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The derivation of the name is uncertain. Dr. Neubauer would connect it with the god Ammo or Ammi, as though Balaam belonged to a people whose god or lord was Ammo or Ammi. It is certainly remarkable that Balaam is said (Numbers 22:5) to come from "the land of the children of Ammo" (D.V. reads "Ammon").

The narrative

The story of Balaam is contained in Numbers 22-24 and 26:8-16; Deuteronomy 23:4; Joshua 13:22 and 24:9-10. There are also references to him in Nehemiah 13:2; Micah 6:5; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11; and Apocalypse 2:14.

Balac, King of Moab, alarmed at Israel's victories over the Amorrhites, sent messengers with presents to Balaam, son of Beor, who dwelt in Pethor (the Pitru of the cuneiform texts) to induce him to come and curse Israel. For in those early times, men attached great importance to a curse, as, for instance, that of a father on his child; and Balaam had a special reputation in this matter: "I know", said Balac to him through his messengers, "that he whom thou shalt bless is blessed, and he whom thou shalt curse is cursed." When the messengers had delivered their message, Balaam consulted the Lord as to whether he should go or stay, and being refused permission to go, in the morning he gave a negative answer to the ambassadors. Nothing daunted, Balac sent another embassy, composed of men of higher rank, princes, with directions to offer Balaam anything he liked, provided only he would come and curse Israel. Again Balaam consulted the Lord and obtained permission to go, on condition that he undertook to do what God commanded. In view of what follows, some commentators think that this leave was extorted by importunity, and that Balaam was actuated in making his request by mercenary motives, and had fully made up his mind to curse Israel.

The next morning Balaam saddled his ass and set out with the princes of Moab. On the way, the ass manifested every sign of alarm; it swerved suddenly from the path, crushed Balaam's leg against a wall and finally sank to the ground under him, so that Balaam cruelly beat it and even threatened it with death. Then the ass was endowed by God with the power of speech, and upbraided its master with his cruelty towards it. At the same time Balaam's eyes were opened and he saw the cause of the ass's strange conduct, viz. an angel of the Lord standing in the way with drawn sword to bar his passage. The angel upbraided Balaam with his cruel conduct towards the ass and told him that it was the action of the ass which had saved his life. Finally, he permitted Balaam to continue his journey, but only on condition that he would speak nothing but what he commanded. Balac met Balaam on the borders of Arnon, and they went together to Kiriath-huzoth, where sacrifices were duly offered. The following day, Balac took Balaam to Bamoth-Baal, whence he could see the outskirts of the host of Israel. Seven bullocks and seven rams having been sacrificed, and Balaam having gone apart to consult the Lord, the prophet returned to Balac and refused to curse Israel. On the contrary, he eulogized them: "Who", he said, "can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and my last end be like his."

Then Balac took Balaam to the top of Mount Phasga, to see if from there he would not curse Israel. But, after the same rites and formalities had been gone through, Balaam again pronounced a blessing on the Israelites, more emphatic than the former: "Behold, I have received commandment to bless. And he hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it."

"Neither bless nor curse", exclaimed Balac. But he resolved to try the prophet once more, and accordingly took him to the top of Mount Phogor which looks towards the wilderness. Here sacrifices were offered, but without further formality, Balaam, under the influence of "the spirit of God", broke forth into the beautiful eulogy of Israel which begins with the words: "How beautiful are thy tabernacles, O Jacob, and thy tents, O Israel!" Filled with anger, Balac dismissed Balaam to his home. But before departing, the prophet delivered his fourth pronouncement on the glorious future of Israel and the fate of its enemies. His vision, too, piercing beyond the earthly Kingdom of Israel, seems to have dimly seen the Messianic reign to come. "I see him", he said, "but not now; I behold him, but not nigh; there shall come forth a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel", etc. Balac and Balaam separated, but before returning to his own country, Balaam sojourned with the Madianites. There he seems to have instigated his hosts to send Madianite and Moabite women among the Israelites to seduce them from their allegiance to Jehovah (Numbers 31:16). This was while the children of Israel were dwelling at Settim, and no doubt is closely connected with the troubles and disorder over Beelphegor, told of in Numbers 25. The punishment inflicted by God on the Israelites was signal. A plague fell upon them, and carried off 24,000 (25:9). Nor did Balaam escape. He was slain, together with the five kings of Madian, in the war waged by Israel against that nation related in Numbers 31.

