« Baker, Sir Henry Williams Balaam Balan, Pietro »


BALAAM, bê´lam: A non-Israelitic prophet or soothsayer, son of Beor, from Pethor (Assyrian Pitru, cf. E. Schrader, KAT, i, 38; F. Delitzsch, Wo lag das Paradies, Leipsic,1885, p. 269; J. Halévy, Mélanges d’Épigraphie et d’Archéologie Sémitiques, Paris, 1874, p. 77; Max Müller, Asien und Europa nach altägyptischen Denkmälern, Leipsic, 1893, p. 291), a city of northern Mesopotamia, not far from the Euphrates. He seems to have been known as a sorcerer throughout a wide region, and according to Num. xxii, 5 sqq., was engaged by Balak, king of the Moabites, to curse Israel in the name of the God whom Israel served. But the God in whose name Balaam practised his magical arts, is a living God who could interfere with and govern Balaam’s doings. And such an interference took place when Balak called Balaam. By this means his divination became real prediction.

The Biblical Narrative.

Balaam, moved by desire for reward, accepted Balak’s invitation, which aroused Yahweh’s anger. That he accepted the invitation gladly may be seen from the anger which seized him as his animal suddenly shied on the way and refused to proceed. His own eyes were held so that he did not perceive the apparition in his path. He would have seen it if he had gone with the disposition of a prophet of Yahweh, for he would then have had an eye open to that which his God sent him. The irrational animal which carried him became the instrument to set him right. Its resistance changed into intelligible speech. For the animal spoke in the same manner as the wife of the first man heard the serpent speak. In neither case need one think of an act of divine omnipotence, granting to the speechless animal the momentary function of human organs of speech. The act concerned rather the ear of the prophet and for him the animal’s plaintive tone became articulate utterance. The prophet could be brought to his senses and aroused from a mental disposition intent only upon gain by some thing extraordinary, which was the reason why the animal refused to proceed. Now he also saw the apparition which had startled his beast, and the horror of it made him even willing to turn back, still more to speak only that which should offer itself to him as God’s word.

After Balaam had arrived in the mountainous part of Moab, near the sources of the Amon between the Amon and the Jabbok, Balak, after offering sacrifices to predispose Yahweh in his favor, three times assigned to Balaam a station (Num. xxii, 41; xxiii, 14, 28), that from the high place he might curse Israel which was encamped before his eye. But three times, overcome by Yahweh’s spirit, the prophet blessed the people (Num. xxiii, 7-10; 18-24; xxiv, 3-9), first giving the reason which made it impossible for him to curse Israel, viz., that it differed entirely from other nations, being richly favored by God; he then expanded the blessing briefly indicated in this first parable, and in a third deliverance finally described the glorious prosperity of Israel and its dominion as well as the fearful power of this people which should crush all enemies, having been set for a curse and a blessing to the nations. Balak was greatly enraged and dismissed the seer who, according to Num. xxiv, 15-24, spoke to the king more fully of the future which awaited Israel during its rule, and of the mighty commotions which should destroy nations. Under the figure of a star and scepter he sees in the distant future a king coming forth from Israel, whose glorious power none may resist, and the ruin of the world-powers one after the other and one through the other.

Significance of Balaam’s Prophecies.

It can not be denied that there is something strange in Balaam’s utterances foretelling world-historical events to a remote future. But to have recourse to the expedient that we have here a prophecy after the event, or that the originally transmitted prophecy of Balaam has been enlarged in later time in accordance with the course of history, is to deprive Balaam’s whole appearance of its essential meaning in connection with Old Testament prophecy. Balaam’s importance consists in just this, that from the time when Israel first appeared among the nations, the future of the nations and world-powers was disclosed not to one of its own prophets but to one outside of it. And the knowledge of the history of future centuries which was there communicated to the people served to comfort them in the midst of threatening world-movements till Daniel’s revelations came and continued the knowledge of the future from the point where Balaam left it. The great importance of Balaam’s prophecy finds its expression also in this, that whenever the Israelitic prophets of later times speak of the relations of Israel to the world-nations, we hear his words ringing through their utterances. As a matter of course, this reference of the origin of the oracles of Balaam to Mosaic times applies only to the essential contents, not to the form of expression as it now exists. The latter must be attributed to the narrator.

