Reading Balaam Optimistically

May 12, 2006 | 23 comments
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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)

23 Responses to Reading Balaam Optimistically

  1. Ben H on May 12, 2006 at 10:53 am

    Okay, so I end by quoting a grand verse about God being unchanging. That doesn’t mean I meant this as a testimonial. I want to know, How persuasive is my reading? Could it be the angel was just delivering a friendly reminder of who is in charge?

  2. jimbob on May 12, 2006 at 11:03 am

    There is more to Balaam’s treachery, though, isn’t there? In Revelation John tells us that even if he didn’t curse Israel, he certainly told Balak how to weaken them so that they could be destroyed.

    Rev. 2: 14: “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.”

    How does that factor into your analysis?

  3. Ben H on May 12, 2006 at 11:23 am

    Honestly, I don’t know what to make of that statement, jimbob. I don’t see anything remotely like that going on in Numbers 22-4. Do you? So I am just setting it aside and trying to understand the Numbers story on its own terms. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Balaam may have later become unfaithful (if his faithfulness was shaky, all the more reason for my reading of the angel), but I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility that what John is saying at that point is distant and as a result factually inaccurate hearsay.

  4. Mark IV on May 12, 2006 at 11:47 am

    Ben, I think your reading is plausible as far as it goes, but jimbob’s concern deserves more consideration. Numbers 31:16 implies to me that Balaam somehow brought God’s wrath upon the Israelites.

  5. Visorstuff on May 12, 2006 at 11:56 am

    I’ve often thought that Balaam, like John the baptist was the last prophet of his dispensation. He, unlike John the baptist, kind of dragged his feet as the new dispensation moved forward, even though he knew it was God’s will and the right way. John on the other hand was more unselfish in ushering the new dispensation in. I think pulling in that context helps understand that Balaam was a bit confused about his role, and the role of Israel in the new dispensation. This point helps me understand a bit more about what his motivations were, regardless of his actions. It’s also interesting that both of these prophets were killed to close the dispensation, and the adherents, such as the Midianites (who at once included Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law), or the Jews in 70 AD were destroyed to purge the apostasy of the previous dispensation.

    When Joseph Smith began to usher in the current dispensation, may men who were inspired for their dispensation weren’t sure how to act toward him. Sidney Rigdon, for example, was a gifted and inspired man, but from another dispensation. His actions caused many blessings, but also many problems, as he was not as familiar with the new dispensation’s role as Joseph. Luckily, like John the Baptist Sidney was unselfish and brought his people to the truth, rather than dragging his feet, or fighting against the new dispensation, like other inspired men of his day. At the same time, like Gamaliel, many of the older dispensations have at times just let the new one come quietly, leaving it alone, without joining themselves to it because of traditions and their position in the dispensation they had. In this dispensation, instead of destroying the previous dispensation’s peoples, the D&C tells us that the Lord has not required that Zion be set up through the shedding of blood, but by the purchase of land and of missionary work – for now. The purging will come later at the Lords advent.

  6. Frank McIntyre on May 12, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    The Israelites killed Balaam in Numbers 31:8. So perhaps he really didn’t turn out so well even if he was still on the right side in the story you cite. It is a neat story because you rarely get an example in the scriptures of a prophet as he heads into apostasy (which Balaam apparently did eventually).

  7. Ben H on May 12, 2006 at 12:26 pm

    Given what else the Israelites were doing in Numbers (and being killed by God in the thousands for this offense and that), I wouldn’t necessarily trust them as judges of whether Balaam was righteous. Nor would I assume that the person killing him even knew who he was (they killed every male). Nor is it clear how they would know what Balaam was really like. There is no record of any communication between him and the Israelites. After his run-in with the king, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some pretty nasty rumors about him–either spread by the resentful king, or by those who didn’t know that Balaam really blessed Israel. Do you think the king would have told his people the embarrassing truth of what Balaam said, after all the trouble and expense to get him to curse Israel?

    So I remain agnostic.

    I concede that by the time Moses, Peter, and John all describe him as a villain, it is quite possible he was in the end. But I don’t think what happened later is very relevant to understanding this story. Balaam offered to turn back! The angel told him he could continue. Hence it appears in this story Balaam was basically acting rightly.

  8. Clinton on May 12, 2006 at 12:30 pm

    Ever since this lesson was given last week, the story of Balaam has been on my mind. With all of its doctrinal suggestions, this is a sticky story which is hard to interpret. The first thing that came to mind was why the redactors kept this story.Thus it was fascinating for me when I learned that the poetry that Balaam’s oracles were written in where very high quality. The redactors may have left this story in because they didn’t want to loose this fine piece of literature.

