In 1967, inscriptions written on a crumbled plaster wall were discovered during the excavation of Tell Deir ‘Alla in Jordan. Dated to the early 8th century BCE and written in a local Canaanite dialect, the inscriptions drew great attention when their title, written in red ink, was translated and found to say “Text of Balaam son of Beor, seer of the gods.” This remarkable find provided independent attestation of local tradition about a seer named Balaam who was already well-known to us from the Bible, and deciphering the fragmentary texts has been an ongoing task of archaeologists and linguistic experts since then.
The biblical Balaam passages are not without their own difficulties. The main story of Balaam in Numbers 22–24 is contradicted by other brief references in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, as well as three mentions of him in the New Testament. The importance of Balaam to the development of Christian theology is also remarkable, as we shall see once we untangle the development of the Balaam legend.
The Deir ‘Alla Texts
Let’s start with the archaeological data: the aforementioned texts that had been written on a wall in a religious sanctuary of some kind, located at biblical Succoth on the River Jabbok (see map below), in the region of Gilead near Ammonite territory.
There are two surviving texts. The first describes a message of doom sent from El — the high god of Canaanite religion as well as the Old Testament — to Balaam at night. A council of gods opposing El has commanded the goddess Shagar-and-Ishtar to “sew up the heavens” and produce everlasting darkness, which will be disastrous for the land and its people. After weeping and fasting for two days, Balaam rescues Shagar-and-Ishtar and dispatches powerful agents against her divine adversaries, thereby saving the land.
The second text, which is more fragmentary, describes the construction of the netherworld Sheol by El. (Summary based on Levine 141ff.)
The texts provide a fascinating look at the actual religious beliefs and scriptures of a locale the Bible considers to be part of Israel. They mention the biblical deity El, a fertility goddess, and a council of gods called the Shadday. They make no mention of Yahweh, which suggests that he was not a significant deity in Gilead, contrary to Samaria across the Jordan river. Balaam is described as a prophet who receives visions from El at night, and who delivers his oracles in a manner quite similar to some of the biblical prophets. (On this point, see Dijkstra 43-64.)
The Conquest of the Transjordan
Before we return to Balaam, there’s another biblical passage to consider. The earliest version of Israel’s conquest of the Transjordan is probably the one found at the beginning of Deuteronomy. Ch. 2 describes Israel passing peacefully through Edom and Moab into “Amorite” territory, where they fight king Sihon but are not permitted to attack the Ammonites around the River Jabbok. They continue north through Gilead and defeat king Og of Bashan, which is in the far northeast of Palestine bordering Syria. Then the Transjordan region (Gilead and Bashan) is divided amongst the tribes. The story ends with the Israelites gathered near Beth-Peor, while Moses observes the promised land across the Jordan from Mt. Pisgah. There is no mention of Balaam in this account.
The Transjordan conquest story is retold and expanded upon by another author (often regarded as the “J source” or “Yahwist”) in Numbers, and he adds several episodes that are absent from the Deuteronomist’s account. One of those is the story of Balaam.
The Main Balaam Story
If there’s one thing Balaam is most remembered for today, it’s probably his talking donkey. The story that begins in Numbers 22 is one of extremely few biblical episodes featuring articulate animals, but that’s really a minor aspect of the story. Numbers 22-24 can be summarized as follows:
The Israelites have arrived in the “plains of Moab”, having skirted the borders of Moab in the previous chapter and conquered some of the local Amorite kings. King Balak of Moab fears that he will be attacked next, so he sends for the renowned seer Balaam son of Beor to come curse the Israelites. God tells Balaam to refuse the invitation, so he does.
Balak persists and sends a second delegation. This time, Balaam is told by God to go with them but do only what God tells him. During the journey, however, an angel of Yahweh visible only to Balaam’s donkey blocks the road. After three failed attempts to make his donkey walk by hitting it, the donkey speaks and complains about Balaam’s cruel treatment. Yahweh then allows Balaam to see the angel, which gives him instructions only to speak Yahweh’s words.
Balaam then arrives at the River Arnon, the northern boundary of Moab, and meets with Balak. Balak takes him to a spot where the Israelites can be seen, but after building alters and performing sacrifices, Balaam pronounces a blessing on Israel instead of a curse. Two more times, an increasingly irate Balak takes Balaam to mountains overlooking the Israelites, and Balaam speaks blessings over Israel.
