The Story of Balaam & His Encounter with God
*The Setting and Background – Verses 1-3*
The first verse of Numbers 22 is a concluding verse of events from the previous chapter.
The Israelites just completed successful campaigns against King Sihon of the Amorites in Hesbon and King Og of Bashan.
This Moabite land was previously conquered by Sihon.
King Balak watches as Israel defeats people who previously took land from him.
“Slim indeed are your chances of winning against a team that has handily defeated another team that earlier defeated you!”  The situation is reminiscent of sporting events in society today, only with far greater consequences.
Win-loss comparisons are continually made to determine how one team will play against another team who faced a similar foe.
“One of the keys in this passage is found in the use of the Hebrew verb /rā’â/, which means ‘to see with understanding’ and ‘to have a clear comprehension of the matters at hand.’
Balak… has been made aware of the dramatic victories and potential threat of this people who were now encamped within the reaches of his fledgling domain.”
King Balak watches the Israelites thrash an army who previously took land from him by force.
Balak knows he needs help in defeating the Israelites.
The vast number of Israelites is also a concern to the king and the Moabites.
The people say to the elders of Midian that the large numbers of Hebrew people will lap up the land’s resources similar to over-grazing a field with an ox.
*First Messengers Sent to Balaam – Verses 4-14*
In an effort to gain an upper hand with the overwhelming strength and prowess of the Israelites, Balak sends messengers to enlist a man named Balaam to put a curse on the Israelites.
Who is this man Balaam? “No title such as prophet or priest is given to Balaam and, therefore, we are left to discern from the context what his position was.
Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel so Moab could defeat Israel.
He knew of Balaam’s powers of blessing and curses.
In v. 6, the power of a spoken word, whether in blessing or cursing, is confirmed.”
While Balaam is not identified in the text, he apparently develops a reputation as a prophet or seer.
Josephus identifies Balaam as the greatest of the prophets of that time.
“The custom of cursing an enemy before battle was widespread in the ancient world, and Balaam seems to have gained a reputation as an effective operative who could be relied upon, on the payment of an appropriate fee (v.
7), to give satisfaction.”
Balak either hears or sees first-hand that whoever Balaam blesses was blessed and whoever he curses was cursed.
His reputation is good enough to offer monetary payment for putting a curse on Balak’s enemy because we read in verse 7 that the elders of Moab and Midian take with them the fee for the divination request.
Balaam is identified as heralding from Pethor in his native land of Amaw, so it must be appropriate or at least possible to enlist the services of a prophet from another country.
“Pethor was south of Carchemish, more than 350 miles from Moab.
A journey of this length would require much planning and time.
This account compresses a great amount of time into a brief record.
There is an accumulation of more than 1,400 miles of travel involved.”
The planning and expense of travelling 350 miles one way to seek Balaam; a great distance in that day; takes several weeks to plan and travel.
The elders traveling would require servants and supplies for the long journey.
The fees they took to pay for services and the costs of travel confirm Balaam’s reputation.
It is a major undertaking to gain the services of the seer Balaam whose spoken words apparently have real potency.
Upon arrival, verse 7 reads that the elders told Balaam what Balak said and requested.
“The initial meeting with Balaam is recounted in summary fashion with focal point.
The actual details of such a meeting would have entailed the standard hospitality process of formal greetings, the sharing of preliminary gifts, the sharing of a meal, and probably an extended discussion of the events precipitating this visit, and then the formal presentation of the letter.”
Again, time is condensed in the story but suffice it to say, Balaam seems to know what was being asked of him.
By asking the visitors to spend the evening, he seems to understand the seriousness of the request by stating that he needs to hear from Jehovah, a clear reference to the God of Israel.
It should be noted here that a group of inscriptions were discovered by archeologists in 1967 at the site of Deir’Allā, close to the northern bank of the Jabbok~/Zerqa River north of Moab.
“In the Old Testament Balaam is clearly a figure who belongs exclusively to traditions about Transjordan; it is noteworthy, then, that our texts, in which he plays a central role, likewise come from a Transjordanian holy place.
Also, in our texts Balaam has no connection whatever with anything that can be considered characteristic of typically Israelite religion.”
The 8th century B.C.E.
inscriptions are similar to the Balaam oracles found in Numbers and written in a similar dialect and quite possibly a form of the Hebrew spoken by the Israelites who lived in the Transjordanian region.
“The Deir’Allā writings are saturated with polytheism, express belief in divination, and portray Balaam as interacting with a number of gods in various ways: by receiving visions and through involvement with divination and possibly exorcism.”
