Canonical and Extracanonical Portraits of Balaam -- By: Charles H. Savelle

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 166:664 (Oct 2009)
Article: Canonical and Extracanonical Portraits of Balaam
Author: Charles H. Savelle


Canonical and Extracanonical Portraits of Balaam

Charles H. Savelle

Charles H. Savelle is Adjunct Professor of Old Testament, Criswell College, Dallas, Texas.

Balaam is one of the most enigmatic characters in the Scriptures. His personal background is sketchy, and his spiritual status is ambiguous. Scholars debate whether he was a true or false prophet, a diviner or sorcerer.1 Was he a sinner or a saint?2 As Kaiser asks, “Was he a saint or soothsayer?”3 While these questions are worthy of examination, the focus of this article is more limited. Its goal is to ascertain how the New Testament portrait of Balaam fits with the references to him in five Old Testament books and in several extracanonical texts.4

An Overview of Balaam in the Old Testament

At times in the Old Testament Balaam is presented in a positive light. Other times he appears in a profoundly negative light.

Balaam in Numbers 22-24

The first references to Balaam and his oracles5 are in Numbers 22-24. These chapters include seven oracles with intervening narratives. Balak, king of Moab, hired a non-Israelite prophet named Balaam to curse6 Israel in an effort to prevent Israel’s conquest of Canaan. But God prevented Balaam from cursing Israel. At this point Balaam comes across as commendable. He is portrayed as a well-known prophet worthy of hire.7 He sought the will of God (22:8, 19, 35; 23:3, 14; 24:13), obeyed it (22:13, 18, 21, 38; 23:12, 26), acknowledged when he had sinned (22:34), and prophesied by the Spirit of God (24:2). As Mobe...

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