Updated: Mar 26
The Israelites had journeyed to and camped in the plains of Moab, near the Jordan River and opposite Jericho. The Moabites were fearful of the Israelites, having witnessed their destruction of the Ammonites (Numbers 22:1-3). Balak, son of Zippor, was their king, and he sent emissaries from his court to a man from the town of Peor in the land of Aram. The man's name was Balaam, and he was a foreigner, somewhat renowned as a diviner (Numbers 22:5).
Diviners use a variety of methods to ascertain their interpretations of how the person inquiring should proceed. These methods include reading signs, events, or omens, as well as alleged contact or interaction with a supernatural agency. Divination is an ancient practice that has been used by many cultures throughout history. It is very similar to the modern practice of consulting tarot cards, astrology, horoscopes and other divination methods.
Balaam was an Aramaic, a non-Israelite, whose personal history is not well-documented in either the Bible or through archeology. We do know, however, that he was the son of Beor. When the Moabites, led by their king Balak, sought to hire him to curse the Israelites upon their invasion of their land, Balaam was the man they chose. It is clear that he was an important divination figure in his time, and we can be confident in the knowledge we have of him.
The Moabites and Ammonites were descendants of Lot's incestuous relationship with his daughters, as recorded in Genesis 19:30-38. When the Israelites invaded their lands, the Moabites sought the assistance of a non-Israelite, a foreigner seer, to pronounce a curse against the Israelites. Understandably, no Israelite prophet would have been willing to curse their own people, no matter the amount of money they were offered. Therefore, the Moabites looked to an outsider for help.
A group of men from Balak's court set out with the fees for the services of the seer. This practice of consulting seers is an ancient one, and involves presenting a model of the organs of a sacrificial animal to a diviner who had not been present at the time of the slaughter. The seer would then read the signs on the organs to divine the will of the gods. This practice is similar to the contemporary practice of reading hands, tarot cards, tea leaves or coffee grounds to inquire about the future.
Balaam refused to take the fees for his services to utter a curse against the Israelites after reading the model of the sacrificial animal. He had read the signs and knew that Yahweh had blessed Israel, and so he politely but confidently declared to Balak's emissaries that he could not go against the commands of The Lord, who had spoken to him at night and told him not to curse the Israelites (Numbers 22:12). Balaam's statement was not one of devotion or obedience to God, but rather an adherence to the terms and conditions of a business transaction which required the diviner not to go against the will of the gods.
In this instance, the True God was involved and no amount of payment could force the omens to change.
It appears that Balaam had some regards for the True God and Yahweh used him to communicate his will (Numbers 22:20). The following morning, Balaam set off on his donkey, accompanied by Balak's officials. The Lord's anger was kindled against Balaam. It was clear that the motivations of his heart had shifted; he was no longer driven by the same desires he had the night before. Nevertheless, he was determined to move forward and continue to pursue his goals, albeit with a different perspective and outlook. Despite the changes, he was determined to remain focused and committed to his greed and ambitions, as he thought that he could still achieve if he had the opportunity.
As Balaam rode, his donkey stopped. Frustrated, Balaam struck the animal three times. However, Yahweh opened the mouth of the donkey and asked why Balaam had beaten it three times, as it had served him for a long time. Yahweh also opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the Angel of the Lord with a sword standing in his path. (Numbers 22:31-34).
Jewish tradition has made Balaam the proverbial example of the greed of false teachers and prophets. These individuals, driven by their own desires for gain, are guilty of leading others into sin and disobedience against The Lord. This is a reminder to us all to be wary of those who would seek to use religion for their own personal gain, and to remain devoted to the teachings of our faith.
In Deuteronomy 18:10-12, Yahweh commands through Moses that the practice of divination and other abominable practices, which were common among the pagan nations surrounding Israel, should be avoided. Despite this, Balaam, a religious opportunist blinded by greed, sets up altars at three different locations and offers seven sacrifices at each altar. He waits to hear the oracles of Yahweh, and each time, Yahweh gives Balaam an oracle of blessing over Israel. After this, Balak gives up in his quest to curse his enemies, and Balaam gives his final oracle from the Lord, recounting how the Israelites will defeat their enemies, including the Moabites (Numbers 24:15-24).
Here is what Scriptures have to say about “the way of Balaam” and divination:
The Lord refuses to hear requests to curse his people because of his great love and faithfulness towards them (Deuteronomy 23:5).
This is evidenced by his turning of curses into blessings (Nehemiah 13:2) and his condemnation of false prophets and teachers (Numbers 31:8).
An example of this can be seen in the story of Balaam at Peor, where the people of God committed a serious offense against Yahweh and perished as a result (Numbers 31:8).
Joshua, addressing the people of God, reminded them that the practice of divination is forbidden and condemned (Joshua 13:22).
Therefore, Yahweh calls us to be faithful to his commandments and to not follow false teachers and listen to false prophets (Micah 6:5).
Read the Apostle Peter’s admonition to us today:
“Dear brothers, I urge you to remain vigilant, for there will be false prophets and false teachers among you. They will bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, and will bring swift destruction on themselves. Sadly, many will follow their unrestrained ways, and the way of truth will be blasphemed because of them. They will exploit you in their greed with deceptive words. But please be assured that their condemnation, which was pronounced long ago, is not idle, and their destruction does not sleep”. 2 Peter 2:1-3