Ba'laam (Heb. Bilam', בַלעָם; Sept. and N.T. and Philo, Βαλαάμ, Josephus, Βάλαμος). The name is derived by Vitringa from בִּעִל and עָם, q.d. lord of the people; but by Simonis from בֶּלִע and עָם, destruction of the people — an allusion to his supposed supernatural powers; Gesenius derives it from בִּל, not, and עָם, in the sense of foreigner; First does not decide which etymology to prefer. His father's name, Beor, comes likewise from a root which means to consume or devour. It is deserving of notice that Bela (q.v.), the first king of the Edomites, was also the son of a Beor (Ge 36:32). In 2Pe 2:15, Balaam is called the son of Bosor, which Gesenius attributes to an early corruption of the text; but Lightfoot considers it to be a Chaldaism, and infers from the apostle's use of it that he was then resident at Babylon (Works, 7:80; Sermon on the way of Balaam). SEE BILEAM. In the other passage of the New Testament (Re 2:14-15), the sect of the Nicolaitans is described as following the doctrine or teaching of Balaam; and it appears not improbable that this name is employed symbolically, as Nicolaus (Νικόλαος, people-conquering) is equivalent in meaning to Balaam.
The first mention of this remarkable person is in Nu 22:5, where we are informed that Balak "sent messengers unto Balaam, the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people." B.C. 1619. He belonged to the Midianites, and perhaps, as the prophet of his people, possessed the same authority that Moses did among the Israelites. At any rate, he is mentioned in conjunction with the five kings of Midian, apparently as a person of the same rank (Nu 31:8; cf. 31:16). He seems to have lived at Pethor, which is said at De 23:4, to have been a city of Mesopotamia (אֲרִם נִהֲרִיַם).
He himself speaks of being "brought from Aram out of the mountains of the East" (Nu 23:7). The reading, therefore, בּנֵי עִמּוֹן, instead of; בּנֵי עִמּוֹ which at Nu 22:5, is found in some MSS., and is adopted by the Samaritan, Syriac, and Vulgate versions, need not be preferred, as the Ammonites do not appear to have ever extended so far as the Euphrates, which is probably the river alluded to in this place. If the received reading be correct, it intimates that Pethor was situated in Balaam's native country, and that he was not a mere sojourner in Mesopotamia, as the Jewish patriarchs-were in Canaan. In Jos 13:22, Balaam is termed "the Soothsayer," at קֹּוסֵם a word which, with its cognates, is used almost without exception in an unfavorable sense. Josephus calls him an eminent diviner (μάντις ἄριστος, Ant. iv, ,6, 2); and what is to be understood by this appellation may be perhaps best learned from the following description by Philo: "There was a man at that time celebrated for divination who lived in Mesopotamia, and was an adept in all the forms of the divining art; but in no branch was he more admired than in augury; to many persons and on many occasions he gave great and astounding proofs of his skill. For to some he foretold storms in the height of summer; to others drought and heat in the depth of winter; to some scarcity succeeding a fruitful year, and then again abundance after scarcity; to others the overflowing and the drying up of rivers; and the remedies of pestilential diseases, and a vast multitude of other things, each of which he acquired great fame for predicting" (Vita Moysis, § 48). Origen speaks of Balaam as famous for his skill in magic, and the use of noxious incantations, but denies that he had any power to bless, for which he gives the following reason: "For magic, like daemons, is unable to bless". (In Num. Hom. 13). Balak's language, "I wot he whom thou blessest is blessed" (Nu 22:6), he considers as only designed to flatter Balaam, and render him compliant with his wishes. (See Berr, La prophetie de Balaam, Par. 1832.)
