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The Rest of the Story

by Tim O'Hearn

Most people are familiar with the story of Balaam and his donkey. (Num 22-24) (Technically it was a donkey because it was domesticated and an ass is not.) This story puts Balaam in a good light, but all the passages in the New Testament that refer to the man consider him evil. Why is this?

Perhaps a brief summary of the story is in order. The Israelites were camped near the Jordan River, in the territory of Moab. Balak, the king of Moab, sent to Balaam to hire him to curse Israel so he could defeat them. Balaam at first refused, but on being offered more money decided, with Godís blessing, to do what Balak wanted, under the condition that he would only speak what God told him. On the way to Moab, the angel of God stood in the way three times, threatening to kill Balaam. When Balaam struck his donkey the third time, the donkey spoke in complaint. The angel told him that his donkey saved his life, and let him go onward. When he arrived in Moab, Balaam met with Balak, who took him three times to look at the Israelite camp and curse them. Each time, Balaam reiterated that he could only say what God told him to say. All three times he blessed Israel rather than cursing them. Balak then sent him home. The next chapter (Numbers 25) seems unrelated. It tells of Israel mingling with the Moabite women and worshiping their idols, which caused God to kill 24,000 Israelites. It would have been more except for the indignation of Aaronís son Pinchas. Then a few chapters later it is told that Israel slew the kings of Midian, and Balaam also. (Num 31:8; Josh 13:22)

Israel was doing well, and had just received Godís blessing in triplicate. What happened between chapters 24 and 25? Apparently, Balaam happened. The rabbis say that Balak complained that Balaam had taken his money, and Balaam greedily refused to give it back. Instead, he told Balak how to defeat the Israelites: let their women seduce the Israelite men and they would forsake God.

There is strong biblical evidence that this is exactly what happened between the chapters. Both in the Old and New Testaments, Balaam is subsequently vilified rather than praised.

In Deuteronomy 23, Moses implies that Balaam really wanted to curse Israel, but God changed his words. Joshua (24:9-10) and Nehemiah (13:2) seem to hold this same idea. Although he said he could only speak the words of God, he was hoping that those words would be a curse.

The second letter of Peter and the letter from Jude are very similar. In both, Balaamís motives are revealed. Peter says he ďloved the wages of unrighteousness.Ē (2 Pet 2:15) Jude (verse 11) calls him greedy. That greed apparently manifested itself. He had to earn his money.

John is a little more specific in his description of Balaam. It occurs in the Spiritís letter to the church at Pergamos.

But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. (Rev 2:14)

John agrees with the rabbinic description. Balaam is the one who came up with the idea to seduce Israel. When we tell the story of Balaam, perhaps we donít always tell the whole story.