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The Enigma of Balaam...

The Enigma of Balaam

Further thoughts on Parashat Balak

by John J. Parsons

What are we to make of the enigmatic character of Balaam?  Was he a prophet or a puppet of God? Nehama Leibowitz (1906-97) notes two essential differences between Balaam and the Hebrew prophets. First, Balaam sought special visitations and visions, building altars and performing rituals to "force" the prophetic spirit. The Hebrew prophets, on the other hand, never engaged in these sorts of activities to hear from the LORD, and many were reluctant messengers, convinced of their own nothingness. Second, the Hebrew prophets cautiously spoke in the name of the LORD ("thus saith the LORD...") to authenticate their message, but Balaam took credit for his visions, flamboyantly describing himself as a great "seer" with special powers. Based on Joshua 13:22 (which describes him as a sorcerer), it is likely that Balaam was given a temporary gift of prophecy, perhaps like the "witch of Endor" was allowed to temporarily communicate with the dead (1 Sam. 28:7-20). In other words, God raised up Balaam to demonstrate his authority over the powers of darkness and to reassure Israel of God's ongoing protection of his people....

In the New Testament, Balaam is regarded as one who desired to corrupt others for his own personal gain. The Apostle Peter does not call him the "son of Beor" but "son of Bosor" (τοῦ Βοσόρ), a play on the Hebrew word basar (בָּשָׂר), the flesh, implying that he was a "son of carnality" who enticed of Israel to sin at Baal Pe'or (see 2 Pet. 2:15; Num. 31:16). Peter further described him as a spiritual hireling who loved the "wages of unrighteousness" (μισθὸν ἀδικίας ἠγάπησεν), and who was willing to sell his spiritual "services" without regard for the truth (Num. 22:7, Deut. 23:4-5, 2 Pet. 2:15). He knew he should not prophecy about Israel, but he so loved the prospect of reward and the flattery of men that he justified his venture into darkness. "An evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a lusting soul - these are signs of disciples of the wicked Balaam" (Avot 5:22). For more on this topic, see "The Way of Balaam" in the parashah summary links.

Note:  The Hebrew word melekh (מֶלֶךְ) means "king" and shares the same letter value as the word lemech (לֶמֶךְ), a name that means "powerful," but can also mean "fool." The sages reasoned that since the letter Mem represents the brain (מוֹחַ) or thought (מַחֲשָׁבָה), and the letters Lamed-Kaf refers to the kidneys (כליות), a king is one who uses right thinking to rule the heart (מ-לך), but a fool reverses the order and makes thinking a servant of the passions and the lower nature... Therefore Balaam was properly regarded as a fool.

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