He is one of the more curious figures of the Bible, The details of his life and story are caught up in textual complexities in the book of Numbers. Though a prophet, he was not even an Israelite, he wrote no book and is not numbered among Israel’s prophets. And yet a prophet he was, for he spoke the oracles of God and brought blessings to Israel at a critical time in the History of Israel.
Perhaps no prophet spoke so eloquently of the glory that would come from Israel, like a star rising in the East, and a king who shall rise higher and whose abode shall endure. Yes a star would rise from Jacob! (Numbers 24).
Yes, no prophet spoke more highly, and more purely, for though paid to curse, he would only bless, not counting the cost for he would only say what God commanded and revealed.
And yet no prophet fell more mightily or arguably caused more harm in Israel. So egregious his crime that his act merits special condemnation from Jesus himself. Great was his glory, and mighty his fall.
He is Balaam Son of Beor. His name means, strangely, “devourer,” And though sent to curse, this devourer could only bless and thus build up. And yet, eventually he lived up to his name.
Among the many nations that stretched from Mesopotamia to the modern-day Holy Land, Balaam’s fame was widespread. His home was far off to the east in northern Mesopotamia near the Euphrates river. As shall see, his journey from being a false prophet of false gods, to become for a time a true prophet of the true God, was an odd journey, often market by comical interlude.
The story begins in the 22nd chapter of the Book of Numbers. King Balak of Moab was confronted with the arrival of the Israelites who had begun their entrance into the Promised Land. Unsettled by their vast numbers, and unnerved by their power and the blessing of God they seemed to possess, Balak sent for the famed Balaam, asking him to curse the Israelites, so that the Moabites could defeat them. The King said with great trust, For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed (Numbers 22:7).
To his credit, and despite being offered a large sum of money, Balaam refused to go with the men who were sent to fetch him. For, having prayed, the Lord, warned him not to go. Now Balaam had never even heard of the Israelites, but God said, Do not go with these men and do not curse the people they fear, for they are blessed (Num 22:13). Despite more entreaties from the officials, and an even higher sum of money that was offered, Balaam responded Even if Balak gave me his house full of gold and silver, I could not do anything, small or great, contrary to the command the Lord my God (Num 22:19).
It is remarkable testimony at this point to Balaam that he so quickly learns of the True God and is willing to obey him!
Yet, Balaam’s faith, though growing quickly, still needed to be purified. Later, the next day, God came to Balaam and said to him, If these men have come to you, you may go with them; but only on the condition that you do exactly as I tell you. (Num 22:21)
Thus, Balaam went forth with the men who had summoned him. But God, who knows the secrets of the heart, seems to have known that as Balaam went forth, he did so with the intention of cursing this nation as was requested. Perhaps his intention was rooted in fear of these emissaries who drew him into the power of the King. Perhaps the rich profit enticed him. We do not know, but God had only given him permission to go with these men and await further instruction. Balaam did not have permission to curse Israel. Thus, the anger of the Lord flared against him as he seemingly recanted on his vow of obeying the Lord.
In a comical turn of events, God sent an angel to block the way. But this “seer” (a word which means “one who sees”) could not see the angel; yet, the donkey upon which he rode could see the angel! And seeing the angel, the Donkey stubbornly refused to proceed.
When the frustrated Balaam began to beat the animal, the comical paradoxes grow. For Balaam, a prophet who was supposed to speak for God, is now spoken to by God through his donkey! The donkey rebuked Balaam with these words What have I done to you that you should beat me these three times? Am I not your own beast, and have you not always ridden upon me until now? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way before? No, said Balaam (Num 22:29-30). The donkey is not only more reasonable than Balaam, not only rebukes him rightly, but even seems to psychoanalyze him! It is rich in comedy, and dripping in paradox.
Finally, the angel of the Lord reveals himself to Balaam. He falls to his knees and admits he has sinned and promises to go home immediately. But through the angel, God, who purifies our hearts, bids him to go forward anyway, but with this warning, you may say only what I tell you. (Num 22:35)
And in this way, God warns every prophet, including you and me who are prophets through our baptism. As prophets, we are to say only what God tells us, what God teaches us through his Scriptures and through the holy teachings of the Church.
Pay attention fellow prophet, if you won’t speak rightly, God can speak through a donkey! But he shouldn’t have to. If you don’t praise him the very rocks will cry out. But they shouldn’t have to. Never let it be said that donkeys and rocks are smarter and more useful to God than you are! Yes, God can raise up children for the kingdom from the very rocks, (cf Luke 3:8), but he shouldn’t have to.
Upon seeing Balaam, Balak runs to him, relieved and wants him to go right to work cursing the Israelites. But Balaam, who has now been properly chastised and made the journey from being a false prophet of false gods, to a true prophet of true God says this profound, yet simple thing to the powerful king who stands before him: But what power have I to say anything? I can speak only what God puts in my mouth….I will tell you whatever he lets me see (Num 22:38; 23:3).
Still confident that Balaam would curse the Israelites Balak orders many rituals and sacrifices and then, perhaps presuming Balaam would give way to greed, and take the bride, or to fear and curse the Israelites, Balak orders Balaam the utter the cursing oracle.
