Balaam in the Book of Numbers

Dana M. Pike

Dana M. Pike, “Balaam in the Book of Numbers,” in From Creation to Sinai: The Old Testament through the Lens of the Restoration, ed. Daniel L. Belnap and Aaron P. Schade (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 561‒98.

The latter portion of the book of Numbers recounts that the Israelites, toward the end of their forty years of dwelling in the wilderness, headed north along the eastern side of the Dead Sea before entering the promised land of Canaan. The biblical narrative relates a unique episode in the Old Testament when the Israelites finally encamped on the eastern side of the Jordan River: the story of Balaam. From a talking donkey to a prophesying non-Israelite, the fascinating account of Balaam is explored in this chapter in an attempt to make sense of this enigmatic episode that emphasizes God’s delivering power against the backdrop of the Israelites traversing foreign, and often hostile, territory. The Balaam account highlights in dramatic fashion the fact that God’s plans for the Israelites would not be thwarted, despite serious human efforts to the contrary. —DB and AS

The account of Balaam, the non-Israelite “prophet” who was commissioned by a Moabite king to curse the Israelites and whose donkey spoke to him, is one of the most entertaining and enigmatic episodes in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament).[1] Numbers 22–24 narrates the experiences and pronouncements of Balaam. However, any consideration of this episode must also, of necessity, include an examination of its larger context: the book of Numbers itself. This paper briefly introduces the Book of Numbers, paying particular attention to its prominent themes, and then analyzes the account of Balaam (Numbers 22–24) for the purpose of making better sense of the context, content, and purpose of that fascinating episode.

Overview of the Book of Numbers

The name of the fourth book of the Old Testament, “Numbers,”[2] is derived from the Septuagint and is based on the theme of numbering.[3] In chapters 1 and 26 the Israelite men capable of military action are numbered, and the Levites are numbered in chapters 3–4 and 26. The traditional Hebrew title of the book is bĕmidbar (“In the Wilderness”), which is based on the opening verse, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1), and nicely introduces the geographical context for the book’s initial contents.[4]

Although the book of Numbers may initially sound like dry or boring reading to some people, it has been aptly described in this manner: “Humour, magic, prophecy, dramatic story, solemn ritual and practical laws are not what most readers would expect to find in a book entitled ‘Numbers.’ . . . Many readers give up at the census lists with which the book opens and thereby miss some of the most gripping stories in Scripture, its most ancient poetry and its rich theology. Narratives and laws which have inspired Jews and Christians down the centuries are overlooked and forgotten.”[5]

The book of Numbers focuses on Israelite activities in three main locations: at Mount Sinai, near Kadesh, and at the plains of Moab.[6]

At Mount Sinai. The first of these locations is Mount Sinai, where the Lord had already revealed his law to the Israelites, where the Israelites had entered into a covenant relationship with him, and where they had then constructed the tabernacle according to divine design (Exodus 18–40). Numbers 1:1–10:11 relates events during the Israelites’ final weeks at Mount Sinai, including the numbering of Israelite fighting men “from twenty years old and upward” (Numbers 1:3), the dedication of the tabernacle (Numbers 7; compare Leviticus 8–9), and the first anniversary celebration of the Passover (Numbers 9; compare Exodus 12). Additionally, these chapters contain a variety of important laws and instructions, including the Nazirite vow and Aaronic priestly blessing (Numbers 6).

Not quite a year after arriving at Mount Sinai, the bright cloud—which represented the Lord’s presence with the Israelites and which had appeared over the tabernacle—began to move. In response, the Israelites left Mount Sinai and began their journey toward Canaan (Exodus 19:1; Numbers 9:15–23; 10:11–12).

Near Kadesh.[7] As narrated in Numbers 10–20, Kadesh (also called Kadesh-barnea) was the second geographic area, after Mount Sinai, in which the Israelites spent considerable time (Numbers 13:26–20:22). It was to Kadesh that the twelve Israelite scouts who had reconnoitered the land of Canaan returned (chapter 13), and Kadesh was where Joshua and Caleb encouraged the disgruntled Israelites thusly: “Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land [of Canaan]” (14:8–9). The adult Israelites’ lack of faith in Jehovah’s power to deliver them into the promised land resulted in the divine decree that they would die in the wilderness during the ensuing forty years (14:29–30, 38; 26:63–65).

The time spent at this second main location, Kadesh-barnea, in the book of Numbers thus functioned as a “spiritual incubator” in which the rising generation of the Israelites could mature. And it was during this interval that most of the adult generation of the Israelites who had left Egypt died. Numbers 10–20 also contain divine instructions and laws, including a purification ritual that involved ashes from a red cow (chapter 19), accounts of subsequent Israelite rebellions against Jehovah and Moses (chapters 16, 20), and the death of Miriam (20:1).

At the Plains of Moab. Numbers 20:28–36:13 constitutes the third and last major portion of the book, relating events during the final year or so of the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness. They traveled through the eastern Negev, northward on the east side of the Dead Sea, and then encamped in the “plains of Moab,” on the northeast shoulder of the Dead Sea (22:1), until, under Joshua’s direction, they crossed the Jordan River into Canaan, near Jericho (Joshua 1–4).[8] Events recounted on the way to the plains of Moab included the death of Aaron (Numbers 20:22–29), the Israelites’ being bitten by snakes and Moses’s subsequent raising of a bronze image of a snake to provide deliverance for them (21:4–9), and military victories against the Amorite king Sihon and against Og, the king over Bashan (21:21–35).

A main focus of this third time period is the five to six months that the Israelites spent in the last main location, the plains of Moab. This final, and large, portion of the book of Numbers includes the account of Balaam (Numbers 22–24; discussed below), the Israelites’ false worship and immoral involvement with the Moabites (chapter 25), a second Israelite numbering (or census), now that the people of the Exodus generation were dead and their successors were on the doorstep of the promised land (chapter 26, see especially verses 64–65), the investiture of Joshua as Moses’s successor (27:12–23), and arrangements for the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh to settle in Transjordan, the region east of the Jordan River (chapter 32). But the end of the book of Numbers is not the real “end” of the Israelites’ journey. This comes only after Moses’s farewell (in Deuteronomy) and Joshua’s leading them into Canaan (in Joshua).

Major Themes in Numbers

The book of Numbers contains a distinctive mix of narrative, laws, and lists. In addition to such literary forms, there are several prominent themes in this book that deserve brief attention.

Geography/Land. The most obvious theme is movement toward a promised land (Numbers 10:29) with the purpose of occupying it. Actual geographical progression, as well as what it symbolically represents, is a major theme in the books of Genesis through Joshua. Thomas B. Dozeman, for example, has claimed that “geography plays a central role in the story line of the Pentateuch. Eden and Canaan frame the literature. In between these locations, travelogue weaves together innumerable cities, oases, itineraries, boundary lines, and kingdoms into a single story.”[9] The physical journey recounted in Numbers plays a particularly prominent role in the greater context of the Pentateuch as Israelites moved toward claiming and settling in the land of Canaan promised centuries earlier by Yahweh/Jehovah to Abraham and Sarah and their posterity (e.g., Genesis 12:1, 7). Three additional themes are highlighted here.[10]

Posterity. The opening chapters of Numbers emphasize a theme that involves another aspect of promises made to Abraham and Sarah: posterity. In addition to determining the size of the Israelites’ fighting force, the numbering of the Israelites in the book of Numbers emphasizes their great numerical growth. Abraham and Sarah had one son together: Isaac (Genesis 21:1–3). Exodus 1:5 recounts that a few generations later, the “total number of people born to Jacob [the son of Isaac] was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt.” Now, having recently left Egypt, this family of Israelites had swelled to over two million people, based, at least, on Numbers 1–4 (a reported count of 603,550 fighting men twenty years old and older, 22,000 Levites, all the unnumbered younger males, and all the females). There are reasons to question the literal accuracy of this extremely large number,[11] however, it functions in part to highlight the ongoing fulfillment of Jehovah’s promise to Abraham and Sarah: “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17; see 15:5).

Further emphasizing this theme of posterity, Numbers relates that whenever the Israelites ceased traveling and camped around the ark of the covenant, Moses would say, “Return, O Lord of the ten thousand thousands of Israel” (Numbers 10:36). Thus, prominent themes in Numbers are the fulfillment of promises made to ancestral Patriarchs and Matriarchs, particularly promises of posterity and land (e.g., Genesis 17:7–8). Of course, undergirding the promises of land and numberless posterity was the concept of a formal relationship with Yahweh/Jehovah.

Covenant Obligations. Numbers also emphasizes the theme of obligations inherent in the Israelite covenant relationship with the Lord, fidelity to which brought Israelites great blessings, but in which faithlessness and rebellion brought curse-consequences. Although there are a few examples of Israelite “stumbles” recounted in Exodus and Leviticus (e.g., Exodus 32:15–29; Leviticus 10:1–11), most accounts narrated in Numbers 11–25 are painful in their portrayal of murmuring (chapters 11, 21), rebellion against Moses’s leadership (chapters 12, 14, 16), and apostasy (chapter 25), as varying numbers of Israelites demonstrated a fateful lack of faith in and loyalty to Yahweh/Jehovah. Collectively, the Israelites learned many lessons “the hard way.” Their spiritual experiences and covenants at Mount Sinai did not automatically ensure their faith and obedience as they moved toward Canaan.[12] The consequences meted out by the Lord in the tragic accounts in Numbers can only be understood in the context of the covenant commitments the Israelites had made at Mount Sinai and the associated divine expectations.[13]

True Prophets. The last major theme that will be mentioned here deals with the nature of prophetic leadership and what constitutes a true prophet. The center portion of Numbers, in particular, highlights these related issues. In Numbers 11:14–15, Jehovah provided spiritual powers to seventy Israelite men to assist Moses, and they prophesied. The Spirit also rested on two men who had not gathered with Moses and the others at the tabernacle (Numbers 11:16–17, 24–26). This prompted Joshua to express concern for Moses’s position, to which Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (11:28–29). Thus, one indicator of a true prophet, by biblical standards, is having access to the spiritual gifts necessary to communicate and help bring about divine will.

