It is often supposed that the name of the king of Edom,[4] 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,[5] 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;[6] 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[7] 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[8] he speaks of "the sophist Balaam, being," i.e. symbolizing, "a vain crowd of contrary and warring opinions"; and again[9] 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, etc. etc.

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.[10] 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 Luqman (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.


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 Realencyklopadie. For the analysis into earlier documents, see also the Oxford Hexateuch, Estlin Carpenter and Harford-Battersby.

(W. H. Be.)

[1] Quoted Neh. xiii. 1 f.

[2] Josh. xxiv. 9, 10. E; cf. Micah vi. 5.

[3] 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.

[4] Gen. xxxvi. 32.

[5] For names and reasons, see Gray, Numbers, 314.

[6] 2 Peter ii. 16, 17 (also refer to the ass speaking), Jude xi.

[7] Ant. iv. 6.

[8] Quod. Det. Potiori, § 20.

[9] De Cherub., § 10.

[10] T. Steuernagel, Einwanderung der israelitischen Stämme (1901).