By Bruce Green
Teaching Minister at 10th Street Church of Christ
Balaam is a fascinating character who shows up about two-thirds of the way through the book of Numbers (chapters 22-24). Out of context, his story seems strange, but if you’ve been reading through Numbers you’ve already come across God supplying Israel with a ridiculous amount of quail (11), people being swallowed up by the earth in Korah’s rebellion (16), Moses striking the rock and water coming out of it (20) and people bitten by snakes being healed through looking at a bronze snake on a pole. So when we’re told Balaam’s story, it’s just the next-in-line of highly unusual things happening to Israel on their way to the promised land.
To recap the story, Balak, the king of Moab, was “terrified” when the nation of Israel showed up on their way to the land of Canaan. He didn’t have the numbers to militarily oppose them, so he decided to implement Plan B—hiring a spiritual mercenary—a man named Balaam. Consulting an oracle, medium or diviner to get the blessing of the gods was a common practice of the times. But Balak was asking more of Balaam than that—he wanted Balaam to curse Israel (22:6.)
It’s obvious from the story that Balaam’s reputation preceded him. He’s not local, Balak’s men traveled all the way to the Euphrates to enlist his help. In 1967, in Deir Alla, Jordan, archaeologists discovered an inscription on the wall of a multi-chambered structure that had been buried by an earthquake during the Persian period. The inscription speaks of a prophet named Balaam, son of Beor. That’s not surprising. Balaam is spoken of in Scripture, so he’s a historical person. What is more fascinating is that the writing is dated a few hundred years after the time of Balaam. If someone is writing about you a few hundred years after you’re gone, then you must have been quite well known when you were alive.
And yet for all of that, Balaam couldn’t deliver what the king of Moab so desperately wanted—he was unable to curse Israel. He tried time and time again, but God told him that Israel’s future was one of blessing. Despite Balaam’s international reputation for being able to bless or curse, only God could control that. (Balaam, as it turns out, couldn’t even control his donkey.) And in accordance with His promise to Abraham, God was going to bless His people so they would in turn bless the world (Genesis 12:3.)
God had Moses write all this down so that when Israel entered Canaan replete with its own oracles, mediums and diviners (Deuteronomy 18:9,) the nation would know there was no need to be intrigued, enchanted or engaged with them. There was no God but Yahweh. And in a society where our cultural prophets (celebrities, actors, athletes, etc.) point us to crystals, following the moon or the movement of the planets and stars, we would do well to reject their advice and keep our trust in the One who created all of these.
You can find more of Bruce’s writings at his website: www.atasteofgracewithbrucegreen.com.