Balaam: Wizard or Prophet?

Numbers 22-24 contains a very interesting part of Israel’s history right before they entered the Promised Land.  In these chapters, we learn about Balaam and his talking donkey (she-ass).  Opinions about Balaam vary; some say he was God’s prophet who stumbled, others say he was a wizard or seer of some sort.  Which is it?  I appreciate Keil and Delitzsch’s (K&D) perspective:

This double-sidedness and ambiguity of the religious and prophetic character of Balaam may be explained on the supposition that, being endowed with a predisposition to divination and prophecy, he practised soothsaying and divination as a trade; and for the purpose of bringing this art to the greatest possible perfection, brought not only the traditions of the different nations, but all the phenomena of his own times, within the range of his observations. In this way he may have derived the first elements of the true knowledge of God from different echoes of the tradition of the primeval age, which was then not quite extinct, and may possibly have heard in his own native land some notes of the patriarchal revelations out of the home of the tribe-fathers of Israel.

K&D go on to say that Balaam had also heard about Yahweh from Israel’s overwhelming defeat of Sihon and Og, which happened right before Balak asked Balaam to curse Israel.  K&D continue:

[Through knowing this about Israel and Yahweh], Balaam was no doubt induced not only to procure more exact information concerning the events themselves, that he might make a profitable use of it in connection with his own occupation, but also to dedicate himself to the service of Jehovah, “in the hope of being able to participate in the new powers conferred upon the human race; so that henceforth he called Jehovah his God, and appeared as a prophet in His name” (Hengstenberg). In this respect Balaam resembles the Jewish exorcists, who cast out demons in the name of Jesus without following Christ (Mark 9:38, 39; Luke 9:49), but more especially Simon Magus, his “New Testament antitype,” who was also so powerfully attracted by the new divine powers of Christianity that he became a believer, and submitted to baptism, because he saw the signs and great miracles that were done (Acts 8:13).

And from the very time when Balaam sought Jehovah, the fame of his prophetical art appears to have spread. It was no doubt the report that he stood in close connection with the God of Israel, which induced Balak, according to Num. 22:6, to hire him to oppose the Israelites; as the heathen king shared the belief, which was common to all the heathen, that Balaam was able to work upon the God he served, and to determine and regulate His will. God had probably given to the soothsayer a few isolated but memorable glimpses of the unseen, to prepare him for the service of His kingdom. But “Balaam’s heart was not right with God,” and “he loved the wages of unrighteousness” (Acts 8:21; 2 Pet. 2:15). His thirst for honor and wealth was not so overcome by the revelations of the true God, that he could bring himself to give up his soothsaying, and serve the living God with an undivided heart.

Thus it came to pass, that through the appeal addressed to him by Balak, he was brought into a situation in which, although he did not venture to attempt anything in opposition to the will of Jehovah, his heart was never thoroughly changed; so that, whilst he refused the honours and rewards that were promised him by Balak, and pronounced blessings upon Israel in the strength of the Spirit of God that came upon him, he was overcome immediately afterwards by the might of the sin of his own unbroken heart, fell back into the old heathen spirit, and advised the Midianites to entice the Israelites to join in the licentious worship of Baal Peor (Num. 31:16), and was eventually put to death by the Israelites when they conquered these their foes (Num. 31:8).  Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 761–762.

In my view, this is a helpful perspective on Balaam; to compare him to the NT Jewish exorcists or Simon Magus makes a lot of sense.  This story also shows the sovereignty of God in using people like Balaam to accomplish His good purposes for His people.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI