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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature

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Ba´laam is supposed by some to mean lord of the people; but by others destruction of the people—an allusion to his supposed supernatural powers. The first mention of this remarkable person is in Numbers 22:5, where we are informed that Balak 'sent messengers unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people.' Of the numerous paradoxes which we find in 'this strange mixture of a man,' as Bishop Newton terms him, not the least striking is that with the practice of an art expressly forbidden to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 18:10), he united the knowledge and worship of Jehovah, and was in the habit of receiving intimations of his will (Numbers 22:8). The inquiry naturally arises, by what means did he become acquainted with the true religion? Dr. Hengstenberg suggests that he was led to renounce idolatry by the reports that reached him of the miracles attending the Exodus; and that having experienced the deceptive nature of the soothsaying art, he hoped by becoming a worshipper of the God of the Hebrews, to acquire fresh power over nature, and a clearer insight into futurity. Yet the sacred narrative gives us no reason to suppose that he had any previous knowledge of the Israelites. In Numbers 22:11, he merely repeats Balak's message, 'Behold there is a people come out of Egypt,' etc. without intimating that he had heard of the miracles wrought on their behalf. The allusion in Numbers 23:22 might be prompted by the Divine afflatus which he then felt. And had he been actuated, in the first instance, by motives of personal aggrandizement, it seems hardly probable that he would have been favored with those divine communications with which his language in Numbers 22:8 implies a familiarity. Since, in the case of Simon Magus the offer to 'purchase the gift of God with money' (Acts 8:20) called forth an immediate and awful rebuke from the Apostles, would not Balaam's attempt to obtain a similar gift with a direct view to personal emolument and fame have met with a similar repulse? In the absence of more copious and precise information, may we not reasonably conjecture that Jacob's residence for twenty years in Mesopotamia contributed to maintain some just ideas of religion, though mingled with much superstition? To this source and the existing remains of Patriarchal religion, Balaam was probably indebted for that truth which he unhappily 'held in unrighteousness' (Romans 1:18).

On the narrative contained in Numbers 22:22-35 a difference of opinion has long existed, even among those who fully admit its authenticity. The advocates for a literal interpretation urge, that in a historical work and a narrative bearing the same character, it would be unnatural to regard any of the occurrences as taking place in vision, unless expressly so stated—that it would be difficult to determine where the vision begins, and where it ends—that Jehovah's 'opening the mouth of the ass' (Numbers 22:28) must have been an external act; and, finally, that Peter's language is decidedly in favor of the literal sense—'The dumb ass, speaking with a man's voice, reproved the madness of the Prophet' (2 Peter 2:16). Those who conceive that the speaking of the ass and the appearance of the Angel occurred in vision to Balaam insist upon the fact that dreams and visions were the ordinary methods by which God made himself known to the Prophets (Numbers 12:6); they remark that Balaam, in the introduction to his third and fourth prophecies (Numbers 24:3-4; Numbers 24:15), speaks of himself as 'the man who had his eyes shut (Lamentations 3:8), and who, on falling down in prophetic ecstasy, had his eyes opened—that he expressed no surprise on hearing the ass speak; and that neither his servants nor the Moabitish princes who accompanied him appear to have been cognizant of any supernatural appearance.





Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Balaam'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​b/balaam.html.
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