Balaam is a fascinating character who shows up about two-thirds of the way through the book of Numbers (chapters 22-24). Out of context, his story seems strange, but if you’ve been following along in Numbers you’ve already come across God supplying Israel with a ridiculous amount of quail (11), people being swallowed up by the earth in Korah’s rebellion (16), Moses striking the rock and water coming out of it (20), and people bitten by snakes being healed by looking at a bronze snake on a pole. So when we’re told Balaam’s story, it’s just the next-in-line of unusual things happening to Israel on their way to the promised land.
To recap the story, Balak, the king of Moab, is “terrified” when the nation of Israel shows up on their way to the land of Canaan. He doesn’t have the numbers to militarily oppose them, so he decides to implement Plan B—hiring a spiritual mercenary—a man named Balaam. Consulting an oracle, medium or diviner to get the blessing of the gods was a common practice of the times. But Balak is asking more of Balaam than that—he wants Balaam to curse Israel (22:6).
It’s obvious from the story that Balaam’s reputation precedes him. He’s not local, Balak’s men travel all the way to the Euphrates to enlist his help. In 1967, in Deir Alla, Jordan, archaeologists discovered an inscription on the wall of a multi-chambered structure that had been buried by an earthquake during the Persian period. The inscription speaks of a prophet named Balaam, son of Beor. That’s not surprising. Balaam is spoken of in Scripture, so he’s a historical person. What is more fascinating is that the writing is dated a few hundred years after the time of Balaam. If someone is writing about you a few hundred years after you’re gone, then you must have been something.
And yet for all of that, Balaam cannot deliver what the king of Moab so desperately wants—he is unable to curse Israel. He tries time and time again, but God tells him that Israel’s future is one of blessing. Despite Balaam’s international reputation for being able to bless or curse, only God can control that. (Balaam, as it turns out, can’t even control his donkey). And in accordance with His promise to Abraham, God is going to bless His people so they will in turn bless the world (Genesis 12:3).
God has Moses write all this down so that when Israel enters Canaan replete with its own oracles, mediums and diviners (Deuteronomy 18:9ff), the nation will know there is no need to be intrigued, enchanted or engaged with them. There is no God but Yahweh. And in a society where our cultural prophets (celebrities, actors, athletes, etc.) point us to crystals, following the moon, or the movement of the planets and stars, we would do well to reject their advice and keep our trust in the One who created all of these.