Complaints against and challenges to Moses and his prophetic leadership were numerous, including complaints from Miriam and Aaron (Moses’s older siblings; Numbers 12:2); the Israelite scouts’ evaluation of the peoples in Canaan (14:2); and when Korah, Dothan, Abiram, and their followers gathered against Moses, and to a lesser extent, against Aaron (16:1–35). Much of the remainder of chapter 16 narrates another challenge against Moses and Aaron (16:41–50).[14]

Each of these challenges ended tragically for some Israelites, as the Lord reaffirmed Moses’s position as the divinely sanctioned leader and as the Lord taught the Israelites that safety is found with the Lord’s chosen leaders, not by fighting against them. Thus, another indicator of a true prophet is being divinely chosen, which preempts presumptions to leadership based on family connection, perceived ability, pride, and self-promotion.

These themes of geographic progression, the Israelites’ numerical size, the Israelites’ covenant relationship with Yahweh/Jehovah, and the nature of a true prophet are emphasized at certain points in the account of Balaam in Numbers 22–24. They provide a good context for considering the report of Balaam’s activities and his role in the book of Numbers.

Balaam in Numbers 22–24

Balaam is the key figure in the narrative in Numbers 22–24. Balaam’s name in Hebrew is bilʿām, the etymology of which is uncertain. However, the English vocalization of his name, typically pronounced “BAY-lum,” is based on the Greek form of the name, which occurs in the Septuagint and the New Testament.

Although there are thematic ties between the rest of Numbers and the account of Balaam (Numbers 22–24), it is in several ways an odd and separate portion of this biblical book.[15] The Israelites, their activities, and even Moses are no longer the direct focus of attention. Ironically, the primary focus is Yahweh/Jehovah’s use of the non-Israelite Balaam to announce divine decrees about the Israelites. As recounted in Numbers 22–24, the Israelites seem to have no awareness of Balaam’s actions or his pronouncement of blessings on them.

Brief Summary of Numbers 22–24

Following the events narrated in Numbers 21, the Israelites journeyed to the “plains of Moab,” the region just northeast of the Dead Sea, on the opposite side of the Jordan River from Jericho (which was in Canaan; see Numbers 22:1). Balak, king of the Moabites, was alarmed because a vast number of Israelites was now in his region (22:2–4; Moab was located east of the Dead Sea). The Israelites had not attacked the Moabites, but the Israelites’ success in defeating the Amorite kings Sihon and Og (chapter 21) provided Balak ample reason for concern. To counteract this perceived threat, Balak sent messengers to hire Balaam to come curse the Israelites.

Balak’s messengers carried his description of the encamped Israelites to Balaam, “They have spread over the face of the earth” (Numbers 22:5; see 22:12; 23:10). Balak’s description is reminiscent of the large number of Israelites counted at the beginning of Numbers, which hearkens back to the promises made to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Genesis. Furthermore, besides displaying a great deal of confidence in Balaam’s power, Balak’s words contain an obvious play on the language of Jehovah’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah. In Genesis 12:3, Jehovah declares to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (see also Abraham 2:11). However, Balak seemingly puts Balaam in the place of Jehovah, requesting of Balaam, “Curse this people for me [Balak], since they are stronger than I, . . . for I know that whomever you [Balaam] bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed” (22:6).

When Balaam asked Yahweh/Jehovah about Balak’s request that he curse the Israelites, God responded, “You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:7–12). The messengers returned to Balak, informing him of Balaam’s refusal, so Balak sent “more numerous and more distinguished” messengers with an even better offer of reward to further encourage Balaam to come curse the Israelites (22:13–17). As before, Balaam asked Yahweh/Jehovah about accepting Balak’s invitation, but this time Balaam appears to have received God’s approval to go with the messengers, with the stipulation that Balaam “do only what I [God] tell you [Balaam] to do” (22:18–21).

Balaam started for Moab with Balak’s messengers, but Yahweh was angry with Balaam (see discussion below) and sent an angel to confront him.[16] In one of the great ironies of scripture, Balaam’s donkey could see Jehovah’s angel, but Balaam could not. After mistreating his donkey and angrily wishing her dead, “the Lord [yhwh/Yahweh] opened the mouth of the donkey.” Surprisingly, Balaam did not appear startled to be conversing with his donkey. “Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face” (22:21–31; there is no mention of Balaam’s servants or Balak’s messengers—the narrative focus stays on Balaam).

Following his interaction with this angel, Balaam was allowed to continue on his way, meeting Balak near Moab’s northern border (Numbers 22:32–36). After exchanging pleasantries, “Balaam said to Balak, ‘I have come to you now, but do I have power to say just anything? The word God puts in my mouth, that is what I must say’” (22:36–38). Balak appeared unphased by this qualification, and after offering sacrifices, he positioned Balaam where “he could see part of the people of Israel” (22:39–41). Then Balaam and Balak built altars and offered sacrifices. Following this, “God met Balaam” (23:1–4), and then Balaam uttered a poetically formatted prophetic oracle (or pronouncement)—the essential point of which was that God was going to bless his people and there was nothing Balak or Balaam could do to curse the Israelites (23:5–10).

After venting his frustration about this, Balak took Balaam to another spot, where they repeated the same procedure: they built altars, offered sacrifices, and Balaam consulted with Yahweh/Jehovah. The resulting poetic oracle repeated the same basic message, “The Lord their God is with them [Israelites]. . . . Surely there is . . . no divination [that will succeed] against Israel” (Numbers 23:11–24). In response to Balak’s increasing dissatisfaction, Balaam replied, “Did I not tell you [Balak], ‘Whatever the Lord says, that is what I [Balaam] must do’?” (23:25–26). Balak then took Balaam to a third observation point, and the same procedure of offerings on altars was repeated (there is an emphasis on the number three in the larger Balaam narrative). However, this time, “Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, so he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens” (23:27–24:1). Looking over the encamped Israelites and imbued with God’s spirit, Balaam poetically expressed a third prophetic pronouncement on the Israelites, blessing them and concluding with language reminiscent of the Abrahamic covenant (mentioned above): “Blessed is everyone who blesses you [Israel], and cursed is everyone who curses you” (24:2–9).

At this point Balak angrily dismissed Balaam, who, in response, expressed a poetic oracle against Balak (Numbers 24:10–19; discussed below). Ironically, Balaam was hired by Balak to curse the Israelites, but Balaam ended up blessing them and cursing Balak. Following pronouncements of curses on the Amalekites, Kenites, and others, Balaam returned to his home (24:20–25).

As noted above, the Israelites are depicted as completely unaware of these actions and Balaam’s pronouncements.[17] However, this account of Balaam and Barak was no doubt included in the book of Numbers to emphasize that Jehovah could and would fulfill his past promises to multiply the Israelites and to establish them in the land of Canaan, despite opposition from the Moabite king, Balak, and his efforts to have Balaam invoke magical curses on the Israelites.

Questions regarding Balaam and the Balaam Narrative (Numbers 22–24)

From a literary standpoint, the account of Balaam in Numbers 22–24 is fascinating in its own right. However, when considered historically and theologically, a number of questions arise about Balaam and the narrative that cannot be easily answered. The space limitations of this paper do not allow exploration of all possible issues, but several of them are discussed here.

Was Balaam a prophet? The answer to this seemingly simple question is complex because of the differing indications of the roles in which Balaam is depicted in Numbers 22–24 and in later biblical passages (a few of these other biblical passages will be referenced in this section, and then they will be discussed below as a group).

When Balak sent messengers to hire Balaam, they brought with them “the fees for divination [qĕsāmı̂m]” (Numbers 22:7).[18] And in the King James translation of Joshua 13:22, Balaam is called a diviner or “soothsayer [qōsēm].” Divination is the attempt to discern divine will—typically by utilizing ritual activity—and to thus read the future through various manifestations in the natural world. Divination was practiced both formally and informally by peoples, including the Israelites, throughout the ancient Near East. While anyone could attempt to ascertain divine will (see, for example, Gideon with dew on and off his sheepskin in Judges 6:37–40), most cultures also had trained specialists who observed and catalogued unusual divine manifestations and their related consequences and who sought to track and predict signs of divine will. Methods of divination included necromancy (consulting the spirits of the dead), extispicy (inspecting the entrails of sacrificial animals for ominous abnormalities—a subset of which is hepatoscopy, the inspection of livers), observations of astral and weather phenomena, and the flight patterns of birds.[19] The casting of lots (cleromancy) was widespread in the ancient world and was an acceptable form of divination in Israelite culture; prophets, priests, and common people all used cleromancy, at least in some circumstances.[20] Ancient Near Eastern kings, including at least some Israelite kings, sought to divine the advisability of military maneuvers through various means (e.g., 1 Kings 22:5–7). A few biblical texts condemn and ban divination in general among the Israelites, which indicates the prevalence of divination (e.g., Deuteronomy 18:10–12, including qōsēm qĕsāmı̂m in verse 10; 2 Kings 17:17).

