The Defamation of Balaam

Special Note: I can’t imagine anyone of the Christian faith who is new to this information not being challenged by it in a very strong way.  If you are not up for such a thing, you might want to skip this one.

This post will be my first foray into really asking for and hoping for feedback from everyone out there who is reading it.  I would really like to hear your thoughts on the matter.  As such, I activated a plugin that will make it way easier for you to comment (you can login with Facebook, which is how probably all of you are getting here).  If for whatever reason you don’t want to do that, you can also make a WordPress login or just comment on the Facebook status you followed here, but I’d prefer it to be here.

As you know, I have been reading through the Bible.  I’m now working my way through Judges.  I wanted to take a moment to write about something I initially read the main thrust of a few weeks ago, and that comes up again from time to time as I continue to read. It’s a story that you know if you grew up in the church, and are likely to know even if you didn’t…  it’s a story about this guy named Balaam.  And he has a donkey.  And it talks.

Just to refresh your memory, I’ll give it a quick overview with a few more specifics than that.  Note that I am only going to present what is actually in the text, and a few reasonable extrapolations… if it’s an extrapolation it will be obvious because I’ll say something like “it seems to indicate”, etc.

The passage isn’t clear about exactly what Balaam’s relationship with God is, but it presents Balaam as some sort of prophet or diviner of sorts.  He doesn’t seem to be a part of Israel in any way, but he does seem to be in direct contact with Israel’s God, in a way that thus far in the text we have really only seen with the likes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses.  That seems pretty significant to me.. I mean, it’s not like EVERYONE is talking directly to God in the Bible.  Anyway, there’s a king named Balak (apparently having lots of b’s and a’s and l’s in names was in fashion at the time), who sees Israel sort of growing and conquering different nations, and he’s a bit concerned.  So, knowing a bit of Balaam’s abilities in divination, he sends some men down to get him so that he can have Balaam curse Israel.  Balak’s men get there, and Balaam tells them essentially, “Stay here for a night, let me go check with God and see what he wants me to do.”  God says not to go with them, and not to curse Israel.  The men go back to Balak and tell him, and Balak, not being one to give up easily, sends them back a second time, but this time in even greater numbers and with a promise that Balak will give Balaam anything he wants in exchange.  Balaam says “That’s a nice offer, but I can’t really do anything but what God says I can.  Wait, I’ll go ask again.”    This time, God seems to relent and says “Go with them if they want you to go, but only do what I say.”

So in the next verse, Balaam sets out on his donkey to go see Balak.  Exactly one verse later, for reasons not given by the text, God is angry because Balaam is going, and sends an angel to block Balaam’s path.  Balaam can’t see the angel, but the donkey can, and keeps turning away from it, and Balaam beats on the seemingly stubborn animal a few times, and then God “opens its mouth” and it tells Balaam what’s up.  It’s then a bit unclear if it’s the angel, or God, or both talking, but one of them tells us that they would have struck Balaam dead and let the donkey live if the donkey had not turned away.  That seems a harsh punishment for a guy who asked if he could go, was told to go, and then went.

Anyway, God, again for reasons not told in the text, is suddenly okay with Balaam continuing on the journey, and he gets to Balak unsmitten.  To shorten it up a bit, Balak takes him to four different places hoping maybe Balaam will curse Israel from each one, but all four times Balaam not only doesn’t curse Israel, but in fact blesses Israel, telling Balak that he can only do what God says.    Balak is noticeably upset in the text the first three times, and then after the fourth time the two of them part company without much said.  That’s the end of the story.

However, that’s not the last time we see the name Balaam pop up.  We next see him when Israel attacks Midian, when we are told that they kill him in the battle.  Then, the text makes an accusation against Balaam through Moses.  “Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold,these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord.”  Indeed, in a chapter following Balaam’s meeting with Balak, there is an incident in Peor involving Baal worship, and God’s judgment on Israel for it, but nowhere is there any account given that Balaam had anything to do with it.

Moving onward out of Numbers and into Deuteronomy, 23:5 says “But the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam; instead the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you.”  You can go check out everything that Balaam ever said or did in that account (it’s Numbers 22-24), he never once curses or attempts to curse Israel.  Joshua 24:9-10 makes a similar claim, although it’s a little bit less clear in doing so.  This goes on beyond the point I have read thus far, with Balaam heretofore being remembered as a villain.  Nehemiah 13:2 again implies that Balaam tried to curse Israel and God turned it into a blessing.  2 Peter 2:15-16 makes reference to him, saying “They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.”  This one comes closest to supporting an idea that I have heard that attempts to smooth this whole story out, but it comes with some complications of its own, I think.  Anyway, I’ll get to that in a minute.   Finally, Revelation 2:14 brings a whole new accusation out of left field: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.”  Eat food sacrificed to idols?  Sexual immorality?  Where is that in Balaam’s story?

At the very least, it is apparent that a lot of things were omitted regarding what happened with Balaam, and were only later filled in.  I guess we can’t be sure that Balaam didn’t have something to do with encouraging Baal worship in Peor.  And if he did, it does seem quite likely that it could have involved eating food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality.

Outside of these omissions, we still have the apparent contradiction.  It seems almost as if there are 2 Balaams.  “Balaam the prophet of God”,  who seems to occupy the beginning and end of the Numbers 22-24 narrative, and “Balaam the Wicked”, who seems to occupy everything following that narrative, and is sort of mishmashed with the prophet Balaam in the middle of the main narrative.

Here is the explanation that I alluded to.  It turns out, that the issue was not whether or not Balaam should go with Balak’s men or not, it was a condition of Balaam’s heart.  He fully intended to collect on the reward offered him by Balak, all that he was saying was just talk. He then really did earnestly try to curse Israel, but all that came out were the blessings.  That’s basically how this story is supposed to be explained in a context that makes sense and eliminates contradiction.  I will grant, that if you are prepared to accept that this is how it is supposed to be read, it does that, but then it introduces a different problem.

The main need for there to be no contradiction comes from a desire to believe that the Bible is the perfect word of God.  If we just accept it as something that was written by man, whether inspired by God or otherwise, contradictions are perfectly okay.  After all, people aren’t perfect.  But God is perfect, and therein lies the problem.  If the Bible is the perfect word of God, and He chose to convey that information to us through this story, requiring us to read between the lines to find the truth of it, then it would appear that God is a terrible communicator.  Why wouldn’t He just straight up tell us what Balaam was up to?  Why would he leave all of it so horribly, horribly unclear?  Why would He not tell us specifically about Balaam’s involvement in the Baal worship at Peor?

Do you have answers to those questions?  What do you think about these passages?  Do you disagree with my presentation of any of this, or have a different means of explaining the story?  Please do share.

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