Numbers 31:16 is the only verse in the Hebrew Bible that attributes the apostasy of Baal Peor to Balaam’s doing. Indeed, we have already seen in an earlier contradiction (#297-298) how the later Priestly writer inserted the Midianites into a solely Moabite affair in their retelling of the earlier Yahwist version of the Baal Peor incident (Num 25:1-5).
Numbers 31:16, however, presents another contradictory layer—that it was Balaam’s doing, that it was “on account of Balaam’s word” that the Israelites apostatized. So not only were the Midianites to blame, but now apparently so too was Balaam, who according to Numbers 31:16 incited—through his word—the Midianite women to cause the children of Israel to apostatize against Yahweh. This seems to be what is also implied in Rev 2:14.
Textually speaking this claim is not only alarming but unsubstantiated. Nowhere in the Balaam pericope (Num 22-24) is Balaam presented as leading through his word a breach against Yahweh—just the opposite. Balaam is presented as a faithful vassal and prophet of Yahweh. On several occasions he claims that even if he were given all the riches of king Balak, he could not, and would not, go against Yahweh (Num 22:18; 24:13). And indeed, loyal to Yahweh’s words, Balaam blesses Israel despite the fact that the Moabite king has hired Balaam to curse the Israelites. In other words, Balaam’s words are merely those of Yahweh! Numbers 23-24 makes that clear.
We must conclude therefore that Num 31:16 is referencing—or creating—a contradictory tradition about Balaam which is not represented anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, as we have already seen, as a collection of variant traditions from the ancient world the Bible does preserve contradictory views about Balaam (#291). These contradictory views, like our present one, must have grown out of different traditions.
We now know, through the discovery of the “Balaam inscriptions” from Deir ‘Alla, a Transjordanian site, that Balaam was a popular literary figure in other Transjordanian extra-biblical traditions that were active during the 9th to 8th centuries BCE. The biblical traditions of Balaam, including our variant tradition, most likely come from this period. That is, northern Israelite writers of the 9th to 8th centuries BCE retrojected into the wilderness period stories about a deteriorating Transjordanian Israelite relationship with Yahweh which most likely represented the historical circumstances of these writers’ time period. The message? That Israelites living in Transjordan risked apostatizing from Yahweh due to the influence of non-Israelite cultic practices. Here in this story, Balaam is seen as the instigator.