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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Was Balaam a prophet of God?
Balaam is an enigmatic figure (Num. 22-24). We would like to know more about him, yet the only information we have is what the text provides. And that is what we will briefly examine.
1. Prophet of God: What was the connection between the Lord and Balaam? Was he a worshiper of Yahweh? One thing is clear: the Lord’s Spirit came upon him, and he prophesied about the future of God’s people and the coming of the Messiah (Num. 24:1-9, 17-19). Although Balak, king of Moab, wanted Balaam to curse Israel, he could only recognize that they had been blessed by the Lord. The Lord used him and revealed to him His plan. Was this an isolated incident, the first time the Lord used him as a prophet? Probably not, but we can hardly be certain.
Balaam said to Balak’s messengers, “I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God” (Num. 22:18, NIV). Thus we know Balaam was a convert to Yahweh, the God of Israel, and worshiped Him. We do not know when and how that happened, but we know that as a result of his commitment to Him, God used Balaam as His prophet. The idea that God can raise a prophet among non-Israelites is not common in the Bible, but it is not foreign to it either (cf. Job; 2 Chron. 35:21).
2. Practice of Pagan Rituals: Two other details contribute to make Balaam an enigmatic figure. First, we find him at the service of a king who wanted him to curse Israel, the people of Yahweh; second, in seeking a revelation from God he used pagan practices. Pagans used different rituals to influence the gods and predict the future. At some point Balaam combined the worship of God with pagan ritual practices and worshiped other gods.
In 1967, during an archaeological excavation at Tell Deir ‘Allá (east of the Jordan Valley), a plaster was found with writing on “Balaam son of Beor” is mentioned and called “a seer of the gods.” Scholars agree that this Balaam is the same one mentioned in the Bible, and they are probably right. The Bible describes him as a diviner who received divination fees or instruments (the Hebrew word qesem in Numbers 22:7 could be referring to divination instruments). Numbers 24:1 states that before he pronounced his third oracle “he did not resort to sorcery [Hebrew, nachash, probably calling for an evil omen; cf. Num. 23:23], as at other times” (NIV), implying that in the two previous occasions he practiced sorcery. The text does not state the ritual he used to seek the omen. He was unable to coerce the Lord to reveal an evil omen against Israel. His connection with polytheism suggests that He had, in principle, rejected the Lord of Israel.
3. Purpose of the Story: The importance of this story is not so much knowing more about Balaam, but grasping its purpose within the book of Numbers. First, the narrative shows that there is no other God like Israel’s God. Balaam was completely aware that Yahweh is unique in that He cannot be coerced by humans; that sorcery is ineffective with Him. Several times Balaam recognized that he could say only what Yahweh put in his mouth, and that he was unable to put in God’s mouth what Balak requested. By the third oracle Balaam relinquished any attempt to influence God and placed himself at His disposal. That’s when the Spirit came upon him.
Second, the story demonstrates that God’s people are invincible. The forces of evil cannot bring to fruition their evil purpose against those blessed by the Lord. In Numbers God revealed Himself as the military leader of His people, an army heading victoriously toward Canaan.
Third, through the narrative God shared with the pagan world His plans for Israel. Balaam’s vision pointed to a time when, through the power of God, Israel would be victorious over all its enemies and be able to live peacefully (Num. 24:8, 9). He foresaw a time when the King of Israel and His kingdom would be exalted (verses 8, 17-19). The message in this story applies with equal force to God’s people today and reaffirms our confidence in our Savior and Lord.