(Hebrew balam) "not of the people" (Israel), a "foreigner"; else bilam, "the destroyer of the people," corresponding to the Greek Nicolaos, "conqueror of the people" (Revelation 2:14-15), namely, by having seduced them to fornication with the Moabite women (Numbers 25), just as the Nicolaitanes sanctioned the eating of things sacrificed to idols and fornication. The -am, however, may be only a formative syllable. He belonged to Pethor, a city of Aram Naharaim, i.e. Mesopotamia (Deuteronomy 23:4). "Balak, the king of Moab" (he says, Numbers 23:7), "hath brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the E.," a region famous for soothsayers (Isaiah 2:6). Pethor, from pathar, "to reveal," was the head quarters of oriental magi, who used to congregate in particular spots (Daniel 2:2; Matthew 2:1), Phathusae, S. of Circesium. It is an undesigned propriety, which marks the truth of Scripture, that it represents Balak of Moab, the descendant of Lot, as having recourse to a diviner of the land from which Lot came when he accompanied Abraham to Canaan.
It was a practice of ancient nations to devote their enemies to destruction at the beginning of their wars; the form of execration is preserved in Macrobius, Saturnalia, 3:9. The traditional knowledge of the true God lingered among the descendants of Laban and Bethuel. Abimelech of Gerar, Melchizedek, Job, Jethro, are all instances of the truth that knowledge of the one true God was not restricted to Abraham's descendants. Balaam was son of Beor. The same name (omitting the last part, -am, of Balaam), Bela, (and he also "son of Beor," front baar, to "burn up,) occurs among the Edomites connected with Midian by a victory recorded in Genesis 36:32-37; also with the "river" Euphrates through Saul of Rehoboth which was on it, king of Edom. Now Balaam is mentioned in conjunction with the five kings of Midian (Numbers 31:8; Numbers 31:16).
A dynasty of Balaam's ancestors from near the great river probably reigned once over Edom. Moab in his application to him was not alone. "Moab was sore afraid ... because of the children of Israel, and Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field" (how natural the image in the mouth of a shepherd king, as "the king of Moab was a sheep master," 2 Kings 3:4). So "the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand." It is natural that Balaam, living amidst idolaters, should, like Laban of old in the same region (Genesis 31:20), have been somewhat tainted. Hence, while owning Jehovah for his God and following patriarchal tradition (Job 42:8, who is thought by the decipherers of the Assyrian and Babylonian monuments to have lived in the region about the mouth of the Euphrates, Uz, the early seat of the first Babylonian empire) in offering victims by sevens.
Balaam had recourse to "enchantments" also, so that he is called "the soothsayer" (Joshua 13:22) (ha-kosem, distinguished, from the true prophet, Isaiah 3:2), a practice denounced as "an abomination to the Lord" (Deuteronomy 18:10; Deuteronomy 18:12). In the portion that follows (Numbers 22:7-24) no further mention of Midian occurs, but only of Moab. But after Balaam's vain effort to curse, and God's constraining him to bless, Israel, "he went and returned to his place" (Numbers 24:14; Numbers 24:25). He had said: "Behold, I go unto my people." But then follows (Numbers 25) Israel's whoredom, not only with Moabite women but also with Midianite women, of whom Cozbi, daughter of Zur (slain by Phinehas. with Zimri her paramour), was principal; and in Numbers 31:8; Numbers 31:16, Israel's slaughter of the Midianites with their five kings (Zur was one), and also of Balaam, son of Beor, because of his "counsel." Beside those kings that fell in battle, Israel slew five Midianite kings and executed Balaam judicially after the battle (Numbers 31:8).