Certain biblical passages depict Balaam as a trained diviner. And his requests for Balak to provide altars and sacrifices, Balaam’s movement to elevated vantage points, and his efforts to “look for omens” (Numbers 24:1) can all be interpreted as part of his divinatory activities (e.g., 23:1–4). However, Balak did not want Balaam to merely divine the future of Israelite-Moabite relations. Balak wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites. This is made clear in several passages, beginning with Balak’s initial request in 22:6: “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are stronger than I; perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land; for I know that . . . whomever you [Balaam] curse is cursed.” Several similar requests occur in the Balaam narrative.[21]

Cursing is different from just divining the future; cursing involves manipulating the future against an adversary. But Balaam was unable to fulfill Balak’s request to curse and thus harm the Israelites. Balaam could only pronounce blessings on them.[22] This is certainly the view expressed in Nehemiah 13:2, in which it is claimed that the Moabites “hired Balaam against them [the Israelites] to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing.” And in this outcome, a great theological message is conveyed: “Surely there is no [successful] enchantment [naḥaš] against Jacob, no divination [qesem] against Israel” (Numbers 23:23). Based on the promise in Genesis 12:2–3, the Israelites’ God did not permit others to curse them collectively (although he obviously allowed them to bring curses upon themselves).[23]

Numbers 22:6 and other verses thus strongly suggest that Balaam had a well-known reputation as a sorcerer (or else, why would Balak seek him out for such activity?) and that Balak presumed Balaam really could curse the Israelites to their detriment. But in Numbers 23–24 Balaam acted only as a diviner because he just obtained and communicated God’s will to bless the Israelites. Whatever his initial intentions, Balaam did not and could not curse the Israelites.[24]

Why is it then that commentators often describe Balaam not only as a diviner but also as a prophet, especially since this title is never explicitly used in reference to him in Numbers 22–24? This designation is based in part on the fact that after failing twice to curse the Israelites, Balaam abandoned his previous actions, and “then the spirit of God came upon him, and he uttered his [third] oracle” (Numbers 24:2–3).[25] He then uttered a series of prophetic pronouncements against non-Israelite peoples, as reported in 24:14–24. But even prior to this, in his first two attempts to curse the Israelites, the biblical narrative claims that “the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth,” a figure of speech that is associated with prophecy (Numbers 23:5, 16; compare Numbers 22:38; Deuteronomy 18:18; Isaiah 51:16; Jeremiah 1:9). These instances and the witness of the Deir ‘Alla inscription (discussed below) suggest a prophetic dimension to Balaam’s activities.

Furthermore, in Balaam’s final prophetic pronouncement about the Israelites, the Bible employs language associated with seership: “The oracle of one who hears the words of God, who sees the vision [māḥăzēh] of the Almighty, who falls down, but with eyes uncovered” (Numbers 24:4). At this point in the narrative, Balaam’s claim to “see” the things of God comes as a significant development because earlier Balaam could not see the Lord’s angel right in front of him, even when his donkey could (22:23–31).[26] An important inscription from Deir ‘Alla (reviewed below) parallels this dimension of Balaam’s activity, describing him as a “seer of the gods” or “a divine seer [ḥzh ʾlhn].”[27]

Thus, Balaam functions in overlapping roles as depicted in the biblical text: diviner, prophet, and seer. However, Balaam did not have a sorcerer’s power over the Israelites, although Balak certainly expected that Balaam had such power. Nonetheless, Balaam is depicted as functioning prophetically. Of course, some other ancient Near Eastern peoples besides the Israelites believed in divine communication through prophets.[28] The real question is, What is the nature of Balaam’s relationship with Yahweh/Jehovah?

Was Balaam a prophet of Yahweh/Jehovah? Since Balaam was a non-Israelite, the question naturally arises: Was Balaam a prophet of the Lord (yhwh/Yahweh) in the same sense that Moses and later Israelites prophets were? This is a challenging question. The answer depends in large part on how one approaches the biblical material.[29]

On the one hand, the Bible includes the positive account of the non-Israelite Jethro, Moses’s Midianite father-in-law who Latter-day Saints believe held the Melchizedek Priesthood that he later conferred upon Moses (Doctrine and Covenants 84:6). So Latter-day Saints are open to understanding how Jehovah had worked through other non-Israelites in the eastern Mediterranean region. Furthermore, the general depiction in Numbers 23–24 of Balaam blessing the Israelites in accordance with God’s will suggests he was representing their God (also emphasized in Micah 6:5). Passages such as Numbers 23:5, 16 (“The Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth”) depict Balaam speaking for Jehovah. Balaam even refers to Jehovah as his God: “I [Balaam] could not go beyond the command of the Lord [yhwh] my God” (Numbers 22:18; compare Numbers 22:8, 13; 23:5, 12, 16; 24:11). Because of such biblical statements, some later Jewish authors described Balaam positively.[30]

However, despite this seemingly positive depiction of Balaam in Numbers 22–24, most other biblical and postbiblical traditions depict Balaam as an adversary to the Israelites (see discussion below). For example, Deuteronomy 23:5 provides a clear claim that Balaam’s intention was to curse the Israelites: “The Lord your God refused to heed Balaam; the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you” (see also the discussion below; Joshua 24:10; Nehemiah 13:2).

Based on the conflicting aspects of various biblical traditions, some commentators traditionally describe Balaam as a once-legitimate “prophet of the true God” who fell from Jehovah’s grace due to greed and pride.[31] These commentators posited that Balaam had originally been obedient to and blessed by Jehovah, but Balaam changed and thus lost his spiritual gifts over time.

A different and probably better assessment of the biblical and non-biblical evidence is that Balaam was a non-Israelite diviner for hire. He was someone who worshipped Jehovah when it served his purposes, but Balaam did not exclusively worship Jehovah and did not prophesy or divine solely under his influence. An established reputation as a successful diviner and sorcerer prior to the Israelites’ arrival in the plains of Moab apparently lay behind Balak’s efforts to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites. People presumably believed Balaam could connect with various deities in the world around him (see further the Deir ‘Alla inscription, below). Therefore, as David Noel Freedman stated in this wry observation, “This is a man who, as you know, makes his services available to the highest bidder. He is what I would call an amiable polytheist.”[32]

Viewed this way, the Bible depicts only one aspect of a larger, multifaceted picture of Balaam: Yahweh/Jehovah choosing to speak to and work through Balaam to show his (Jehovah’s) power to bring about his own purposes regarding the Israelites, in spite of Balak’s intentions and Balaam’s prior reputation, thus heightening the drama and impact of these blessing-pronouncements. As Victor Hurowitz has observed, “The Balaam story—even while claiming that YHWH, God of Israel, is the only true source of revelation—admits that he [Yahweh/Jehovah] can and does, when he so desires, answer non-Israelite divinatory queries, . . . he communicates his wishes to them in their divinatory mechanisms, . . . he controls their divination.”[33] In other words, one can imagine Jehovah speaking through Moses or any other Israelite to prophesy favorably about the Israelites. But Yahweh/Jehovah using a non-Israelite with a prior reputation of connections with other deities really adds ironic punch to the portrayal in Numbers 22–24. As such, various biblical passages and traditions depict Balaam as both in harmony and at odds with Jehovah.

Why was God angry with Balaam? When the second contingent of Balak’s men came to hire Balaam, Numbers 22:20 reports, “That night God came to Balaam and said to him, ‘If the men have come to summon you, get up and go with them; but do only what I tell you to do.’” Not surprisingly, readers are confused when only two verses later, “God’s anger was kindled because he [Balaam] was going” with Balak’s messengers (Numbers 22:22).

Commentators have long wrestled with this passage because in its received form it provides no good reason for this sudden shift in God’s attitude. It has been suggested that God’s anger arose simply because Balaam did not wait to be summoned by Balak’s men, rather Balaam got up and set forth with no further prompting.[34] But if this is the reason for the divine displeasure, why, after the angel confronted Balaam, did the angel allow Balaam to proceed, even after he had offered to return to his home? (Numbers 22:34–35; see below for the discussion of Balaam outside Numbers 22–24). Thus, a common current assumption is that this apparent incongruity of the text results from the insertion of a previously independent account (what now comprises 22:22–35) about Balaam, which interrupts the flow of an earlier narrative.[35]

Alternatively, some earlier commentators saw evidence of a character flaw in Balaam. For example, some Jewish scholars in the early centuries of the Christian era suggested that God was frustrated due to Balaam’s intentions but still allowed him to go because that was Balaam’s desire (to get gain/money), even though it was not the Lord’s desire.[36]

Latter-day Saints would generally accept that Jehovah knew Balaam’s heart and was aware of his intentions. A JST revision at least partially echoes this latter sentiment: “And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and if thou wilt[,] go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do speak” (JST Numbers 22:20).[37] This reading places responsibility on Balaam to choose whether he would go and to consider his reasons for meeting with Balak. But, there is no way of knowing whether this JST revision is meant to restore the original text or whether it is a latter-day prophetic emendation to provide more clarity to a difficult passage.[38]

Despite whatever intentions he may have had, and whether they changed or not, Balaam is consistently depicted as acting in obedience to Yahweh/Jehovah in the received text of Numbers 22–24. Therefore, there is currently no explicit and compelling answer to the question of why God was angry with Balaam.

