Posted in theology

Balaam- A true prophet or a false prophet with a greedy heart?

By Elizabeth Prata

When we think of Balaam, we think of his donkey… EPrata photo

Balaam was a real person, a prophet, mentioned in the Old Testament several times. (Numbers 22; 23; 24; Deuteronomy 23:4.) He was the rider of the famous donkey that the LORD caused to rebuke him. Did you know that Balaam has more scriptural real estate than even Mary? In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, there is a lot about Balaam. He is mentioned three times in the New Testament, and all three times are negative. (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11; Revelation 2:14). We read of the way of Balaam, the error of Balaam, and the doctrine of Balaam. None of it’s positive.

Let’s take a look at this Balaam.

A hearty debate about Balaam centers around whether Balaam was a sinner or saint. Whether he was a true prophet misguided temporarily, or a false prophet who was good at faking it. His character seems murky. We know that David’s heart was right, John was a loving apostle, Paul was a vigorous worker for God. But Balaam… Who was he? As J. Vernon McGee posed, “Is Balaam a genuine prophet of God? Or is he a religious racketeer?

I cannot settle that debate, but I believe that the New Testament’s final verdict in the three above verses is enough to indicate which way the gavel bangs: and it is to the false.

Balak was King of Moab. He had become concerned that there were so many Israelites. Feeling insecure and outnumbered, Balak hired Balaam for a fee to curse the Israelites. Balaam said to Balak what all the true prophets affirmed, that they spoke what the LORD told them to say. They were divine messengers who spoke the LORD’S words only. But unlike true prophets of Israel, Balaam was more interested in the reward than the words.

So he played pious and covered his tracks to Balak, saying ‘O king, I can only speak what Yahweh says to say…’ and sought out the Lord’s permission to go and do the thing the king wanted Balaam to do, which was curse God’s blessed people. Balaam knew the People were blessed, not cursed. Of course, God said no.

Barnes’ Notes says,

Balaam was disposed to go with them, and was restrained from going at once only by a direct and solemn prohibition from the Lord, Numbers 22:11. Notwithstanding this solemn prohibition, and notwithstanding he said to the ambassadors from Balak that he would do only as God directed, though Balak should give him his house full of silver and gold, Numbers 22:18, yet he did not regard the matter as settled, but proposed to them that they should wait another night, with the hope that the Lord would give a more favourable direction in reference to their request, thus showing that his heart was in the service which they required, and that his inclination was to avail himself of their offer, Numbers 22:19.” End Barnes’ Notes.

Do you do that…ask again hoping to get a different answer?

As in the Garden, when the serpent approached Eve and tempted her, she should have immediately considered the matter closed and said ‘begone, serpent’. Adam too. Apparently to Balaam, despite his outward promise to do only as the LORD said, no didn’t mean no. By this we see that Balaam was only paying lip service to his public mantra ‘I will do as the LORD says’. Balaam didn’t close the matter, but hoping to get a better answer from the LORD, sought Him out again.

He bustled with busy-ness, advising the King to sacrifice 14 animals over 7 altars. (Numbers 23:1). Very busy religious activity. But was Balaam’s heart far from God? Likely so. But Balaam was forced to pronounce a blessing, which enraged the King.

So they repeated the entire process, again. Altars, sacrifices, a pious Balaam saying ‘let me seek the Lord and see what He might say’. Again.

Balaam’s seeking wasn’t genuine. Were Balaam’s eyes fixed on the fee? Seems so.

Think of Elisha, firmly refusing Naaman’s gift. Barnes’ Notes on Elisha the Prophet’s refusal,

“I will receive none – The prophets were in the habit of receiving presents from those who consulted them 1 Samuel 9:7-81 Kings 14:3, but Elisha refused. It was important that Naaman should not suppose that the prophets of the true God acted from motives of self-interest, much less imagine that “the gift of God might be purchased with money” Acts 8:20.”

I won’t recount the entire story, you can read the verses or read about Balaam elsewhere. The main point is Balaam’s character.

Balaam said to the King again, Nah, even if you give me a house full of silver and gold, I will only do what the LORD says’. Hmmm, it sounds pious (as did the serpent in the garden), but it was not. It was a negotiating tactic. Balaam had upped the ante.

In 1933 and again in the 1960s, archaeological finds discovered ancient texts mentioning Balaam. “Balaam was a well-known local seer, whose fame spread beyond his own community. Balaam’s words were considered worthy of being preserved by his followers, just as those of the biblical prophets were considered worthy of preservations by their disciples. The Deir ‘Alla inscription allows us to flesh out the picture of Balaam obtained from the Balaam story in Numbers and scattered other biblical texts. He is no longer simply a seer used as a tool in YHWH’s sole power, but an independent actor functioning in a polytheistic world“. Source: Journal Article “Balaam the Seer: From the Bible to the Deir Alla Inscription”, Prof. Carl S. Ehrlich.

So the extra-biblical texts give a good indication of how famous Balaam was…as an independent agent functioning (for profit?) and not serving for the LORD.

In Balaam’s case, he knew that matrimonial alliances with the Midianites were forbidden, no kinship bonds were allowed with them. Yet still being tempted by the King’s promise of great honor and fees, Balaam persisted in playing both sides against his desire to come out on top. He didn’t know he could see nothing.

[T]his famed seer’s sight is surpassed even by his donkey until Yahweh opens his eyes. This story reinforces Yahweh’s power over any other aspect of the divine realm, whether other gods or non-Israelite seers and diviners.” Ballard, L. (2016). Balaam, Son of Beor. In The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press.

The only thing Balaam could ‘see’ was the house full of silver and gold. We need to be mindful of the lessons of Balaam.

1. We should not attempt to manipulate God into affirming our fleshly desires.

2. We should not engage in public religious activity as a cover for attempting to gain our fleshly desires.

3. When God gives us an answer (not audibly these days but through scripture or circumstances), we must accept it without constant call-backs. Don’t ‘pray about it’ again.

4. And then leave the answer where it is. Don’t look back. Remember Lot’s wife.


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

2 thoughts on “Balaam- A true prophet or a false prophet with a greedy heart?

  1. Just this morning, Elizabeth, I read a reference to Balaam in Joshua that prompted me to ask the Lord for understanding about this perplexing little man. Lo and behold, not an hour later an email linking to this essay popped up on my computer screen! The Lord
    knew what I needed! Thank you for this essay.

    Liked by 1 person

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