Balaam is one of those instances which meet us in Scripture of persons dwelling among heathens, but possessing a certain knowledge of the one true God. He was endowed with a greater than ordinary knowledge of God; he was possessed of high gifts of intellect and genius; he had the intuition of truth, and could see into the life of things — in short, he was a poet and a prophet. Moreover, he confessed that all these superior advantages were not his own, but derived from God, and were his gift. And thus, doubtless, he had won for himself, among his contemporaries far and wide, a high reputation for wisdom and sanctity. It was believed that he whom he blessed was blessed, and he whom he cursed was cursed. Elated, however, by his fame and his spiritual elevation, he had begun to conceive that these gifts were his own, and that they might be used to the furtherance of his own ends. He could make merchandise of them, and might acquire riches and honor by means of them. A custom existed among many nations of antiquity of devoting enemies to destruction before entering upon a war with them. At this time the Israelites were marching forward to the occupation of Palestine; they were now encamped in the plains of Moab, on the east of Jordan by Jericho. Balak, the king of Moab, having witnessed the discomfiture of his neighbors, the Amorites, by this people, entered into a league with the Midianites against them, and despatched messengers to Balaam with the rewards of divination in their hands. We see from this, therefore, that Balaam was in the habit of using his wisdom as a trade, and of mingling with it devices of his own by which he imposed upon others and perhaps partially deceived himself. When the elders of Moab and Midian told him their message, he seems to have some misgivings as to the lawfulness of their request, for he invited them to tarry the night with him, that he might learn how the Lord would regard it. These misgivings were confirmed by the express prohibition of God upon his journey. Balaam reported the answer, and the messengers of Balak returned. The King of Moab, however, not deterred by this failure, sent again more and more honorable princes to Balaam, with the promise that he should be promoted to very great honor upon complying with his request. The prophet again refused, but, notwithstanding, invited the embassy to tarry the night with him,. that he might know what the Lord would say unto him farther; and thus, by his importunity, he extorted from God the permission he desired, but was warned at the same time that his actions would be overruled according to the Divine will. Balaam therefore proceeded on his journey with the messengers of Balak. But God's anger was kindled at this manifestation of determined self-will, and the angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary against him. The words of the Psalmist, "Be ye not like to horse and mule which have no understanding, whose mouths must be held with bit and bridle, otherwise they will not come near unto thee" (Ps 32:9), had they been familiar to Balaam, would have come home to him with most tremendous force; for never have they received a more forcible illustration than the comparison of Balaam's conduct to his Maker with his treatment of his ass affords us. The wisdom with which the tractable brute was allowed to "speak with man's voice," and "forbid" the untractable "madness of the prophet," is palpable and conspicuous. He was taught, moreover, that even she had a spiritual perception to which he, though a prophet, was a stranger; and when his eyes were opened to behold the angel of the Lord, "he bowed down his head and fell flat on his face." It is hardly necessary to suppose, as some do, that the event here referred to happened only in a trance or vision, though such an opinion might seem to be supported by the fact that our translators render the word נֹפֵל in 24:4, 16, "falling into a trance," whereas no other idea than that. of simple falling is conveyed by it. The Apostle Peter refers to it as a real historical event: "The dumb ass, speaking with man's voice, forbade the madness of the prophet" (2Pe 2:16). We are not told how these things happened, but that they did happen, and that it pleased God thus to interfere on behalf of His elect people, and to bring forth from the genius of a self-willed prophet, who thought that his talents were his own, strains of poetry bearing upon the destiny of the Jewish nation and the Church at large, which are not surpassed throughout the Mosaic records. It is evident that Balaam, although acquainted with God, was desirous of throwing an air of mystery round his wisdom, from the instructions he gave Balak to offer a bullock and a ram on the seven altars he everywhere prepared for him; but he seems to have thought also that these sacrifices would be of some avail to change the mind of the Almighty, because he pleads the merit of them (23:4), and after experiencing their impotency to effect such an object, "he went no more," we are told, "to seek for enchantments" (24:1). His religion, therefore, was probably such as would be the natural result of a general acquaintance with God not confirmed by any covenant. He knew Him as the fountain of wisdom; how to worship Him he could merely guess from the customs in vogue at the time. Sacrifices had been used by the patriarchs; to what extent they were efficient could only be surmised. There is an allusion to Balaam in the Prophet Micah (Mic 6:5), where Bishop Butler thinks that a conversation is preserved which occurred between him and the King of Moab upon this occasion. But such an opinion is hardly tenable, if we bear in mind that Balak is nowhere represented as consulting Balaam upon the acceptable mode of worshipping God, and that the directions found in Micah are of quite an opposite character to those which were given by the son of Beor upon the high-places of Baal. The prophet is recounting "the righteousness of the Lord" in delivering His people out of the hand of Moab under Balak, and at the mention of his name the history of Balaam comes back upon his mind, and he is led to make those noble reflections upon it which occur in the following verse. "The doctrine of Balaam" is spoken of in Re 2:14, where an allusion has been supposed to the founder of the sect of the Nicolaitans, mentioned in v. 15. See NICOLAITANS. Though the utterance of Balaam was overruled so that he could not curse the children of Israel, he nevertheless suggested to the Moabites the expedient of seducing them to commit fornication. The effect of this is recorded in ch. 25. A battle was afterward fought against the Midianites, in which Balaam sided with them, and was slain by the sword of the people whom he had endeavored to curse (Nu 31:8). B.C. 1618. (Comp. Bishop Butler's Sermons, serm. 7; Ewald, Gesch. des Volkes Israel, 2:277; Stanley, Jewish Ch. 1:209 sq.)
