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The idea that Balaam may have been a true follower (or even prophet) of Yahweh seems troubling on a number of fronts:

  • How could there be a pre-Mosaic Yahweh-worshipper living near the Euphrates (Num 22:5)? Where did he come from? How did he learn about God?
  • He was a practitioner of divination (Num 22:7) and sorcery. (Num 24:1)
  • He seems to know nothing of Moses and the Israelites. (Num 22:11-12)
  • He was killed along with the Midianites by the Israelites (Num 31:9)

On the other hand, there are some indications that he was, in fact, a bona fide servant of God:

  • He faithfully prophesies the words of God (including possibly Messianic prophesies!)
  • He offers the Lord acceptable sacrifices (Num 23:4, etc).
  • He refers to God as "Yahweh my God" (Num 22:18).

To me it seems most logical that Balaam was, in fact, a pagan diviner-for-hire, making a living by inquiring to any god people paid him to query. The fact that God spoke through this pagan is really no more surprising than that He spoke through a donkey -- in fact, it would shed light on that otherwise puzzling anecdote: it's as if God is saying, "When it comes to fulfilling My covenant, I can speak through donkeys or pronounce blessings through heathen! I am the Most High God -- sovereign over the donkeys of this world!"

But that interpretation, though sensible (at least to me), has most difficulty with Num 22:18. Could there be another explanation? The NetBible expositors notes seem to think so:

In the light of subsequent events one should not take too seriously that Balaam referred to Yahweh as his God. He is referring properly to the deity for which he is acting as the agent.

Is such a position tenable, given the text of that verse?

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While Bilaam refers to God as "my God", nothing in the text there conveys exclusivity. So that's consistent with the NetBible interpretation. –  Gone Quiet Apr 19 '13 at 14:35
    
FYI, your Bible hyperlinks are to a paid resource; you might consider switching them to a free one. –  Luke Breuer Dec 27 '13 at 21:25
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2 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The first two reasons are easy to understand with Balaam being a pagan prophet.

  • After all his encounters with God and the angel threatening to kill him, Balaam doesn't dare do anything except speak the words YHWH gave him.
  • As a polytheist, he will sacrifice to any deity which helps him. Most likely, he is a henotheist (in the geographic sense) and recognizes YHWH as Lord of Israel. By the geographic sense, I mean that Balaam believes that gods are supreme within the lands controlled by their worshipers.

For the last, I believe that Balaam is giving lip service to God. He is not speaking from his heart but is trying to ingratiate himself to God. Balaam really wants to go and get the money, but he knows that the God of Israel is against him. Balaam has already been told by God what His will is, but he will keep asking until he gets the answer he wants (reminds me of a child). The NET Bible notes are tenable, Balaam only refers to YHWH as "my God" because Balaam is acting as his agent.

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Some classical Jewish commentaries describe Balaam as a worshiper of Gᴏᴅ, but in a pagan manner: rather than submitting himself to Gᴏᴅ’s will, he believed he could compel or bribe Gᴏᴅ to follow his wishes through sacrifices & sorcery. (Note that Jewish tradition does not see sorcery as inherently evil or forbidden to non-Jews.)

In the Midrash, the example of Balaam is used to show that piety does not necessarily make one a good person.

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