(Baʹlaam) [possibly, One Swallowing Down].
Son of Beor, of the 15th century B.C.E. He lived in the Aramaean town of Pethor in the upper Euphrates Valley and near the Sajur River. Though not an Israelite, Balaam had some knowledge and recognition of Jehovah as the true God, speaking of him on one occasion as “Jehovah my God.” (Nu 22:5, 18) This may have been because devout worshipers of Jehovah (Abraham, Lot, and Jacob) formerly lived in the vicinity of Haran, not far from Pethor.—Ge 12:4, 5; 24:10; 28:5; 31:18, 38.
Balaam turned down the offer of the first delegation from the Moabite king Balak, who brought with them “payments for divination,” saying: “Jehovah has refused to let me go with you.” (Nu 22:5-14) When “other princes in greater number and more honorable” came (Nu 22:15), and Balaam again sought God’s permission to go, Jehovah said: “Get up, go with them. But only the word that I shall speak to you is what you may speak.”—Nu 22:16-21; Mic 6:5.
On the way Jehovah’s angel three times stood in the road, causing Balaam’s ass first to turn into a field, then to squeeze Balaam’s foot against a wall, and at last to lie down. Three times Balaam beat the animal, which then miraculously uttered a spoken protest. (Nu 22:22-30) Finally, Balaam himself saw Jehovah’s angel, who announced: “I have come out to offer resistance, because your way has been headlong against my will.” Yet Jehovah once again allowed Balaam to continue in his chosen course.—Nu 22:31-35.
From start to finish God unalterably disapproved any cursing of Israel, insisting that if Balaam went he would have to bless, not curse. (Jos 24:9, 10) However, God permitted him to go. It was as in the case of Cain, when Jehovah expressed his disapproval but at the same time allowed the individual personal choice, either to abandon his bad way or plunge ahead in his wicked course. (Ge 4:6-8) Balaam, then, like Cain, was headstrong in disregarding Jehovah’s will in the matter, and was determined to gain his own selfish objective. In Balaam’s case it was greed of reward that blinded him to the wrongness of his way, as Jude writes: ‘Balaam rushed into the erroneous course for reward.’ The apostle Peter comments: “Balaam, the son of Beor, . . . loved the reward of wrongdoing, but got a reproof for his own violation of what was right. A voiceless beast of burden, making utterance with the voice of a man, hindered the prophet’s mad course.”—Jude 11; 2Pe 2:15, 16.
Upon reaching Moabite territory and meeting King Balak on the bank of the Arnon, Balaam wasted no time in going to work for these opposers of Jehovah’s people the next day. Balaam together with Balak offered up sacrifices, and then Balaam withdrew, hoping to “come upon any unlucky omens” (Nu 23:3; 24:1), but the only message received was a blessing for Israel from Jehovah. The same sacrificial procedure was again followed atop Pisgah, and again there was “no unlucky spell against Jacob,” only blessings. Finally, the performance was repeated atop Peor, and again for the third time “God changed the malediction into a benediction.”—Nu 22:41–24:9; Ne 13:2.
At this turn of events, “Balak’s anger blazed against Balaam,” and, clapping his hands in a rage, he exclaimed: “It was to execrate my enemies that I called you, and, look! you have blessed them to the limit these three times. And now run your way off to your place. I had said to myself I was without fail going to honor you, but, look! Jehovah has held you back from honor.” (Nu 24:10, 11) Balaam tried to excuse himself, blaming Jehovah for his failure at cursing Israel, saying he was not “able to pass beyond the order of Jehovah,” and that ‘whatever Jehovah said is what he had to speak.’ So with a few more proverbial pronouncements against Israel’s enemies, “Balaam got up and went and returned to his place.”—Nu 24:12-25.
When it says that Balaam “returned to his place” it does not necessarily mean he actually reached his home back in Pethor. The words themselves do not imply that Balaam left more than the immediate vicinity of Mount Peor. As Cook’s Commentary observes on Numbers 24:25: “Returned to his own place . . . Not to his own land, for he remained amongst the Midianites to plot by new means against the people of God, and to perish in his sin. . . . The phrase, which is of frequent recurrence (cf. e.g. Gen. xviii. 33, xxxi. 55; I S. xxvi. 25; 2 S. xix. 39), is idiomatic, meaning merely that Balaam went away whither he would.”
Balaam still entertained hope of having that rich reward for which he had come so far and for which he had worked so hard. If he could not curse Israel, he reasoned, perhaps God himself would curse his own people, if only they could be seduced to engage in sex worship of the Baal of Peor. So “Balaam . . . went teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit fornication.” (Re 2:14) “By Balaam’s word,” the daughters of Moab and Midian “served to induce the sons of Israel to commit unfaithfulness toward Jehovah over the affair of Peor, so that the scourge came upon the assembly of Jehovah.” (Nu 31:16) The result: 24,000 men of Israel died for their sin. (Nu 25:1-9) Neither Midian nor Balaam escaped divine punishment. Jehovah commanded that all the men, women, and boys of Midian be executed; only virgins were spared. “And they killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.” (Nu 25:16-18; 31:1-18) As for the Moabites, they were barred from the congregation of Jehovah “to the tenth generation.”—De 23:3-6.