1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Balaam
BALAAM (בִּלְעָם Bil‛am; Βαλαάμ; Vg. Balaam; the etymology of the name is uncertain), a prophet in the Bible. Balaam, the son of Beor, was a Gentile seer; he appears in the history of the Israelites during their sojourn in the plains of Moab, east of Jordan, at the close of the Forty Years' wandering, shortly before the death of Moses and the crossing of the Jordan. Israel had conquered two kings of eastern Palestine—Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. Balak, king of Moab, became alarmed, and sent for Balaam to curse Israel; Balaam came after some hesitation, but when he sought to curse Israel Yahweh compelled him to bless them.
The main passage concerning Balaam in Num. xxii-xxv.; it consists of a narrative which serves as a framework for seven oracular poems, the first four being of some length and the last three very brief. The story is doubtless based on ancient traditions, current in various forms; the Old Testament references are not wholly consistent.
The narrative in Num. xxii. ff. is held to be compiled with editorial additions from the two ancient documents (900–700 B.C.) commonly denoted by the symbols J and E The distribution of the material between the two documents is uncertain; but some such scheme as the following is not improbable. The references to portions the origin of which is especially uncertain are placed in brackets ( ).
The present narrative, therefore, is not really a single continuous story, but may be resolved into two older accounts. In combining these two and using them as a framework for the poems, the compilers have altered, added and omitted. Naturally, when both documents made statements which were nearly identical, one might be omitted; so that neither account need be given in full in the composite passage. The two older accounts, as far as they are given here, may have run somewhat thus: restorations of supposed omissions are given in square brackets [ ].
(i) J. xxii. 3b-5a to “Beor” (5c to “to the land”—7, 11, 17, 18). Balak, king of Moab, alarmed at the Israelite conquests, sends elders of Moab and Midian to Balaam, son of Beor, to the land of Ammon, to induce him to come and curse Israel. He sends back word that he can only do what Yahweh commands.
The land of Ammon. The current Hebrew Text has the land of ammo, i.e. as EV, “his people,” but Ammon is read by the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Syriac and Vulgate Versions and some Hebrew MSS., and is accepted by many modern scholars.
xxii. 22-35a to “Balaam,” also “Go” and “So Balaam went.” Nevertheless Balaam sets out with two servants to go to Balak, but the Angel of Yahweh meets him. At first the Angel is seen only by the ass, which arouses Balaam's anger by its efforts to avoid the Angel. The ass is miraculously enabled to speak to Balaam. Yahweh at last enables Balaam to see the Angel, who tells him that he would have slain him but for the ass. Balaam offers to go back, but is told to go on.
Speaking animals are a common feature of folk-lore; the only other case in the Old Testament is the serpent in Eden. Maimonides suggested that the episode of the Angel and the conversation with the ass is an account of a vision; similar views have been held by E. W. Hengstenberg and other Christian scholars. Others, e.g. Volck in Hauck's Realencyklopädie (s. “Bileam”), regard the statements about the ass speaking as figurative; the ass brayed, and Balaam translated the sound into words. The ordinary literal interpretation is more probable; but it does not follow that the authors of the Pentateuch intended the story to be taken as historical in its details. It need hardly be said that the exact accuracy of such narratives is not an essential part of the Christian faith; no such doctrine is laid down by the creeds and confessions.
xxii. 36, 39, xxiv. 1, 2, 10-14, 25. Balak meets Balaam and they go together [and offer sacrifices]; Balaam, however, blesses Israel by divine inspiration; Balak remonstrates, but Balaam reminds him of his message and again blesses Israel. Then Balaam goes home. (For the relation of the poems to J's narrative, see below.)
(ii.) E. xxii. 2, 3a, 5b “to Pethor, which is by the river,” 8-10, 12-16, 19-21, 37a, to “unto me,” 38. Balak, king of Moab, alarmed at the conquests of Israel, sends the princes of Moab to Balaam at Pethor on the Euphrates, that he may come and curse Israel.