Balak gives up and tells Balaam he will receive no reward for his services. Balaam responds by giving one more oracle, this time predicting the defeat of Moab and nearby nations by a future Israelite king. Overall, the story paints a very positive picture of Balaam as a prophet and follower of the Israelite God, even if he is not an Israelite himself. This positive view of Balaam can also be found in Micah 6:5.
The Balaam story is followed a story about the Israelite men in Shittim having sexual relations with Moabite women, and Israel “yoking itself to the Baal of Peor”. The episode culminates with a terrible plague that is lifted when Pinehas, grandson of Aaron, slays a Simeonite man and his Midianite wife. (What she has to do with the Moabite women or Baal-Peor is not clear.) The Balaam story and this one are unrelated, but they were probably juxtaposed due to their common geographic location and the similarity between “Beor” and “Peor”.
Whence Cometh Balaam?
There are several difficulties with the Balaam story. The first involves his place of origin. Numbers 22:5 states that Balak “sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the River, in the land of the sons of Ammo”. What that means is not obvious.
The usual view is that “the River” refers to the Euphrates, and Pethor (Hebrew Petora) must be Pitru, a city mentioned in Assyrian records. This is obviously a problem if you look at the map below. While the entire Balaam story is focused on a small region near the Dead Sea, Pitru is some 400 miles away. It defies the logic of the narrative that Balak’s delegation traversed this distance twice to exchange messages, or that Balaam undertook the journey with just a donkey and two servants (Num 22:22). This is at least a 20-day trip, and probably longer. Other problems include the fact that Pitru is actually on the Sajur River, a tributary of the Euphrates. (See Layton for a discussion of these issues and more.)
Scott C. Layton (Ibid.) concludes that Petora is actually an Aramaic title meaning “diviner”, not a toponym. Furthermore, Ammo — usually translated as “kinsfolk” — should actually be understood as Ammon, and thus Num 22:5 should be read “Balaam son of Beor the Diviner, near the river in the land of the Ammonites” — that is to say, the River Jabbok. This places Balaam in the proximity of the Israelites and Moab to begin with, and it also happens to be right where the 8th-century Balaam inscriptions were found. The author may well be referring to the very same sanctuary.
The “Elders of Midian”
Twice the story makes odd references to the “elders of Midian” as though they were residents of Moab. This makes little sense, since Midian is located far to the south, beyond Edom, and has no connection with Moab or the events in question.
Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were so numerous…. And Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Num 22:31, 4)
So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand…. (Num 22:8a)
Materially, these “elders of Midian” play absolutely no role in the story, disappearing after chapter 22. They seem to be a later insertion into the text for reasons we shall see presently.
From Hero to Villain
There is another episode in Numbers 31 — this one attributed to the Priestly writer — that portrays Balaam in a very different manner. On this occasion, 12,000 Israelites march out to war against Midian. They kill the five kings of Midian and also Balaam son of Beor (v. 8). Furthermore, Moses claims it was Balaam’s advice that caused the Midianite women to entice Israelite men to be unfaithful to God at Peor, resulting in a plague upon Israel (v. 16).
This is rather shocking, for as we just read in chapters 22-24, Balaam did no such thing. He was never in Midian, nor did he advise lascivious foreign women to lead the Israelites into idolatry. Furthermore, the original Baal-Peor episode, which immediately followed the Balaam story, concerned Moabite women rather than Midianites. However, because the two episodes sat next to each other, the author of Numbers 31 has combined them. Reshuffling the plot elements, he gives us a new story with Balaam and Midianites — a group he is strongly opposed to for some reason¹ — as antagonists. The references to the “elders of Midian” were probably added to Numbers 22 at this stage, retroactively suggesting an association between Balaam and Midian.