So after all Balaam did not return as he had said, to his own place, Mesopotamia. Dismissed by the Moabites in dissatisfaction, He suffered his mind to dwell on the honors and riches which he had lost by blessing Israel, and so instead of going home he turned to the Midianites, who were joined with Moab in the original application to him. Availing himself of his head knowledge of divine truth, he, like Satan in Eden, used it with fiendish wisdom to break the union between God and Israel by tempting the latter to sin by lust. They fell into his trap: but staying among the Midianites, who doubtless rewarded with mammon his hellish counsel which succeeded so fatally against Israel, he in turn fell into the righteous judgment executed by Moses and Israel on his guilty patrons, Israel's seducers. The undesigned dovetailing together of these scattered incidents into such a harmonious whole is a strong confirmation of the truth of the Scripture history.
In Numbers 22:12, at the first inquiry of Balaam, God said, "Thou shalt not go with them, thou shalt not curse the people." Balaam acquiesced, although in language betraying the revolt of his covetous will against God's will he told Balak's princes, "Jehovah refuseth to give me leave to go with you." Hence, instead of going back to Pethor, he begs them to tarry another night to see "what Jehovah will say unto him more." In the very moment of saying "I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God," he tempts the Lord as if He might change His purpose, and allow him to earn "the wages of iniquity"; yet himself, with strange inconsistency, such as marks those who "hold the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18), declares what condemns his perverse thought, "God is not a man that He should lie, nor the Son of man that He should repent: hath He said, and shall He not do it, or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?" (Numbers 23:19.)
God did come that night, and seems to contradict His former command, "If the men come to call thee, rise up and go with them." But God' s unchangeable principle is, with the pure to show Himself pure (Psalm 18:26), with the froward to show Himself froward. He at first speaks plainly to the conscience His will; if the sinner resists the voice of His Spirit and His word He "answers the fool according to his folly," and "gives him up to his own desire" (Psalm 78:29-30; compare Romans 1:25-26; Romans 1:28; Proverbs 1:31); after long resistance by man, God's Spirit ceases to strive with him (Genesis 6:3). Balaam rose up in the morning, and it is not written he waited for the "men to come and call" him. Certainly, "God's anger was kindled because he went"; for his going was in spite of the former plain prohibition; and the second voice was a permission giving him up in judicial anger to his own perversity (compare 1 Kings 22:15), a permission too resting on the condition, which Balaam did not wait for, "if the men come to call thee." Judges 1:11 saith the "error of Balaam" was his" running greedily for reward."
The apostle Peter (2 Peter 2:15) says, "Balaam the son of Bosor" (the same as Beor; Bosor is akin to basar, "flesh," and Balaam showed himself the "son of carnality." Bosor is probably the Aramaic or Chaldee equivalent of Beor, Tsade (? ) being submitted for 'Ayin (? ). Peter residing at Babylon would naturally adopt the name usual in the Aramaic tradition) "loved the wages of unrighteousness: but was rebuked for his iniquity, the mute (voiceless) donkey, speaking with man's voice, forbad the madness of the prophet": an awful contrast, a dumb beast forbidding an inspired prophet. The donkey turned aside at the sight of the angel; but Balaam, after God had said "thou shalt not go," persevered in wishing to go for gain. Not what the donkey said, but its speaking at all, withstood his perversity. The donkey indirectly, the angel directly, rebuked his worse than asinine obstinacy.
The miracle, the object of the infidel's scoff, has a moral fitness which stamps its truth. He who made the cursing prophet bless could make an ass, His own creature, speak (Nehemiah 13:2; Joshua 24:9-10). The "seer" lacks the spiritual eye to discern the angel of the Lord, because it was blinded by lust of riches and honor. God opens the mouth of the irrational brute to show the seer his blindness in not seeing what even the brute could see. Even a beast can discern the spiritual world better than a man blinded by lust. Balaam's worse than brutish mind must be taught by the. brute, in order to chastize his vainly. Not until after the Lord opened the donkey's mouth is it written that" his eyes were opened" (Numbers 24:3-4), whereas they had been "shut" (margin): "falling" refers to his falling with his donkey (not as KJV: "into a trance") and then having his eyes "opened."
