Balaam an Accomplice
“And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, Let me pass through thy land: we will not turn aside into field, or into vineyard; we will not drink of the water of the wells: we will go by the king’s highway, until we have passed thy border” (Numbers 21:21, 22, ASV used in this article).
As he did with the King of Edom, Moses requested permission of the Amorite1 King to travel through the land and promised no damage would come to their properties. As with the King of Edom, King Sihon would not permit them leeway through his country. But Sihon took the matter further and made an unprovoked attack on Israel. “Sihon would not suffer Israel to pass through his border: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness, and came to Jahaz; and he fought against Israel” (Numbers 21:23).
(1) Genesis 10:15‑18 gives us the Amorite pedigree: “And Canaan begat Sidon his first‑born, and Heth, and the Jebusite, and the Amorite, and the Girgashite, and the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite, and the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite: and afterward were the families of the Canaanite spread abroad.”
This decision was a disaster for the Amorites. “Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from the Arnon unto the Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon; for the border of the children of Ammon was strong. … and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all the towns thereof. For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand, even unto the Arnon” (Numbers 21:24‑26).
Israel devastatingly repelled this senseless attack by the Amorites. The armies of Israel took possession of all of the Amorite cities. Though the people had not yet completed the 40 years of wandering, this battle, along with the land they took possession of, constituted the beginning of the conquest of Canaan.
The Amorites had been mentioned to Abraham in a remarkable prophecy. “Know of a surety that thy seed shall be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. But thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. And in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full” (Genesis 15:13‑16).
This prophecy details the affliction of Abraham’s seed for four hundred years, from the time Isaac was five years old, afflicted by Ishmael, to the departure from Egypt. This period is within the 430 years from the covenant with Abraham to the deliverance of the children of Israel on the “selfsame day” (Exodus 12:41, Galatians 3:17).2 It was indeed the “fourth generation” that came out of Egypt, the generations being Levi, Kohath, Amram, and Moses.
(2) See Reprint 2482 for a more detail treatment of these periods.
However, our attention is drawn to what this prophecy says regarding the Amorites. As a Canaanite nation they practiced iniquity. Their corruption was to be overlooked until it could no longer be tolerated, that is, become “full.” Jehovah knew that when the time came for Israel to possess the land, it would also be the time for the eradication of the Amorite iniquity.3
(3) Interestingly, in the time of Ezekiel, the iniquity of Jerusalem had become so bad that Jehovah tells them their father and mother were an Amorite and a Hittite! (Ezekiel 16:1-3).
This victory over the Amorites was only the beginning of Israel’s conquests. “Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites. And Moses sent to spy out Jazer; and they took the towns thereof, and drove out the Amorites that were there” (Numbers 21:31‑32). Joshua chapter nine says that other parts of this extended Amorite family were still in the Promised Land.
The irresistible military of Israel continued marching northward and, under the blessing of God, defeated another king, King Og of Bashan. Israel “Went up by the way of Bashan: and Og the king of Bashan went out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Fear him not: for I have delivered him into thy hand, and all his people, and his land; and thou shalt do to him as thou didst unto Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt at Heshbon. So they smote him, and his sons and all his people, until there was none left him remaining: and they possessed his land” (Numbers 21:33‑35).
As they conquered the people, they also “possessed” the land. This land in the east eventually became the tribal possession of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh. This becomes significant, as we shall see later.
Balaam the Prophet
Other Canaanite tribes watched Israel’s military successes with growing anxiety. As Israel made their way up to the plains of Moab, Balak, their king, was very fearful. “Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many … And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now will this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time” (Numbers 22:2‑4).
Balak recognized that a direct confrontation with Israel would result in defeat. So, he developed what he thought would be an effective strategy. “He sent messengers unto Balaam the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the River … to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me. Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land; for I know that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed” (Numbers 22:5‑6).
This was a clever approach to his problem. It acknowledged that the God of Israel was the reason for Israel’s victories. Having Israel cursed by one of God’s own prophets would remove God’s blessing upon them and they could then be defeated. All he needed was an ally with the power to curse Israel. This is where Balaam came on the scene. We are not informed how King Balak knew about Balaam. Evidently his renown reached to Moab all the way from Mesopotamia and the Euphrates River about 400 miles away. Consequently, it must have taken some time for the messengers to get to Balaam’s location and then to bring him to Moab.
Balaam was not a good man, but he was a prophet of Jehovah. When Balak’s messengers arrived, Balaam told them to tarry for the night until he received word from Jehovah. And Jehovah did indeed speak with him. “God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee? And Balaam said unto God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent unto me, saying, Behold, the people that is come out of Egypt, it covereth the face of the earth: now, come curse me them; peradventure I shall be able to fight against them, and shall drive them out. And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:9‑12).
Balaam properly informed them that he did not have permission to go with them. So, these “princes of Moab” returned to Moab and told Balak that “Balaam refuseth to come with us.” They neglected to tell Balak that Jehovah forbid Balaam to go. But King Balak was not deterred. He sent more princes, even higher in station, and promised great honor if Balak would come to Moab and curse the Israelites.
