#291. Does Balaam wish to curse Israel and is prevented by Yahweh OR does he not wish to curse Israel? (Deut 23:5-6; Josh 24:9-10; Neh 13:2; 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 1:11; Rev 2:14 vs Num 22:22-35)

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The narrative of Numbers 22-24 never presents nor implies that Balaam wishes to harm or curse Israel. To the contrary, Balaam is presented as a loyal vassal of Yahweh, and when on three separate occasions Balak asks Balaam to pronounce curses upon Israel, Balaam refuses saying that he can only utter that which his god—Yahweh—has placed in his own mouth. Indeed, Balaam even refers to Yahweh as “my god,” which might of itself indicate that Yahweh was seen during this text’s composition as the god of the land of Transjordan, thus in effect explaining how a non-Israelite could call Yahweh his god. He was the god of this land.

In either case, other places in the Bible seem to preserve a different view of Balaam, one most likely stemming from a different tradition. In these passages (Deut 23:5-6; Josh 24:9-10; Neh 13:2), Balaam is presented as wishing harm on Israel, desiring to curse Israel and stopped only by Yahweh himself. There might be some evidence that this tradition stemmed from the ass story now incorporated into Numbers 22.

Likewise Numbers 31:16, a Priestly text, adopts this negative portrait of Balaam and groups him together with the Midianites who are then blamed for the whole Baal Peor sin. He along with the Midianites are slain.

Finally, later New Testament authors seemed also to have picked up on this negative Balaam tradition.

3 thoughts on “#291. Does Balaam wish to curse Israel and is prevented by Yahweh OR does he not wish to curse Israel? (Deut 23:5-6; Josh 24:9-10; Neh 13:2; 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 1:11; Rev 2:14 vs Num 22:22-35)

  1. Yes, this always stood out for me too as an odd story, partly on account of the talking donkey. I think this is the only talking animal in the Bible besides the snake in the garden of Eden, and Christians believe that the Devil was behind that, so this really stands out as an odd element.

    Besides that element, though, the scriptures can be hesitantly harmonized by saying that Balaam did intend to curse Israel but was being forced to give blessings somehow, as if God were using him as a puppet to talk through. However the account still feels a bit schizophrenic, as shown by contradiction #290. We see God allowing him to go, as long as Balaam says only what God will tell him to say (Num. 22:20), then becoming angry for some reason that he’s going and making an identical statement to Balaam through an angel this time (Num. 22:35). It certainly feels like another stitched-together account from two sources.

    I was taught, growing up, that what was actually happening was that Balaam was tempted by the riches he was being offered. The first time he wanted to go, God told him no, but the second time, God allowed him to go in order to give him the moral free choice to sin if that was his desire. After God allowed him to go to Balak, he saw in his heart that he was going to curse the Israelites and decided to warn him again. But of course this business of what is in Balaam’s heart is not stated in the account. Moreover, if Balaam really wanted to curse Israel, then clearly his free will was not respected after all by the way God used him to make blessings.

    Even stranger is the implication in the account that Balaam has the power to harm Israel through a curse at all. This is problematic for a Christian. Surely, as someone who does not have God’s backing, his words should mean nothing, and he could curse Israel all day long to no effect?

    1. Ha! The Devil — we’re going to have fun with this one on the next post, especially seeing that our text tells us that Yahweh’s divine messenger came against Balaam as Satan (or more literally ‘as a satan‘)! Later Christianity has severely misunderstood this Satan figure as it was conceived by the Hebrew scribes! And I might toss in an extra gem: speaking of Yahweh’s divine counsel (see Ps 29:1-2, 82:6, 86:8, 89:6-7, 96:-5, 135:5), Job 1:6 & 2:1 include Satan listed as one of “the sons of God” present in Yahweh’s divine assembly!

      The Deir ‘Alla Balaam inscriptions, which were found in 1967 near Jordan (thus in biblical Transjordan), and which mention Balaam, suggest that he was a known figure in the region (whether just a literary figure or historical uncertain) and that there were other stories told about him. So it’s possible that these other biblical views of Balaam in a negative light stem from other stories. Some scholars even think the Deir ‘Alla Balaam inscriptions are Israelite! And thus an extra-biblical source for our understanding of “Israelite” Transjordinian religious practices.

      Also, we will revisit the Yahweh-El connection too, since in the poetic sections of Numbers 22-24, Balaam is variously seen as listening to El and/or Yahweh.

  2. Oh, this story has ALWAYS been a problem for me. Balaam is seen in such poor light wherever he is mentioned in teh bible, but looking at the actual story, he seems to be obedient and loyal to God, only wanting to obey Him. Where on earth did he get such a bad reputation?

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