Conservative view

The usual traditional, or conservative, view of the episode of Balaam is that it is an historical narrative in the ordinary sense. The supernatural plays an important part in it, but it is contended that the credibility of the narrative requires only a belief in the miraculous, and that the acceptance of many of the most important parts of the Bible requires such a belief. The episode of the speaking ass is strange; but no stranger than the story of the speaking serpent in Paradise. The future is foretold by Balaam; but so it is by the great prophets of Israel.

A question is discussed as to what Balaam was. Was he a prophet in the true sense of the word; or a soothsayer? It does not seem possible to say that he was a prophet in the same sense as Isaias or any of the great prophets of Israel. On the other hand, in Numbers 24:2, he is said to have spoken under the influence of "the spirit of God". Indeed, throughout his connection with Balac, he seems to have acted under the influence of God's spirit. But when his state of life is looked at as such, he cannot be regarded as having belonged to the order of the prophets. St. Thomas calls him "a prophet of the devil". Scripture does not call him a prophet, but a diviner, and Balac approached him with the price of divination. Moreover, the way in which he joined Balac in idolatrous worship seems to preclude the idea of his being a genuine servant of Jehovah. Prophecy is a gift given for the good of others. Balaam was used for the good of Israel.

Critical view

Modern critics take a different view of the episode, in conformity with their general conclusions as to the Hexateuch. For them the narrative of Numbers 22, 23 and 24 is part of the prophetical history. That is, in these chapters there is no trace of the priestly writer P, though to him is assigned the passage xxv, 6-18, which contains an account of the crime and punishment of Zambri and Cozbi. Though critics are unanimous that chapters xxii, xxiii, and xxiv are the work of the two writers called the Jahvist and the Elohist, they do not find it easy to apportion that part of Numbers between the two authors. Indeed, the only point on which they are agreed is that chapter xxii belongs to the Elohist, with the exception of verses 22-35, which they assign to the Jahvist. This section contains the episode of the ass, and critics say that it destroys the sequence of the narrative. Thus in verse 20 Balaam gets leave from God to go with the princes of Moab; but in verse 22 God is angry with him, apparently because of his going. Though this apparent inconsistency has been variously explained by conservative commentators, critics argue from it and other similar instances, that the episode of the ass (verses 22-35) has been skilfully fitted into the rest of the chapter, but is really the work of another writer; and that the original narrative which is broken off at verse 20 continues at verse 36. Further proofs of dual authorship are often far from clear. Thus, there is said to be a duplication in xxii, 3: "And the Moabites were in great fear of him, and were not able to sustain his assault". Surely this is weak in the extreme. Does not the natural tendency of the Jewish writer to parallelisms sufficiently explain it?

The reference to historical events in Balaam's fourth prophecy leads most critical writers to fix the date of its composition not earlier than David's reign. David's Moabite war is said to be the war referred to in Numbers 24:17. But, putting aside the gift of prophecy, we know that writings of this kind, like the Psalms, are often retouched in ages later than that of their original composition. At most, therefore, it seems legitimate to conclude that this passage shows signs of having been expanded and re-edited at that period.


HUMMELAUER, Genesis (Paris, 1895); SAYCE, Early History of the Hebrews (London, 1897); WOODS in HAST., Dict. of the Bible (London, 1898); DRIVER, Genesis (London, 1904); RENAN, Histoire du peuple d'Israël (Paris, 1887);PALIS in VIG., Dict. de la Bible (Paris, 1893).

About this page

APA citation. Howlett, J. (1907). Balaam. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Howlett, James. "Balaam." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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