Balaam’s condemnation in the New Testament (II Pet. ii, 15-16; Rev. ii, 14) is founded upon the notice Num. xxxi, 16, according to which he advised Balak to seduce Israel to the sensual cultus of Baal-Peor. The contradiction in which this later and additional notice seems to stand with Num. xxiv, 25, which passage at the first glance every one understands to mean that Balaam, after his parting-word concerning Israel, returned to his home, is easily reconciled by the supposition that Balaam actually left Balak, but stayed with the Midianites, who were allied to the Moabites (Num. xxii, 4, 7), in order to serve Israel’s enemies and to await the success of his plan to lead them astray. In the war of revenge which broke out against Midian (Num. xxv, 16-19), the divine punishment overtook him (Num. xxxi, 8; Josh. xiii, 22). His giving to the Midianites the advice so fatal to Israel in its consequences can be explained from the irritation which took hold of him when he found himself deprived of the reward which he desired.

W. Volck†.

The fascinating and somewhat perplexing story of Balaam as given in Numbers becomes less puzzling when it is analyzed and traced to its sources. The whole story is an episode of the history of the tribes of Israel at the close of their wanderings after 425the Exodus. The main continuous narrative, as we now have it, is found in Num. xxii-xxiv and contains two well-defined elements: a prose portion or the narrative proper, and a poetical portion comprising four oracles uttered by the hero of the story.

The Narrative Analyzed.

The incidents are in brief as follows: Balak, king of Moab, alarmed at the numbers and strength of the Hebrews, sends for the noted seer and wizard, Balaam of Pethor (Assyrian Pitru) on the Euphrates in Mesopotamia, to bring a curse upon them. Balaam would not answer the messengers till he had consulted God as to what he should do. God at first forbade him to go; but after he was again approached by an embassy from Balak with greater gifts and more urgent appeals, he was granted permission upon the condition that he should utter only God’s direct message (Num. xxii, 5-21). He at once sets out for Moab with the princes of the embassy, and on meeting Balak he assures him that at best he can act only as God’s mouthpiece (Num, xxii, 35-38). Then Balak takes him to Bamoth-Baal EV, “the high places of Baal"), not far south of the Arnon. Here elaborate sacrifices were prepared, and, when Balaam retired for consultation, God appeared to him and gave him a message which foretold the greatness and blessedness of Israel (Num. xxii, 39-xxiii, 10). After a bitter remonstrance from Balak a similar transaction took place upon the summit of Pisgah followed by an oracle in which Israel’s purity of worship and its valor are extolled (Num. xxiii, 11-24). Balaam was next transferred by Balak to Peor—apparently another height of Nebo, commanding a specially good view of the Dead Sea desert (Jeshimon), where Israel was encamped. At this stage Balaam, instead of going into the solitude, uttered his oracle from immediate inspiration (as “the spirit of God came upon him") with a glowing description of the beauty and fertility of the promised land and a forecast of the military triumphs of Israel (Num. xxiii, 25-xxiv, 9). Finally Balak in anger dismisses the prophet, who without the advantages of the prescriptive sacrifices spontaneously delivers himself of a prophecy in which Israel is pictured as victorious over Moab itself as well as over the peoples to the south of Palestine. Balaam then returns to his distant home (Num. xxiv, 10-25). Embedded in this main narrative is the story of Balaam’s being confronted by the angel of Yahweh, when on his way to Moab, and of the speaking she-ass who sees this divine messenger invisible to the prophet (Num. xxii, 22-34).

Its Inconsistencies

A reference to the last-named section may best introduce a brief analysis of the sources. It is evident at a glance that this section contradicts the preceding part of the present narrative. Verse 22 directly contravenes verse 20a, and verses 22 sqq., which make Balsam to have traveled privately, are inconsistent with verse 20b (cf. verses 35 and 36, where the main story is resumed). Moreover, the incident of the angel and the clairvoyant and speaking ass is out of place and inconsequent. There was no occasion that Balaam should learn that it was useless to resist the will of Yahweh (cf. verse 32) since it was in accordance with the divine command that he had entered upon his journey. The marvel of an animal endowed with human speech has many parallels in folk-lore from the earliest times, and adds nothing to the dignity and force of the narrative but rather detracts from it. In fact, if chap. xxii, 22-35 be removed we have a consistent and instructive allegory of the historico-prophetic order.

The Sources.

