THE JEWISH ENCYCLOPEDIA
[page 466] BALAAM (Hebr. Bil‘am) — Biblical Data: A son of Beor and a prophet of Pethor in Mesopotamia. The narrative relating to Balaam is found in Num. xxii - xxiv. According to this narrative, Balak, king of Moab, sent messengers to the soothsayer, requesting him to come and pronounce a curse against Israel, with whom the Moabites were at war, and of whom they stood in dread. Balak hoped, with the aid of the soothsayer’s powerful curse, to overcome his foe. His confidence in Balaam is illustrated by the declaration he makes to him: “I know that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed” (ib. xxii. 6, H. V.). Balaam, after consulting God, is forbidden to go back with the Moabites, and he accordingly refuses, despite the gifts that the messengers of Balak had brought with them for him. Balak, being determined to secure the prophet’s services, sends other and more distinguished messengers, who, as the narrative puts it, are empowered to promise still greater rewards and honor to the soothsayer if he will accede to Balak’s wishes. Balaam, although anxious to go, again refuses; declaring that even if Balak were to give him his house full of silver and gold, he can not do contrary to God’s command. However, he begs the embassy to await a second consultation with the Lord. This time God permits the soothsayer to go to Balak, but enjoins upon him to do only “the word which I shall say” (xxii. 20). Balaam then arises and departs with the Moabites, riding upon his ass. But notwithstanding the previous permission, God’s anger is kindled at Balaam as he goes; and the angel of the Lord with a drawn sword in his hand shows himself accordingly to the ass, which refuses to proceed along the road despite Balaam’s effort to urge it. Three times the angel, invisible as yet to Balaam, puts himself in the path of the ass, which is beaten by its master for its refusal to proceed. The ass is then given the power of addressing its rider in human speech, and asks him reproachfully why it has been smitten. The soothsayer, apparently not astonished by the miraculous speech, replies angrily that, were a sword in his hand, he would willingly kill the ass. The angel then becomes visible to Balaam, and the soothsayer falls on his face before the vision. Balaam confesses his sin to the angel and offers to return to his own land, but the divine messenger permits him to go on with the Moabites, enjoining him to say “only the word that I shall speak unto thee” (xxii. 35).
Chapters xxiii.-xxiv. contain the detailed account of four oracles that Balaam uttered to Balak concerning Israel. The soothsayer directs Balak to offer sacrifices to God of seven oxen and seven rams on seven altars built on a high place, Bamoth-baal, where he could see “the utmost part” of Israel (xxii. 41). Balaam then utters the first inspired oracle in favor of Israel, a people that “shall not be reckoned among the nations” (xxiii. 9). Impressively he concludes:
Who can count the dust of Jacob,
Or number the fourth part of Israel?
Let me die the death of the righteous,
And let my last end be like his” (xxiii. 10. R.V.).
Balak moves the seer to another point of outlook, the top of Mt. Pisgah, where the entire Israelitish camp is visible. Here again Balaam receives an oracle even more strongly commendatory of Israel than the first: “The Lord his God is with him, … he hath, as it were, the Oracles, strength of the wild ox” (xxiii. 21, R. V.). What Israel accomplishes is not by enchantment, but by God’s own might. Comparing Israel to a lion, he says:
Behold, the people riseth up as a lioness,
And as a lion doth he lift himself up:
He shall not lie down until he eat of the prey,
And drink the blood of the slain (xxiii. 24, R. V.).
Balak then begs Balaam neither to curse nor to bless, but to remain silent as to Israel’s future. Balaam replies that he must do as directed by God. The king then takes the soothsayer to Mt. Peor, but is once more disappointed. The prophet in his third
[page 467] utterance is impressed by the magnificent sight of Israel’s encampment (xxiv. 5b - 6, R. V.):
As valleys are they spread forth,
As gardens by the river-side,
As lign-aloes which the Lord hath planted,
As cedar-trees beside the waters.
Balak is at last infuriated and would dismiss Balaam at once, but the latter pours forth his fourth and last prophecy of the rise of a tribe in Israel that will secure for the Hebrews decisive victories over Moab and Edom; to which are added short denunciations of Amalek and the Kenites. The king then permits the prophet to return to his home. The four oracles are in poetic form and belong to the best specimens of a certain species of ancient Hebrew poetry. They are all characterized by a rich imagery, and the diction is at once impressive and stately. The third, xxiv. 5, beginning,
How goodly are thy tents, 0 Jacob!
Thy Tabernacles, 0 Israel
is particularly fine.
