#314. Is Balaam responsible for the Baal Peor apostasy OR not? (Num 31:16; Rev 2:14 vs Num 22-24, 25:1-19)


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.

8 thoughts on “#314. Is Balaam responsible for the Baal Peor apostasy OR not? (Num 31:16; Rev 2:14 vs Num 22-24, 25:1-19)

  1. John Kesler, you said

    “The term the River … usually denotes the Euphrates (e.g., Gen. 31:21; Exod. 23:31; Josh. 24:2-3, 14-15).… Pethor is almost universally agreed to be ancient Pitru (modern Tell el-Ahmar). The journey would take an estimated 20-25 days, hence the four journeys in the story about 90 days.”

    As you put it, “USUALLY” and, “ALMOST universally agreed”. There is wiggle room therefore for another possibility:

    “In an unprecedented discovery, an ancient text found at Deir Alla, Jordan, in 1967 tells about the activities of a prophet named Balaam. Could this be the Balaam of the Old Testament?”

    The text makes it clear that it is. Three times in the first four lines he is referred to as “Balaam son of Beor,” exactly as in the Bible. This represents the first Old Testament prophet to be dug up in Bible lands—not his tomb or his skeleton, but a text about him. The text also represents the first prophecy of any scope from the ancient West Semitic world to be found outside the Old Testament, and the first extra-Biblical example of a prophet proclaiming doom to his own people… who were pagan polytheists like himself. There are a number of similarities between the text and the account of Balaam in the book of Numbers. There are also some obvious contradictions to the conclusions that have been printed here on this contradictions site that I won’t touch on at this time.

    But to begin with the “wiggle room”, the events described in Numbers 22-24 took place in the same general area where the Tell Deir Alla text was found. At the time of the Numbers 22-25 + 31 incident, the Israelites were camped on the Plains of Moab, across the Jordan river from Jericho. Appropriately transliterated ‘Shittim’ (‘excrement’ plural —this is the transliteration from Hebrew into English. Literal translation is “acacias”). Deir Alla is located about 25 miles north of his area, about 5 miles north of where the Jabbok river flows into the the river Jordan. Basically located in the lowest place on the planet in a very seismic rift valley that extends south all away across eastern Africa and goes into the Indian Ocean in modern day Somalia. The area where this theater of action takes place has a long history, biblical history of earth shattering earth quakes that would eventually bury this site. Until 1967. The year Jerusalem was regained after 2500+years or so. The year I was born there.

    We read in our translations that Balaam was from Pethor, near “the river” (Num 22:5), in “Aram” (Num 23:7; Dt 23:4). Could the distance and time have been more like 25 instead of almost 400 miles and the events taking place in about a month or so as Moshe seems to indicate?

    The reference to Aram has led most scholars to conclude that Balaam and all of the travel back and forth was from northern Syria, in the vicinity of the Euphrates river. Maybe until after his talk with his “ride”. Maybe. That does not fit well with the Biblical account, however, since Balaam’s home seems to have been close to where the Israelites were camped (Num 22:1-22; 31:7-8; see especially Joshua 13: 20-23).

    In view of Balaam being revered at Deir Alla, one would expect that Deir Alla was his home. At least where his restless journeys finally came to an end. As the Joshua 13 text indicates, this was also land that included Midianites and their former allies the Amorites under Sihon and Og of Bashan. And it would seem, Balaam himself. Something similar to this is exactly what William Shea has proposed, based on his reading of the name Pethor (i.e. “ben Beor” = Pethor = Beor ) in an inscribed clay tablet found at Deir Alla (1989:108-11). In this case, the river of Numbers 22:5 would be the Jabbok river and the naharaim (two rivers) of Deuteronomy 23:4 would be the Jabbok and Jordan rivers.

    With regard to the references to Aram, Shea suggests that the original place name was Adam, with the “d” being mis-copied as “r,” since the two letters, dalet and resh are very similar.

    DALET https://www.google.com/search?q=the+letter+dalet&tbm=isch


    RESH https://www.google.com/search?tbm=isch&q=the+letter+resh)

    are nearly identical in ancient Hebrew. The same is true in modern Hebrew.

    Adam (Aram?) was a town about eight miles southwest of Deir Alla, on the east bank of the Jordan river, where the Jabbok actually empties into the Jordan. This general area is not only historically vulnerable to earthquakes that would have damned this junction of the “naharaim”and caused the circumstances surrounding the Tell Deir Alla discovery fragments but the additional fact is that this was also the general “Succot” (booths/tabernacles) area near the spot where Abraham’s grandson stopped before going on to Shechem where Jacob sojourned; while finally returning to the place where his famous dream originated, in Beth El. Genesis 33.

    In other words, not only historically/geologically, but spiritually, this was an important place on the biblical landscape and a reason Balaam made it home. Adam was where the water was dammed up to permit the Israelites to cross over the Jordan further south when they came to Gilgal on the west bank of The River.And then on to Jericho. Joshua, at the end of chapter 3 describes this in some detail.


    So let us agree that Balaam (‘Bli-am: ‘without a people’) is a prophet for hire, a wandering star; cloud without water; wild wave of the sea; an uprooted autumn tree without fruit — doubly dead; for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever: originally from the same general area in the Levant as was Abram the “wandering Aramean”. One source says he is Laban’s grandson. Another that he was counseling the Egyptian ruler(s) “who knew not Joseph” and a contemporary of Job and Jethro. Cut his wizardry “eye teeth” and proved his prowess as a curse maker even before Moses showed up and necessitated him coming on the scene. That and the fact that now the sin of the Amorites had finally reached it’s limit (Genesis 15:16).