Some would point to translations in which Balaam uses divine speech and refers to Yahweh or Jehovah as an indication he knows God in a personal way.
To the contrary, the Deir’Allā writings indicate that Balaam is a polytheist and not a believer in the one true God, Yahweh.
However, while there was no personal relationship, Balaam does seem to see and understand the power of Yahweh.
God comes to Balaam during the night, asking him to identify the men.
This is a rhetorical question, reminiscent of God’s interaction with Adam in the garden after Adam’s sin and with Cain when he asks the location of Cain’s brother.
Clearly, God knows who the men are and why they seek Balaam.
It is God who came to Balaam and His question is not to gain knowledge, but to teach.
Balaam answers the question and God instructs Balaam to tell the men that Balaam must not go with them and must not put a curse on the Israelites because they are blessed.
“Like Balaam of the Deir’Allā texts, the prophet arose that morning after his encounter with God and returned with the essence of the word he had received from on high in that night dream.”
Balaam does not tell all the details of his encounter with God, but rather tells the emissaries that the Lord gave him instructions not to go with them.
Upon returning to Balak, the men tell him that Balaam refused to come with them.
“Nowhere in these chapters did the elders of Moab and Midian or Balak refer to God.
It is Balaam who uses the name of God regularly.
It is implied that the message came from God in a dream (v.
It is significant that God came to Balaam (v.
When Balaam tells the elders that the Lord has refused to let him go with them, the elders returned with the news that Balaam refuses to come with us – they did not mention anything about God.” Balak knows only that his invitation was refused.
He does not know why.
In all likelihood, the short answer and the lack of knowledge leads Balak to push harder for an acceptable answer.
Some scholars state that Balaam has ulterior motives in refusing to go, hoping the refusal would cause Balak to up the ante.
Balak refuses to accept the rejection, but there is no evidence to show that Balaam refused to go for any other reason than what scripture reveals.
Yahweh tells Balaam to stay put and not to curse His people.
The next set of verses may reveal a change in Balaam’s thinking, but at this point in the story, ulterior motives cannot be supported.
*Second Messengers Sent to Balaam – Verses 15-21*
Balak does not like Balaam’s answer and still sees the need for help in defeating the Israelites.
He sends another set of higher ranking officials to convince Balaam to put a curse on the Israelites.
Balak turns up the pressure and increases the offer of payment for Balaam’s services.
First, verse 15 states that higher ranking officials are sent and second, there are more of them than in the first group.
Balak also increases the fee he is willing to pay, basically saying Balaam could “write his own ticket” as to how many zeros to add to the fee.
Again, the text does not adequately give the perspective of the time or distance involved in making the trek, but the audience of that day probably knew very well of the cost and effort involved.
Balaam’s answer is intriguing because it comes in two parts.
First, he tells them that a palace filled with silver and gold would not change his mind.
“…Balaam’s words echo the reality that he had indeed had an encounter with the God of Israel, through which the true Elohim had confronted and revealed himself to the pagan diviner.”
Obviously, Balaam’s first encounter with Yahweh had an impact.
Keep in mind, this second party probably arrives several months after the first party left.
“Balaam’s next words, however, betray a certain ambivalence.
He invites the messengers to stay so that he can find out what else the Lord may have to say (v.
This is odd.
Why would Balaam think the Lord might change his mind?
Or perhaps we should ask: Why would Balaam hope the Lord might change his mind?
The answer to this question is rather obvious: King Balak has ‘upped the ante’ to the point that Balaam cannot resist!”
The situation changes, including the terms of the deal.
“The suspicion inevitably arises that Balaam had at least some hopes that the situation might change.
It is here that questions about his moral character begin to arise for us.”
The prize grew and it appears that Balaam is at least considering or hoping things changed with Yahweh since Balaam last heard from Him.
Just like the events of Balaam are described in the Deir’Allā inscriptions, God came to him a second time.
God told Balaam in the first encounter that he is not to go with the men.
However, in this encounter, Balaam is permitted to go with them with one catch.
Balaam is instructed to say or do only what Yahweh tells him to say or do.
“At this point in the narrative the reader might ask the question, If God has relented on his prohibition of Balaam making the journey to Moab at the behest of Balak, might he now change his mind and permit Balaam to curse this nation he had punished in times past?”
Why would God allow Balaam to go, but only to do and say what was instructed by God? “This last instruction provides a clue to interpreting the entire narrative and yields insight into the nature of Balaam’s disobedience.
He was only to say and do what God told him – and no more…To understand this verse we must read what it says and read nothing into it.
The passage does not say that Balaam sinned in going-only that God became angry when he went.”