Balaam is mentioned in Micah vi. 5. Very suggestive is the article “Haman, Bileam, und der Juedische Nabi,” by Steinthal, in “Zur Bibel- und Religionsphiosophie,” Berlin, 1890.
—In Rabbinical Literature: Balaam is represented as one of seven heathen prophets; the other six being Balaam’s father, Job, and his four friends (B.B. 15b). He gradually acquired a position among the heathen as exalted as that of Moses among the chosen people (Num.R.xx. 1). At first a mere interpreter of dreams, Balaam later became a magician, until finally the spirit of prophecy descended upon him (ib. 7). He possessed the special gift of being able to ascertain the exact moment during which God is wroth — a gift bestowed upon no other creature. Balaam’s intention was to curse the Israelites at this moment of wrath; but God purposely restrained His anger in order to baffle the wicked prophet and to save the nation from extermination (Ber. 7a). When the law was given to Israel, a mighty voice shook the foundations of the earth; so that all kings trembled, and in their consternation gathered about Balaam, inquiring whether this upheaval of nature portended a second deluge; but the prophet assured them that what they heard was the voice of the Almighty giving the sacred Law to His children of Israel (Zeb. 116a).
Nevertheless, it is significant that in rabbinical literature the epithet “rasha’” (the wicked one) is often attached to the name of Balaam (Ber. l.c.; Ta’anit 20a; Num. R. xx. 14). He is pictured as blind of one eye and lame in one foot (San. 105a); and his disciples (followers) are distinguished by three morally corrupt qualities, viz., an evil eye, a haughty bearing, and an avaricious spirit—qualities the very opposite of those characterizing the disciples of Abraham (Ab. v. 19; compare Tan., Balak, 6). Balaam received the divine communication at night only — a limitation that applies also to the other heathen prophets (Num. R. xx.12). The Rabbis hold Balaam responsible for the unchastity which led to the apostasy in Shittim, and in chastisement of which 24,000 persons fell victims to a pestilence (Num. xxv. 1-9). When Balaam, “the wicked,” saw that he could not curse the children of Israel, he advised Balak (intimated in Num. xxiv. 14) as a last resort to tempt the Hebrew nation to immoral acts and, through these, to the worship of Baal-peor. “The God of the Hebrews,” adds Balaam, “hates lewdness; and severe chastisement must follow” (San. 106a; Yer. ib. x. 28d; Num. R. l.c.).
The Rabbis, playing on the name Balaam, call him “Belo‘Am” (without people; that is, without a share with the people in the world to come), or “Bills’ ‘Am” (one that ruined a people); and this hostility against his memory finds its climax in the dictum that whenever one discovers a feature of wickedness or disgrace in. his life, one should preach about it (Sanh. 106b). In the process of killing Balaam (Num. xxxi. 8), all four legal methods of execution—stoning, burning, decapitating, and strangling—were employed (Sanh. l.c.). He met his death at the age of thirty-three (ib.); and it is stated that he had no portion in the world to come (Sanh. x. 2; 90a). The Bible devotes a special Section to the remarkable history of the prophet, in order to answer the question, why God has taken away the power of prophecy from the Gentiles (Tan., Balak, 1). Moses is expressly mentioned as the author of this episode in the Pentateuch (B. B. 14k).
—Critical View: Nearly all modern expositors agree that the section xxii.-xxiv. belongs to the composite document JE.
In xxii. Balaam, according to J, is requested by the messengers of Balak to come and pronounce a curse against the Israelites, of whose growing power the Moabite chief is not unreasonably in dread. Balaam is willing to go, but assures Balak that be can not exceed the command of YHWH, even though Balak were to give him his house “full of silver and gold” (xxii. 18). The episode of the ass is then told.
The E account simply states that Balaam was summoned by Balak, but that he did not consent to go until God (Elohim) appeared to him in a dream and gave him permission (xxii. 19-21). The episode of the journey (xxii. 22 et seq.) belongs entirely to J.
A comparison between xxiii. (B) and xxiv. (J) will show that the J account is much more picturesque than that of B, and has, moreover, none of the latter’s elaborate and somewhat stilted detail. Whether the four poems are to be attributed, just as they stand in xxiii. and xxiv., to B and J respectively, is a matter of doubt. It is much more probable that an ancient poem about Balaam had been used by both the J and B accounts, which the later J and B redactor divided in the manner in which it now appears.
