In our reading today, we come across one of the most enigmatic characters in the Bible – the wizard-prophet, Balaam (Num. 22-24). Balaam was from Pethor, near the Euphrates River. In Deut. 23:4, we read that Pethor was in Northwest Mesopotamia, the place where Abraham and his family were from originally. When Abraham sent his servant to Mesopotamia to get a wife for his son Isaac,we see that some of Abraham’s relatives have some knowledge of the true and living God (Gen. 24:50; 31:49). There were idolatrous practises among these people (Gen. 31:19;35:2,), but there was still the existence of true faith among them as well.
As the years passed, worship in Northwest Mesopotamia continued to be syncretistic. In Num. 22-24, Balaam seems to know the covenant name of Israel’s God, Yahweh (the LORD). He was considered a seer/prophet in his home area. He entered our biblical record when the Moabite king, Balak, called for him to pronounce a curse on Israel. In some ways, Balaam has some similarities to the Magi who came from the East when they saw the bright star in the sky, heralding the birth of Jesus Christ. Balaam’s character, however, was nothing like the character of the Magi.
Balaam is a walking paradox. He seems to be a true prophet and a false prophet all in one. J.Sidlow Baxter writes: “He is a true prophet in that he knows the true God, has a real faith in Him, has real dealings with Him, receives real communication from Him, conveys real messages from Him. Yet he is a false prophet in that he also resorts to the use of magical arts, is called a soothsayer (Josh. 13:22), and prostitutes his strange prophetic gift for base gain.” To his credit, Balaam blesses Israel and doesn’t curse them because of the true words of God that were given to him by the LORD. He gives 5 powerful prophetic blessings in Num. 23 & 24, including the well-known Messianic prophecy regarding Jesus in Num. 24:17 – “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab.”
In the end, Balaam gave in to the lure of money from Balak. He is the one who evidently came up with the idea of getting Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men and draw them to worship the idol of Baal (see Num. 31:6 which refers to the incident recorded in Num. 25). Balaam is referenced 3 times in the New Testament – always in a negative way (see 2Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Rev. 2:14). In Josh. 13:22 we read that the Israelites eventually put him to the sword.
In studying Balaam, we see a tragic figure and in the end he must be called a false prophet. In Balaam, I see many of the characteristics that are present in many self-proclaimed and self-styled prophets that abound in the Christian world today. It is amazing how many “Christian” prophets live opulent lifestyles and hawk their merchandise for base profit. They use the biblical language of the true Christian faith but they only vaguely and foggily exercise their “prophetic” (“profitic”) gift in a biblical way.
In the Bible, all true prophets suffered as they faithfully carried out their ministry (i.e. Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus). These true prophets didn’t strut around and proudly declare “I’m God’s prophet” or “I’m God’s anointed”. True biblical prophets always called God’s people to repentance and greater faithfulness. They often ended up in the bottom of cisterns (i.e. Jeremiah), cut in half (which some say happened to Isaiah, see Heb. 11:37) or ended up on the cross (like Jesus and Peter).
Christians beware! I don’t think I’m overstating the warning against Balaam-like prophets abounding today. Let us close with Jesus’ words recorded in Mt. 7:21-23 – “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” In Christ’s love & service, Pastor John