But as I prepared, I learned more about Balaam.
Who is Balaam? A mesopotamian soothsayer who “sees” into the future, usually through dreams.
Balaam arrives at a critical point in Numbers. The book itself has been organized into five parts. Let's just use Unger's three geographical divisions coupled to two units of journeys:
(1) Israel in the Desert of Sinai (1:1 – 10:10)
(2) From Sinai to Kadesh (10:11 – 12:16)
(3) In the Kadesh area (13:1 – 20:21)
(4) Detour to avoid Edom (20:22 – 21:35)
(5) Israel in the plains of Moab (22:1 – 36:13).
The little story I love best - his trip on the donkey and encounter with the angel - is set inside the Balaam oracles that occur from Chpts 22-24, usually called the Book of Balaam. Hackett indicates that "Balaam is a diviner, a form of intermediary apparently acceptable in court circles in preexilic Judah, as elsewhere in the ANE [Ancient Near East]; [. . .] In those verses generally called E, however, we see in Balaam a typical Yahweh-prophet, one who can only speak the word that Yahweh puts in his mouth, a phrase reflecting the paradigmatic description of a prophet in Deut 18:18.” ( Hackett, 1992, p 569).
A wonderful discovery at Tell Deir ˁAllā, on the Ammonite site of the Jabbok River in the late 1960s produced plaster inscriptions now called Book of Balaam. This Aramaic/ Canaanite the text dated 800 BCE refers to Balaam's visions (or Bileam). He is a “seer of the gods” (ḥzh ˀlhn). Here is an excerpt.
The gods came to him at night.
And he beheld a vision in accordance with El's utterance.
They said to Balaam, son of Beor:
"So will it be done, with naught surviving.
No one has seen [the likes of] what you have heard!"
Balaam Reports his Vision to His Intimates.
Balaam arose on the morrow;
He summoned the heads of the assembly to him,
And for two days he fasted, and wept bitterly.
Then his intimates entered into his presence,
and they said to Balaam, son of Beor,
"Why do you fast, and why do you weep?"
Then he said to them: "Be seated, and I will relate to you what the Shaddai gods have planned,
And go, see the acts of the god!"
Balaam Describes the Celestial Vision and Its Aftermath in the Land
"The gods have banded together;
The Shaddai gods have established a council,
And they have said to [the goddess] Shagar:
'Sew up, close up the heavens with dense cloud,
That darkness exist there, not brilliance;
Obscurity and not clarity;i.9So that you instill dread in dense darkness.
And - never utter a sound again!'i.10It shall be that the swift and crane will shriek insult to the eagle,
And a nest of vultures shall cry out in response.
The stork, the young of the falcon and the owl,
The chicks of the heron, sparrow and cluster of eagles;
Pigeons and birds, [and fowl in the s]ky.
And a rod [shall flay the cat]tle;
Where there are ewes, a staff shall be brought.
Hares - eat together!
Free[ly feed], oh beasts [of the field]!
And [freely] drink, asses and hyenas!"
Is he a sorcerer or a diviner? Sorcery, or keshafim, was banned and punished by death is Israel (Deut 18:10). In Mesopotamian laws it is also a capital crime. Divination, nahash, involved reading omens, casting lots, interpreting oil or water in cpy, terafim - was practiced by the Levite priests who threw the urim and thurim. Balaam is considered nahash (23:23, 24:1) and kesem (22:7, 23:23). This form of divination could be tolerated in Israel since it wasn’t incompatible with monotheism.
So, turning to the Oracles of Balaam in Numbers 22-24, we have Balak King of Moab worried about the ways this immigrant force the Israelies have plowed through neighboring territories. Following protocol, he hires Balaam the seer to curse them. Balaam tells him he will consult El about this, so he dreams and El or YHWH tells him he can't curse the Israelites because they are blessed. Balaam says he can only do what El prescribes, so he can't curse the Israelites. Balak, increasingly agitated, thinks Balaam is bargaining for a higher divination fee. So he sends messengers a second time with more gifts. Balaam goes back to dreaming. He receives the same answer (no), but then El permits him to meet Balak if he repeats what El tells him to say. It is structured like this:
Numbers 23: 7-10 – Balaam sees YHWH won't curse the Israelites
Second oracle (23:18-24) Balaam learns YHWH is resolved to bless Israel.
Third oracle (23: 3-9) blessing comes to a climax – God originates curse or blessing, and God’s word cannot be revoked (23:20).
Balaam renounces divination
Fourth oracle (24:15-19) Balaam infused with divine spirit, prophesies that Moab will be dominated by Israel.
Like the jewel in the egg, we have the story I will tell next.
Hackett, J.A., Balaam, Anchor Bible Dictionary, New York: Doubleday, 1992, 569-572.
Levine, B.A. "The Deir 'Alla Plaster Inscriptions", in: W.W. Hallo (ed.), Context of Scripture, vol.2 (2003), 140-145.
Oppenheim, A. L. The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East, Philadelphia, 1956
Unger, M.F. Unger’s Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed.; Chicago: Moody Press, 1966, 799.
See this collection of dreams in the bible