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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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a prophet of the city of Pethor, or Bosor, upon the Euphrates, whose intercourse with Balak, king of the Moabites, who sent for him to curse the Israelites, is recorded at large by Moses, Numbers 22-24. It has been a subject of controversy, whether Balaam was a true prophet or a mere diviner, magician, or fortune teller. Origen says that his whole power consisted in magic and cursing. Theodoret is of opinion that Balaam did not consult the Lord, but that he was supernaturally inspired, and constrained to speak against his own inclination. Cyril says that he was a magician, an idolater, and a false prophet, who spoke truth against his will; and St. Ambrose compares him to Caiaphas, who prophesied without being aware of the import of what he said. Jerom seems to have adopted the opinion of the Hebrews; which was, that Balaam knew the true God, erected altars to him, and that he was a true prophet, though corrupted by avarice, Numbers 22:18 . St. Austin and other commentators have inclined to this opinion. Dr. Jortin supposes that Balaam was a worshipper of the true God, and a priest and prophet of great reputation; and that he was sent for by Balak from a notion which generally prevailed, that priests and prophets could sometimes, by prayers and sacrifices duly and skilfully applied, obtain favours from God, and that their imprecations were efficacious. He conceives that the prophet had been accustomed to revelations, and that he used to receive them in visions, or in dreams of the night. It cannot be denied that the Scripture expressly calls him a prophet, 2 Peter 2:15 , and therefore those are probably right who think that he had once been a good man and a true prophet, till, loving the wages of unrighteousness, and prostituting the honour of his office to covetousness, he apostatized from God, and, betaking himself to idolatrous practices, fell under the delusion of the devil, of whom he learned all his magical enchantments; though at this juncture, when the preservation of his people was concerned, it might be consistent with God's wisdom to appear to him and overrule his mind by the impulse of real revelations. As to what passed between him and his ass, when that animal was miraculously enabled to speak to its master, commentators are divided in their opinions; whether it really and literally happened as Moses relates it, or whether it be an allegory only, or was the mere imagination or vision of Balaam. But St. Peter evidently mentions it as a fact literally, and certainly occurring: "the dumb ass, speaking with man's voice, when she forbade the madness of the prophet," 2 Peter 2:16 . This, it is true, has frequently been made the subject of profane banter by those whose skepticism leads them to scoff at all prodigies. But how absurd is it to subject a miraculous event to the ordinary rules of reasoning! "Say what you will of the formation of the tongue and jaws being unfit for speaking," says Bishop Newton, "yet an adequate cause is assigned for this wonderful event; for it is expressly said that ‘the Lord opened the mouth of the ass;' and who that believes a God, can doubt his power to do this and much more? The miracle was by no means needless or superfluous; it was well adapted to convince Balaam that the mouth and tongue were under God's direction, and that the same divine power which caused the dumb ass to speak contrary to its nature, could, in like manner, make him utter blessings contrary to his inclination. And, accordingly, he was overruled to bless the people, though he came prepared and disposed to curse them; which was the greater miracle of the two; for the ass was merely passive, but Balaam resisted the good motions of God." The prophecy which Balaam delivered concerning Israel on this remarkable occasion, and which is contained in Numbers 24:5-9 , has been greatly admired by critics. Bishop Lowth, in particular, remarks that he knows nothing in the whole scope of the Hebrew poetry more exquisite or perfect. "It abounds," says he, "in splendid imagery, copied immediately from the tablet of nature; and is chiefly conspicuous for the glowing elegance of the style and the form and diversity of the figures."

After his predictions, Balaam returned into his own country; but before he left the land of Moab, as if vexed with his own disappointment in missing the promised reward, and with a purpose of revenging himself on the Israelites, as the cause of it, he instructed the Moabites and Midianites in a wicked scheme, which was to send their daughters into the camp of the Israelites, in order to draw them first into lewdness, and then into idolatry, the certain means of depriving them of the help of that God who protected them. This artifice succeeded; for as the Israelites lay encamped at Shittim, many of them were deluded by these strange women, not only to commit whoredom with them, but to assist at their sacrifices, and worship their god Baal-Peor, Numbers 25:1-3; Numbers 31:16;

Micah 6:5; 2 Peter 2:15; Judges 1:11; Revelation 2:14; Deuteronomy 23:4-5; Joshua 24:9-10; Nehemiah 13:2 . God commanded Moses to avenge this crime. He therefore declared war against the Midianites, killed five of their princes, and a great number of other persons without distinction of age or sex, among whom was Balaam himself.

Moses says that Balaam consulted the Lord, and calls the Lord his God: "I

cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord my God," Numbers 22:18 . The reason why Balaam calls Jehovah, "my God" may be, because he was of the posterity of Shem, who maintained the worship of Jehovah, not only in his own person, but among his descendants, so that while the posterity of Ham fell into idolatry, and the posterity of Japhet were settled at a distance in Europe, the Shemites generally, though not universally, retained the worship of God.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Balaam'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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