    Much of the cognitive dissonace this story created for me was however calmed when I found what modern scholars think about this passage. The majority of the text comes from the Jahwist author who viewed their God as somewhat capricious. The shorter form of this is written by the Elohist. The mixture of these 2 authors is what creates the somewhat disjointed effect of the narrative. Finally the Jahwist and the Elohist are not strickly monotheistic so they view no problems with a Midianite prophet.

    The story of Balaam’s betrayal however is written MUCH later by the Priestly author and the Deuteronimists. These authors are much more monotheistic and therefore must vilify Balaam and make him a wannabe prophet instead of a true prophet from a different religion.

    Later Jewish sources almost always villify Balaam and therefore the New Testament passages mentioning Balaam are vitriolic. The Rabbis, playing on the name Balaam, call him “Belo ‘Am” which means “without people” (i.e. without a share with the people in the world to come), or “Billa’ ‘Am” meaning “one that ruined a people.” The also include him as one of the 7 heathen prophets.

    Clinton

  9. Ben H on May 12, 2006 at 12:32 pm

    Thanks, Visorstuff; this business of the change of dispensations is what makes Balaam so fascinating to me. Though Moses held the high priesthood, “his dispensation” really did not, since he did not pass it on to them. Israel was not ready for it. This doesn’t seem to be a case of a fuller truth replacing a less full truth. So it seems bizarre, really, that the older line of the high priesthood was apparently allowed to end (violently).

  10. Robert C. on May 12, 2006 at 12:40 pm

    Ben, the GD lesson manual’s attention activity actually starts off pointing out Balaam’s righteousness, but suggests that the desires of his heart weren’t pure from the beginning using Num 22:22 as support, as well as other NT scriptures.

    I think Christian commentaries tend to take a negative view of Balaam b/c of the NT scriptures, but I think I remember reading some Jewish commentary that had a more positive view—but I can’t remember how it dealt with Num 22:22 (I think Num 31:16 was viewed as a genuine change for the worse, as though Balaam had started out with pure intentions, and only became unrighteous later.

  11. Ben H on May 12, 2006 at 12:44 pm

    Yahoo! I didn’t want to bring it in from the get-go, but Clinton, this is exactly the sort of thing I think about. Israel was a fallen people, and they were even more fallen by the time of Christ. Slander of a competing authority like Balaam, even one long dead, is just what one would expect from a bunch of apostate priests. Abraham paid his tithes to Melchizedek. Moses got his priesthood from Jethro. Mahonri-Moriancumr saw the premortal Christ. In a way it is quite disturbing that the records we have now of the era before Christ are predominantly the records of God’s relationship with a people who had rejected the new and everlasting covenant and hence were given something else. This is another reason the Book of Mormon is so special and important–these were Jews who knew of Christ and accepted him. I don’t take everything said in the name of scholarship at face value, but I think we have good theological reasons to consider scenarios like this.

    Another reason for a redactor (even cynically understood) to keep the Balaam passages is that they vindicate Israel. Even Balaam, the “competing” authority, boldly proclaims that Israel is God’s favored people.

  12. Clinton on May 12, 2006 at 12:45 pm

    Ben … I would be interested in reading the Jewish commentary which looks well on Balaam. Could you give me this source? I have only found Jewish commentary which views Balaam in an ill light.

    Clinton

  13. Clinton on May 12, 2006 at 12:47 pm

    Ben H … Why do you think that the Isrealites didn’t have the higher priesthood? I have always interepreted the High Priest as having the higher priesthood.

    Clinton

  14. Robert C. on May 12, 2006 at 12:47 pm

    (Sorry for the html typo in #10….)

    Clinton (#8): Why would monotheistic redactors have a problem with Balaam being a Midianite prophet? There’s a similar problem with Jethro isn’t there? The assumption seems to be that monotheistic redactors would view Yahweh as only calling Israelites prophets, but I don’t see why this would be the case. Am I missing something?

  15. Ben H on May 12, 2006 at 12:47 pm

    Okay, Robert C., perhaps Balaam’s intentions weren’t pure, but God arranged to use him to make a point to the king of Midian, sending the angel to be sure he stayed on message.

  16. Clinton on May 12, 2006 at 12:50 pm

    Ben H said, “Another reason for a redactor (even cynically understood) to keep the Balaam passages is that they vindicate Israel.”

    I agree with you here completely. Each of the authors seems to want all the evidence they can muster in support of their right to the land. This is just another justification for their ownership of the land.

    Clinton

  17. Clinton on May 12, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    “Why would monotheistic redactors have a problem with Balaam being a Midianite prophet?”
    You are correct here Robert I have probably misinterpreted here. It would just be modern day Mormons that would have a problem with this.