This version has influenced the conquest account in Joshua 13, which focuses on Balaam’s divination, rather than apostasy, as the reason for his demise:
[The Reubenites were given] …all the kingdom of King Sihon of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, whom Moses defeated with the leaders of Midian, Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, as princes of Sihon, who lived in the land. Along with the rest of those they put to death, the Israelites also put to the sword Balaam son of Beor, who practiced divination. (Joshua 13:21b-22)
Another negative re-interpretation of the Balaam incident is found in Deut. 23:4-6. According to Van Seters (p. 129), this is a late addition that concerns the exclusion of Ammonites and Moabites from the second temple in the Persian period. It states that Balaam did curse Israel, but that God changed the curse into a blessing:
[The Ammonites and Moabites] hired against you Balaam son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia to curse you. Yahweh your God was not willing to heed Balaam so that Yahweh your God changed for you the curse into blessing because Yahweh your God loves you.
Tampering with the Text
Other biblical authors continued to reshape Israelite tradition about Moab and Balaam. Joshua 24:9-10, part of Joshua’s summary of the exodus story, reads in the Hebrew MT:
Then Balak son of Zippor of Moab arose and fought with Israel. He sent and summoned Balaam son of Beor to curse them. But I was not willing to heed Balaam. He did in fact bless you, and I delivered you from his hand.
Nowhere else does the BIble say that Balak fought against Israel. Other passages explicitly reject this having happened.
Now are you any better than King Balak son of Zippor of Moab? Did he ever enter into conflict with Israel, or did he ever go to war with them? (Judges 11:25)
Furthermore, the statement that Yahweh was not willing to heed Balaam contradicts the very next statement that Balaam actually blessed Israel. And whose hand did God deliver Israel from? The syntax implies Balaam, but Balak must surely be meant. The Greek Septuagint reads a bit differently (the main difference is in bold):
And Balak the son of Sepphor, king of Moab, rose up and set himself against Israel, and he sent for Balaam to curse you. And the Lord your God was not willing to destroy you, and he blessed us with a blessing and rescued us out of their hands and gave them over.
Van Seters (p. 131) believes the text of Joshua originally read much like the Septuagint — in basic agreement with Numbers 22-24 — but that the Hebrew was later changed to match the statement in Deut. 23 that Balaam had cursed Israel.
The Ass That Spoke
Going back to the story in Numbers 22-24, we find another aspect that makes sense as a later development meant to denigrate Balaam’s character: the angel on the road and Balaam’s talking donkey. Why, having just instructed Balaam to go meet Balak, is Yahweh now angry at Balaam and impeding his progress? According to scholars, this portion is probably a late addition to the text meant to denigrate Balaam as a foreigner (cf. Van Seters 126, 131-132; Yoreh 244). Wajdenbaum (90-91) sees a parallel here with the Iliad, in which Achilles’ horse is given the ability to speak by Hera. According to Van Seters, “the talking ass story is the final degradation of the faithful prophet into a buffoon who must be instructed by his own humble donkey” (p. 132).
Balaam According to Jewish Historians
Philo, Josephus, and Pseudo-Philo emphasized the negative traditions of Balaam in their retelling of the biblical stories. To Philo, Balaam had true soothsaying skills but was not a true prophet. Josephus harmonized the discordant biblical texts by suggesting that Balaam wanted to curse Israel but could not do so, so instead he advised Balak to have Midianite women entice Israelite men away from God — twisting Numbers 24:14, “let me advise you what this people will do to your people in days to come,” to mean something else.
Rabbinical authors turned Balaam into one of several paradigmatic villains — a greedy sorcerer who tried to lead Israel astray. We’ll return to these sources a bit further on.
Balaam as Arch-Heretic in the New Testament
There are four allusions to Balaam in the New Testament. Three mention him by name, but the most important one does not.
Jude 11 — Jude 11 includes Balaam among a triumvirate of villains to whom certain heretical teachers are compared: “Woe to them! For they go the way of Cain, and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain, and perish in Korah’s rebellion.”
Here, we have a portrayal of Balaam that is precisely opposite that of the God-fearing prophet in Numbers 22-24 who turned down Balak’s bribes. Jude’s Balaam is drawn from the villain of later Jewish tradition, not the original biblical version.
2 Peter 2:15-16 — 2 Peter paraphrases most of Jude. (For more on that, see my earlier article.) When he gets to Jude 11, he omits the references to Cain and Korah, focusing on Balaam to explain the behaviour of his opponents (Fornberg, 271).
They have left the straight road and have gone astray, following the road of Balaam son of Bosor, who loved the wages of doing wrong, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.
