In the book of Numbers, four chapters are devoted to the history of a prophet who had a profound impact on God’s people during their conquest of the Promised Land. This prophet was not a Jewish man, but a seer who dwelt in Pethor: Balaam son of Beor. In 1967 archeological evidence was discovered with the inscription of “Baalam son of Beor” prophet of “El Shaddai” – the Almighty God as he was known to the Israelites in the days of Moses. This archeological evidence adds tremendous historic weight this account in the Bible.
The reason why this account of a foreign prophet speaking to ancient Israel is important to contemporary believers is highlighted by the numerous New Testament references to Balaam. All of these references of Balaam are warnings: Peter warns the church of false prophets who “have gone astray… in the way of Balaam…” (2 Peter 2:15). Jude warns of “ungodly people… [who] abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error” (Jude 1:1, 11). John wrote of those in the church in Pergamum “who hold to the teachings of Balaam.” (Revelations 2:14). In each of the three texts the prophet Balaam is used as reference or type of ungodly lifestyles and doctrinal error of believers that is condemnable. But what is this dangerous “error”, “way” or “doctrine”?
Reading through the historic account of Balaam’s dealings with Israel (Numbers 22:1-25:10, 31:8,16), one has to acknowledge his absolute commitment to relay only what God says: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more” (22:18). Throughout these three chapters he maintains this stance, repeating his commitment to speak only the words of God another five times (22:38; 23:8, 12, 26; 24:13). In the end, Balaam’s loyalty to prophesy in truth as God revealed cost him his wages which Balak promised (24:11). Thus Balaam is an accurate prophet, true to delivering God’s message, not yielding to pressure or bribe to speak falsely.
So why the negative connotations with Balaam? Numbers 25 records a shameful time in Israel’s travels as they camped on the Eastern side of the Jordan river and started living like the Moabite people. Swaying under the power of cultural seduction to sexual immorality and idol worship, the Israelites came under the wrath of God through as a plague that killed 24’000 Israelites (Numbers 25:1-9). This moral decay is attributed to Balaam (Numbers 31:16). Although he was extremely gifted and graced by God to hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, he himself was an immoral man whose way of life was corrupted with sin (“way of Balaam” 2 Peter 2:15; ““error” Jude 1: 11) and his teachings deceptive (Numbers 31:16). His lifestyle and teachings were not to be followed, admired or trusted. In fact, Balaam was executed along with the Midianites under the wrath of God (Numbers 31:8).
Although his prophesies is shown to be infallible in the text, the author of Numbers includes the humorous account of his journey on the donkey to Balak (Numbers 22:21-38), which is very deliberately inserted to humble this “great prophet”. For instance, Balaam the great prophet is hired to subdue Israel with words, but he cannot even subdue his donkey with a stick. He claims to see visions (24:4,17) but can’s see what the donkey sees on three occasions (22:32). He claims that his prophetic speech is from God (22:38; 23:5, 12, 16), yet the donkey silences him as its mouth is also opened by God (22:28). Balaam claims to posess knowledge “from the Most High” (24:16) was beaten in verbal exchange with a stupid donkey (22:30) and then has to admit to the angel “I did not know [what the donkey knows]” (22:34). Although Balaam is on his way to slay a whole nation with his words he has to draw a sword to kill the donkey (22:29); while lamenting lamenting that he had no sword to slay the animal, the donkey sees the drawn sword in the hands of the angel (22:23) right in front of him. This irony is meant as a lesson in humility – that the great prophet, like any donkey, can see and speak only what God shows him, and that he simply is graced to serve in the purposes of God. Secondly, this account shows that although the prophet speaks graceful words by God’s Spirit, he is more beastly than his donkey: where the beast is kind to move his master Balaam out of harm’s way three times, the master is beastly in beating the faithful, kind-hearted, willing animal without considering the motive.
Godliness and our culture
Although Balaam had the ability to speak God’s words accurately, he had lead a whole nation astray. His life serves as a warning that accurate spiritual discernment without holy living (from a godly character) is dangerous. What was this ungodliness? Balaam’s error (2 Peter 2:15) or Balaam’s way (Jude 1:11) simply refers to his lifestyle of cultural acceptance. Although being a gifted prophet Balaam lived as the Midianites did, and that lead to the corruption of God’s holy people as they followed his “way” and “erred” in his footsteps. His love for sensual pleasure made him prone towards greed, sexual immorality and cultural festivity surrounding the worship of other gods, plus his independence lead to rebellion. (See 2 Peter 2:2-14; Jude 1:1, 6-11; Psalm 106:28; Revelation 2:14).