A. Jeremias, Das Alte Testament im Lichte des alten Orients, p. 278, adopts Marquart's view that the “River” (nahar) is the so-called “River” (better “Ravine” nahal) of Egypt or Musri, on the southern frontier of Judea. So too Winckler, in the new edition of E. Schrader's Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament. It has been usual to keep nahar and take it in its ordinary sense when used absolutely, i.e. the Euphrates, and to identify Pethor with a Pitru on a tributary of the Euphrates, mentioned in an inscription of Shalmaneser II. Deut. xxiii. 4 places Pethor in Mesopotamia.
God appears to him in a dream and forbids him to go. The princes return and report to Balak, who sends them back to put further pressure on Balaam. God in another dream permits him to go, on condition that he speaks what God tells him. He goes with the princes of Moab. Balak meets them, and Balaam warns him that he can only speak what God tells him.
xxii. 40, 41, xxiii. 1-6, 11-17. Balak offers sacrifices, but Yahweh inspires Balaam with a blessing on Israel. Balak remonstrates and Balaam explains. They try to get a more favourable result by sacrificing on a different spot, and by placing Balaam on the top of Pisgah to view Israel, but he is again compelled to bless Israel. After further remonstrances and explanations [Balaam goes home]. (For the relation of the poems to E's narrative, see below.)
Deut. xxiii. 3-6 summarizes E's account of this incident, adding, however, the feature that the Ammonites were associated with the Moabites, possibly an imperfect reminiscence of the reference to Ammon in J. Joshua, in his farewell speech to the Israelites, also refers to this episode. The Priestly Code has a different story of Balaam, in which he advises the Midianites how they may bring disaster on Israel by seducing the people from their loyalty to Yahweh. Later on he is slain in battle, fighting in the ranks of Midian.
It is often supposed that the name of the king of Edom, Bela, son of Beor, is a corruption of Balaam, and that, therefore, one form of the tradition made him a king of Edom.
The Poems fall into two groups: the first four, in xxiii. 1.-xxiv. 19, are commonly regarded as ancient lyrics of the early monarchy, perhaps in the time of David or Solomon, which J and E inserted in their narrative. Some recent critics, however, are inclined to place them in the post-exilic period, in which case a late editor has substituted them for earlier, probably less edifying, oracles. But the features which are held to indicate late date may be due to editorial revision.
The first two are found in an E setting, and therefore, if ancient, formed part of E.
The First, xxiii. 7-10, prophesies the unique exaltation of Israel, and its countless numbers.
The Second, xxiii. 18-24, celebrates the moral virtue of Israel, the monarchy and its conquests.
Again the second couple are connected with J.
The Third, xxiv. 3-9, also celebrates the glory and conquests of the monarchy.
Agag, in verse 7, can hardly be the Amalekite king of 1 Sam. xv.; Amalek was too small and obscure. The Septuagint and other Greek Versions and Sam. Pent, have Gog, which would imply a post-exilic date, cf. Ezek. xxxix. Probably both Agag and Gog are textual corruptions. Og has been suggested, but does not seem a great improvement.
The Fourth, xxiv. 14-19, announces the coming of a king, possibly David, who shall conquer Edom and Moab.
The remaining poems are usually regarded as later additions; thus the Oxford Hexateuch on Num. xxiv. 20-24. “The three concluding oracles seem irrelevant here, being concerned neither with Israel nor Moab. It has been thought that they were added to bring the cycle up to seven.”
The Fifth, xxiv. 20, deals with the ruin of Amalek. It is of uncertain date; if the historical Amalek is meant, it may be early; but Amalek may be symbolical.
The Sixth, xxiv. 21 f., deals with the destruction of the Kenite state by Assyria; also of uncertain date, Assyria being, according to some, the ancient realm of Nineveh, according to others the Seleucid kingdom of Syria, which was also called Assyria.
The Seventh, xxiv. 23 f., speaks of the coming of ships from the West, to attack Assur and “Eber”; it may refer to the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great. An interesting, but doubtful, emendation makes this poem describe the ruin of Shamal, a state in N. W. Syria.