This single and separate episode of the journey to Moab belongs to J, and the rest of the narrative in chap. xxii belongs to E. Chaps. xxiii and xxiv are probably the work of a redactor using materials from both of these great sources. More particularly, it is apparent that the oracles of chap. xxiii bear, on the whole, an Elohistic and those of chap. xxiv a Jehovistic stamp. In the narrative proper E predominates throughout. Indeed the journey episode is almost all that we have from J in the prose portions of the story. Hence it is now impossible to say what his conception was of the original attitude of Balaam toward his mission. The variations of the story, however, do not obscure the essence of it as far as it concerns the personality and doings of Balaam. In the remote background there appears the figure of a famous Aramean seer of the twelfth century B.C. who among the contending tribes and peoples of Palestine discerned special elements of greatness and power in the Hebrew tribes and in the religion of Yahweh, and had some prevision of their future, to which he gave official utterance. There is no reason why such a belief may not have had a foundation in fact. It must be remembered that the chief proximate ancestors of the Hebrews were Aramean (Deut. xxvi, 5), and that no small portion of the narrative of Genesis consists of cherished traditions of Aramean associations. Moreover, the twelfth century was the epoch-making period of emigration and travel from western Mesopotamia across the Euphrates and southward.

The Oracles. Their Motive and Date.

The oracles are of course the significant element of the Balaam story. Their underlying motive is to vindicate the rightful predominance of Israel over its rivals to the east and south. It is this motive which has diverted the tradition of Balaam from its original scope employed it to justify the remorseless border wars waged by southern Israel in the days of the monarchy. In the nature of the case the poems were composed not more than a very few generations after the events. Now since the oracles of chap. xxiii are essentially Elohistic and had their origin in the northern kingdom, the events which suggested them took place before the schism, not later than the warlike days of David. Indeed it is generally agreed that the subjugation of Moab and Edom (cf. xxiv, 17, 18), which took place in his time, formed the central point of practical interest for the whole series. The literary period of Solomon may have been the starting-point. But the process of enlargement and 426 refinement in the individual poems must have lasted till the eighth century.

An appendix to the oracles is found in chap. xxiv, 20-24, which must have been composed originally at a late date, since deportations by the Assyrians are referred to (verse 22), and perhaps also even the Macedonian conquests of the fourth century (verse 24). This poem should of course be separated from the others in our texts.

The Story in P and Later Literature

Quite apart from the main current of tradition and its idealization is the use made of the Balsam story by the priestly writer in Num. xxxi, 8, 16. He connects the prophet with the Midianitish seductions described (also by P) in Num. xxv, 6-18. The statement that Balaam suggested the corruption of Israel by sensual allurements and suffered death in the ensuing holy war, is out of harmony with the original conception of the prophet, which is retained throughout the older accounts. The notion, however, gained continually in popularity, and is recalled in the later literature even in New Testament times (cf. II Pet. ii, 15, Jude 11; Josephus, Ant., IV, vi, 6). Prejudice is already shown in Josh. xxiv, 9; Deut. xxiii, 4, 5; but a more just sentiment is displayed in Mic. vi, 5. A historical example of the influence of the tradition may be seen in Neh. xiii, 1, 2.

J. F. Mccurdy.

Bibliography: For review of literature up to 1887 consult F. Delitzsch, Zur neuesten Literatur über den Abschnitt Bileam, in ZKW, 1888. On the general subject F. A. G. Tholuck, Die Geschichte Bileams, in his Vermischte Schriften, i, 406-432, Hamburg, 1839; E. W. Hengstenberg, Geschichte Bileams und seine Weissagungen, Berlin, 1842; H. Oort, Disputatio de Num. xxii-xxiv, Leyden, 1860; G. Baur, Geschichte der alttestamentlichen Weissagungen, pp. 329 sqq., Giessen, 1861; A. Kuenen, in ThT, xviii (1884), 497-540; A. Dillmann, consult on the passage his commentary in Kurzgefasstes exegetisches Handbuch zum Alten Testament, Strasburg, 1887; A. H. Sayce, Balaam’s Prophecy, Num. xxiv. 17-24, and the God Seth, in Hebraica, iv (1887), 1-6; A. van Hoonacker, Observations critiques sur lee récits concernant Bileam, in Le Muséon, Lyons, 1888; J. Halévy, in Revue Sémitique, 1894, 201-209; DB, i, 232-234; EB, i, 461-464; T. K. Cheyne, in Expository Times, 1899, 399-402. Bishop Butler’s celebrated sermon on the character of Balaam is in vol. ii of his works, Oxford, 1844.

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