A Talking Donkey? Whatever the reason for God’s anger against Balaam, the next episode involves Balaam, his donkey, and a divine messenger who stopped Balaam but then allowed him to continue his journey with a warning similar to the divine instruction already given in verse 20: “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak” (Numbers 22:35).

The donkey’s ability to speak to Balaam brings a comic dimension to an otherwise serious narrative account. This ability is attributed to divine power: “The Lord opened the mouth of the donkey” (Numbers 22:28).[39] Although Numbers 22 depicts this episode in a matter-of-fact way, as if it really happened, different understandings of this event derive from the perspectives that readers bring to this passage. Interpretations range from the literal (Jehovah had power to cause a donkey to speak, so the donkey really spoke, just as the text claims) to the figurative (the account is often said to be “folklore” or a “fable”).[40] The only biblical passage that is remotely analogous to the account of Balaam’s talking donkey is the report of a pre-Fall talking snake in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1–5; Moses 4:5–11). Responses to this latter episode likewise range from the literal to the figurative.[41]

Whatever one’s views of the account of Balaam’s donkey speaking by divine power, a main and ironic point of this narrative is that the man who was hired because of his reputation for sorcery and “seeing” divine intent could not see God’s angel. Indeed, the angel was right in front of Balaam, but it was his donkey that saw the angel three times and also spoke to Balaam, thereby saving Balaam’s life (Numbers 22:22–33).[42] So this short account of Balaam, his donkey, and an angel serves to ridicule Balaam, suggesting that he was not really who he claimed to be. Rather, as some have said, he was “a fool, a caricature of a seer, one outwitted even by his dumb beast.”[43]

Additionally, in this episode, “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey” to speak to Balaam, and then “the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam” to see an angel with a sword (Numbers 22:28, 31). This experience serves as narrative preparation for when Jehovah later opened Balaam’s mouth to pronounce blessings on the Israelites.[44] Through this sequence of events, as well as in previous incidents in Numbers, the biblical account emphasizes that Yahweh/Jehovah could speak through whatever and whomever he chose, whether through a donkey, a non-Israelite diviner, Moses (12:6–8), or potentially all of the covenant people (11:29: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”). The biblical Balaam episode reiterates that prophetic pronouncements come via divine not human inclination.

Where did Balaam live? Since Balak sent messengers to Balaam to hire his services to curse the Israelites, one important but seemingly background consideration in Numbers 22 is the location of Balaam’s home. This question arises from challenges in the Hebrew text itself and is handled differently in different Bible translations. For example, in the KJV, Numbers 22:5 reads, “[Balak] sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people.” But the same passage in the NRSV reads, “[Balak] sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor at Pethor, which is on the Euphrates, in the land of Amaw.”

The identity of Pethor is a matter of question. Many scholars have suggested connecting Pethor with Pitru, a town named in an Assyrian source, apparently situated on the upper Euphrates River (the site itself has not been convincingly identified).[45] This would make sense in relation to passages such as Numbers 23:7, in which Balaam claims, “Balak has brought me from Aram,” the biblical/ancient name for what is now Syria,[46] and Deuteronomy 23:4, “Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia [Hebrew, 23:5: ʾăram nahărayîm, “Aram of the two rivers”].”

The NRSV translation of Numbers 22:5 illustrates this presumed location of Pethor in northern Aram by representing the Hebrew word nāhār as “Euphrates [River].” Although the common noun nāhār, “river,” is sometimes used to specifically designate the Euphrates (Genesis 31:21; Micah 7:12), it is often employed in the Bible to indicate other rivers, named and unnamed (e.g., Genesis 2:13; Numbers 24:6; Isaiah 19:5). If Balaam’s Pethor was located in northern Aram/Syria near the Euphrates, which is not certain, it is amazing that Balak both knew about Balaam and his abilities and was able to persuade him to journey to Moab, a distance of about 350 miles.

For this reason, some scholars have suggested a home for Balaam closer to Moab, a home that makes the account of his donkey ride more realistic, accompanied as he was by only two servants with little or no preparation (Numbers 22:22) and with reference to fields and vineyards along the way (22:24–25). Indeed, one scholar, based on his reading of a tablet found at Deir ‘Alla, has suggested equating Pethor with Deir ‘Alla, which is located near the Zerqa (Jabbok) River, about 35 miles north of the Israelite encampment in the plains of Moab (see below).[47]

A related consideration is the meaning of the phrase, ʾerṣ bĕnê–ʿammô, in Numbers 22:5 in the traditional Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT), which the KJV renders quite literally as “the land of the children of his people.” By contrast, the NRSV, the NET, and some other modern translations ignore the word bĕnê (“sons, children”) and revocalize the MT form ʿammô, rendering this phrase as “the land of Amaw.” This land of Amaw, however, is otherwise unknown. Thus, some have proposed that ʿammô is a corruption of ʿammōn, “Ammon,” Moab’s neighbor in Transjordan. The phrase bĕnê ʿammōn, “children of Ammon” occurs dozens of times in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Numbers 21:24; Deuteronomy 2:19). This latter approach—emending ʿammô to ʿammōn—is supported by the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Syriac, and the Vulgate (ancient versions of the Hebrew scriptures), all of which read “the land of the Ammonites” in Numbers 22:5.[48]

A proposed Ammonite (or perhaps Gileadite), and thus more proximate, home for Balaam makes good sense in many ways. However, it is not in harmony with the biblical passages cited above that indicate Balaam’s home was in northern Aram/Syria (Numbers 23:7; Deuteronomy 23:4). Thus, the question of Balaam’s homeland remains unresolved, but a location closer to Moab seems more likely in the context of the story as we have it and finds additional support from the alternative reading of Numbers 22:5 in some ancient versions, from the tradition preserved in the Deir ‘Alla inscription, and from the account of Balaam’s death (Numbers 31:8; the latter two points are discussed below). Thus, a homeland for Balaam closer to Moab is currently preferred by many scholars.[49]

Why are Balaam’s oracles in poetry? Once Balaam traveled to and met with Balak, Balaam uttered three different pronouncements on the Israelites, each of which were requested by Balak to be cursings. Although the KJV does not represent poetic passages as poetry, as most biblical translations now do, Balaam’s three pronouncements on the Israelites are all in poetic form, as are his later pronouncements against Moabites and others. The three pronouncements thus read differently from the narrative prose in which the rest of this account is presented.

The Bible contains a great deal of poetry, since poetry was generally employed to present psalms, proverbs, prophecy, and prayers. Creating biblical poetic passages presumably required greater conscious effort on the part of biblical authors than did producing prose texts. And the reading and hearing of poetic passages would have generally required greater attention on the part of listening Israelites, since most ancient Israelites encountered biblical texts orally. The imagery, metaphors, rhythm, repetition of sounds and thoughts, and the multifaceted nature of Hebrew poetry invite and require greater focus to appreciate and comprehend, but these aspects of Hebrew poetry also tend to reward readers and hearers with greater insight and literary pleasure.

The poetry employed to express Balaam’s utterances about Israel serves to emphsize and elevate Jehovah’s words given through Balaam. While Balaam’s first oracle (Numbers 23:7–10) draws on elements already presented in the preceding prose narrative, the oracle’s poetic form conveys an impact unlike prose narration, especially when read aloud:

For from the top of the crags I see him,

from the hills I behold him . . .

Who can count the dust of Jacob,

or number the dust-cloud of Israel?

Let me die the death of the upright,

and let my end be like his! (23:9–10)

Similarly, Balaam’s second oracle (23:18–24) continues the declaration of Israel’s blessed status but does so with an increased focus on God:

God is not a human being, that he should lie,

or a mortal, that he should change his mind.

Has he promised, and will he not do it?

Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?

See, I [Balaam] received a command to bless;

he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it. (23:19–20)

The prose narration preceding both of these pronouncements—“The Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth” (Numbers 23:5; similarly verse 16)—is an allusion to prophecy (see above). Balaam uttered his third oracle (24:1–9) after “the spirit of God came upon him” (24:2; also mentioned above). The following few lines from the third oracle are included to further illustrate the poetic nature of these texts:

How fair are your tents, O Jacob,

your encampments, O Israel!

Like palm groves that stretch far away,

like gardens beside a river, . . .

God who brings him [Israel] out of Egypt,

is like the horns of a wild ox for him;

he shall devour the nations that are his foes

and break their bones. (24:5–6, 8)

As Milgrom has rightly observed, “This [third] oracle is the climactic one: In the first, only God determines blessing and curse (23:8); in the second, God’s blessing cannot be revoked (23:20); in this, the third, those who bless or curse Israel will themselves be blessed or cursed [24:9].”[50]

Thus, the non-Israelite Balaam’s pronouncements of Yahweh’s protection of and intentions for the Israelites are expressed poetically. These oracles do not stand independent from the prose narrative in Numbers 22–24. However, their poetic form serves to portray their divine origin and to accentuate their significant content.

A messianic prophecy in Numbers 24? Following Balaam’s failure to curse Israel as Balak had requested, Balak angrily dismissed Balaam (Numbers 24:10–13). However, Balaam did not leave Moab before prophesying against it (24:14–19). The content of Balaam’s prophetic pronouncement against Moab includes a passage that has long been interpreted by some Jews and Christians as messianic:

I see him, but not now;

I behold him, but not near—

a star shall come out of Jacob,

and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;

it shall crush the borderlands of Moab,

and the territory of all the Shethites.

