Balaam is often mentioned as a fallen prophet, but the main description of him (in Numbers 22-4) doesn’t obviously support this. The strongest suggestion that he is, is the appearance of an angel with a sword, blocking his way. Even that event, however, does not clearly count against him, because the angel allows him to continue on his journey, with the reminder, “only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak” (Num 22: 35). Here is an optimistic theory about what the angel is doing. For more discussion of the story, check out Jim’s excellent post.
The rest of the story consistently portrays Balaam as obedient to God. When Balak requests that he come, he goes only after God has given permission. He tells Balak repeatedly that he can only say what God tells him to say, and he proceeds to say it, again and again, even though it is completely the opposite of what Balak wants to hear. He knowingly gives up the wealth and honors Balak had offered him (Num 22:37).
Yet an angel meets him on the road, with sword drawn, and tells Balaam he would have killed him if his ass hadn’t taken evasive action. In explanation, he says, “I went out to withstand thee, because they way is perverse before me” (Num 22:32). Now, my NRSV has a footnote for “perverse” and says “meaning uncertain”. This is my opening.
What was Balaam’s path like? Let me suggest a slightly different word: tortuous. Balaam was about to go into the lion’s den. He was going to the camp of a king who presumably was accustomed to have people live or die by his command. He knew from the start that Balak was asking him to curse Israel, and that he would not be allowed to do so, because God had already decided to bless Israel (Num 22:12).
Balak was asking him to curse Israel because Balak was afraid Israel was about to chew him up like an ox chews grass (Num 22: 2-4). This is the sort of situation that could lead a king to act–er–impulsively. And yet by going there, Balaam had set himself the task of withstanding whatever pressure or manipulation Balak had in store, and speaking nothing but “the word that God putteth in my mouth” (Num 22: 38). Equally, God had set Balaam this task, by giving him permission to go. In fact, Balaam defies the king’s wishes three times in a row, and more spectacularly each time. Each time, per Balaam’s instruction, the king has erected seven altars and sacrificed a ram and a bullock on each one. Each time, Balaam blesses Israel, and the second two times, he also prophecies destruction for Israel’s enemies: “he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain” (Num 23:24); “he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows” (Num 24:8).
How would you feel, in the (outdoor) court of the king, telling him Israel was going to drink his blood, break his bones, and pierce him with arrows? A bit nervous perhaps? Where might that sword at the king’s side go next?
Conveniently, Balaam had freshly and vividly impressed in his mind the image of another sword, belonging to another king, and so through Balaam’s actions, Balak and his people learned in a very personal way that “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” (Num 23:19)