THE BIBLE’S FOCUS ON THE STORY OF ISRAEL may lead to the assumption that only Israelites can be prophets. Not so. The Talmud (Bava Batra 15b) informs us, “Seven prophets prophesied for the Gentiles: Balaam and his father, and Job and his four friends.” So, too, the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 20:1) advises, “You find that all the distinctions conferred upon Israel were conferred upon the nations. In like manner He raised up Moses for Israel and Balaam for the idolaters.” In fact, the Sages of the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 14:20) accord Balaam three qualities Moses did not have: Balaam always knew Who God was when He spoke to him, knew when God would speak to him and could speak with God whenever he wished.
The Sages and commentators nonetheless deliver mixed messages about non-Israelite prophets. While they acknowledge Balaam and Job (see Job: God’s Accuser), they make a generalized distinction between the prophets of Israel and those of the nations. Israelite prophets, according to the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 20:1), do not limit themselves to warning their own people against transgressions and drawing attention to God’s commands. They take a broader view of humanity since, “all the prophets retained a compassionate attitude towards both Israel and the idolaters.” Prophets from the nations, however, do receive God’s word. Yet while Job is hailed, Balaam most often is reviled. The Mishnah (Avot 5:19) takes a harsh view: “But the disciples of Balaam the wicked inherit Gehenna [the somewhat nebulous Jewish concept of Hell] and go down to the pit of destruction…”
A key question arises. Is Balaam, son of Beor, a true prophet or merely a sorcerer? Numbers 22:5 expressly labels Beor the latter. This leads Rabbi Yohanan to acknowledge in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) that Beor was originally a prophet but descended into a mere soothsayer. Whatever his status, Balaam definitely experiences intimate communication with God—direct encounters that neither the biblical narrative nor the commentators question. Balaam’s worthiness, on the other hand, remains the subject of debate. The Sages recognize his prophetic powers but generally condemn him. The Torah itself justifies his violent death.
The majority of Balaam’s story appears in the Book of Numbers within a Torah portion named for a non-Israelite, Balak—king of Moab, part of the Midian confederation. The events take place at the conclusion of the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness following the Exodus. Maintaining their great numbers and growing in strength, the Israelites defeat two powerful Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, then encamp on the steppes of Moab on the east side of the Jordan River. This positions them to cross into and conquer Canaan, the land promised to Abraham’s descendants.
Balak’s response seems very much in line with those of modern-day geopolitical leaders who pessimistically scrutinize the intentions not only of potential enemies but of friends as well. Balak greatly fears the Israelites, although Israel has no designs on Moab. From the reader’s point of view, Balak’s assumption is clearly mistaken. Moses soon will explicitly state to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 2:9) that they are not to harass or provoke the Moabites, whose land God has assigned to the descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Thus it is possible that Israelite representatives have met quietly with their Moabite counterparts, engaging in under-the-radar diplomacy. The biblical narrative, however, does not hint at this.
Might there be other reasons why Balak fears Israel? In one midrash (Numbers Rabbah 22:2), Moses tells God that the Midianites persecute Israel because Israel has received the Torah and His precepts. Israel represents a moral threat to an immoral Midian. The Talmud (Zevachim 116a) depicts Balaam citing Psalms 29:11—an event out of historical sequence, since Psalms is a much later work of literature—to explain God’s gift of the Torah to Israel.
Conjecture aside, we know that the sheer size of the new but still-landless Israelite nation unsettles Balak. He relates his fears to the elders of Midian (and presumably those of Moab): “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (Num. 22:4). Attempting to halt the Israelites on their march and end any potential threat without having to take the field of battle, he sends the elders of Midian and Moab, all versed in divination, to Balaam. The strategy seems reasonable in that Balaam is known to possess the power to communicate with God—at least, as God or a chief god is conceived of by Moab and Midian.
Balaam’s ability to communicate with God should not surprise us, according to Richard Friedman. “It is surely significant that the Torah, a work that comes from Israel, pictures the creator as communicating with a non-Israelite prophet as well. It is a reminder that the Torah begins with the story of the connection between God and all the earth.” (Friedman/Commentary, 503)
Arriving at Balaam’s home in the north by the Euphrates River, the elders deliver Balak’s message:
“There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” (Num. 22:5-6)
Balak expects Balaam to curse—and doom—Israel. Here, the contemporary scholar Jacob Milgrom points out, he commits a grave error. Balaam is a diviner who predicts the future rather than a sorcerer who can actually alter the future. (Etz Hayim, 895) Divination and sorcery, we should note, stand in opposition to Israelite law. Deuteronomy 18:10-11 commands: “Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.” Joshua 13:22 refers to Balaam as an auger. Interestingly, Balaam himself later praises Israel’s godly ways: “Lo, there is no augury in Jacob, / No divining in Israel” (Num. 23:23).
Will Balaam really curse God’s people, Israel? Recognizing the limits of his own power—or perhaps engaging in false humility—he invites the elders to, “Spend the night here, and I shall reply to you as the LORD may instruct me” (Num. 22:8). It is particularly noteworthy that Balaam refers to YHVH, the specific name of the God of Israel, while speaking with non-Israelites. Moreover, Balaam’s later reference to “the LORD [YHVH] my God” in Numbers 22:18 clearly demonstrates that the relationship is personal and devotional. How might Balaam have come to his knowledge of and reverence for God? The Christian scholar W.F. Albright presents an alternative reading of the Hebrew: Balaam is a convert who later abandons Israel’s faith and joins with the Midianites against Israel. (Plaut, 1184-5)
We may now ask whether Balak truly knows who YHVH is? Does he believe that Balaam’s powers flow from the God of Israel—the very God whom he, as king of Moab, opposes by seeking to curse the Israelites? Milgrom suggests that Balak might understand Balaam as having an allegiance to and intimacy with Israel’s God—a position as an “insider” that could make the cursing of Israel successful. (Etz Hayim, 896) Clearly, however, Balak does not understand God’s purpose in bringing Israel to his borders and through his land into Canaan. If he did, he would facilitate Israel’s march, not oppose it.