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Was Balaam An Israelite? |Q&A


Question: 

Was Balaam an Israelite? He seems to know something of the sacrifices of Israel (Num. 23:1). He also seems to acknowledge Jehovah as “my” God (Num. 22:18) and seems to speak with God at multiple times (Num. 22–Num. 24). 

Answer: 

Given the examples mentioned, the idea that Balaam was an Israelite is not unrealistic. There are really two questions here. If Balaam was not an Israelite maybe he was at least a believer such as Job. I am fairly certain that he was neither and the investigation of why along with an examination of the examples provided should give some interesting and important lessons for us. 

The first clue that Balam was not an Israelite is that he is separated from the company of Israelites that migrated to “plains of Moab” (Num. 22:1). At this time Israel was a consolidated company following Moses. In addition, Balaam was eventually willing to be hired by Balak to curse the people of Israel. So, while not a “proof” it is not reasonable that he was an Israelite.

A related possibility is that he was a gentile “believer” like Job. Job was not an Israelite but was clearly a “believer” (Job 1:8; 19:25). As we look at Balaam’s character and the way in which he is used as a warning to believers in the New Testament it becomes clear he was not a believer at all. So, we are left to explain the references given in the question and look at the references in the New Testament. This investigation is important so that we can see the importance of the New Testament reference to present-day Christianity. 

Knowledge of the character of the Israelites and their relation to and preservation by God had become widely known by the time they arrived at the border of Canaan. When Israel sent spies to Jericho, Rahab hid them and said to them: “ For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction.” (Josh. 2:10). In addition, sacrifices were commonly performed in rituals by other nations. So, it is easy to see how the knowledge of the true “religion” of the Israelites would be widely known. 

Probably the most difficult part of the question is that Balaam did refer to God as “my God” (Num. 22:18). However, the important lesson that we will see when we look at the New Testament references is that of holding a false profession. So, considering the rest of Balaam’s behavior we need to assume this as a false profession. The bottom line is that he did seek to curse those he knew to be blessed of God. The Lord reminds us that “you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:20). Fruit appears fully ripe at the end of the growing season. The fact that Balaam’s final prophecy is “good” does not override this rule. Rather it shows that even evil intent can be overruled by the sovereignty of God for good. This is good for us as Christians to remember (Rom. 8:28). 

Connected with Balaam’s profession is his communication with God. This brings us to a very serious consideration. A revelation even coming from God does not guarantee that there is a true relationship. In fact, in one of Balaam’s prophecies regarding the Messiah he admits: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near” (Num. 24:17a). Indeed, “every eye shall see him” (Rev. 1:7) when He comes to judge. But, Balaam recognizes that he will not see him “near” as will those of us who are believers. Balaam was put to death with other unbelievers when the Reubenites conquered Midian (Josh. 13:22).  Caiaphas is a New Testament example (Jn. 11:49–53). 

References to Balaam in the New Testament help us understand Balaam’s condition. Before looking at these references I want to mention a contrast. The description of Lot’s behavior as described in the Old Testament leaves us in considerable doubt regarding his spiritual state. It would appear that he had no interest in God and that his relationship with Abraham was merely familial. The New Testament reference in 2 Peter 2:7 shows a side of Lot that we could not have guessed from the Old Testament history. This shows how the New Testament can shine light on histories given in the Old Testament.

In the case of Balaam, there are incidences in the Old Testament that make us wonder if maybe Balaam was a believer. However, the references in the New Testament show the true character of the man. So, there needs to be no doubt about his infidelity (2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11; Rev. 2:4). The description that Jude gives is the most provocative. He joins Balaam with Cain and “Korah’s rebellion.” Cain is representative of all who depart from God even if religious (Gen. 4:3, 16). Korah emphasizes overt rebellion. Balaam represents those who use religion for personal profit. 

This makes him a very serious warning to those who are merely fellow-travelers with the faith but having no faith themselves (Heb. 6:4–8). 

The record of Balaam is complex and has raised many questions over the years. It is impossible in this short space to give this history justice so I include several references below. 

Resources

Faraday, W. W., Balaam: His Words and Ways, (Accessed 3/15/2021). 

Grant, F. W., The Numerical Bible: Genesis to Deuteronomy, (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1903), 468-479. 

Balaam Hired of Balak, Used of God. (Accessed 3/15/2021). 

There are many articles on Balaam at https://stempublishing.com/.

By Roy Touzeau

Roy Touzeau is a regular teacher at Grace and Truth Gathering in Portland, Oregon where he has been faithfully attending since 1981. He was instrumental in founding Principles in Focus, an annual biblically focused retreat for young people. Roy and his wife Pamela have been married for forty-nine years and enjoy visiting their children and grandchildren and studying God’s creation using Roy’s eight-inch telescope.

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