Edom will become a possession,

Seir a possession of its enemies,

while Israel does valiantly.

One out of Jacob shall rule,

and destroy the survivors of Ir. (24:17–19).

This poetic passage not only prophesies a future Israelite military domination of Moab and its southern neighbor Edom (also known as Seir in the Bible) but also indicates this domination will be accomplished when “a star comes out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (24:17).

Evidence exists from as early as the last few centuries BC that at least some Jews considered Numbers 24:17 to be a messianic passage. For example, members of the Dead Sea community at Qumran understood this passage as referring to the two eschatological messiahs, the priestly messiah (the “star”) and the royal Davidic messiah (the “scepter”).[51] A few centuries later, some Jews, including the famed Rabbi Akiba,[52] referred to Simon bar Kosiba—leader of the unsuccessful second Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire (AD 132–135)—as Simon bar Kokhba (“son of the star”), presumably because some saw Simon as the messianic fulfillment of the passage in Numbers 24:17.[53] Christians have understood not only David as partial fulfillment of this prophecy (according to 2 Samuel 8:2, David defeated the Moabites) but ultimately Jesus Christ as the priestly and royal Messiah (Revelation 22:16).

Were there Midianites in Moab? Midianites are mentioned as living among the Moabites in Numbers 22 and 25.[54] This is another seemingly minor detail that is an important element in the biblical account, since Midianites are mentioned several times in Numbers 22–31. The Bible depicts the Midianites as the descendants of Midian, the fourth son of Abraham and his concubine Keturah (Genesis 25:1–2; 1 Chronicles 1:32). Although the Midianites were primarily located in northwestern Arabia, biblical accounts occasionally mention them in Moab and even in Canaan/Israel (e.g., Genesis 36:35; 37:28; Judges 6:1, 33). The Bible indicates that by the time of Moses, who himself fled Egypt to Midian and married a Midianite woman (Exodus 2:15–21), there were various Midianite clans, some of which lived in areas east and north of the Dead Sea and maintained shifting relationships with other peoples from those areas (e.g., Genesis 25:6; Joshua 13:21; Judges 6–8). Thus, it is not surprising to read of Midianites in the region of Moab.

Balaam Mentioned in Other Scripture

Following the account in Numbers 22–24, Balaam is occasionally cited elsewhere in the Bible.[55] Some of these other references have already been cited above. How these other passages are interpreted in relation to the main account of Balaam strongly influences one’s ultimate perception of this fascinating character. In general, an “increasingly negative characterization of Balaam” is displayed in later biblical and postbiblical writings.[56]

Balaam’s death is mentioned in passing in Numbers 31. Following a note that the Israelites defeated the Midianites in battle and killed their kings, the text then matter-of-factly reads, “They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword” (Numbers 31:8; compare Joshua 13:22).[57] This appears as a surprising report—the Israelites killing Balaam—since he had been depicted as acting on behalf of Yahweh/Jehovah by pronouncing blessings on the Israelites rather than the curses he was hired to invoke. However, Numbers 31:16 provides this further explanation: “These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the Lord” (31:16; emphasis added; for the full account see 31:1–20). The incident at Baal Peor is recounted in Numbers 25. After Balaam left Moab to return to his home, “the [Israelites] began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. These invited the [Israelites] to the sacrifices of [the Moabite] gods, and the [Israelites] ate and bowed down to [the Moabite] gods. Thus, Israel yoked itself to the [god] Baal of Peor, and the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel” (25:1–3).[58] The claim in Numbers 31:16, that Balaam had suggested that the Moabites could “defeat” the Israelites by getting them to sin and thus curse themselves is a major factor in the reversal of the generally positive depiction of Balaam given in Numbers 22–24 (except in the donkey episode).[59]

Deuteronomy 23:5 suggests that Balaam was actually trying to curse the Israelites but that Jehovah “refused to heed” him (see, similarly, Joshua 24:10; Nehemiah 13:2).[60] Joshua 13:22 echoes Numbers 31:8 in claiming that “the Israelites also put to the sword Balaam son of Beor” because he had “practiced divination” (Joshua 13:22).

A major exception to this negative recasting of Balaam is in Micah 6:5: “O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, . . . that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” Balaam here is depicted as a hero who had helped to overturn Balak’s evil intentions to destroy the Israelites.

In the New Testament, 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 1:11 both cite Balaam as illustrating that those who go astray from God do so because they love the gain of the world. And Revelation 2:14 blames Balaam for teaching “Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication” (this passage draws on Numbers 25:1–3; 31:16).[61] Furthermore, as Milgrom has expressed, “[many] postbiblical [Jewish] texts exaggerate Balaam’s vices to such a degree that he becomes an exemplar of villainy.”[62]

Regarding this interpretive trend, Ashley has correctly observed, “The text of [Numbers] chs. 22–24 is not [explicitly] concerned to pronounce [judgment] on the matter [of Balaam’s virtue]. Balaam’s character is incidental to the story.”[63] This is because from a literary and theological perspective, Balaam functions in Numbers 22–24 primarily as a foil to Balak and as the mouthpiece for Jehovah’s will for the Israelites. Later biblical and related traditions derive lessons from Balaam’s activities and perceived intentions that are not explicitly emphasized in Numbers 22–24, apart from in the donkey episode.[64] If all we knew about Balaam is what is related in Numbers 22–24 and Micah 6:5, his reputation in our minds might be much different. Overall, the Bible and post-biblical traditions present a complex and mixed picture of Balaam, one that becomes predominantly negative through later texts and time. There is currently no good evidence for the origins of these varied traditions.

Balaam in the Deir ‘Alla Inscription

Deir ‘Alla is a site in the eastern Jordan River valley, about one mile north of where the biblical Jabbok River flows into the Jordan. In 1967 archaeologists discovered there the very fragmentary remains of a literary text written in ink on plaster. Originally thought to have lined a temple wall, the room in which the fragments were found is now considered to have been “part of a manufacturing and distribution center located on the mound, where some religious activity may have [also] taken place.” Some scholars now suggest that the plaster originally coated a large stela or other object, not a wall (compare Deuteronomy 27:2–3).[65] Dated to about 800 BC, most of the surviving text is primarily written in black ink, although some words are in red. Also evident is a line of red ink that frames columns of the text. Classifying the language of the Deir ‘Alla text is challenging; it is perhaps best described as a dialect demonstrating Aramaic and Ammonite, or at least Southern Canaanite, affinities.[66] Two fragmentary “combinations” of the Deir ‘Alla inscription (from what were two columns of writing) have been partially reconstructed.[67] This inscription has generated great interest because it mentions Balaam, previously known only from the Bible (and later traditions).

The Deir ‘Alla inscription does not recount the events narrated in Numbers 22–24. However, there are fascinating similarities between the content of the two texts. Combination I of the inscription contains phrases such as “Balaam son of Beor” (I.2, 4; compare Numbers 22:5), identifying him as a “seer of the gods [ḥzh ʾlhn]” (I.1). “The gods [plural] came to him by night [compare Numbers 22:8–9, 20] and he saw a vision [yḥz mḥzh; compare Numbers 24:4, 16] like an oracle of ’El [ʾl]. Then they said to [Balaa]m, son of Beor . . .” (I.1–2).[68] The noun ʾl occurs several times in poetic passages in Numbers 23–24, where it is translated as “God” and is used in reference to Yahweh/Jehovah (e.g., 23:8, 19). This noun was also used anciently to designate the chief Canaanite god, El.[69]

This inscription further relates that Balaam wept and fasted after seeing his nighttime vision. “His people” inquired the reason for his behavior; Balaam related his experience, claiming, “I will tell you what the Shadda[yyin will do]. . . . Come see the work of the gods [ʾlhyn]” (I.3–5). Compare this line in the Deir ‘Alla inscription with Numbers 24:4, which reads, “The oracle of one [Balaam] who hears the words of God [ʾēl], who sees the vision of the Almighty [šadday].”

“Shaddayyin,” a plural form thought to be related to the Hebrew singular Shadday/Shaddai (šadday), occurs in this inscription parallel to “gods”; the Shaddayyin are best understood as part of the divine council (see I.6, “the Shaddayyin took their places at the assembly”).[70] Shadday (šadday) occurs several dozen times in the Bible, including in Numbers 24:4, 16, and has been traditionally translated as “Almighty.”[71]

Revealed to Balaam in the Deir ‘Alla text was the divine plan of doom to “bolt up the heavens with a cloud; set darkness there forever instead of light” (I.6–7). The next lines are problematic, and are rendered somewhat differently by different scholars. “What follows is obscure, but it appears that Balaam thwarts this plan by offering a series of oracles and magical rituals.”[72] None of the surviving text of this inscription portrays Balaam in a negative light, as do several biblical passages.

Discovered about thirty-five miles from where the Bible places Balak’s employment of Balaam against the Israelites in the plains of Moab, the Deir ‘Alla inscription strikingly demonstrates that Balaam traditions existed in that region for quite some time.[73] And the fact that this ink inscription was created at all demonstrates the remarkable degree of reputation Balaam must have had in the region.

As mentioned, the location of this inscription plausibly supports a locale for Balaam’s hometown in the vicinity, rather than in northern Aram/Syria. And as related in the Deir ‘Alla inscription, Balaam receives divine communication from deities other than Yahweh/Jehovah. Thus, in important ways, this inscription affects our understanding of the depiction of Balaam in the biblical account.

