Balaam. [Heb. Bilam, probably "glutton," or "devourer," from bala, "to swallow," "to devour"; Gr. Balaam.] An Aramaean prophet or soothsayer bribed by the Moabite king Balak for the purpose of imposing a curse, or evil spell, over the Hebrew people encamped at Shittim on the eve of their crossing the Jordan River into Canaan (Num 22:1-6). Balaam's home was in the city of Pethor in the region of Amaw (v 5, RSV) on the Euphrates River. Balaam was noted for possessing unusual powers (v 6), and his reputation must have been widely known. The account in chs 22 to 24 leaves no doubt that he knew the true God and that God communicated with him. Certainly the gift of prophecy rested upon him as he delivered his several oracles concerning the Hebrew people, though the Bible writers nowhere call him a prophet (ch 24:4, 16).
The utter consternation of the heathen nations of Palestine and Transjordan because of the Israelites is reflected in the admission of Rahab of Jericho: "Your terror is fallen upon us" and "all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you" (Jos 2:9). Reports of the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea and of Hebrew victories over the powerful Amorites east of the Jordan (v 10) terrified the inhabitants of the land. They feared that they would be next to fall before the apparently invincible Hebrew forces (v 11). The royal bribe Balak offered Balaam (Num 22:7, 17; 24:11) testifies to the king's abject fear of the Israelites, as well as his faith in Balaam's occult powers.
The first messengers Balak sent were "elders" (Num 22:5-7) or "princes" (vs 13, 14). When Balaam, as instructed by the Lord, refused to return with them, Balak dispatched a second delegation composed of "princes" of higher rank and offered a higher bribe (vs 15-17). Although he now knew the Lord's will in the matter, Balaam presumed to inquire again for permission to go with the messengers (vs 18, 19). The Lord permitted him to accompany them, if called, but bade him speak only what would be given him (v 20). Bent on acquiring the honors and reward Balak had offered, Balaam set out with the princes, seemingly forgetful of the fact that the restrictions placed on him would defeat the purpose of the journey (vs 20-22). On the way Balaam received signal evidence that he was proceeding contrary to the Lord's will (vs 22-35). For the cursing, Balak took Balaam first to Bamoth-baal (v 41, RSV). There, 7 altars were erected and on each Balak and Balaam offered a bullock and a ram. And Balaam went apart to receive a message from the Lord for Balak (ch 23:1-6). Balaam's first message consisted of a declaration that Israel was different from all other nations and that God had blessed them (vs 7-10). Balak took Balaam next to Mount Pisgah, where the sacrificial procedure was repeated (vs 14-17), but the second message reaffirmed the first. Balak nevertheless made a third attempt, offering the same sacrifices on the top of Mount Peor (vs 27-30), but the results were the same (ch 24:1-9). When ordered to return home, Balaam gave Balak a fourth message that envisioned the Messiah and the establishment of His kingdom (vs 15-19). Subsequently, however, Balaam counseled Balak to seduce the Hebrews into idolatry and immorality, with the result that the curse of the Lord did fall upon Israel (ch 25:1-9; cf. 31:16). A little later Balaam was slain by the Israelites in battle (ch 31:8). His name became a byword for apostasy, particularly for an unholy alliance between God's people and the world (Rev 2:14).
In 1967 numerous fragments of inscribed plaster were found during the excavations of a temple at Deir Alla, probably Succoth, in the Jordan Valley. These plaster fragments had covered a stele, and date from about 700 b.c. The text is composed in an Aramaic dialect that differs from those that were already known. After its decipherment the text, although preserved only in fragments, was found to contain messages of doom and curses purportedly pronounced by "Balaam, son of Beor," called a "seer of the gods," which he had received in visions. The text also states that the people reacted negatively to the curses and refused to accept them. It is of interest to know that Balaam, several centuries later, was still remembered as a prophet of divine messages and curses in approximately the same area in which he had been active according to the Bible.
Lit.: J. Hoftijzer, BA 39 (1976), 11-17; J. Hoftijzer and G. van der Kooij, Aramaic Texts from Deir 'Alla (Leiden, 1976); W. F. Albright, JBL, 63 (1944), 207-233.