Yet out of Balaam’s mouth came not a curse but resounding blessings on Israel! Enraged, King Balaak ordered a new and “correct” oracle that would send curses on Israel. Yet again, from Balaam’s mouth proceeded only another even more powerful blessing that foretold of Israel’s eventual triumph over its enemies including Moab!
Then a third, and a fourth oracle, but always the same result: a profound blessing rather than a curse. Only the words of the true God could come forth from Balaam’s mouth!
Yes, Balaam’s transformation was at it height, he was now a true prophet of the true God and he gave perhaps the most profound instruction any prophet has ever given. To a king who promised him riches and favor, or could also destroy him, he would only declare: I can speak only what God puts into my mouth.
Pay attention fellow prophet by baptism, is it true that nothing can come forth from your mouth except with God has put there? Really?
So here was Balaam at his height, at the time he was most conformed to God! And as such he uttered blessings that were critical to Israel, as she prepared to enter the Promised Land. It is astonishing that God would use a pagan “prophet” to utter his blessings. I suppose if God can use a donkey, he can use Balaam, and he can even use me.
And yet, mighty and steep was Balaam’s fall out of grace and away from his office to speak only that which God told him to speak. His crime is not explicitly recorded in Numbers, but it is described elsewhere. It is Jesus himself who best summarizes what Balaam did. He mentions it in his rebuke of the Church at Pergamum:
Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. (Rev 2:14).
And so it would seem that although Balaam would not curse Israel, he encouraged Balak to insinuate Moabite women into Israel to seduce the men there to false worship and fornication. Since he could not weaken them from without, perhaps Balak could weaken them from within, or so Balaam taught and advised.
The result was a grave falling away from the faith such that 24,000 men were killed to purge the evil within Israel.(cf Num 25)
Why did Balaam do it? It is not clear. One text from the New Testament suggests it was greed.
With eyes full of adultery, [these wicked men] never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. (2 Peter 2:14-15)
Another text ascribes it to envy:
Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, Jude 1:11
Whatever the cause, the wound was deep in Israel and never forgotten. When Israel finally conquered the Moabites they sought out Balaam and executed him. Thus the one who blessed them so profoundly and who could only obey God, now lay dead, a traitor to his office, and an enemy to God’s people. Corruptio optime pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst).
And yet, good reader, and fellow prophet, lest we think Balaam’s fate unique to him, we ought take heed lest we fall. Consider a brief incident in the Gospel from Monday of this week (3rd Week of Advent).
It is a classic and memorable exchange between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of his day:
When Jesus had come into the temple area, the chief priests and the elders of the people approached him as he was teaching and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them in reply, “I shall ask you one question, and if you answer it for me, then I shall tell you by what authority I do these things. Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?” They discussed this among themselves and said, “If we say ‘Of heavenly origin,’ he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we fear the crowd, for they all regard John as a prophet.” So they said to Jesus in reply, “We do not know.” He himself said to them, “Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things.” (Matt 21:23-27)
Such a sad and pathetic lot of men. Note therefore that Jesus catches them in the classic trap of every false prophet. And that is the trap of preferring their own safety and benefit to the truth that they are to proclaim.
See how different they are from Balaam at his best when he stood before a powerful king who could bring him great blessing or great curse. And yet, he feared God more than man, he loved the truth more than his life. He spoke the truth, whatever the cost. For at least that brief moment, he risked everything for the truth God had revealed.
And lest we scorn these religious leaders who were compromised so easily before Jesus we ought to know well that this is a very common human struggle. The fact is, most of us face a very grave temptation to navigate life in such a way that we avoid trouble, and seek to maximize blessings and access to money and power. Most human beings are more than willing to compromise the truth, even wholly set it aside, in order to take this path.
It is the great human struggle, frequently the truth just “costs too much.” And so we cash out.
Pray for bishops, priests and deacons, who have the first obligation to speak God’s truth. For too easily, we seek to avoid difficulties and troubles, and maximize personal blessings at the cost of compromising the gospel message, avoiding controversy, or challenging texts, of not confronting sin, of fearing man more than God, for whom we should speak.
Pray too for parents, for leaders of families who often do the same things, sometimes by silence, sometimes by tolerating sinful and bad behavior, sometimes with outright teaching that which is popular but wrong and contrary to God’s will.
Yes, too often we all seek to navigate life in such a way that we merely avoid trouble and maximize blessings or access. But we do so by scorning the prophetic office to which we have been called by baptism.
And thanks be to God for those who have spoken the truth to us whatever the cost. For indeed some, yes many, suffered to hand on the Faith to us. Some have suffered and paid the greatest price to summon us to the repentance we did not want to hear.
Yes you and I are to be willing to suffer and preach the truth whatever the cost.
The tragic story Balaam reminds us we must keep constant vigil over our weak and fearful nature. For even if at one moment we stand strong in the face of evil, and proclaim the truth, too quickly we fall back into fear and compromise.
It is not clear what led Balaam back into the darkness, but let that also be a warning to us. For in any number of ways we too can be compromised. Our only refuge can be to beg God for his grace and mercy: Lord make me strong, and keep me strong; give me courage, and keep me courageous; let my zeal be for your whole law, and not part of it only. Let there be no openings that divide or compromise my heart; or my zeal you and your kingdom.