Although it is interesting to contemplate the extent to which Israelite influence may have informed the traditions behind this inscription, there is uncertainty regarding who produced the Deir ‘Alla text. According to the Bible, Israelites descended from the tribes of Gad and Manasseh, settled east of the Jordan River at the time of Moses and Joshua (Numbers 32:1–5; Joshua 13:8–11, 24–31). Given the focus on Balaam in Numbers 22–24 and in this inscription, some scholars have naturally postulated Israelite authorship of the Deir ‘Alla inscription, although these would have been Israelites who differed from the prophetically approved religious orientation represented in the Bible.[74] Others caution that we cannot yet tell whether Israelites or non-Israelites (presumably Ammonites) produced this text.[75] No matter who composed it, this inscription provides important information about a Balaam tradition relatively near the plains of Moab centuries after the traditional biblical portrayal in the book of Numbers.

Balaam and Latter-day Saints

Two assertions are prominent in references Latter-day Saint authors and Church leaders have made to Balaam during the past fifty years: (1) Balaam had been a prophet of Jehovah, and (2) we are encouraged to learn lessons from Balaam’s waywardness, lessons based on the predominantly negative biblical and postbiblical depictions of Balaam preserved after Numbers 22–24.

One oft-cited Latter-day Saint publication on Balaam is Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s “The Story of a Prophet’s Madness.” The title of Elder McConkie’s remarks and his opening line—“Let me tell you the story of a prophet, in some respects a very great prophet”—convey the idea that Elder McConkie considered Balaam to have been a legitimate prophet of Jehovah (as I’ve indicated above, I see the biblical depiction of Jehovah’s use of Balaam to speak Jehovah’s words as part of a larger complex of Balaam’s activities as a diviner and sorcerer on behalf of a variety of gods). However, Elder McConkie’s main purpose in relating Balaam’s story was didactic (instructive). Employing the negative biblical evaluation of Balaam as preserved in the New Testament, Elder McConkie taught, “Balaam the prophet, inspired and mighty as he once was, lost his soul in the end because he set his heart on the things of this world rather than the riches of eternity.”[76]

The terse entry in the Latter-day Saint Bible Dictionary is more straightforward, identifying Balaam only as a prophet: “A prophet from Pethor by the Euphrates, bribed by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites” (see the discussion above on the location of Pethor).[77] Commentary on Balaam and Numbers 22–24 by Latter-day Saint authors tends to be brief, follows the more traditional options, and generally highlights potential didactic dimensions of the passages outside Numbers 22–24.[78] Therefore, these commentators’ positions do not always agree with the conclusions presented herein, including the more likely location of Balaam’s hometown and especially Balaam’s background and relationship with Yahweh/Jehovah.[79]

Interestingly, although several references were made regarding Balaam and his experiences by early Latter-day Saint Church leaders (again, usually for didactic purposes), Balaam was mentioned only once in a formal general conference address during the past one hundred years.[80] Elder Neal A. Maxwell employed the story of Balaam when he taught in October 2000, “Actually, discipleship may keep the honors of the world from us. As Balak told Balaam, ‘I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but, lo, the Lord hath kept thee back from honour’ (Numbers 24:11–12).”[81] Of course, Balaam’s name appears in various Latter-day Saint lesson manuals, articles in Church magazines, and presentations by Church leaders. These occurrences usually involve teaching lessons based on what is said about Balaam in biblical passages outside Numbers 22–24.[82]

Certainly, there is value in these teachings, but they represent only one dimension of a complex figure and scriptural account. After all, as presented in the Bible, Balaam consistently claimed that he would only speak the words that Yahweh/Jehovah gave him to speak (e.g., Numbers 22:18, 38; 23:12), he was granted prophetic gifts because he would not be bought with gold or silver (chapters 23–24), and yet he is also vilified because he “practiced divination” (Joshua 13:22; the KJV renders this as “the soothsayer”) and because he “loved the wages of doing wrong” (2 Peter 2:15).

Concluding Thoughts

Balaam, the non-Israelite who prophesied positively about the Israelites, remains an enigmatic biblical figure, at least in part, because we cannot fully or confidently answer several important questions about him. The account of Balaam in Numbers 22–24 is oddly unique and reads like an independent unit, but it connects in several ways with the content and themes of the rest of the book of Numbers. So, however this account developed and was incorporated into the book of Numbers, it can at least be appreciated as part of the organic whole of the book.

Although many of the details about Balaam’s identity are sketchy, his historicity is further supported (beyond the biblical text) by the tradition preserved in the Deir ‘Alla inscription. As overviewed above, the biblical tradition provides a mixed evaluation of him at best. Presuming he was a historical figure, it is quite likely that traditions about Balaam the person developed through time. Certainly, the biblical traditions about Balaam appear to have become more negative in contexts outside of Numbers 22–24. Thus, his reputation among Latter-day Saints and other Bible readers generally remains unfavorable. Balaam and his life are thus regularly employed as a warning: “Woe to them . . . [who] abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain” (Jude 1:11).


[1] I express my appreciation to Courtney Dotson, my former student assistant, for her help gathering materials that I used in preparing this paper. I also thank the editors of this volume, Aaron Schade and Daniel Belnap; the anonymous reviewers; and my wife, Jane Allis-Pike, for providing helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.

[2] For a somewhat more extended overview of the book of Numbers (with pictures), written for a Latter-day Saint audience, see Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Dana M. Pike, and David Rolph Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2009), 124–35. For those desiring to study the book of Numbers in greater detail, the commentaries cited in the notes of this paper are a good starting point. The received Hebrew text of the book of Numbers is generally free from corruptions, so this paper focuses on the content of the book, without concerns about textual readings. Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), xi, provides a concise assessment of this issue. See also Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 11–12. These commentators and others provide observations on the relationship between the Masoretic Text of Numbers and how it reads in the Versions.

[3] The Septuagint, abbreviated LXX, is the name given to the early translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. This translation was produced by Jews living in Egypt in the third and second centuries BC.

[4] I have used the NRSV translation throughout, unless otherwise indicated, because it reads more smoothly and requires less commentary about the meaning and usage of words than does the KJV. “Jehovah” is the traditional English representation of the Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew divine name yhwh/YHWH, and is now generally vocalized as “Yahweh” by scholars. This name usually appears in the Bible with the substitute title “the Lord,” with the second word in capital letters. For a discussion of the name YHWH/Yahweh and its forms, including Jehovah, see Dana M. Pike, “Biblical Hebrew Words You Already Know and Why They Are Important,” Religious Educator 7, no. 3 (2006): 106–9; “The Name and Titles of God in the Old Testament,” Religious Educator 11, no 1 (2010): 19–21.

[5] Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield, 1997), 11.

[6] I focus on geographical progression, although a few commentators prefer to focus on generations as the primary organizer of the materials in Numbers: (1) the original generation of the Exodus, which died off in the wilderness (Numbers 1–25), and (2) the younger generation that would eventually go into Canaan (Numbers 26–36). See, for example, Ashley, Book of Numbers, 2–3.

[7] Numbers 33 relates an itinerary of the Israelites’ journey and their stops in the wilderness. There is uncertainty about the location of many of the sites listed in chapter 33, and there is some confusion in the biblical account about where and for how long Israelites stayed “in the wilderness.” They did not “break camp” every day. See a concise review of the situation in Dale W. Manor, “Kadesh, Kadesh-barnea,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3, ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), 479–80, Accordance version 1.2.

[8] Compare Numbers 22:1; 36:13; Deuteronomy 1:3; 2:13–15; 34:1. There is ambiguity as to the length of time it took the Israelites to travel between leaving Kadesh and arriving in the plains of Moab; see Numbers 20:28; 22:1.

[9] Thomas B. Dozeman, in ASOR Newsletter 49, no. 3 (Fall 1999): 16.

[10] For further thoughts on themes in Numbers, see the comments of, for example, Milgrom, Numbers, xxxviii–xl; Ashley, Book of Numbers, 8–11.

[11] Various explanations have been given for the exceptionally large numbers of Israelites in the book of Numbers (and elsewhere in the Bible). For a convenient summary of such suggestions, see Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes (New York: Schocken, 1995), 654; Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, 126.

[12] Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, 124; see also Fox, Five Books of Moses, 649: “It becomes clear that nation-founding involves not only the giving of laws and the arranging of societal roles, but also the developing of the ability to cope with physical and spiritual challenges to survival.”

[13] As Milgrom, Numbers, xvi, has observed, “The Book of Numbers . . . operates in the shadow of Sinai: Israel has accepted the suzerainty of its God and is bound to His law [Exodus 19–40].”

[14] As is sometimes the case in various portions of the Bible, there is a difference between the chapter and verse division between the Hebrew Bible and the English translations most readers of this paper likely use. In this case, Numbers 16:36 in English corresponds to Numbers 17:1 in Hebrew. So 16:41–50 in English, as is cited in this paper, is 17:6–15 in the Hebrew Bible.

[15] Numbers 22–24 is considered by many commentators to have existed separately before it was incorporated into Numbers. See, for example, Milgrom, Numbers, 467: “Traditionists and moderns are in agreement that chapters 22–24 . . . constitute an independent work that was later inserted into the text of the Book of Numbers.”