    However the priestly cast, which passes on authority by descent, could have a problem with God calling priests from other peoples. This however is conjecture.

  18. Ben H on May 12, 2006 at 1:01 pm

    Clinton, I base my idea that the Israelites didn’t have the Melchizedek priesthood on Hebrews 7 (e.g. verses 11-12).

  19. Clinton on May 12, 2006 at 1:03 pm

    Robert C. (#14) – However I do think this may have something to with monotheistic thought versus polytheistic thought. The J and E authors veiw their God as on among many Gods. Therefore they wouldn’t they be more inclined to accept the existence of a Midianite God in addition to YHVH or Elohim? Alternately the D/P author would not want to even acknowledge the existence of such a God. Therefore they would represent Balaam as a poser. I am thinking out loud here. Feel free to dissect my argument with a scapel.

    Clinton

  20. BrianJ on May 12, 2006 at 3:25 pm

    I like the way this story of Balaam is a part of the story of Moses. Moses was in trouble because he hadn’t done exactly what the Lord had told him. Enter Balaam, with the Lord commanding him to do exactly as told. He complies, but his heart is in the wrong place, as shown by his advice on how to subvert Israel with immorality. The story ends with Moses’ Israelites conquering Balaam’s Midianites (Moses overcomes his “shadow”). I think the redactor’s may have kept this story because it is a vindication of Moses. Note that this is the last “big” thing that Moses does as the leader of Israel.

    (The story can also be read as a warning to Israel: If you keep every commandment, like Balaam, but your heart isn’t right, then you will still be cut off.)

  21. Kimball L. Hunt on May 12, 2006 at 4:39 pm

    It’s said Balaam suggested the Midianites subvert the Israelites’ morality?

    As has been said above, could this be mostly pointing out the assumed differences between traditional Midianite cultural pracitices and those said to have begun to be instituted among the Iraelites by Moses? As the Lord through Moses was indeed a great reformer of religion; that is, although Moses himself was said to have been a monotheistic, cultural-Egyptian whose father-in-law it was said had continued to officiate in heavenly rites and oracles among the Midianites, the reformist nature of the-Lord-through-Moses’s enterprise can be pointed out by what the record says re Aaron, the Israelites’ hereditary high priest, is that (A sub-I) Aaron’s two sons are burned by the Lord’s altar fires; and (B sub-II) apparently Aaron’s spoken language as well as perhaps Aaron’s frames of reference and whatnot are easier to understand than for the Israelites than is Moses’s?; and finally (C sub-III) Aaron sets up an image cast in fine metal of what is the unit of currency among this pastoral people, a calf. To which the Lord through Moses’s responds by (B sub-I) His outlawing sacrifices to Him of heirs (B sub-II) His issuing through Moses codified commands in place of the previously oral cultural byways and (B sub-III) His causing the destruction of the culture’s existing the icons or images as previously were presumed to enable comprehension of God’s form.

  22. Robert C. on May 12, 2006 at 5:33 pm

    Clinton: I took all my Jewish commentaries on Numbers back to the library, and Ginzberg’s Legends of the Bible doesn’t portray Balaam in a good light, so I think you’re right. I think I was confusing something I read about the J/E writers portraying Balaam in a positive light, and only the later D/P redactors adding a negative view (which both Jews and Christians inherited), likely with the mono-/polytheistic incentives you mention.

    And although I agree with you that Mormons are predisposed against multiple true prophets (a la D&C 1:30 “only true and living Church”), I think Mormons should have reason to look upon Balaam as more likely to have had the true priesthood b/c of Jethro’s priesthood lineage given in D&C 84:6-14 (and didn’t Jethro live in Midian where Balaam was from?).

    BrianJ: (#19): Interesting point about true intentions vs. profession—adds an interesting perspective to Christ’s teachings against hypocrisy….

  23. Harold Curts on May 12, 2006 at 7:39 pm

    The Jewish Publication Society’s Jewish Study Bible, says that the general view of the main Baalam story is positive, citing not only numbers but Micah. It also says that there were clearly incidents, the talking ass and Baal-peor, coming from a negative tradition regarding Baalam, but that the full negative tradition cannot be readily located.

    Perhaps more interesting on a literary note: the four poems (oracles or prophecies) when pulled out and read together tell the story in poetic form. That is they tell the positive story, of Baalam’s prophecies of the blessings of the tribes of Israel.

    When we discussed it in Sunday School my defense of Baalam was torpedoed by a talk in which Bruce McConkie uses Baalam as a very bad example.