In the narrative about Balaam in Numbers 22 and following, it appears that Balaam did what was right. Rather than curse Israel he blessed them, three times, and forfeited the reward. Yet in the NT, Balaam is portrayed as a villain, denying the LORD.
So what did Balaam do wrong? Scholars say that a tradition sprang up that Balaam secretly gave tips to Balak on how to seduce the Jews into idolatry and thus undermine their secure position in the LORD’s care. We might see that in Revelation’s reference to “the teaching of Balaam”.
However, Micah uses his blessings as a righteous model:
[Mic 6:5 KJV] (5) O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim unto Gilgal; that ye may know the righteousness of the LORD.
I think that Paul had a different interpretation, that better suits the actual narrative. Let me explain…
As I read it, Balaam’s error was not in anything he said, but rather in his going along with Balak’s men into fellowship with their religious temple and eating food sacrificed to Ba’al:
[Num 22:39-41 NLT] (39) Then Balaam accompanied Balak to Kiriath-huzoth, (40) where the king sacrificed cattle and sheep. He sent portions of the meat to Balaam and the officials who were with him. (41) The next morning Balak took Balaam up to Bamoth-baal. From there he could see some of the people of Israel spread out below him.
THAT was, I believe, and I believe Paul believed, to be Balaam’s offence, and it was this BEHAVIOR that Balaam “taught to Israel” by EXAMPLE. We see that at Shittim, this is precisely the behavior of the wayward Jews that got them all killed to purify the camp:
[Num 25:1-9 NLT] (1) While the Israelites were camped at Acacia Grove, some of the men defiled themselves by having sexual relations with local Moabite women. (2) These women invited them to attend sacrifices to their gods, so the Israelites feasted with them and worshiped the gods of Moab. (3) In this way, Israel joined in the worship of Baal of Peor, causing the LORD's anger to blaze against his people. (4) The LORD issued the following command to Moses: "Seize all the ringleaders and execute them before the LORD in broad daylight, so his fierce anger will turn away from the people of Israel." (5) So Moses ordered Israel's judges, "Each of you must put to death the men under your authority who have joined in worshiping Baal of Peor." (6) Just then one of the Israelite men brought a Midianite woman into his tent, right before the eyes of Moses and all the people, as everyone was weeping at the entrance of the Tabernacle. (7) When Phinehas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron the priest saw this, he jumped up and left the assembly. He took a spear (8) and rushed after the man into his tent. Phinehas thrust the spear all the way through the man's body and into the woman's stomach. So the plague against the Israelites was stopped, (9) but not before 24,000 people had died.
Paul uses this to teach the Corinthians the danger of joining in with the pagan feasts by partaking of the meat offered to idols, because their EXAMPLE might suggest to an impressionable believer, perhaps accustomed to partaking at those feasts, that it is okay:
[1Co 10:15-31 NLT] (15) You are reasonable people. Decide for yourselves if what I am saying is true. (16) When we bless the cup at the Lord's Table, aren't we sharing in the blood of Christ? And when we break the bread, aren't we sharing in the body of Christ? (17) And though we are many, we all eat from one loaf of bread, showing that we are one body. (18) Think about the people of Israel. Weren't they united by eating the sacrifices at the altar? (19) What am I trying to say? Am I saying that food offered to idols has some significance, or that idols are real gods? (20) No, not at all. I am saying that these sacrifices are offered to demons, not to God. And I don't want you to participate with demons. (21) You cannot drink from the cup of the Lord and from the cup of demons, too. You cannot eat at the Lord's Table and at the table of demons, too. (22) What? Do we dare to rouse the Lord's jealousy? Do you think we are stronger than he is? (23) You say, "I am allowed to do anything"--but not everything is good for you. You say, "I am allowed to do anything"--but not everything is beneficial. (24) Don't be concerned for your own good but for the good of others. (25) So you may eat any meat that is sold in the marketplace without raising questions of conscience. (26) For "the earth is the LORD's, and everything in it." (27) If someone who isn't a believer asks you home for dinner, accept the invitation if you want to. Eat whatever is offered to you without raising questions of conscience. (28) (But suppose someone tells you, "This meat was offered to an idol." Don't eat it, out of consideration for the conscience of the one who told you. (29) It might not be a matter of conscience for you, but it is for the other person.) For why should my freedom be limited by what someone else thinks? (30) If I can thank God for the food and enjoy it, why should I be condemned for eating it? (31) So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
This is why Revelation says that Balaam is said to have taught Balak, not the Jews, how to put a stumbling block.
[Rev 2:14 KJV] (14) But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
[1Co 8:4-13 KJV] (4) As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol [is] nothing in the world, and that [there is] none other God but one. (5) For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) (6) But to us [there is but] one God, the Father, of whom [are] all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom [are] all things, and we by him. (7) Howbeit [there is] not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat [it] as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. (8) But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. (9) But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. (10) For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; (11) And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? (12) But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. (13) Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.
It must have been very attractive to want to attend the feasts for the Roman gods, whether idols or Caesar himself, because of the opportunity to eat the meat offered to them, for free. I think it very possible that some Christians were teaching that it was okay to attend and partake of the meat of their altars because:
- their gods don't even exist
- Balaam, the true prophet of God did it
That might be what is referred to as "the doctrine of Balaam".