The Old Testament does not, at first, tell us what Balaam’s sin is. To find his sin defined we have to look at a few other scriptures. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s look at what the Old Testament actually tells us about Balaam.

The Backstory

I do not know what kind of prophet Balaam was, because he did not appear to know much about the children of Israel, except what God told him to say about them. When Balak, the King of Moab saw the Israelites move in next door and wipe out all of his neighbors, he was afraid. He knew he could not stand against them, so he sought out Balaam, a diviner. He sent nobles from Moab and Midian to impress Balaam with the “rewards of divination” (Numbers 22:7) and promises of wealth if he would do Balak a small favor.

Balak knew that whomever Balaam blessed was blessed, and whomever he cursed was cursed. If he could get Balaam to curse the Israelites then perhaps it would weaken them enough that he would be able to fight them and win. Everything depended on getting that curse to work. Balaam received them into his home and invited them to spend the night. During the night the Lord told Balaam that he was not to return with the envoys of the king, and that he certainly was not to curse the Israelites, because the Lord said “they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12).

When Balak found out that Balaam had blessed Israel, instead of cursed them, he sent more nobles, and of higher rank, to entreat Balaam with even greater promises of wealth and power. This time, in answer to Balak’s request to curse Israel, Balaam’s response is:

“If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more.”

According to the Sunday School Manual, the Lord told Balaam (in the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible) that if he were to go with them, which evidently the Lord advised him not to do, Balaam was not to say any more or less than he was told to say. In the Bible it only says that God gave Balaam permission to return with the men, but then was angry with him for doing so. Evidently something is missing in the Bible account.

Balaam heads off with two servants to speak with Balak and deliver the word of the Lord to him. While riding on his ass, an angry angel, with a drawn sword stands in his way. Balaam cannot see the angel, but his ass can and turns aside into a field, refusing to go any closer to the angel. Balaam beats his ass and drives him forward. Again the angel bars the way, this time in a more narrow passage, causing the ass to crush Balaam’s foot against a wall in his effort to sidestep the angel. Again he gets a good beating from his master.

Finally, the angel traps the poor beast in a place too narrow for him to find any way out and the ass collapses underneath Balaam. This results in yet another beating, this time with his staff. The Lord opened the mouth of the ass so Balaam could understand him. He asked Balaam why he kept hitting him. Balaam said it was because the ass kept mocking him, and if he could he would kill him. It was then that the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes so he could see the angel in the road.

The lesson the angel tried to teach Balaam was this: if it had not been for the wisdom of your animal you would have been dead by now. Your animal was smart enough to get out of the way of my sword. But you are perverse or stiffnecked and insist on your course of action. Balaam said he was willing to turn back if that is what God wanted him to do, but the angel let him go forward with the added warning that he was to say and do only what he was told to say and do by God.

Three more times Balaam offered sacrifices and then blessed Israel, instead of cursed them. The last time Balaam had the most powerful manifestation of all, a waking vision. With his eyes wide open he saw the destiny of Israel, and he then prophesied of the coming of Christ. This is how the story of Balaam ends in the Old Testament, with Balaam apparently acting the faithful servant, and Balak going back home with his tail between his legs in defeat.

So why then does Numbers 31:8 state that among all the Midianites they slew Balaam? It sounds like his death was ordered by Moses. In 2 Peter 2:15-16 we are told that Balaam loved the “wages of unrighteousness.” In Jude 1:11 we are told that the people corrupted themselves and “ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward.” The clear explanation of Balaam’s sin is found in Revelation 2:14.

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.

In the Old Testament we are told only that Balaam ultimately fulfilled his errand from the Lord and told Balak what the Lord wanted said. It is from reading these other verses that we discover that Balaam actually betrayed the Lord and since the Lord would not curse Israel, Balaam told Balak how Balak could corrupt Israel, thus cancelling God’s protection on them and weakening them as a nation. Two of Israel’s greatest weaknesses were turning to false gods and committing fornication.

The 25th chapter of Numbers is all about a plague brought upon Israel because of the Midionites. This is the mischief caused by Balaam and Balak. They got the children of Israel to commit whoredoms with the daughters of Moab. The plague this brought about lead ultimately to the death of twenty four thousand people (Numbers 25:9). We read in Numbers 31:16 that it was because of the counsel Balaam gave Balak that the Israelites fell into sin.

Matthew 6:24 says,

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

Balaam’s Sin Defined

Here are some lessons we can learn from the account of Balaam.

1.  When we are given direction from the Lord not to do something, it is not in our best interests to insist on doing it anyway. The Lord must have told Balaam He was not happy about the idea of him going with Balak’s servants, but Balaam went anyway. This angered the Lord so much He was willing to have an angel kill Balaam rather than let him go through with whatever sin was in his heart. It was his professed repentance to the angel that saved his life. But he still went forward with his plans, and ultimately fell into temptation because of it.

2.  When Balak had received two witnesses of how the Lord felt about Israel, Balaam could have insisted that Balak had the Lord’s word, and enough was enough. Instead, he allowed Balak to continue to tempt him in place after place, hoping the Lord would change His mind. How often do we continue to push the Lord for a different answer when we have already been told what is right? What good can ever come of this practice? When we are already greatly tempted by something, yet we continue to hang around the temptation, what do we expect to happen, except that we will eventually give in?

3.  Balaam, in his quest to satisfy his desire for worldly reward, did not dare curse Israel, but instead decided to teach the enemies of the Lord’s people their weaknesses. He taught Balak how to corrupt the Lord’s people so the Lord would withdraw His blessings of protection. Technically this is not cursing the people, but it is the next closest thing. Though outwardly he was the Lord’s servant, inwardly he was Satan’s emissary.

Our loyalties will move us into either the Lord’s camp or Satan’s camp. We cannot linger very long with a foot in both camps. Sooner or later we will choose to forsake one and embrace the other. We should each be asking these questions: “Is there anything in my life that shows I am living the “doctrine of Balaam?” Am I trying to serve both masters? Am I seeking counsel from the Lord and then wholeheartedly living that counsel?

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Avoiding Balaam’s Sin

OT Week 16