Balaam was a diviner living in Pethor, a city in Mesopotamia (Deuteronomy 23:4), which was thought to belong to the Midianites (Numbers 31:8).He possessed knowledge of the true God, and acknowledged that his superior powers as a poet and prophet were derived from God, and were his gift. Some claim his very great fame caused him to become self-conceited and covetous. When the Israelites were camped on the plain of Moab, the king of the Moabites, Balak, entered into a league with the Midianites, and it was decided to summon the help of Balaam. Messengers were sent with “the rewards of divination in their hands” (Numbers 22:5, sq.). Balaam appeared to have misgivings about the lawfulness of their request; therefore, he invited them to stay overnight that he might know how God regarded it. His misgivings were confirmed by the expressed prohibitation of God upon his journey. Balaam informed the messengers of God’s answer, and they returned to Balak.

Another more honorable was later sent to Balaam with promises of reward and great honor. He replied that he could not be tempted by rewards, but would speak what God revealed. Again he requested that they stay the night, promising to tell them if God told him more. His importunity secured for him the permission to accompany Balak’s messengers with the divine injunction to speak as God should dictate.

In the morning, Balaam went with the princesses to Moab. But “God’s anger was kindled against him, and the angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary against him.” Although Balaam was unaware of the angel’s presence, the ass on which he rode sensed the presence. At first it turned into a field; again, in its terror, it pressed hard against a wall, squeezing Balaam’s foot; upon the third appearance of the angel, there being no way to escape, it fell down. This greatly enraged Balaam who smote the ass with a stick, which caused the animal to question him as to the cause for the beating. It was then that Balaam became aware of the presence of the angel, who accused him of perverseness. Balaam offered to go back; the angel, however, told him to go on but only to speak as God directed him.

When meeting with Balak, Balaam stated his purpose was just to announce what God revealed. And, according to his direction seven altars were prepared, upon each of which Balak and Balaam offered a bullock and a ram. Three times Balaam essayed to speak against Israel, but God overruled his utterances, so, instead of curses, there were blessings and magnificent prophecies, reaching forward until they told of “a star” rising “out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17). This ruler of Israel shall smite the people of Moab, and destroy the sons of Seth. Israel will possess Edom and Seir; and shall overcome their enemies. Jacob shall rise in power and destroy many cities (Numbers 24:18-9 TB).

Except for the times when the Lord overruled Balaam’s speech he had followed God’s direction. But when the Israelites were camped near Arcadia the young Israelite men could not resist the young Moabite women and began cohabiting with them, and joined them in offering to their gods, and before long worshipped Baal. For permitting this Moses ordered all the leaders of the Israelites to be slain, and their heads be hung up for the people to see (Numbers 25:5). This was done so the fierce anger of God might be turned away from the people. But one Israelite man was so insolent that he brought his Midianite woman right into the camp before Moses and the people. The couple entered a tent, followed by another enraged Israelite man who drove his spear through them both as they coupled. Then the plague ended from which 24,000 people had already died (Numbers 25:6-9 TB).

After this the Lord ordered the destruction of the Midianites for the trouble which they had brought on the Israelites. Moses ordered the destruction, saying that all the Midianite women and young boys were to be slain; only the little girls they could keep for themselves. Since Balaam had sided with the Midianites, and his advice caused the Israelite trouble, he was slain too (Numbers 25:15-18 TB). A.G.H.


Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 119-120
TB, The Book, Wheaton, IL, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985 [ISBN 0-8423-2147-0]