Balaam in the Bible

Who was Balaam in the Bible?

Balaam was the first recorded prophet in the Old Testament. He was not an Israelite, but he did recognize the one God. The narrative of Balaam in the Bible states that Balak, the Moabite king, was afraid of the large number of Israelites camped on the plains of Moab after a recent victory. He sent elders to summon the diviner Balaam and ask him to put a curse on the Israelites. The story of Balaam in the Bible goes far beyond his famous donkey!

Balaam was found and an offer was made. After Balaam settled in for the night, God came to him and asked who the men were. Balaam responded that they told him of a people that had come out of Egypt and covered the face of the land. These men had asked Balaam to put a curse on the Israelites.

But God said to Balaam, ‘Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed’

Num. 22:12

The next morning, Balaam told the officials to go back to their own country

for the Lord has refused to let me go with you

Num. 22:13

Balaam must have had a sterling reputation with his curses because Balak sent another delegation of officials to offer an even higher reward. Balaam replied that not even for all the silver and gold in Balak’s palace could he act against the command of the Lord. That night, God came to Balaam and told him,

Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you

Num. 22:20

Balaam was about to embark on training as a prophet, putting aside his skills as a diviner.

Balaam’s Donkey

Enter Balaam’s donkey. The narrative of Balaam in the Bible has, unfortunately, been mostly used as a children’s story. Three times the donkey saw an angel of the Lord blocking their way and tried to avoid it by stopping, and each time Balaam beat his donkey. The donkey protested:

What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?

Num. 22:28

You have made a fool of me, Balaam replied.

Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?

Num. 22:30

No, conceded Balaam. And now the true importance of the tale of Balaam in the Bible, and the prophetic importance Balaam’s words uttered on behalf of the Lord, begin to emerge.

The Lord opened Balaam’s eyes and he saw an angel who was blocking the way and told him to go with the men but to speak only what God told him. Upon arrival in Moab, Balaam forewarned Balak that this was the case, but Balak was adamant. He would have the Israelites cursed.

Balaam in the Bible Defies Balak

Three times Balaam asked that seven altars be built overlooking the Israelite encampment and sacrifices be made upon them. After the first and second times, Balaam withdrew to consult with God and then delivered His message:

How can I curse
    those whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce
    those whom the Lord has not denounced?
From the rocky peaks I see them,
    from the heights I view them.
I see a people who live apart
    and do not consider themselves one of the nations.
Who can count the dust of Jacob
    or number even a fourth of Israel?
Let me die the death of the righteous,
    and may my final end be like theirs!

Num. 23:8–10

Now we are beginning to see the true importance of the story of Balaam in the Bible. Balaam had seen the separation of the Israelites from other people because they held the station of the chosen people and their numbers would be like the dust of the earth. As Jewish history unfolded over thousands of years, the Jews did live in increasing separation from others, whether in their united or divided kingdoms, in exile in the Diaspora (the displacement of the Jews from the Holy Land after 70 CE), or in imposed ghettos. In recent history, the modern state of Israel has existed relatively alone among the nations with limited diplomatic ties and negatively biased international press coverage.

Biblical Prophecy for 1844

Following his second meeting with God, Balaam relayed the divine message that God is not human and therefore does not lie or change His mind. Rather, He speaks and then acts. He promises and fulfills. God has given His blessing and Balaam could not change it. And He delivered quite a condemnation to Balak for wishing that were not so. Here comes the true importance of the Balaam in the Bible narrative:

Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!

Num. 23:23

How clearly spoken! Not only was there to be no enchantment or divination against the Israelites, but it would be said of them, What hath God wrought! This famous verse was the first telegraphic message sent by Samuel Morse in the United States. It was sent on May 24, 1844. Because of the “coincidence” that this verse was sent the day after the Báb declared His mission, this verse from over three thousand years ago may have been alluding to the declaration of the Báb to His first disciple, Mulla Husayn, on May 23, 1844. Because Mulla Husayn had listened enraptured to the Báb for many hours, it was at the time of the first call to prayer early in the morning of May 23 that the Báb said to Mulla Husayn:

O Thou who art the first to believe in Me! Verily I say to thee, I am the Báb, the Gate of God, and thou art the Bábu’l-Báb, the gate of that Gate.

Nabíl-i-‘Azam, The Dawn-Breakers, 63.

The term this time is also understood to mean the end times, end days, or the time of the end, which started in 1844 with the return of the Christ spirit embodied in the Báb.

To rise up as a great lion suggests the formation of the modern state of Israel. Lions are mentioned many times in the Old Testament in various descriptive and metaphorical contexts.The tribe of Judah was traditionally symbolized by a lion, dating from the day Jacob called his twelve sons to gather

that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days

Gen. 49:1, emphasis added

Addressing his son Judah, Jacob said:

Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.

Gen. 49:9–10

The term last days (end times, end days) is another reference to 1844. The ten tribes of Israel were lost in deportations throughout the Assyrian empire. The Israelites, later called the Jews, who survived throughout the centuries in the Diaspora, were the descendants of the tribe of Judah and, to a lesser extent, of the tribe of Benjamin, which had largely assimilated with the tribe of Judah.

Balaam Learns about Faith

After the third set of altars was built and sacrifices made, Balaam knew what to say and do without asking. Now he understood that God could not be contacted through divination and enchantments, but only through faith. Balaam set his face to the wilderness and the spirit of God came upon him. He saw the prosperity of the land and spoke:

Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee

Num. 24:9, KVJ

A frustrated Balak and an illumined Balaam parted way, but not before Balak’s parting shot that he would have promoted Balaam to great honor had he cooperated. The account of Balaam in the Bible gives Balaam’s response as a prophecy:

I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel …

Num. 24:17, emphasis added

The Star might refer to the Star of Bethlehem announcing the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the Sceptre denotes the moral authority of Jesus because His kingdom was not of this world. The Sceptre might also be a symbol of the spiritual authority of Bahá’u’lláh, the prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith.

Note: The above article is a summarized excerpt from Eileen Maddocks’s book The Coming of the Glory—Vol 2, which will be published in the summer of 2021. Volume 1 was published in April 2020. A list of booksellers for Volume 1 is provided here.