As the Israelites traveled through the wilderness on their way to the promised land, Balak, the king of Moab, began to get anxious: Too many foreign people, too close to his territory, spelled trouble. Unable to force them to leave, Balak called on a professional prophet to curse them, hoping that might do the trick. The prophet was Balaam, and the story of his interactions with Balak, Israel, and his donkey take up a full three chapters of the Book of Numbers.
The plot of Balaam’s story is simple enough: Balak sends Moabite emissaries to hire him, but it takes some convincing because God has told Balaam not to agree to curse Israel. When Balaam finally relents, he cannot understand why his donkey refuses to walk in a straight line, eventually just lying down in the road. As Balaam hits the donkey, the donkey speaks—which seems not to be all that surprising to Balaam—and it is revealed that a divine messenger has been blocking the donkey’s path the whole time.
The messenger gives Balaam permission to go on to Moab, but on the condition that the prophet speak only what God tells him. Upon arriving, Balaam doesn’t curse the Israelites as Balak requested, but blesses them. Furious, Balak demands Balaam do what he was hired to do, but Balaam again blesses Israel. And so on repeatedly, from different vantage points and with different words, but always with the same outcome.
Here then, in the middle of Israel’s trek through the wilderness, we find an extended discourse not just on Israel’s blessedness, but even more so on the nature of prophecy and the power of the word.
The Bible is generally opposed to what we might call non-standard forms of divination: sorcery, witchcraft, and the like. These are forbidden not because they are some sort of false magic, but because they are in fact effective. So too with words of blessing and curse, even from a foreigner.
Balak knows that Balaam’s words are effective. “He whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed,” Balak tells him in Numbers 22:6. So too, implicitly, does God, who instructs Balaam not to curse Israel “for they are blessed.” Words have real power in the Bible — oaths are binding, blessings are permanent. Balaam’s story is built on the recognition that a word of curse could spell Israel’s doom, even if that word came from a foreigner. Even if that word had been bought and paid for.
But Balaam also reveals that the true prophet cannot say just anything. As he says repeatedly, “I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth.” Balaam is obedient to the divine will—indeed, he even goes so far as to refer to Israel’s deity as his own. Balaam thus also symbolizes the extent of God’s power and influence.
That power and influence is manifest at this particular moment in Israel’s story. Here, as Israel has become so numerous and is about to enter the promised land, Balaam comes to fulfill the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis to bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. Balaam uses identical language here: “Blessed are they who bless you,” he says. “Accursed they who curse you.” Balaam even echoes God’s promise that all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed through Abraham, saying, “May my fate be like theirs.”
Though a foreigner, Balaam holds a lasting place in Judaism. His words—“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Num 24:4)—are part of the regular prayer liturgy and adorn synagogue sanctuaries around the world. Yet despite what appears in these chapters to be an unstintingly positive portrayal—of a foreigner who is compelled to say only what Israel’s deity tells him, who is true to God rather than following Balak’s money—a tradition runs through the Bible that understands Balaam to have been almost entirely the opposite.
In Deuteronomy, we read that though Balaam was hired to curse Israel, it was God who turned the curse into blessing — as if Balaam wanted to curse Israel, but failed. Even worse, according to Numbers 31, the Israelites killed Balaam when they conquered Midian because Balaam incited them to worship foreign gods.
This weird mixture of positive and negative press is mirrored in the rabbinic literature, which both praises — or at least respects — Balaam as a recipient of the prophetic spirit, and condemns him as evil and, following the brief biblical allusions, as being responsible for Israelite apostasy.
The ambivalence that surrounds the depiction of Balaam may be a reflection of ambivalence around the status of foreigners in ancient Israelite and early Jewish society; a reticence, perhaps, to give too much credit to a non-Israelite, or to admit the possibility that God might have spoken through a foreigner. Whatever the reason, Balaam’s reputation remains somewhat up in the air, even as his words remain part of the Bible and Jewish liturgy to this day.