The author includes Jude’s association of Balaam with greed and adds embellishments that reflect post-biblical traditions rather than the original story — for example, it is the angel that rebukes Balaam in Numbers, not the donkey.
The alteration of Balaam’s patronymic from Beor to Bosor is mystifying and has not been adequately explained. A town called Bosor in Greek (Bezer in Hebrew) appears several times in the Old Testament as a Moabite and/or Reubenite town, which fits the geography of the story. It’s hard to say if this is a coincidence.
Revelation 2:14 — Addressing the church in Pergamum, the author accuses his audience of including those who “hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.” Like Josephus, the author imagines that Balaam’s advice was responsible for the Baal-Peor incident. Interestingly, he highlights the eating of food sacrificed to idols as reprehensible practice some in the church are engaged in.
Some have suggested that it is the Pauline church that is targeted here. The controversy over claims of apostleship (2:2) is suggestive of the angst we find in Paul’s letters regarding his disputed apostolic credentials. Paul also suggests in 1 Corinthians 10 that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating meat that has been consecrated to idols. Furthermore, “fornication” was sometimes used as a broad term for practices that violated the Jewish law, and antinomianism was clearly a point of contention between Paul and his Jewish opponents. (W.C. van Manen, “Nicolaitans”, Encyclopedia Biblica; van Henten 247ff)
In summary, these three NT references use Balaam to typify people within the Christian community who spread heretical beliefs.
Balaam’s Prophecy of the Star and Sceptre
Balaam is important to early Christianity for another reason: his fourth oracle, which predicted a great Israelite ruler, was given a Messianic interpretation in the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Targums. Numbers 24:17 in the Septuagint reads:
A star shall dawn out of Jacob, and a man (Hebrew: sceptre) shall rise up out of Israel. He shall crush the chiefs of Moab, and he shall plunder all Seth’s sons.
LXX Numbers 24:7 (Balaam’s third oracle) also replaces Amalekite king Agag with the eschatological foe Gog and presents a Messianic figure:
A man will come forth from his offspring, and he shall rule over many nations, and reign of him shall be exalted beyond Gog, and his reign shall be increased.
Various documents found at Qumran from around the first century BCE cited Balaam’s oracle as a prediction of the Davidic Messiah, and the association of a star with the Messiah was applied to Simon Kosiba, leader of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 132 CE who was given the name Bar Kokhba — meaning “son of the star” in Aramaic.
The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who wrote in the early first century, believed Num 24:7 to be referring to a future eschatological emperor of the Jews who would rule the nations of the world. He even described this man as having a divine nature.
“A man will come forth,” says the word of God, “leading a host and warring furiously, who will subdue great and populous nations…” (Praemiis et Poenis 95)
When they have gained this unexpected liberty, those who but now were scattered in Greece and the outside world over Islands and continents will arise and post from every side with one Impulse to the one appointed place, guided in their pilgrimage by a vision divine or super human unseen by others but manifest to them as they pass from exile to their home. (Praemiis et Poenis 165)
Many of these ideas about the Messiah — a divine man and saviour associated with a star — found further expression in Christianity. It is widely believed that Matthew had Balaam’s oracle about the star of Jacob in mind when he wrote his nativity story about a star appearing at Christ’s birth. And it is perhaps no accident that Jesus’ birth was attended by Magi who knew how to interpret the star, as Balaam was regarded by early Christians as the founder of the Magi order (“Balaam”, ABD; Leemans 292-293). In other words, Balaam’s prophecy comes full circle in Matthew’s nativity story, as the star he predicted is seen by his descendants when it appears, leading them to the newborn Messiah.