In the New Testament Balaam is cited as a type of avarice; in Rev. ii. 14 we read of false teachers at Pergamum who held 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.”
Balaam has attracted much interest, alike from Jews, Christians and Mahommedans. Josephus paraphrases the story more suo, and speaks of Balaam as the best prophet of his time, but with a disposition ill adapted to resist temptation. Philo describes him in the Life of Moses as a great magician; elsewhere he speaks of “the sophist Balaam, being,” i.e. symbolizing, “a vain crowd of contrary and warring opinions”; and again as “a vain people”; both phrases being based on a mistaken etymology of the name Balaam. The later Targums and the Talmuds represent him as a typical sinner; and there are the usual worthless Rabbinical fables, e.g. that he was blind of one eye; that he was the Elihu of Job; that, as one of Pharaoh's counsellors, he was governor of a city of Ethiopia, and rebelled against Pharaoh; Moses was sent against him by Pharaoh at the head of an army, and stormed the city and put Balaam to flight, &c. &c. Curiously enough, the Rabbinical (Yalkut) identification of Balaam with Laban, Jacob's father-in-law, has been revived from a very different standpoint, by a modern critic.
The Mahommedans, also, have various fables concerning Balaam. He was one of the Anakim, or giants of Palestine; he read the books of Abraham, where he got the name Yahweh, by virtue of which he predicted the future, and got from God whatever he asked. It has been conjectured that the Arabic wise man, commonly called Luqmān (q.v.), is identical with Balaam. The names of their fathers are alike, and “Luqman” means devourer, swallower, a meaning which might be got out of Balaam by a popular etymology.
If we might accept the various theories mentioned above, Balaam would appear in one source of J as an Edomite, in another as an Ammonite; in E as a native of the south of Judah or possibly as an Aramaean; in the tradition followed by the Priestly Code probably as a Midianite. All these peoples either belong to the Hebrew stock or are closely connected with it. We may conclude that Balaam was an ancient figure of traditions originally common to all the Hebrews and their allies, and afterwards appropriated by individual tribes; much as there are various St Georges.
The chief significance of the Balaam narratives for the history of the religion of Israel is the recognition by J and E of the genuine inspiration of a non-Hebrew prophet. Yahweh is as much the God of Balaam as he is of Moses. Probably the original tradition goes back to a time when Yahweh was recognized as a deity of a circle of connected tribes of which the Israelite tribes formed a part. But the retention of the story without modification may imply a continuous recognition through some centuries of the idea that Yahweh revealed his will to nations other than Israel.
Apparently the Priestly Code ignored this feature of the story.
Taking the narratives as we now have them, Balaam is a companion figure to Jonah, the prophet who wanted to go where he was not sent, over against the prophet who ran away from the mission to which he was called.
Bibliography.—Ewald, Geschichte des Volkes Israel3, Bd. ii. p. 298; Hengstenberg's Die Geschichte Bileams und seine Weissagungen (1842); the commentaries on the scriptural passages, especially G. B. Gray on Numbers xxii.-xxiv.; and the articles on “Balaam” (Bileam) in Hamburger's Realencyclopädie für Bibel und Talmud, Hastings' Bible Dict., Black and Cheyne's Encyclopaedia Biblica, Herozog-Hauck's Realencyklopädie. For the analysis into earlier documents, see also the Oxford Hexateuch, Estlin Carpenter and Harford-Battersby.
- Quoted Neh. xiii. 1 f.
- Josh. xxiv. 9, 10. E; cf. Micah vi. 5.
- Num. xxxi. 8 (quoted Josh. xiii. 22), 16. These references are not necessarily inconsistent with JE; but they are probably based on an independent tradition. The date of the Priestly Code is ca. 400 B.C.
- Gen. xxxvi. 32.
- For names and reasons, see Gray, Numbers, 314.
- 2 Peter ii. 16, 17 (also refer to the ass speaking), Jude xi.
- Ant. iv. 6.
- Quod. Det. Potiori, § 20.
- De Cherub., § 10.
- T. Steuernagel, Einwanderung der israelitischen Stämme (1901).