Is Balaam a good guy or a bad guy?

Compare Numbers 22-24 and Micah 6:5 to Numbers 31:8, 16; Deuteronomy 23:4-5; Joshua 24:9-10; Nehemiah 13:2, 2 Peter 2:15, Jude 1:11, and Revelation 2:14

Balaam, the donkey, and the angel – Numbers 22:21-25

Numbers 31:16 (a priestly text) is the only verse in the Old Testament that attributes the apostasy of Baal Peor to Balaam’s doing. Deuteronomy 23:4-5 says that God turned Balaam’s “curse into a blessing” even though in the actual account of Balaam as recorded in Numbers 22-24 we see that Balaam did the opposite! He actually blessed Israel! The text in Numbers 31:16 paints Balaam as a bad guy, but for a different reason. This account blames the Midianites for Israelite apostasy in Number 25:16-18, but also pins the blame on Balaam, even though in Numbers chapters 22-24 he is a completely faithful prophet, totally honest and upright before God (which is especially noticeable since he is not of Israel). This incident, sometimes referred to as the “Peor incident” on account of its location, has to do with Israel’s apostasy from their God Yahweh, and the evil influence of the Moabite women and culture on Israel.

I have always struggled with this story. On one hand, Balaam is an honorable representative of God, saying, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God. (Numbers 22:19 JSP version) Later, God tells Balaam to go with Balak and his men in Number 22:20, only to have a contradictory experience in Numbers 22:21-35 where a talking donkey resists Balaam and he sees the angel of the Lord. The author, it seems, is suggesting that Balaam is heading off to curse Israel as per Balak’s request. I don’t interpret the text this way, as Numbers 22-24 illustrate  that in every respect Balaam is only speaking what the Lord would have him speak.

For example we read in Numbers 23:8, “How can I damn whom God has not damned, How doom when the Lord has not doomed?” (JPS version)

Or later, “I can only repeat faithfully what the Lord puts in my mouth.” (Numbers 23:12, JPS version)

But then we get back to Numbers 31:16, which seems to blame Balaam for something that he did not do in the account of his life in Numbers 22-24. It reads, “Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord’s community was struck by the plague.” (JPS version, emphasis added) Balaam seems to be the bad guy in John’s recollection as well when we read in Revelation 2:14, “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.”

These verses (Numbers 31:16 and Revelation 2:14) seem to completely contradict what we read in Numbers 22-24! It seems as if the priestly writer, who many scholars say wrote much later than J or E (E being the supposed author of the main account of Balaam in Numbers 22-24) is creating a contradictory tradition about Balaam which is not represented anywhere else in the Old Testament. We also have a negative view of Balaam in Deuteronomy 23:4-5, where the Lord “turned the curse into a blessing”. This account was written by the Deuteronomist, much later that the E version of Balaam than what we have in Numbers 22-24. 1

The question I have is, why? Why would a later author take a text that was positive about Balaam and rewrite it so as to present him in a negative light? And why is this so fragmentary? (Numbers 22 completely reverses at about verse 20!) Perhaps it has something to do with Balaam not being of the House of Israel. Or it could be related to the area in which he lived. We now know, through the discovery of the “Balaam inscriptions” from Deir ‘Alla, a Transjordanian site, that Balaam was a popular literary figure in other Transjordanian extra-biblical traditions that were active during the 9th to 8th centuries BCE. 2 The traditions regarding Balaam probably come from this period. It is possible that the later versions that portrayed Balaam as a bad guy may have to do with the historical situations that these scribes were facing at the time that they wrote their versions of the Exodus narrative. Perhaps these negative accounts of him are a polemic against outside influences that were known to corrupt the true worship of God in the days that these later authors revised their stories. There is certainly much more to this story than we now have in our Bible!


  1. David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament, p. 78. He writes, “It appears that E (or possibly J) was the first documentary source. P was written thereafter, which makes sense in light of the way P reacted to J’s stories about creation and the flood. The Hebrew in D is later than that of P, which connects with D’s rejection of the earlier Priestly concept of God literally dwelling in his temple.” See also Richard Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, p. 7-8. Commenting on the order of the authors of the Pentateuch, he says, “The Hebrew of J and E comes from the earliest stage of biblical Hebrew. The Hebrew of P comes from a later stage of the language. The Hebrew from the Deuteronomistic texts comes from a still later stage of the language… The chronology of the language of the sources is confirmed by Hebrew texts outside the Bible. The characteristics of Classical Biblical Hebrew are confirmed through comparison with inscriptions that have been discovered through archaeology, which come from the period before the Babylonian exile (587 BCE). The characteristics of Late Biblical Hebrew are confirmed through comparison with the Hebrew of later sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Despite the power of this evidence, it is practically never mentioned by those who oppose the hypothesis (meaning, the Documentary Hypothesis)” To me, many of the contradictions make sense in light of this. We have an early version of Balaam that portrays him as faithful to God, only to have other, later texts state that he was evil, in spite of the fact that the only actual account of his life, the E account, written earliest, shows us otherwise. There must have been a reason for the later authors to do this!
  2. Hoftuzer, The Balaam Text from Deir ‘Alla Re-Evaluated: Proceedings of the International Symposium Held at Leiden 21-24 August 1989 (Ancient Near East)

For further consideration, see:

  1. A Righteous Balaam, by Mark Douek.
  2. Balaam???? At the Jewish Virtual Library

About LDS Scripture Teachings

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This entry was posted in Apostasy, Israel, Leadership, Messiness of scripture, Old Testament, Student questions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is Balaam a good guy or a bad guy?

  1. Pingback: The Messiness of Scripture | LDS Scripture Teachings

  2. Pingback: The Documentary Hypothesis and Reading the Bible Critically | LDS Scripture Teachings

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