Balaam was approached by God for a second time. Surprisingly, God seemed to give Balaam permission to go to Balak. “And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do” (Numbers 22:20).
But the following scene takes an unusual turn. “Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. And God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of Jehovah placed himself in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him” (Numbers 22:21, 22).
Why would God be angry with Balaam since He gave permission for him to go? Reading the account carefully, we see that is not what God said. He said “If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them.” Balaam did not wait for the men to call! In his greed, he “rose up,” saddled his ass, and went to the men. He clearly disobeyed God. It was apparent that Balaam really wanted to go to Balak, despite his earlier denials.
Jehovah expressed his anger by sending a judgmental angel with a sword blocking his path. Balaam could not see it! But his ass did! “The ass saw the angel of Jehovah standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. Then the angel of Jehovah stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. And the ass saw the angel of Jehovah, and she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again. And the angel of Jehovah went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And the ass saw the angel of Jehovah, and she lay down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff” (Numbers 22:23‑26).
The angel moved three times to block Balaam’s path and the ass turned aside each time, finally collapsing on the path. Balaam was furious and beat the animal with his staff. Then the animal spoke! It is curious that Balaam did not seem stunned at hearing a dumb animal speak. Finally, Jehovah opened Balaam’s eyes to see His avenging angel with sword in hand. “Balaam said unto the angel … I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again” (Numbers 22:34).
Balaam showed a spirit of reverence in bowing down and falling prostrate before the angel. He admitted, “I have sinned.” But the confession was weak.4 A truly repentant Balaam would have returned home knowing that God did not want him to go to King Balak. But instead he said, “now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.” Balaam’s intent was to continue his journey unless God again clearly stated his displeasure with the journey to Balak. His wording demonstrates that he really wanted to fulfill Balak’s requests and get paid the reward despite of God’s declaration that he was not to go.
(4) There are eight occasions in scripture where someone said, “I have sinned.” These included Pharaoh, Balaam, Achan, Saul, David, Shimei, the Prodigal Son and Judas. In six of these cases the confession “I have sinned” is seen to be hollow and insincere. Merely saying the words is necessary but insufficient. They must be followed by works of repentance.
The account continues in the next two chapters, with Balak taking Balaam to three different vantage points to curse Israel. But on each occasion, Jehovah instead puts a blessing in Balaam’s mouth. This infuriated Balak and ended with them both leaving the area.
This may appear to end the story, but it does not. Putting this together with other texts of scripture, the truly evil nature of Balaam is revealed. He later suggested to the King a nefarious plan to stumble Israel. He understood that as long as the Israelites obeyed Jehovah, they were blessed and unbeatable. So, Balaam suggested that Balak corrupt Israel by getting them to worship his false God. To accomplish this, Balak directed the young women of Moab go out to the Israelite men and seduce them. “Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against Jehovah in the matter of Peor, and so the plague was among the congregation of Jehovah” (Numbers 31:16).
“And Israel abode in Shittim; and the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab: for they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto Baal-peor; and the anger of Jehovah was kindled against Israel” (Numbers 25:1‑3).
God then instructed Moses and “the judges of Israel” to execute every one of the men who joined in this sin. Additionally, Jehovah sent a plague upon the sinning people. So blatant was this immorality that one man, Zimri of the tribe of Simeon, actually brought a Midianitish woman into the camp, in the sight of Moses and the people! The quick action of Phinehas the priest, the grandson of Aaron, brought an end to God’s punishments.
“And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the pavilion, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her body. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand” (Numbers 25:7, Ezekiel 16:9).
Lessons from the Narrative
We may wonder why the scriptures include this unusual account with so much detail. There are several possibilities to consider.
(1) The words Jehovah put into the mouth of Balaam of blessing Israel were wonderfully prophetic and dealt with parts of God’s divine plan of the Ages. They are worth a study in themselves.
(2) This narrative includes powerful lessons and a warning for the New Creation against greed and lust. “Forsaking the right way, they went astray, having followed the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the hire of wrong‑doing; but he was rebuked for his own transgression: a dumb ass spake with man’s voice and stayed the madness of the prophet” (2 Peter 2:15, 16).
(3) The Balaam narrative can be seen as a prophetic picture of the experience of the Christian church early in the Gospel Age. Satan raged against the church in the terrible persecution of the Smyrna period, but he could not crush them. In fact, the church got stronger under persecution. So, Satan switched strategies and sought to seduce the church away from the teaching of Christ. This he accomplished in the Pergamos stage of the church by uniting the false Papal version of Christianity with the Pagan priesthood of Rome. Out of that came, among other false ideas, the doctrine of the Trinity.
Balaam is a type of the seducers who stumbled many Christians at that time. “Thou hast there some that old the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication” (Revelation 2:14).
(4) Lastly, the sin of Balaam is a warning to the church. Balaam himself is a picture of a second death class who willingly teach error, for personal profit, to the stumbling of others. “Woe unto them! for they went in the way of Cain, and ran riotously in the error of Balaam for hire, and perished in the gainsaying of Korah” (Jude 11). “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). What finally became of Balaam? “They warred against Midian, as Jehovah commanded Moses; and they slew every male. And they slew the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain: Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword” (Numbers 31:7, 8).