    Be that as it may or may not be, the legend of his success as a “cursing consultant” was what Balak was counting on and paying him to accomplish, once again. Same people, different place. You’ll notice that @ the end of the lection (24:25) “he departed and went to his place”. Tell Deir Alla reveals that this was the place. Not circa 400 miles north.

    So maybe two trips that take about a month or so to set up and introduce the narrative prophecies; and despite (or *by talking up his ass*) and The Death Angel, he arrives and against his very nature demonstrates what is meant by the concept of God’s ultimate sovereignity over man’s free will.That and what the verse means in part: “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.”

    Then the rest of the action, including the destruction of Sihon’s Midian allies in chapter 31. And all of this is taking place in about another month. Max. 60 days @ the very most. More than likely, starting from his first utterance to his last (23-24), we’re talking about maybe a week passes. The events of chapter 31 take a little longer. All told, in my opinion we’re looking at a month. But I’m willing to dicker over that and 60 days max.

  2. While I recognize your mocking scorn, at least in this case, I think that you have bitten off more than you can disparage.

    To say the least Balaam was self serving, opportunistic, and double minded. “Unstable in all his ways.” So is the claim that he is a misrepresented “faithful vassal and prophet of Yahweh”…another one of those so-called contradictions found here that should be emphasizing instead how ultimately, mentally unstable and demented and truly contradictory this character was instead of lauding him and defending him from the truth you find so “not only alarming but unsubstantiated.”

    But Balaam you see, ‘so-so’ wanted the big pay day from Balak that he would ultimately defy the One you claim he served. So much so that a mute donkey reasoning with him manages to make more sense than his actions. Yet because of this unnatural counsel from a not so unreasonable animal, his eyes are finally opened enough to help him realize that he can only go (to get paid by Balak), ONLY if he speaks what is divinely revealed. Not what Balak is hiring him to do.

    Yet clearly Balaam goes motivated by the prospect of great wealth. Not by the prospect of speaking out on behalf of YHVH Elohim. Numbers 31 reveals that finally his base instincts prevailed and what the donkey delivered him from became instead—because of disobedience—his untimely fate. It was not YHVH Elohim who advocated Baal worship as a back-up plan to curse Israel, whom he was only commanded to bless! This was the counsel he gave to defy this commandment; his counsel which contradicted his previous prophecies, and brings about his death.

    There are approximately 10/11 verses or so which are found throughout Scripture that are testimonies about this particular incident and his behavior. The one in Revelation is explicit. Warning like all the other half dozen books or so that readers should avoid being involved in pagan sexual behavior; that which you insist is by nature actually commendable and exemplary. Balaam was an over-bearing, intimidating charlatan and false ‘profit’ that made his living working among those who thought like you do: “That HERE was a man of god!.”

    Actually he worshipped Venus by any other name.

    Instead and in fact this fellow, this heathen seer who was intent on cursing Israel without God’s consent, is in reality a fool, a caricature of a seer; one outwitted even by the dumb ass who is his beast! The “Balaam inscriptions” from Deir ‘Alla reveal a hellfire and brimstone approach by someone who previously always got his way. Your conclusions stand at variance with reality.

    I go into this a little more @ Bible Contradiction #297. Who led the Israelites to worship Baal of Peor? and why your conclusions are false.

  3. This quote from page 445 of Timothy Ashley’s The Book of Numbers is informative:

    The term the River … usually denotes the Euphrates (e.g., Gen. 31:21; Exod. 23:31; Josh. 24:2-3, 14-15).… Pethor is almost universally agreed to be ancient Pitru (modern Tell el-Ahmar), a site on the Sajur, a tributary of the Euphrates, about two miles from its confluence with the Euphrates, and about 12 mi. south of Carchemish.… The distance between Pethor (Pitru) and the plains of Moab would be over 370 miles. The journey would take an estimated 20-25 days, hence the four journeys in the story about 90 days.

  4. Dr. DiMattei,

    I think it would help your readers if you would explain how long these trips are in miles and in kilometers and how long in time they would take. I don’t think in kilometers, and I don’t know how long any of these trips would take.

    Kenneth Greifer

    1. Already done Kenneth. See my Brief Introduction to Numbers 21, which outlines the geographical and chronological problems in this chapter—mainly due to variant traditions being stitched together. See the visual diagram posted in Contradiction #268 for example. And see Contradiction #313 as well, which the above comment references. I am also writing up a general Introduction to Numbers 33 which attempts to review the whole 40-year Wilderness period (textually from Numbers 10:28 to the end of Deuteronomy) as it comes through in these often competing traditions.

  5. Adding to the problem is that servants of Balak made two trips to Balaam’s home before Balaam agreed to go to Moab (Numbers 22:5 ff.). That’s a lot of traveling and time in itself, to say nothing of Balaam’s travel back to his place after the oracles (24:25) and his inferred trip to either Midian or near the plains of Moab, wherever he was killed (31:8).

  6. As I mentioned here,
    Numbers 31:8 says that Balaam was killed when the Israelites slaughtered the Midianites, and v:16 even blames Balaam for the “affair of Peor.” Yet, 24:25 states that after Balaam concluded his oracles (which were positive toward Israel!), he “got up and went back to his place,” which we are told in 22:5 is “Pethor, which is on the Euphrates, in the land of Amaw.”

    1. Nice attention to textual detail John! This tidbit can be added to the geographical discrepancies throughout Num 21 & 31 of which I spoke earlier. Not only do the Israelites travel some 600 km to Midian and back to wipe out all male children, men, and married women, but apparently they send a maned assassin (no doubt a prototype of Ehud) some 500 plus km to kill Balaam at his penthouse on the Euphrates! And all this transpires in the 11th month!

      Sometimes the best textual data in support of variant traditions is not even what’s going on with the Hebrew, which is convincing on its own (i.e., variations in style, vocabulary, language, syntax, etc.) but a good old fashion close reading of the text!

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