Of the numerous paradoxes which we find in "this strange mixture of a man," as Bishop Newton terms him, not the least striking is that with the practice of an art expressly forbidden to the Israelites ("there shall not be found among you one that useth divination" [De 18:10], "for all that do these things are an abomination to the Lord," ver. 12) he united the knowledge and worship of Jehovah, and was in the habit of receiving intimations of his will: "I will bring you word again as the Lord (Jehovah) shall speak unto me" (Nu 22:8). The inquiry naturally arises, by what means did he become acquainted with the true religion? Dr. Hengstenberg suggests that he was led to renounce idolatry by the reports that reached him of the miracles attending the Exodus; and that, having experienced the deceptive nature of the soothsaying art, he hoped, by becoming a worshipper of the God of the Hebrews, to acquire fresh power over nature, and a clearer insight into futurity. Yet the sacred narrative gives us no reason to suppose that he had any previous knowledge of the Israelites. In Nu 22:11, he merely repeats Balak's message, "Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt," etc., without intimating that he had heard of the miracles wrought on their behalf. The allusion in Nu 23:22, might be prompted by the divine afflatus which he then felt. And had he been actuated in the first instance by motives of personal aggrandizement, it seems hardly probable that he would have been favored with those divine communications with which his language, in Nu 22:8, implies a familiarity. Since, in the case of Simon Magus, the offer to "purchase the gift of God with money" (Ac 8:20) called forth an immediate and awful rebuke from the apostles, would not Balaam's attempt to obtain a similar gift, with a direct view to personal emolument and fame, have met with a similar repulse? Dr. Hengstenberg supposes, indeed, that there was a mixture of a higher order of sentiments, a sense of the wants of his moral nature, which led him to seek Jehovah, and laid a foundation for intercourse with him. In the absence of more copious and precise information, may we not reasonably conjecture that Jacob's residence for twenty years in Mesopotamia contributed to maintain some just ideas of religion, though mingled with much superstition? To this source, and the existing remains of patriarchal religion, Balaam was probably indebted for that truth which he unhappily "restrained by unrighteousness" (Ro 1:18). (See Onder, De Bileamo, Jen. 1715.)
On the narrative contained in Nu 22:22-35, a difference of opinion has long existed, even among those who fully admit its authenticity. The advocates for a literal interpretation urge that, in a historical work and a narrative bearing the same character, it would be unnatural to regard any of the occurrences as taking place in vision, unless expressly so stated; that it would be difficult to determine where the vision begins and where it ends; that Jehovah's "opening the mouth of the ass" (Nu 22:28) must have been an external act; and, finally, that Peter's language is decidedly in favor of the literal sense: "The dumb ass, speaking with a man's voice, reproved the madness of the prophet" (2Pe 2:16). Those who conceive that the speaking of the ass and the appearance of the angel occurred in vision to Balaam (among whom are Maimonides, Leibnitz, and Hengstenberg) insist upon the fact that dreams and visions were the ordinary methods by which God made himself known to the prophets (Nu 12:6); they remark that Balaam, in the introduction to his third and fourth prophecies (24:3, 4, 15), speaks of himself as "the man who had his eyes shut," and who, on falling down in prophetic ecstasy, had his eyes opened; that he expressed no surprise on hearing the ass speak; and that neither his servants nor the Moabitish princes who accompanied him appear to have been cognizant of any supernatural appearance. Dr. Jortin supposes that the angel of the Lord suffered himself to be seen by the beast, but not by the prophet; that the beast was terrified, and Balaam smote her, and then fell into a trance, and in that state conversed first with the beast and then with the angel. The angel presented these objects to his imagination as strongly as if they had been before his eyes, so that this was still a miraculous or preternatural operation. In dreaming, many singular incongruities occur without exciting our astonishment; it is therefore not wonderful if the prophet conversed with his beast in vision without being startled at such a phenomenon (see Jortin's Dissertation on Balaam, p. 190-194). See Ass (of Balaam).