No more efficient agent than Balaam could have been chosen to testify to his friends, Israel's enemies, the hopelessness of their conflict with the people whom Jehovah marks as His own. This famed diviner, brought to curse, blesses; lured by love of gain which depended on his cursing, he contradicts his own nature by forfeiting the promised gain, to bless a people from whom he expected no gain. A master of enchantments, he confesses "there is no enchantment (which can avail) against Jacob, neither any divination against Israel" (Numbers 23:23). The miracle wrought on him, whereby he belied his whole nature, is greater than that wrought on the ass. This truth moreover came with more weight, from him than from any other, and this publicly before a king and a whole people, the most esteemed soothsayer in spite of himself proclaiming Israel's blessedness.
Balak first feasted Balaam at Kirjath Huzoth, a place of reputed sanctity on the borders. Thence Balaam was taken to "the high places (bamot) of Baal," called Beth Bamoth in the Moabite stone. Thence to Pisgah's top by the field of Zophim. Thence to Peor's top looking toward Jeshimon. Then Balaam, seeing God's determinate counsel, stopped seeking further enchantments, but looking at Israel in their beautiful order by tribes, he compares them to the rows of lign aloes and cedars by the waters, and foretells the advent of a Hebrew prince who should smite Moab and Edom (David, 2 Samuel 8, the type), and of the Messiah, the Star out of Jacob" (compare Revelation 22:16; Matthew 2, announced to the Gentile wise men from the E., Balaam's country, by the star in the sky) whose "scepter shall have dominion" (Revelation 2:27-28; Psalm 110:2; He shall restore "the scepter departed from Judah," Genesis 49:10).
Balaam foretold also (See AMALEK'S utter ruin; the Kenites' being carried captive by Assyria; and Assyria in its turn being afflicted by the Greeks and Romans from Chittim (Cyprus, put for all western lands whence the approach to Israel was by sea); and these, the last destroying power, in turn, "shall perish for ever" before Messiah's kingdom. "Eber," who was to be "afflicted" by Assyria, includes Eber's descendants through Peleg, and also through Joktan; the western Semites, sprung from Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram (Genesis 10:21). Balaam's prophecy is a comprehensive germ, which Isaiah and the prophets, especially Daniel, develop, concerning the four successive world empires which, after their successive rise and fall, shall be superseded by the universal and everlasting kingdom of Messiah (Daniel 2; 7).
Jacob saw the dominion of the victorious Lion out of Judah attaining its perfection in Shiloh's (the Prince of peace) peaceful reign. Balaam, in the face of Israel's foes seeking to destroy her, declares that it is they who shall be destroyed. Appropriately the seer that God appoints to announce this belonged to Mesopotamia, the center of the great world powers whose doom he foretells, as rebels against Jehovah's purpose concerning Israel and Israel's Messianic king (Psalm 2). As a Judas was among the apostles, so Balaam among the prophets, a true seer but a bad man; at the transition to the Mosaic from the patriarchal age witnessing to the truth in spite of himself, as Caiaphas did at the transition from the legal to the Christian dispensation. Head knowledge without heart sanctification increases one's condemnation. Making "godliness a source of gain" is the damning sin of all such as Balaam and Simon Magus: 1 Timothy 6:5 (Greek).
In Micah 6:5 ("O My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beer answered him from Shittim)," the sense is, Remember the fatal effects at Shittim of Israel's joining Baal Peer and committing whoredom with the daughters of Moab, and how but for God's sparing mercy Israel would have been given to utter destruction. Like Judas and Ahithophel, Balaam set in motion the train of events which entailed his own destruction. Balak's summons was the crisis in his history, bringing him into contact with God's people and so giving him the possibility of nearer communion with God than before. Trying to combine prophecy and soothsaying, the service of God and the wages of iniquity, he made the choice that ruined him for ever! He wanted to do opposite things at once, to curse and to bless (James 3:10-12), to earn at once the wages of righteousness and unrighteousness, if possible not to offend God, yet not to lose Balak's reward.