[16] In verse 32, the angel refers to himself as a sāṭān, “an adversary,” which is the same Hebrew word that is transliterated as “Satan.” See Pike, “Biblical Hebrew Words,” 105–6, for a discussion of this word and its uses in the Bible.

[17] For those who accept the events and pronouncements recounted in Numbers 22–24 as historical, this, of course, raises questions about this episode’s literary history: who recorded this information, and how did it make its way into the biblical narrative? There are currently no answers to these questions. But it reinforces the idea that there is much that is still unknown about the early stages of the production of biblical texts (see discussion below on the Deir ‘Alla inscription).

[18] Although this is how this phrase is usually translated, there have been suggestions that an alternative is preferable. See, for example, Victor (Avigdor) Hurowitz, “The Expression ûqsāmîm bĕyādām (Numbers 22:7) in Light of Divinatory Practices from Mari,” Hebrew Studies 33 (1992): 5–15.

[19] On Mesopotamian divination, see for example, Ulla Susanne Koch, “Sheep and Sky: Systems of Divinatory Interpretation,” and Francesca Rochberg, “Observing and Describing the World through Divination and Astronomy,” in Karen Radner and Eleanor Robson, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture (New York: Oxford, 2011), 447–69 and 618–36, respectively.

[20] See, for example, Numbers 26:52–56; Leviticus 16:8–10; 1 Nephi 3:11. For further discussion, see Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, 157. Additionally, the Urim and Thummim—carried by the Aaronic high priest in his ephod (Exodus 28:30–35)—is often viewed as a legitimate Israelite divinatory instrument.

[21] See Numbers 22:6, 7, 11; 23:7, 8, 11, 13, 27; 24:10. The more frequently used Hebrew lexical root meaning “to curse” in these passages is q-b-b, but ʾ-r-r also occurs.

[22] Commentators have much to say about this situation. Fox, Five Books of Moses, 774, for example, observes, “curse is turned to blessing, despite all the correct ritual preparations and previous promises of payment for services rendered. One almost has the impression of a séance gone wrong. And, professionally speaking, hired prophets are supposed to tell kings what they want to hear.”

[23] For publications on curses and cursing, see, for example, J. K. Aitken, The Semantics of Blessing and Cursing in Ancient Hebrew (Louvain: Peeters, 2007); Timothy G. Crawford, Blessing and Curse in Syro-Palestinian Inscriptions of the Iron Age (New York: Peter Lang, 1992).

[24] My thinking on this matter is analogous to, but independent from, Milgrom, Numbers, 471–73.

[25] Modern translations, such as the NRSV (quoted here) and the NET, sometimes translate the Hebrew word māšāl as “oracle,” meaning pronouncement, saying, or prophecy. Although māšāl is translated as “proverb” or “wise saying” in some contexts (e.g., 1 Kings 5:12; Ezekiel 12:22), including in the KJV (Numbers 24:3), several prophetic passages combine the verb nāśāʾ (“to lift, raise, carry”) and the noun māšāl to convey the sense of a mocking or taunting prophetic pronouncement against someone (e.g., Numbers 23:7, 18; 24:3, 15, 20, 23; Isaiah 14:4; Habakkuk 2:6).

[26] In fact, seeing (and not seeing) is an important motif that occurs throughout the Balaam account. See, for example, the comments of Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019), 1:556, 560.

[27] See, respectively, Shmuel Aḥituv, Echoes from the Past (Jerusalem: Carta, 2008), 435, 438; Baruch A. Levine, “The Deir ‘Alla Plaster Inscriptions (2.27),” in Context of Scripture, ed. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger (Boston: Brill, 2000), 2:142.

[28] Classic examples of types of non-Israelite prophetic activity are found in the Mari and the Neo-Assyrian texts, but other texts mention prophets as well. Relatively recent publications on this phenomenon include Martti Nissinen , Ancient Prophecy: Near Eastern, Biblical, and Greek Perspectives (New York: Oxford, 2018) and Jonathan Stökl, Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, A Philological and Sociological Comparison (Boston: Brill, 2012). See also James K. Mead, “The Biblical Prophets in Historiography,” in Ancient Israel’s History, An Introduction to Issues and Sources, ed. Bill T. Arnold and Richard S. Hess (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 262–85, especially the review of ancient Near Eastern prophecy, 270–80.

[29] See, for example, Ed Noort, “Balaam the Villain: The History of Reception of the Balaam Narrative in the Pentateuch and the Former Prophets,” in The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity and Islam, ed. George H. van Kooten and Jacques van Ruiten (Brill: Boston, 2008), 3: “On the one hand he [Balaam] is a stranger, foreign to Israel. On the other hand, he acts like an Israelite seer, even like a prophet bound to the word of YHWH.” See Noort, “Balaam the Villain,” 10–16, for review comments on biblical passages mentioning Balaam.

[30] See Milgrom, Numbers, 470, for examples and citations.

[31] For this quotation and perspective, see Adam Clarke, A Commentary and Critical Notes on the Holy Bible, “A New Edition with the Author’s Final Corrections,” vol. 3 (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1830), s.v. Numbers 22:6. See also Milgrom, Numbers, 470, for examples from and citations to Jewish authors.

[32] David Noel Freedman, “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah,” Biblical Archaeologist 50, no. 4 (December 1987): 243.

[33] Hurowitz, “The Expression ûqsāmîm bĕyādām (Numbers 22:7) in Light of Divinatory Practices from Mari,” 14.

[34] For example, Clarke cites this option almost two centuries ago in Clarke, Commentary and Critical Notes, s.v. Numbers 22:20.

[35] See, for example, Ashley, Book of Numbers, 435, who states, “Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that 22:22–35 probably form an independent story about Balaam that has been brought into the present narrative about Balaam and Balak at some point in the stream of tradition, although how and when this happened is unclear.” See, similarly, Hans Ausloos, “On an Obedient Prophet and a Fickle God, The Narrative of Balaam in Num 22–24,” Old Testament Essays 20, no. 1 (2007): 92–95.

[36] See Milgrom, Numbers, 189, who cites passages to this effect in the Mishnah and in Numbers Rabbah. For a brief survey of the opinions of early Christian scholars on this issue, see Stephen K. Sherwood, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2002), 176–77. See also Robert Alter, Hebrew Bible, 1:558–59.

[37] See Scott H. Faulring, Kent P. Jackson, and Robert J. Matthews, eds., Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 707. As presented, the text with strike-throughs in the quotation was deleted in the JST, and underlined text was added in the JST. For some reason this JST revision is not included in the notes of the Latter-day Saint edition of the KJV.

[38] See Faulring, Jackson, and Matthews, eds., Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible, 8–11, for a helpful overview of five possible categories of JST revisions.

[39] Many commentators mention the perceived humor in this account. See, for example, Mark W. Hamilton, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 78: “Again, this part of the story has a highly comic element. Talking donkeys and frustrated prophets are things to laugh at, and Numbers certainly intends the reader to laugh.” See also Alter, Hebrew Bible, 1:473, 559–60.

[40] See, for example, Thomas B. Dozeman, “The Book of Numbers,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 2:183; Milgrom, Numbers, 468–69.

[41] These are the only biblical accounts of creatures speaking human language. For further comments on these episodes, see G. Savran, “Beastly Speech: Intertextuality, Balaam’s Ass and the Garden of Eden,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 19, no. 64 (December 1994): 33–55. For Latter-day Saints, Moses 4:6–7 indicates that Satan “spake by the mouth of the serpent” in Eden. Second Peter 2:16, presumably relying on Numbers 22, reiterates that Balaam’s donkey spoke to him.

[42] Most commentators make the observation of the inherent irony. Additionally, E. R. Wendland, “Two Dumb Donkeys Declare the Word of the Lord: A Literary-Structural Analysis of Numbers 22–24,” Journal for Semitics 21, no. 2 (2012): 173–75, sees a relational irony in “the tale of ‘two donkeys’, one bestial the other human [Balaam], both of which are compelled to pronounce the word of the LORD in the face of strong opposition” (174). See therein for further comments on the many literary and rhetorical features of Numbers 22–24.

[43] Milgrom, Numbers, 469.

[44] See the observation by Alter, Hebrew Bible, 1:473 that the donkey in this episode is to Balaam as Balaam, the one who God allows to see and speak, will later be to Balak.

[45] See for example, Noort, “Balaam the Villain,” 21–22; Jo Ann Hackett, “Balaam,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:571.

[46] For a brief overview of Aram/Syria in the Bible, see Dana M. Pike, “Syria,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey et al. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 749–50; and the Latter-day Saint Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Syria.”

[47] William H. Shea, “The Inscribed Tablets from Tell Deir ‘Alla, Part I,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 27, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 29, 31; William H. Shea, “The Inscribed Tablets from Tell Deir ‘Alla, Part II,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 27, no. 2 (Summer 1989): 97, 107.

[48] See Alter, Hebrew Bible, 1:556. For the Samaritan Pentateuch, see Benyamim Tsedaka, The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 364. Of course, as Alter notes, one could argue that the ancient translators revised a challenging Hebrew text—“the land of the children of his people”—to make sense of it. A number of other scholars, however, have made the plausible connection between Balaam’s residence and the region of Ammon or Gilead.

[49] For further discussion of this issue, see for example, S. C. Layton, “Whence Comes Balaam? Num 22, 5 Revisited,” Biblica 73, no. 1 (1992): 32–61.

[50] Milgrom, Numbers, 202.

