The story of Balaam in the Bible is full of intrigue, conspiracy, and surprise. Unfortunately, some Bible readers don’t know much about him because his story is in the book of Numbers, which isn’t often preached or taught in churches. Yet learning about Balaam will help people understand more about God’s sovereignty, protection, and care for his people.
Balaam was a false prophet in the days of Moses. When an enemy of Israel named Balak hired him to curse the Israelites, God intervened, partly through Balaam’s donkey, and sovereignly used the false prophet for his purposes. In the New Testament, Peter and John say false teachers are like Balaam.
What did people in Moses’ day pay Balaam to do? Why did Balak want to hire him? How did God intervene to protect Israel? Why is Balaam’s donkey important to the story? How do scholars interpret the donkey’s actions? What does the New Testament say about Balaam? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Balaam Encounters the God of Israel
The story of Balaam is set during the lifetime of Moses when Israel wandered for 40 years in the Sinai desert after leaving Egypt. In their travels, Moses and the Israelites journeyed near the lands of Edom and Moab near the Dead Sea. Often, the close proximity of two people groups would erupt in warfare to control resources like land, water, and food.
However, God told Moses not to attack the Edomites and Moabites (Deut. 2:1-5). “Do not provoke them to war” (Deut. 2:5, NIV). Moses obeyed God’s order. When Edom refused to let Moses and his people pass through its land, “Israel turned away from him” (Num 20:21). Yet when the king of Moab grew paranoid about Israel attacking, the false prophet Balaam entered the story.
King Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel
When the Moabites saw how close the Israelites were to their land, they grew terrified because there were so many of them. “Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites” (Num. 22:3).
The Moabites, including their king, Balak, feared that the Israelites would consume all the natural resources in the area, threatening their way of life, even their very existence (Num. 22:4a).
Instead of attacking the Israelites, Balak hired a pagan prophet, Balaam, to curse them and eliminate the threat that they posed. “So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Pethor, near the Euphrates River, in his native land” (Num. 22:4b-5).
At the time, some people believed that a prophet like Balaam could speak a curse to inflict harm on others. Balaam’s divination services were also for sale, so Balak intended to hire him to defeat Israel.
God intervened to stop Balaam
Balak sent messengers and money to persuade Balaam to curse Israel for him. However, God intervened, telling Balaam not to curse Israel (Num. 22:10-18). “You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed” (Num. 22:12).
The next day, Balaam intended to find Balak and talk to him, so he saddled his donkey. Surprisingly, Balaam’s donkey is central to what happened next.
God Interputs Balaam’s Journey
God was angry that Balaam intended to meet Balak, so he sent an angel to block his path. Numbers 22:22 reads, “But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him” (NIV).
Numbers commentator Iain Duguid writes, “The Lord was angry not simply because Balaam had gone with Balak’s messengers but rather because he had gone in a way that evidenced a lack of submission to the Lord. He acted as if he were a free agent, able to control his own destiny as well as that of other nations.” 
Balaam’s donkey avoids God’s angel
The surprising twist in the story is that Balaam doesn’t see the angel, but his donkey does. What follows is partly humorous yet also serious because God is protecting his people, Israel. In the scene, the donkey has the sense to avoid the angel three times, and Balaam beats it because he doesn’t see the angel.
|The Donkey||Balaam’s Reaction|
|The donkey turned into the field to avoid the angel (v. 23)||Balaam beats it|
|The donkey pressed close to a wall to avoid the angel (v. 25)||Balaam beats it|
|The donkey lay on the ground to avoid the angel (v. 27)||Balaam beats it|
After three beatings, “the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth.” It said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” (Num. 22:28). After Balaam threatened to kill it, the donkey replied, “Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” Balaam replied, “no” (v. 30).
How should readers understand a talking donkey? Some dismiss the story as myth or legend. Those who interpret the story literally often fall into two categories. First, some believe god supernaturally and momentarily gave the donkey human speech. Another interpretation is that the donkey brayed in a way that conveyed anger at getting beaten, which changed Balaam’s thinking and beliefs.
God’s angel confronts Balaam
At last, Balaam sees the donkey because God opened his eyes (v. 31). This time, the angel speaks to Balaam. “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me” (v. 32).
In response, though Balaam offered to turn back (v. 33), the angel allows him to proceed, but only as God’s spokesperson, not Balak’s (v. 34). When Balaam finally reaches Balak, he says, “I can’t say whatever I please. I must speak only what God puts in my mouth” (v. 38).
Then, to complete the story, Balaam blesses Israel (ch. 23-24). Some scholars say God used Balaam in a way that implies the prophet’s conversion. Others argue that God’s use of Balaam doesn’t suggest his conversion; it only implies that God can sovereignty use even a donkey or false prophet if he chooses.
Number scholar Gordon Wenham writes, “As God opens the ass’s mouth, so he will put his words in Balaam’s to declare his will. This parallelism between Balaam and his ass suggests that the ability to declare God’s word is not necessarily a sign of Balaam’s holiness, only that God can use anyone to be his spokesman.” 
What Do Peter and John Say About Balaam?
In 2 Peter 2, the apostle warns the church about false teachers. He writes that they are similar to Balaam, who held false beliefs, practiced false religion for money, and was confronted by God.
2 Peter 2:15-16, “They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Bezer, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—an animal without speech—who spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.”
In the book of Revelation, John writes a message to the church in the town of Pergamum. In it, he accuses some in the church of following the teaching of “Balaam.” Most Revelation scholars teach that “Balaam” was a false teacher in the church at Pergamum.
Revelation 2:14 reads, “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.”
 Numbers by Iain Duguid. Preaching the Word. p. 274.
 Numbers by Gordon Wenham. NTNC. p. 189.
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