Balaam: By God's Permission, or Not?

This is a story that has caused perplexity for quite some time. Let's have a look at the verses in question:

Numbers 22:14-22 Then Balak sent other princes, more numerous and more distinguished than the first. They came to Balaam and said: "This is what Balak son of Zippor says: Do not let anything keep you from coming to me, because I will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say. Come and put a curse on these people for me." But Balaam answered them, "Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the LORD my God. Now stay here tonight as the others did, and I will find out what else the LORD will tell me." That night God came to Balaam and said, "Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you." Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him.

I've seen this one cited by critics any number of times (not just for the talking donkey). What's the problem, basically? The question is always asked:

If God gave permission for Balaam to go, why was He angry with him when he did go?

A couple of solutions are pretty easy to discard. One is no solution at all, but merely divides the story into JEDP parses. We don't buy into JEDP here, but that's another issue.

Another solution tries to differentiate between "God" and "Yahweh", and cites an LXX variation for support, but I doubt if such an artificial distinction can be made. It would make God a house divided against Himself.

Speaking for traditional evangelicalism, Kaiser [Kais.HSOT, 88ff] offers some suggestions to the effect that God's second instruction is conditional: "If these men come to you.." From there he supposes that Balaam went and sought out the men, rather than waiting for them to come to him, and this is what ticked God off so much.

Is this the answer? Maybe. The text reads most naturally as saying that the men were staying with Balaam, although it is really not clear whether they were staying with Balaam or down the road at the Holiday Inn.

Truthfully, I think that Kaiser's effort is a bit tenuous and perhaps somewhat misguided. I have shown here many times that it is a mistake to read the Bible through a modern lens, and in so doing define "inerrancy" in a modern fashion. The 3400 years that separate us make a difference.

Closer to the truth, I think, is the solution proposed by Spero [Sper.MM]. It fits in nicely with the archaeological data that seems to have confirmed that Balaam actually existed as a pagan diviner and prophet.

What he proposes is that in this story of Balaam, we have a quite intentional contradiction made for the purpose of poking fun at a very popular diviner who was no match for the true God. In other words, the narrative is interrupted for a few moments of satire -- and it's only because we are reading through a modern lens that we don't realize this.

It is common for interpreters to suppose that Balaam was a man who, while pagan, did know the true God, in perhaps the sense Jethro and Melchizadek did. But this does not square with the NT picture of Balaam as a greedy and wicked idolater (2 Pet. 2:15, Rev. 2:14).

The way Spero sees things, however, matches the NT reputation of Balaam quite well. In his view, Balaam was just your run-of-the-mill pay-for-prophecy diviner; and his seemingly pious remark to the Moab princes that he would have to ask God what to do was just a tactic. As Spero sees it, the Moabites "probably winked and nodded at each other knowingly, realizing such 'God talk' to be only a facade behind which Balaam deliberated whether the price was right" -- in other words, Balaam did not know God at all (though he obviously knew of God); and the Moabites were asking Balaam to play the typical role of the diviner, as one who could manipulate the gods and influence their decrees...little aware that Yahweh was not that type of deity.

Fast forward to that night. Balaam wasn't making any plans to actually consult God, but lo and behold, God came to him. We are now to imagine, Spero suggests, a shaking and trembling Balaam coming forth and refusing the offer.

Perhaps so -- perhaps the Jewish reader would have understood that God had not actually spoken to Balaam, and have gotten a good laugh out of Balaam claiming to have heard from the Almighty.

In other words, perhaps it was an obvious joke, one that we have lost sight of. Either way, Spero now sees the second offer as an indication that the Moabites simply thought that Balaam wanted more money -- and this, we may note, matches well with the condemnation of Balaam in the NT.

So now we move to the next episode. The Moabites come back to Balaam's door; he hints at payment in a roundabout way; that night, God tells him to go ahead -- or does He?

Spero thinks there is more to it. "God is mocking and playing with Balaam the idolater even as He mocked and played with Pharaoh." [47] This is followed by the most "exquisite irony" as Balaam, the self-proclaimed prophet of God, isn't even able to see the angel of the Lord in front of him -- while his donkey can see it, and has to tell him about it.

The purpose of the story, then, as Spero sees it, is to "debunk the false notions of the age and to poke fun at the pretenses of self-serving men who deceitfully claim to have the power" to hear God.

Now my reader may ask at this point: "Is this saying that none of this is historical?" Not at all -- if there were not history behind this episode, there is hardly any grounds for it to have originated in the first place.

But for the purposes of the ancient reader, there were also lessons to be taught and remembered. The ancient reader and hearer of Israel would know that Balaam was a pagan prophet, and would easily "get the joke" and understand that more than "pure history" was being reported. We have shown elsewhere (as with Jer. 7:22) that the use of direct "contradiction" served an idiomatic purpose; it was used as a signal of something more significant.

So it is here, I think, with this "contradiction" in the account of Balaam. Something more was intended, and it is in that respect that we should regard the text as both true and inerrant -- not through the lens of our own preconceptions.

-JPH

Sources

  1. Kais.HSOT -- Kaiser, Walter. Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. IVP.
  2. Sper.MM -- Spero, Shubert. "Multiplicity of Meaning as a Device in Biblical Narrative." Judaism 34, 1985, pp. 462-77.