[51] See Dana M. Pike, “The Book of Numbers at Qumran: Texts and Context,” in Current Research and Technological Developments on the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks (New York: Brill, 1996), 182–85. For references to Jewish texts other than the Dead Sea Scrolls that also viewed Numbers 24:17 as messianic (and notice the title of the book!), see John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star, Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 71–73.

[52] Akiba’s name is additionally spelled in English as Akiva, Aqiba, and Aqiva. Many Bible dictionaries have an entry on Akiba.

[53] See, for example, Collins, The Scepter and the Star, 72, 226–27. See also Stefan Beyerle, “‘A Star Shall Come Out of Jacob’: A Critical Evaluation of the Balaam Oracle in the Context of Jewish Revolts in Roman Times,” in Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam, 163–88.

[54] Note also the interchange between these two names in Numbers 25:1, which recounts Israelite men having sexual relations with Moabite women at Baal Peor; in Numbers 25:9, 15, which report that a Midianite woman was involved in sinful activity with an Israelite at Baal Peor (probably cultic activity rather than merely sexual misconduct); and in Numbers 31:16, where Moses says that Midianite women “on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor.” Although multiple textual traditions could be postulated, enough biblical passages place some Midianites in Moabite territory to accept that some mixing of peoples lies behind these variations.

[55] An important recent study on the broader tradition history of Balaam, but one that was not available to me when this paper was originally written, is Jonathan Miles Robker, Balaam in Text and Tradition (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019). See also the seven-part entry “Balaam,” in Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, ed. Hans-Josef Klauck et al. (Boston: De Gruyter, 2011), 3:357–73, for a succinct overview of Balaam in biblical and postbiblical traditions.

[56] Dennis T. Olson, “Balaam, I. Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible/Old Testament,” in Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, 3:358.

[57] Various theories have been propounded to harmonize Numbers 24:25 (“Balaam got up and went back to his place, and Balak also went his way”) with the slaying of Balaam when the Israelites later fought the Midianites (31:8). For the purposes herein, it is sufficient to observe that the received text is not clear on this matter.

[58] In Numbers 25:1 the women are designated as Moabite, but in 31:16 it sounds like they are Midianite. See the comments in note 54 on the occurrences of “Midianite” and “Moabite” in Numbers 22.

[59] Some commentators prefer the option of multiple sources with differing perspectives on Balaam to explain these differences. Among Latter-day Saint authors, see, for example, Victor L. Ludlow, Unlocking the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 48–49.

[60] It is not clear what the basis is for this biblical assessment, other than perhaps the fact that Balaam agreed to go with Balak’s messengers. Perhaps other authors and editors had additional information not now found in Numbers 22–24 or they assumed that the text had not made Balaam’s original intentions sufficiently clear.

[61] For recent examinations of the New Testament’s uses of Balaam, see Jan Willem van Henten, “Balaam in Revelation 2:14,” and Tord Fornberg, “Balaam and 2 Peter 2:15: ‘They Have Followed in the Steps of Balaam’ (Jude 11),” in The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity and Islam, 247–63 and 265–74, respectively.

[62] See Milgrom, Numbers, 471, for this quote and for supporting examples.

[63] Ashley, The Book of Numbers, 435.

[64] See, for example, Jacques T. A. G. M. van Ruiten, “The Rewriting of Numbers 22–24 in Pseudo–Philo, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum 18,” and Johan Leemans, “‘To Bless with a Mouth Bent on Cursing’: Patristic Interpretations of Balaam (Num 24:17),” in The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity and Islam, 101–30 and 287–99, respectively.

[65] For the quote, see Levine, “The Deir ‘Alla Plaster Inscriptions (2.27),” 141. See pages 140–41 for a discussion of these and related issues. See also Christopher A. Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 61; Émile Puech, “Bala‘am and Deir ‘Alla,” in The Prestige of the Pagan Prophet Balaam in Judaism, Early Christianity and Islam, 25–47; J. Hoftijzer and G. van der Kooij, eds., The Balaam Text from Deir ‘Alla Re-Evaluated (New York: Brill, 1991).

[66] Similarly, Levine’s assessment, “The Deir ‘Alla Plaster Inscriptions (2.27),” 141, reads: “In the first publication, the language of these inscriptions was simply identified as Aramaic, but subsequent analysis has altered scholarly opinion, favoring a local, or regional language bearing affinities to both the Aramaic and Canaanite groups, with opinion still divided on this question.” Puech, “Bala‘am and Deir ‘Alla,” 40–43, claims that Aramaic is not the language of the inscription but that it “is a local dialect close to the Canaanite of its time, . . . this dialect can be viewed as Gileadite or ‘Ammonite’” (43).

[67] For a brief discussion of the Deir ‘Alla inscription, including a picture, see Holzapfel, Pike, and Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, 134. For somewhat differing translations of the surviving text, with commentary, see Levine, “The Deir ‘Alla Plaster Inscriptions (2.27),” 142–45; Shmuel Aḥituv, Echoes from the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period, trans. Anson F. Rainey (Jerusalem: Carta, 2008), 433–465. For an examination of religious perspectives at Deir ‘Alla and throughout the broader Transjordan, see Jeremy M. Hutton, “Southern, Northern and Transjordanian Perspectives,” in Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah, ed. Francesca Stavrakopoulou and John Barton (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 161–68.

[68] The translation used here is based on Aḥituv, Echoes from the Past, 435, 438.

[69] For a discussion of the forms and uses of ʾēl and ʾĕlōhı̂m in the Hebrew Bible, see Pike, “Name and Titles of God in the Old Testament,” 21–25.

[70] This possible connection between “shaddayyin” and Hebrew šadday is usually favored over a connection with Hebrew šēdîm, which is usually translated as “devils/demons” in Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalm 106:37.

[71] For a discussion of the use and meaning of this term in the Hebrew Bible, see Pike, “Name and Titles of God in the Old Testament,” 26. Biblical occurrences of šadday are primarily in Job, with several in Genesis and occasional attestations in Ruth and elsewhere.

[72] Kenton L. Sparks, Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005), 234.

[73] Dating to about 800 BC, the inscription was produced about 400–450 years after the conventional dating of the Israelite encampment in the plains of Moab. Some scholars use the date of the inscription to support a later date of composition for the biblical text in Numbers 22–24.

[74] Levine’s claim in “The Deir ‘Alla Plaster Inscriptions (2.27),” 141, for example, is quite plausible: “Given what is known of the immediate region [around Deir ‘Alla] in the early to mid-eighth century BCE, it is likely that Israelites constituted the principal element in the Gileadite population. It has been argued that, indeed, the inscriptions speak for Gileadite Israelites who worshipped El, a regional deity.”

[75] See, for example, E. A. Knauf, “Shadday,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd ed., ed. Karel van der Toorn (Boston: Brill, 1999), 750, who refers to “the presumably Israelite . . . Deir ‘Alla inscription”; and Aḥituv, Echoes from the Past, 435, who more pointedly claims that “conjectures about the ethnic/national affiliation of the inscription are futile.”

[76] Bruce R. McConkie, “The Story of a Prophet’s Madness,” New Era, April 1972, 7.

[77] Latter-day Saint Bible Dictionary, s.v., “Balaam.” The use of the term “bribed” in this entry has interesting and unfounded connotations. The Bible depicts the event in question as essentially a proposed business transaction.

[78] See, for example, Ludlow, Unlocking the Old Testament, 48–49; Robert L. Millet, “Lessons in the Wilderness (Numbers),” in Genesis to 2 Samuel, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 200–202; Ellis T. Rasmussen, A Latter-day Saint Commentary on the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993), 160–61; Kerry Muhlestein, The Essential Old Testament Companion (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2013), 142–46; D. Kelly Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner, Verse by Verse, The Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), 1:289–92. Ludlow, Millet, and Ogden and Skinner all quote rather extensively from Elder McConkie’s article.

[79] As illustrations, Rasmussen, A Latter-day Saint Commentary on the Old Testament, 160, placed Balaam’s hometown in northern Syria, near Haran (where remnants of Abraham and Sarah’s ancestry and their culture “may have remained”), claiming, “in Pethor was a people who believed in the same God as the Israelites;” however, we do not know this from any biblical source. And Muhlestein, The Essential Old Testament Companion, 144, claims Balaam came from “eastern Aram, or Syria,” and that he “worshipped and followed Jehovah,” implying that this was Balaam’s only connection with the divine. Again, I have presented differing interpretations above.

[80] Additionally, in the last century, only one conference speaker included a citation to Numbers 22–24, which was Numbers 23:19, a verse used to support the principle that God does not lie. See Brian K. Ashton, “The Father,” Ensign November 2018, 96 n46. To determine the use of Numbers 22–24 in general conference addresses, see the online resource “LDS Scripture Citation Index” ( ). Other citations connected with Numbers 22–24 offered on this website refer to nineteenth-century Church leaders.

[81] Neal A. Maxwell, “The Tugs and Pulls of the World,” Ensign, November 2000, 60.

[82] Two recent examples are the following: Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “What is Truth?” (Church Educational System address, January 2013); and H. Ross Workman, “Breaking the Chains of Sin,” Liahona, July 2006, 38–39. Surprisingly, this latter article asserts that “Balaam was an Israelite prophet residing near the borders of Moab at the time [of] Moses” (emphasis added). From my comments above, it should be clear that the Bible does not depict Balaam as an Israelite, although I do agree that Balaam lived somewhere relatively close to Moab.