The doctrine of Balaam (Revelation 2:14) teaches that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their lifestyle. So by his example and by his teachings the great prophet Balaam deceived God’s people into a lifestyle of sexual immorality and the worship of Baal of Peor. As a result, many died under the wrath of God, never reaching the Promised Land (Jude 1:5). Still today Balaam’s dualism (distinguishing spiritual holiness from moral life) is taught in many places (associated with Gnosticism in the early church and extreme grace teachings). Apart from formal teaching, the way of Balaam is engrained in our spiritual DNA by the example of our contemporary church culture where Sundays is God’s day, and the rest of the week we live good lives, but find pleasure and security as the rest of society does.
Balaam is not the only example of this fallacy in Scripture. Samson, the mighty deliverer of Israel was like him: a man empowered by the Spirit of God to lead and deliver Israel, yet always seduced and enticed by his worldly passions and made ineffective. (Judges 14-16) Giving in to the seduction of sensual sins enslaves God’s people and brings shame to his Name.
In contrast to Balaam and Samson, Daniel and his friends stand out as examples of godliness amidst a crooked world. Daniel chapter three records how Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image that everyone in his kingdom had to bow down to whenever the music played. The image was not an image of a particular god, but rather represented the religious culture of the day. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the image, and was persevered by God in the fire. Their refusal to succumb to the cultural pressure in faithfulness to the One True God stands as an example to every believer in our present-day materialistic, promiscuous culture feeling pressures us to conform.
How do we respond?
Considering the the error of Balaam, I find three ways to respond to this in pursuit of spiritual maturity.
- Review your definition of “Spiritual Maturity”
The reference to Balaam in Peter’s second epistle pertains to false prophets among the first readers, thus spiritually gifted leaders. This is worth mentioning. Peter appeals to his readers to note the ungodly fruit of these spiritually gifted ministers, and therefore not following their example of sensuality and rebellion. Peter looked at the character and behavior of these gifted leaders and was not easily mesmerized by their prophetic ability. After all, Jesus taught him that a person is “known by [his] fruit” (Matthew 12:33).
Peter needed to write this to the growing young church, since the charismatic gift of prophets is very appealing to especially young believers. And the display of spiritual gifts is easily taken as signs of spiritual maturity. It is the will of God that we grow up (Ephesians 4:11ff), but how do you define maturity? That is why these warnings by Jesus and his apostles are so strong and clear. So re-evaluate your view of spiritual maturity: Who do you admire? Who do you want to follow after? Consider their character – are they known by their love? What can you learn from their marriage and family relationships, their work ethic and how they manage money?
- Take stock of your own life.
In Jude and Revelations the warning to individuals walking in the error or teachings of Balaam is merely to wrong belief of individuals in their congregations of those in their midst. Balaam is the image of a spiritually gifted man with the lust of sensual pleasures that are lead by his passions through this life like waves thrown around by their earthly desires (Jude 1:12-14). Take an honest view of your life your own life, with special reference to you your passions and desires. Are you leaving it unchecked? What are you doing about it? And who are you accountable to about it?
- Grow in godliness.
Our aim remains to be conformed to the image of Christ Jesus and to help form others into that image (Romans 8:29; Colossians 2:28-29). Be purposeful about it. How have you grown in godliness in the last year, and in which area do you need to grow now? Are you growing in the will of God? What does the Lord say, and what will you do to grow in that area of Christ-likeness. Again, and who knows about that?
While closing with growth in Christ-likeness, remember these words of Paul: “Continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, giving you the desire and ability for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13) Continue, don’t stagnate in your pursuit of Christ-likeness. Work it out yourself, don’t expect it to automatic or someone else’s job. As you grow in Christ-likeness you also will grow to emulate the Christ – the Anointed One (Acts 10:38). Earnestly desire spiritual gifts but let the motive be love (1 Corinthians 12:31).
And work with God – it is he that works in you, leading your through your desires and gracing your with the power needed to grow in Christ-likeness. Don’t stop! Work joyfully with the grace God gives.