A non‐Israelite prophet who figures most prominently in the narratives of Numbers 22–24; there is also a lengthy prophecy of the same Balaam in the text from Deir ʿAllā in the Jordan Valley dating to around 700 BCE.
The Bible evaluates Balaam's character in two quite different ways. On the one hand, Balaam is often portrayed as an example of an evil diviner who would sell his prophetic powers to the highest bidder, often in conflict with God's will (Num. 31.8, 16; Deut. 23.4–5; Josh. 13.22; 24.9–10; Neh. 13.2; Mic. 6.5; 2 Pet. 2.15; Jude 11; Rev 2.14). In a particularly humorous scene, Numbers 22.21–35 makes fun of Balaam's powers as a seer; he is repeatedly unable to see the divine messenger that even his donkey can see.
On the other hand, Numbers 22–24 as a whole portrays Balaam in a favorable light. When the Moabite king Balak hires Balaam to curse his enemy Israel as they cross his territory on the way to the Promised Land, Balaam replies piously that as a prophet he can speak only the words that God gives to him (Num. 22.18; see also Num. 24.13).
On four occasions when Balak asks Balaam to curse the Israelites, Balaam instead obeys God and speaks only words of great blessing upon Israel. The most famous of these oracles of blessing includes a prophecy about a great future king or messiah of Israel. The oracle may originally have applied to David, but later it was interpreted as the promise of a ruler who would come as a deliverer in the end time. Using royal images, Balaam proclaims, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num. 24.17); this text probably underlies the account of the star followed by the Magi (Matt. 2.1–12).
A passage from Balaam's final oracle was quoted in the first telegraph message: “What hath God wrought!” (Num. 23.23 KJV).
Dennis T. Olson