As to the age of the respective accounts, the nucleus of the narrative must have originated at a comparatively late date, after Israel had Age of acquired a permanent ascendancy over the other Canaanitish nations. The tale of the talking ass must be regarded as a bit of primitive folk-lore, introduced into the narrative as a literary embellishment.
It is generally supposed by critics that the three short oracles in xxiv. 20-24 are a later accretion by [page 468] a writer other than the author of the four longer poems.
A different tradition about Balaam exists in the Priestly Code (P), where Balaam is represented as a Midianite, who attempted to seduce Israel by immoral rites (Num. xxxi. 16). According to this account, which probably depends upon Num. xxv. 6-15, Balaam was afterward slain with the Midianitish princes (Num. xxxi. 8; Josh. xiii. 22).
The allusion to Balaam in Deut. xxiii. 4, 5 (compare Neh. xiii. 2) states that the prophet was hired to curse Israel and that YHWH turned the curse into a blessing, thus implying that the prophet was anxious to accede to Balak’s desire (compare also Josh. xxiv. 9). Such an idea might have been obtained from Num. xxiii. 4, where Balaam tells Elohim explicitly that he has offered a bullock and a ram on seven altars, thereby implying a hope that God will inspire Balaam to curse Israel.
Opinions vary greatly as to the derivation and meaning of the name Balaam. It is generally considered to be a compound of “Bel” and “‘Am,” and since both “Bel” and “‘Am” are names of deities among Semites, the name may either represent a combination of two deities (“‘Am” is “Bel”) or “Bel” may be used in the general sense which it acquired of “lord”: the name would then be interpreted “‘Am is Lord”.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Kuenen, Theolog. Tijdschrift, 1884. xviii. 497-540; Van Hoonacker, Observations Critiques Concernant Bileam, In Le Museon, 1888; Halevy, Revue Sémitique, 1894. pp. 201-509; Delitzsch, Zur Neuesten Literatur Ueber den Abschnitt Bileam, in Zeitschrift der Kirchlichen Wissenschaft, 1888; Cheyne, in Expository Times, 1899, x. 399-402; and the various commentaries on Numbers.
In Mohammedanism: It is very doubtful whether there is any reference to Balaam in the Koran. The commentators apply to him, but with reservations, sura vii. 174 et seq.: “And recite against them [the Jews] the story of him to whom we brought our signs, but he separated himself from them; then Satan followed him, and he was of those that go astray. And if we had willed, we had exalted him through them, but he inclined toward the earth and followed his desire. His likeness was the likeness of a dog; if you attack it, it pants, and if you leave it alone, it pants)”. The Moslem commentators explain that Balaam was a Canaanite who had been given knowledge of some of the books of God. His people asked him to curse Moses and those who were with him, but he said, “How can I curse one who has angels with him?” They continued to press him, however, until he cursed the Israelites, and, as a consequence, they remained forty years in the Wilderness of the Wanderings. Then, when he had cursed Moses, his tongue came out and fell upon his breast, and he began to pant like a dog.
The story as told by Tabari (“ Annales,” ed. De Goeje, i. 508 et seq.) is somewhat more Biblical. Balaam had the knowledge of the Most Sacred Name of God, and whatever he asked of God was granted to him. The story of the ass, etc., then follows at length. When it came to the actual cursing, God “turned his tongue” so that the cursing fell upon his own people and the blessing upon Israel. Then his tongue came out and hung down on his breast. Finally, he advised his people to adorn and beautify their women and to send them out to ensnare the Israelites. The story of the plague at Baal-peor and of Cozbi and Zimri (Num. xxv. 14, 15) follows. According to another story which Tabari gives, Balaam was a renegade Israelite who knew the Most Sacred Name and, to gain the things of this world, went over to the Canaanites. AlTha’labi (“Kisas al-Anbiyya,” pp. 206 et seq., Cairo ed., 1298) adds that Balaam was descended from Lot. He gives, too, the story of Balaam’s dream, his being forbidden by God to curse Israel. Another version is that Balak, the king of Balka, compelled Balaam to use the Most Sacred Name against Israel. The curse fell automatically, and Moses, having learned whence it came, entreated God to take from Balaam his knowledge of the Name and his faith. This being done, they went out from him in the form of a white dove.
Other interpreters, however, refer the passage in the Koran to Umayya b. Abi al-Salt al-Thakafi, one of the seekers of religious truth in the time of Mohammed, who had read the books and aspired to be the expected prophet. He refused to embrace Islam, and this passage was revealed in consequence (Herbelot, “Orient. Bibliothek”). Some scholars find in Lokman the Arabic parallel to Balaam.