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 Realencyklopadie (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.