The limits of this article will not allow of an examination of Balaam's magnificent prophecies, which, as Herder remarks (Geist der Ebraischen Poesie, 2:221), "are distinguished for dignity, compression, vividness, and fullness of imagery. There is scarcely any thing equal to them in the later prophets, and" (he adds, what few readers, probably, of De 32; De 33, will be disposed to admit) "nothing in the discourses of Moses." Hengstenberg has ably discussed the doubts raised by De Wette and other German critics respecting the antiquity and genuineness of this portion of the Pentateuch. A full discussion of the Character and Prophecies of Balaam may be found in the Bib. Sac. 1846, p. 347 sq.
See generally Moebius, Hist. Bileami (in his Dissertt. theol. p. 286 sq.); Benzel, Dissertt. 2:37 sq.; Richter, De Bil. incantatore (Viteb. 1739); Liderwald, Gesch. Bil. erklart (Helmst. 1781); Geer, Diss. de Bileamo (Utrecht, 1816); Tholuck, in the Lit. Anzeig. 1832, No. 78-80; 1833, 1 (also in his Verm. Schrfit. 1); Hoffmann, in the Hall. Encyclop. 10:184 sq.; Steudel, in the Tubing. Zeitschr. 1831, 2:66 sq.; Hengstenberg Gesch. Bileams (Berl. 1842; History and Prophecies of Balaam, transl. by Ryland, in Clark's ed. of his Authenticity of Daniel Edinb. 1847); Wolff, De mode vaticinandi Bileam (Lips. 1741); Niemeyer, Charakt. 3, 373 sq.; Less, Verm. Schrift. 1:130 sq.; Justi, Diss. de Bileami asina (Marb. 1774); Bauer, Hebr. Mythologie, 1:306 sq.; Hartmann, Exc. zu Micha, p. 255 sq.; also Kjerner, Circa hist. Bileami (Gryph. 1786); Rungius, Abhandl. f. Freunde d. Bibel (Lpz. 1786-1789), 2; Geer, De Bileamo (Traj. a. R. 1816); Jortin, Hist. and Character of Balaam (in the Brit. Theol. Mag. I, 1:72 sq.; also in his Dissertations, p. 127); Ward, Character of Balaam (ib. 4:574 sq.); Butler, id. (ib. I, 2:36 sq.); Benner, D. Esel Bileams (Giess. 1759); Schutte, Vaticin. Bileami (in the Bibl. Hagan. 1, 1:2); Origen, Opp. 2:316, 325; Saurin, Dissert. p. 597; Deyling, Observatt. 3, 102; Sherlock, Works, v; Essays (Lond. 1753); Newton, Prophecies, 1:66; Bryant, Observatiens, 1; Hunter, Sacred Biog. 3, 226; Horsley, Bib. Criticsm, 2:407, 449; Robinson, Script. Characters, 1; Evans, Script. Biog. 2:28; Williams, 0. T. Characters, p. 136; Simeon, Works, 2:131,136,141; Cowie, Hulsean Lect (1853), p. 25; Noel, Hist. Eccles. 2:413; Collyier, Script. Prophecy, p. 172; Kitto, Daily Bible Illust. 2:201, 206; Buddaei Hist. V. T. 1:753; Witsii Miscell. 1:143 sq. Wolf, De exemplis Bibl. 2:13 sq.; De Wette, Kritik, 1:363, 365; Vater, Comment. iub. Pentat. 3, 119; Ranke,
Pentat. 2:234; Jahn, Einleit. 2:132; Havernick, Einleit. 1, 2:505; comp. Mosch. Idyll. 2:149 sq.; Plutarch, Flav. 1:6; AElian, Anim. 12:3; Val. Max. 1:6, 5; Jour. Asiatique (1843), 1:216; Bochart, Hieroz. 1:161; Fabricii Cod. Pseudepgigr. V. T. 1:801; Thilo, Apocr. p. 307; Talmud, Pirke Aboth, v. 19; Targum of Jonathan, in loc.; Wetstein, N.T. 2:707.