Some are puzzled by Matthew’s failure to directly cite Balaam’s oracle, since he elsewhere cites the Septuagint to show its fulfillment through Christ’s birth. However, it might have been imprudent to do so here, since the name Balaam had come to symbolize heresy and apostasy in both Judaism and the nascent church. This tension is evident in other Christian writings, and some authors would misattribute Balaam’s oracle to a more suitable prophet, such as Isaiah. Justin Martyr provides an early example of this:
Another prophet, Isaiah, expressing thoughts in a different language, spoke thus: ‘A star shall rise out of Jacob, and a flower shall spring from the root of Jesse, and in His arm shall nations trust’. Indeed, a brilliant star has arisen, and a flower has sprung up from the root of Jesse—this is Christ. (Apologia 1.32)
One Final Irony
If Balaam’s star and sceptre/man came to represent Jesus in Christianity, it is curious that Balaam was often associated with Yeshu (Jesus) — a highly vilified figure — in the Talmud and rabbinical literature. One Midrash, for example, seems to reinterpret Balaam’s oracles as a condemnation of Christianity during a discussion the volume of Balaam’s voice:
And [Balaam] looked about and saw that a man, son of a woman, will arise, who seeks to make himself God and to seduce all the world without exception. Therefore, he gave strength to his voice, that all nations of the world might hear, and thus he spake: Take heed that you go not astray after that man, as it is written [Num. 23:19], God is not a man, that he should lie, and if he says that he is God, he is a liar…. (Yalkut Shimoni on Numbers 23:7)
Balaam even appears directly as a substitute name for Jesus in certain passages of the Talmud and Mishnah. For example, the Mishna (Sanhedrin 10:1) states that “all Israel have a portion in the world to come” with a few important exceptions that include “four commoners: Balaam, Doeg, Ahitophel, and Gehazi)”, and it is widely believed that Balaam (not an Israelite!) is a cipher for Jesus (Yeshu ha-Notzri), who is elsewhere listed along with Doeg, Ahitophel, and Gehazi as four wicked disciples who departed from the Torah (b. Ber 17) (see Schafer 30ff).
What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been
Balaam’s journey through history and tradition has seen him portrayed in many different ways, with some of the main stages described below:
- At 8th-century Deir ‘Alla (Succoth) in Gilead, Balaam was remembered as a respected prophet of El, whom we recognize as one of the gods of Israel.
- According to one of the authors of Numbers, Balaam was a prophet of Yahweh/Elohim² who refused to curse Israel when asked by king Balak to do so, but blessed them instead.
- The later priestly contributors to the Pentateuch vilified Balaam as a pagan diviner who incited the Moabites and Midianites to lead Israel into idolatry.
- Post-Tanakh Jewish authors and the Qumran sect had to reconcile the negative tradition of Balaam the pagan diviner with his status as a divinely inspired prophet who foresaw the coming of the Messiah.
- Early Christian authors faced a similar dilemma, understanding the greedy and deceitful Balaam as an archetype of false teachers in the church, yet treating his words in the Septuagint as a divine prophecy of Christ’s coming.
- Finally, rabbinical Jews reinterpreted Balaam and his oracles as condemnations of Jesus and Christianity.
- Susan Niditch (War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence, pp. 79-80) suggests that the association between Moses and Midian made the latter a target of the Aaronid priests who wrote Numbers 31.
- Even within the “original” Balaam story of Numbers 22–24, there are enough discrepancies in vocabulary and narrative structure to suggest that two different versions have been merged — one in which Balaam was a follower of Elohim in opposition to Israel’s “foreign” god Yahweh, and one in which Balaam was a follower of Yahweh from the outset. The former would probably resemble the historical Balaam more closely, if such a person indeed existed. See Tzemah L. Yoreh, The First Book of God, 2010, p. 237ff.
Baruch A. Levine, “The Deir ‘Alla Plaster Inscriptions (The Book of Balaam, son of Beor)”, The Context of Scripture, Volume 2, 2000
Dijkstra, “Is Balaam Also among the Prophets?”, JBL 114/1
Scott C. Layton, “Whence Comes Balaam? Num 22,5 Revisited”, Biblica 73/1 (1992)
John Van Seters, “From Faithful Prophet to Villain: Observations on the Tradition History of the Balaam Story”, A Biblical Itinerary: In Search of Method, Form and Content
Philippe Wajdenbaum, Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, 2011
Tzemah L. Yoreh, The First Book of God, 2010
Johan Leemans, “‘To Bless with a Mouth Bent on Cursing’: Patristic Interpretations of Balaam (Num 24:17)”, The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity, and Islam, 2008
Tord Fornberg, “Balaam and 2 Peter 2:15”, The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity, and Islam, 2008
W.C. von Manen, Nicolaitans, Encyclopedia Biblica
Jan Willem van Henten, “Balaam in Revelation 2:14”, The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity, and Islam, 2008
Peter Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud, 2007