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At the time of Israel’s migration to Canaan, the Moabite king Balak, fearing the Israelites, sent to Mesopotamia asking the soothsayer Balaam to come and put a curse on them. Balak hoped that Balaam’s curse would ensure Israel’s defeat (Numbers 22:1-6). (For the significance of a curse among Israelites and other ancient peoples see CURSE.)

God showed Balaam that he was not to go, because Israel was not to be cursed. Despite this, Balaam wanted to go, because he hoped to gain the reward Balak offered. God was angry with Balaam but in the end allowed him to go, in order to teach him some lessons (Numbers 22:7-20). Only God’s mercy prevented Balaam from being killed along the way (Numbers 22:21-34).

Balak took Balaam to a place from where he could see the vastness of the Israelite camp. His purpose was to convince Balaam that the Israelites were a serious threat. But God had warned Balaam to speak only the words that God told him to speak. Balaam obeyed, and instead of announcing a curse on Israel he announced a blessing (Numbers 22:35; Numbers 22:41; Numbers 23:1-12).

Disappointed at this result, Balak took Balaam to another place, where he could get a better view and so be persuaded to pronounce a destructive curse. But again Balaam announced a blessing on Israel (Numbers 23:13-26). A third attempt, from a third place, brought further blessing (Numbers 23:27; Numbers 24:1-9). Angrily Balak dismissed Balaam, but in response Balaam announced yet another lengthy blessing on Israel (Numbers 24:10-25).

However, Balaam too was angry. His failure to curse Israel meant that he did not receive the payment from Balak that he so much wanted. He therefore decided on a plan of his own. This plan had nothing to do with either blessing or cursing, but Balaam hoped it might bring destruction to Israel and so earn Balak’s reward. He used foreign women to seduce Israelite men, and soon the Israelite camp was a scene of widespread immorality and idolatry. When God sent a plague that killed thousands, Balaam must have thought his plan was working, but swift action from the Israelite priest Phinehas saved Israel and brought death to Balaam (Numbers 25:1-9; Numbers 31:16; Joshua 13:22).

The people of Old Testament Israel never forgot the evil of Balaam (Deuteronomy 23:5; Joshua 24:9; Nehemiah 13:2; Micah 6:5). Even in the New Testament, writers likened false teachers of their time to Balaam. Like Balaam, such teachers were concerned solely with personal gain, even though their teaching was morally and religiously damaging to God’s people (2 Peter 2:14-16; Judges 1:10-11). They encouraged God’s people to join in idolatrous practices and to engage in immoral behaviour (Revelation 2:14-15). God assured those who followed the way of Balaam that they were heading for destruction, but he promised those who resisted that they would enjoy his special reward (Revelation 2:15-17; cf. Numbers 25:10-13).

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Balaam'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. 2004.

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