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Balaam (Hebrew בִּלְעָם, Standard Hebrew Bilʻam, Tiberian Hebrew Bilʻām; could mean "glutton" or "foreigner", but this etymology is uncertain), is a prophet in the Bible, his story occurring in the Book of Numbers. Balaam, the son of Beor, was a Gentile seer; he appears in the history of the Israelites during their sojourn in the plains of Moab, east of the Jordan River, at the close of the Forty Years' wandering, shortly before the death of Moses and the crossing of the Jordan. Israel had conquered two kings east of the Jordan: Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. Balak, king of Moab, became alarmed, and sent for Balaam to curse Israel; Balaam came after some hesitation, but when he sought to curse Israel, God or the Lord compelled him to bless them instead.


The story

Balak, king of Moab, alarmed at the Israelite conquests, sends elders of Moab and Midian to Balaam, son of Beor, to the land of Ammon, to induce him to come and curse Israel. He sends back word that he can only do what the Lord commands. The land, of Ammon. The current Hebrew Text has the land of Ammon as Ev, "his people," but Ammon is read by the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Syriac and Vulgate Versions and some Hebrew manuscripts, and is accepted by many modern scholars. xxii. 22-3511 to "Balaam," also "Go" and "So Balaam went." Nevertheless Balaam sets out with two servants to goto Balak, but the Angel of Yahweh meets him.

At first the Angel is seen only by the ass, which arouses Balaam's anger by its efforts to avoid the Angel. The ass is miraculously enabled to speak to Balaam. Yahweh at last enables Balaam to see the Angel, who tells him that he would have slain him but for the ass. Balaam offers to go back, but is told to go on.

Balak meets Balaam and they go together and offer sacrifices; Balaam, however, blesses Israel by divine inspiration, Balak remonstrates but Balaam reminds him of his message and again blesses Israel. Then Balaam "goes home."

God appears to him in a dream and forbids him to go. The princes return and report to Balak, who sends them back to put further pressure on Balaam. God in another dream permits him to go, on condition that he speaks what God tells him. He goes with the princes of Moab. Balak meets them, and Balaam warns him that he can only speak what God tells him. xxii. 40, 41, xxiii. 1-6,11-17. Balak offers sacrifices, but Yahweh inspires Balaam with a blessing on Israel. Balak remonstrates and Balaam explains. They try to get a more favourable result by sacrificing on a different spot, and by placing Balaam on the top of Pisgah to view Israel, but he is again compelled to bless Israel. After further remonstrances and explanations [Balaam goes home]. (For the relation of the poems to E's narrative, see below.)

Deut. xxiii. 3-6 i summarizes this incident, adding the feature that the Ammonites were associated with the Moabites, possibly an imperfect reminiscence of thereference to Ammon in J Joshua, in his farewell speech to the Israelites, also refers to this episode. The Priestly Code has a different story of Balaam, in which he advises the Midianites how they may bring disaster on Israel by seducing the people Quoted Neh. xiii I f. 2 Josh. xxiv. 9, i0. E; cf. Micah vi.

5. Num. xxxi. 8 (quoted Josh. xiii. 22), 16. These references are not necessarily inconsistent with JE; but they are probably based on an independent tradition. The date of the Priestly Code is c. 400 BC-- from their loyalty to Yahweh. Later on he is slain in battle, fighting in the ranks of Midian. It is often supposed that the name of the king of Edom, Bela, son of Beor, is a corruption of Balaam, and that, therefore, the form of the tradition made him a king of Edom.

Interpretation of the ass episode

Speaking animals are a common feature of folklore; the only other case in the Old Testament is the serpent in Eden.

Jewish commentators such as Saadia Gaon and Maimonides taught that a reader should not take this story literally; rather, they explained it as an account of a prophetic experience, which are experiences as dreams or visions. In this view the donkey, in fact, did not actually speak. Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, one of the great Jewish biblical commentators of the 20th century, writes that these verses "depict the continuance on the subconscious plane of the mental and moral conflict in Balaam's soul; and the dream apparition and the speaking donkey is but a further warning to Balaam against being misled through avarice to violate God's command."

Similar views have been held by E. W. Hengstenberg and other Christian scholars. Others, e.g. Voick, regard the statements about the ass speaking as figurative; the ass brayed, and Balaam translated the sound into words.

The Poems

The Poems fall into two groups: the first four, in xxiii. rcxiv. 19, are commonly regarded as ancient lyrics of the early monarchy, perhaps in the time of David or Solomon, which J and E inserted in their narrative. Some recent critics,1 however, are inclined to place them in the post-exilic period, in which case a late editor has substituted them for earlier, probably less edifying, oracles. But the features which are held to indicatelate date may be due to editorial revision. The first two are found in an E setting, and therefore, if ancient, formed part of E.

The First, xxiii. 7-10, prophesies the unique exaltation of Israel, and its countless numbers. The Second, xxiii. 18-24, celebrates the moral virtue of Israel, the monarchy and its conquests. Again the second couple are connected with J. The Third, xxiv. 3-9, also celebrates the glory and conquests of the monarchy.A gag, in verse 7, can hardly be the Amalekite king of I Sam. xv.; Amalek was too small and obscure. The Septuagint and other Greek Versions and Sam. Pent. have Gog, which would imply a post-exilic date, cf. Ezek. xxxix. Probably both Agag and Gog are textual corruptions. Og has been suggested, but does not seem a great improvement.

