir ‘Alla inscription bears the same name and patronymic”. The website Christiananswers.net gives more information regarding this wall palster:
In an unprecedented discovery, an ancient text found at Deir Alla, Jordan, in 1967 tells about the activities of a prophet named Balaam… Three times in the first four lines he is referred to as Balaam son of Beor exactly as in the Bible. This represents the first Old Testament prophet to be dug up in Bible lands—not his tombs or his skeleton, but a text about him…

The remarkable text found at Deir Alla consists of 119 fragments of plaster inscribed with black and red inks among the rubble of a building destroyed in an earthquake. It seems to have been one long column with at least 50 lines, displayed on a plastered wall…

Written in Aramaic, the text begins with the title “Warnings from the Book of Balaam the son of Beor. He was a seer of the gods.” It is in red ink, as are other portions of the text where emphasis is desired…
Regardless of who Balaam was, there is direct evidence that he did exist.

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