Meet Balaam, Pagan Seer and Magician

Balaam put greed above God

Balaam blessing the camp of Israel.
Balaam blessing the camp of Israel.

Culture Club / Getty Images

Balaam in the Bible was a non-Israelite prophet, or pagan seer, in the time of Moses. He was hired by the evil King Balak to put a curse on the Israelites as they were entering Moab. Balaam was one of many phony prophets of ancient eastern religions who worshiped and served the gods of the land. Some of these false teachers, including Balaam, had great power and influence. When they pronounced a blessing or a curse, it was considered a genuine prophecy.

Key Bible Verses

  • Numbers 22:28 - Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” (NIV)
  • Numbers 24:12 - Balaam answered Balak, “Did I not tell the messengers you sent me, ‘Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything of my own accord, good or bad, to go beyond the command of the LORD—and I must say only what the LORD says’? (NIV)

The Story of Balaam in the Bible

The name Balaam means "devourer," "swallower up," or "glutton." In his occupation as a soothsayer or magician, Balaam was famous among the Midianite tribes, probably for his ability to predict the future.

Balaam's story is found in Numbers 22:2 - 24:25, 31:8; Joshua 13:22; Micah 6:5; 2 Peter 2:15-16; Jude 11; Revelation 2:14. Balaam was the son of Beor and his hometown was Pethor, a city in Mesopotamia, on the Euphrates River. Although he dwelled among idolaters, Balaam had knowledge of the God of Israel.

In the ancient Middle East, people pitted the power of their local or national gods against their enemies' gods. When the Hebrews were moving toward the Promised Land, the kings in the area thought Balaam could invoke the powers of their gods Chemosh and Baal against the Hebrews' God, Jehovah.

Bible scholars point out the stark difference between the pagans and Jews: Magicians like Balaam were thought to appease their gods to gain control over them, while the Jews' prophets had no power of their own except as God worked through them.

Balaam knew he should not get involved in any dealings against Jehovah, yet he was tempted by the bribes offered him. In one of the strangest episodes in the Bible, Balaam was questioned by his donkey, then by the angel of the Lord.

When Balaam finally reached King Balak, the seer could speak only the words God put in his mouth. Balaam, acting as a mouthpiece for God, blessed the Israelites instead of cursing them. One of his prophecies even predicted the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ:

A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. (Numbers 24:17, NIV)

Later, Moabite women seduced the Israelites into idolatry and sexual immorality, through the advice of Balaam. God sent a plague that killed 24,000 of those wicked Israelites. Just before Moses' death, God commanded the Jews to take vengeance on the Midianites. They killed Balaam with a sword.

"The way of Balaam," greedily seeking riches over God, was used as a warning against false teachers in 2 Peter 2:15-16. Ungodly people were also rebuked for "Balaam's error" in Jude 11.

Finally, Jesus himself reprimanded people in the church at Pergamum who held to "the teaching of Balaam," corrupting others into idolatry and immorality. (Revelation 2:14)

Life Lessons From Balaam

Balaam had encountered Jehovah but chose false gods instead. He rejected the true God and worshiped wealth and fame.

Even though Balaam said and did only what the Lord allowed, he is the perfect example of someone who does the right thing for the wrong reason. In his state of spiritual blindness, Balaam had his mind set only on the reward he would receive, and not on true obedience to God.

False teachers are plentiful in Christianity today. The gospel is not a get-rich-quick scheme but God's plan for salvation from sin. Beware of Balaam's mistake of worshiping anything else but God.

Sources

  • Easton's Bible Dictionary.
  • Smith's Bible Dictionary.
  • The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
  • The New Unger's Bible Dictionary.