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 counted 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 its history.
His story appeared briefly in the readings for daily Mass today (Monday of the 3rd week of Advent). Perhaps in honor of this we should consider him and his story.
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! (Num 24)
Yes, no prophet spoke more highly or more purely. Though he was paid to curse, he would only bless, not counting the cost; he would only say what God commanded and revealed.
And yet arguably no prophet fell more mightily or caused more harm in Israel. So egregious was his crime that his act merited special condemnation from Jesus himself. Great was his glory and mighty his fall.
Who was this prophet? Balaam, son of Beor. Strangely enough, his name means “devourer.” Though he was sent to curse, this devourer could only bless and thus build up. But eventually Balaam lived up to his name.
Balaam’s fame was widespread among the many nations that stretched from Mesopotamia to the modern-day Holy Land. His home was far off to the east in northern Mesopotamia, near the Euphrates River. As we shall see, his journey from being a false prophet of false gods to becoming (for a time) a true prophet of the one true God was an odd one, often marked by comic 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 that 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 (Num 22:7).
To his credit, despite being offered a large sum of money, Balaam refused to go with the men who were sent to fetch him. Balaam prayed to the Lord, who 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 a remarkable testimony to Balaam that he so quickly learned of the True God and was willing to obey Him!
But Balaam’s faith, though growing quickly, still needed to be purified. 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).
And so Balaam went forth with the men who had summoned him. But God, who knows the secrets of the heart, knew that as Balaam went forth he actually had the intention of cursing this nation as had been requested. Perhaps Balaam feared the king’s emissaries. Perhaps he was enticed by the rich profit he was offered. We do not know the reason. God had only given him permission to go with these men if he agreed to do exactly as the Lord instructed. Balaam did not have permission to curse Israel. And so the anger of the Lord flared against him as he seemingly violated his vow of obedience.
In a comic turn of events, God sent an angel to block the way. But this “seer” (a word that literally means “one who sees”) could not see the angel. Yet the donkey upon which Balaam rode was able see the angel! And, seeing the angel, the donkey stubbornly refused to proceed.
When the frustrated Balaam began to beat the animal, comic paradoxes ensued. Balaam, a prophet who supposedly spoke for God, was now spoken to by God through his donkey! The donkey rebuked Balaam: 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? (Num 22:30). Not only was the donkey more reasonable than Balaam, not only did he rebuke him rightly, but he even seemed to psychoanalyze him! It is rich in comedy and dripping in paradox.
Finally, the angel of the Lord revealed himself to Balaam. Balaam fell to his knees, admitted he had sinned, and promised to return home immediately. But through the angel, God, who purifies our hearts, bid him to go forward anyway, but with this warning: you may say only what I tell you (Num 22:35).
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 to say: 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 to you 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 ran to him, relieved. Balak wanted him to go right to work, cursing the Israelites. But Balaam, now properly chastised and having made the journey from a false prophet of false gods to a true prophet of the true God, said this profound, yet simple, thing to the powerful king: 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 ordered many rituals and sacrifices. Then, perhaps presuming Balaam would give way to greed and accept the bribe, or give way to fear, Balak orders him to utter the cursing oracle.
Yet out of Balaam’s mouth came not a curse but resounding blessings on Israel! Enraged, King Balak ordered a new and “correct” oracle that would send curses on Israel. 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 Balak ordered a third oracle, and then a fourth. But the result was always the same: 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 its peak; he was now a true prophet of the true God. Balaam gave perhaps the most profound declaration that any prophet has ever given. To a king who promised him riches and favor, and could also destroy him, Balaam 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 what God has put there? Really?
So here was Balaam at his zenith, at the time he was most conformed to God! 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. But I suppose that if God can use a donkey, he can use Balaam—he can even use me.
After this, mighty and steep was Balaam’s fall from grace and away from his duty 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 summarized what Balaam did. He mentioned 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 in order 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 in Israel was deep 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 to take heed so that we do not fall.
Consider a brief incident in today’s Gospel (Monday of the 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).
They are such a sad and pathetic lot. Note that Jesus catches them in the classic trap that ensnares all false prophets: preferring their own safety and benefit to the truth that they are bound to proclaim.
See how different they are from Balaam at his best? Balaam stood before a powerful king, who had the power to bless or curse him, and yet feared God more than man and loved the truth more than his own life. Balaam spoke the truth, whatever the cost. For at least that brief moment, Balaam risked everything for the truth that 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. Most of us face a very grave temptation to navigate life in such a way that we avoid trouble, and maximize our 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 a great human struggle to avoid deciding that the truth just “costs too much.”
Pray for bishops, priests, and deacons, who have the first obligation to speak God’s truth. Too easily we seek to avoid difficulties and maximize personal blessings at the cost of compromising the gospel message. Too easily we avoid controversy, challenging texts, and confronting sin. Too easily we fear man more than God, for whom we should speak.
Pray, too, for parents and family leaders, who often do these same things, sometimes by silence, sometimes by tolerating sinful and bad behavior, sometimes by teaching that which is popular but contrary to God’s will.
Yes, too often all of us seek to navigate life in such a way as to avoid trouble and maximize blessings or access. But in doing so we are scorning the prophetic office to which we have been called by baptism.
Thanks be to God for those who have spoken the truth to us whatever the cost. For indeed many suffered in order to hand on the Faith to us. Some even made the ultimate sacrifice to summon us to the repentance that we did not, and often do not, want to hear.
Yes, you and I are to be willing to suffer and to preach the truth, whatever the cost.
The tragic story of Balaam reminds us that 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 easily in the next do we fall back into fear and compromise.
It is not clear what led Balaam back into the darkness, but let that 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 just part of it. Let there be no openings that divide or compromise my heart, or my zeal for you and your kingdom.