The Fourth, xxiv. 14-19, announces the coming of a king, possibly David, who shall conquer Edom and Moab.The remaining poems are usually regarded as later additions;thus the Oxford Hexateuch on Num. xxiv. 20-24. "The three concluding oracles seem irrelevant here, being concerned neitherwith Israel nor Moab. It has been thought that they were added to bring the cycle up to seven." The Fifth, xxiv. 20, deals with the ruin of Amalek; It is of uncertain date; if the historical Amalek is meant, it may beearly; but Amalek may be symbolical.The Sixth, xxiv. 21 f., deals with the destruction of the Kenite state by Assyria; also of uncertain date, Assyria being, accordingto some, the ancient realm of Nineveh, according to others the Seleucid kingdom of Syria, which was also called Assyria. The Seventh, xxiv. 23f, speaks of the coming of ships from the West, to attack Assur and "Eber" it may refer to the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great.

Balaam in rabbinic literature

In rabbinic literature Balaam is represented as one of seven gentile prophets; the other six being Balaam's father, Job, and his four friends (Talmud, B. B. 15b).

Balaam gradually acquired a position among the heathen as exalted as that of Moses among the chosen people (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20). At first a mere interpreter of dreams, Balaam later became a magician, until finally the spirit of prophecy descended upon him (ib. 7).

According to the Talmud, Balaam possessed the gift of being able to ascertain the exact moment during which God is wroth — a gift bestowed upon no other creature. Balaam's intention was to curse the Israelites at this moment of wrath; but God purposely restrained His anger in order to baffle the wicked prophet and to save the nation from extermination (Talmud, Berachot 7a). When the law was given to Israel, a mighty voice shook the foundations of the earth; so that all kings trembled, and in their consternation gathered about Balaam, inquiring whether this upheaval of nature portended a second deluge; but the prophet assured them that what they heard was the voice of God giving the sacred Law to His children of Israel (Talmud, Zeb. 116a).

Nevertheless, it is significant that in rabbinical literature the epithet "rasha" (the wicked one) is often attached to the name of Balaam (Talmud Berachot l.c.; Taanit 20a; Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20:14). Balaam is pictured as blind of one eye and lame in one foot (Talmud Sanhedrin 105a); and his disciples (followers) are distinguished by three morally corrupt qualities, viz., an evil eye, a haughty bearing, and an avaricious spirit—qualities the very opposite of those characterizing the disciples of Abraham (Ab. v. 19; compare Tan., Balak, 6).

Balaam received the divine communication at night only—a limitation that applies also to the other non-Jewish prophets (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20:12). The Rabbis hold Balaam responsible for the unchastity which led to the apostasy in Shittim, and in chastisement of which 24,000 persons fell victims to a pestilence (Num. xxv. 1-9). When Balaam, "the wicked," saw that he could not curse the children of Israel, he advised Balak (intimated in Num. xxiv. 14) as a last resort to tempt the Hebrew nation to immoral acts and, through these, to the worship of Baal-peor. "The God of the Hebrews," adds Balaam, "hates lewdness; and severe chastisement must follow" (San. 106a; Yer. ib. x. 28d; Num. R. l.c.).

The rabbis, playing on the name Balaam, call him "Belo 'Am" (without people; that is, without a share with the people in the world to come), or "Billa' 'Am" (one that ruined a people); and this hostility against his memory finds its climax in the dictum that whenever one discovers a feature of wickedness or disgrace in his life, one should preach about it (Sanh. 106b).

Balaam in the New Testament

An interesting, but doubtful, emendation makes this poem describe the nun of Shamal, a state in northwest Syria. In the New Testament Balaam is cited as a type of avarice ;6 in Rev. ii. 14 we read of false teachers at Pergamum who held the "teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication." Balaam has attracted much interest, alike from Jews, Christians and Mahommedans. Josephus paraphrases the story more suo, and speaks of Balaam, as the best prophet of his time, but with a disposition ill adapted to resist temptation. Philo describes him in the Life of Moses as a great magician; elsewhere he speaks of "the sophist Balaam, being," i.e. symbolizing, "a vain crowd of contrary and warring opinions" and again as "a vain people" both phrases being based on a mistaken etymology of the name Balaam.

Critical historical view

The main passage concerning Balaam in Numbers xxii-xxv.; it consists of a narrative which serves as a framework for seven oracular poems, the first four being of some length and the last three very brief.

According to higher biblical criticism, the text of the Torah has been edited together from several earlier traditions; this is known as the documentary hypothesis. The sections about Balaam have two sources, the J source and the E source. The story of Balaam originally was a single story (in the traditional view, spoken by God to Moses at Mount Sinai.) However, this story was imperfectly transmitted among the Israelites over a period of centures. As such, over time, two different forms of this story appeared. At some later time, these two traditions were fused together to create the version we now see today.

Other records of Balaam

In 1967, an archeological mission found in Deir Alla, Jordan, an ancient Aramaic inscription written in red and black ink on plaster walls telling about a hitherto unknown prophecy from the "Book of Balaam", foretelling destruction for disobedience to the gods.

See also


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