What Was the Sin of Balaam?
We discover hidden treasures when we search through the stories in the Bible. And today we will uncover such a treasure - a powerful truth - as we study the Old Testament story of the prophet, Balaam. Let’s see what we can learn from Balaam’s actions as told in Numbers 22-25, and 31:16.
Here and there throughout Scripture, the prophet Balaam’s name is mentioned. And never is his name mentioned in a favorable light! Usually when you read about Balaam in the Bible, it is along with a warning from God not to be like him. (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11, Revelations 2:14.)
For years I read the story of Balaam and wondered what he had done wrong. Or why there were warnings throughout Scripture to not fall into his sin. You can find Balaam’s story in Numbers 22-24. Scripture says that Balaam, a Midianite, had been given a powerful gift of prophecy from God. Balaam knew the true God, and God had shown him things of a spiritual nature that most of us cannot see. Also, God had given him visions of events that would happen in the far-off future. Balaam was even allowed to see a vision of Christ, the future Messiah and Redeemer. God had given him so much!
Balaam’s story takes place in the land of Moab - a small country just over the Jordan river from Israel. The year was around 1406 B.C. The Israelites had spent forty years in the wilderness and now they would be traveling right by Moab on their way to their promised land, the land of Israel. The people who lived in Moab – the Moabites- and their neighbors, the Midianites, were very nervous and afraid that the Israelites might try to take over their lands or hurt their people as they were traveling by.
So Balak, the king of Moab sent messengers to Balaam with this message: “A people have come out of Egypt: they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country. For I know that those you bless are blessed, and those you curse are cursed.” (Numbers 22:5-6) Balak, the king, promised to pay lots of money to Balaam if he would curse Israel for him.
Balaam told the king’s messengers that he did not have the power to curse the Israelites on his own. That his gift of prophecy was from God and he could not bless or curse them without God. Balaam asked the messengers to spend the night with him and he would pray to God and ask God if he could go back with them and curse the Israelites. God came to Balaam that night and spoke these words to him: “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people because they are blessed.” (Numbers 22:12) So, the next morning Balaam told the messengers to tell the king of Moab that the Lord had refused to let him go.
When the messengers got back to their king with Balaam’s message, the king was greatly distressed and sent more messengers back to Balaam promising to give him great power and a huge amount of money and gifts if he would curse the Israelites. Balaam really wanted the money and the power so he asked God one more time if he couldn’t go with these men. And God gave Balaam this answer, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you to do.” (Numbers 22:20)
The next morning Balaam saddled up his donkey and went with the king’s men on their journey. They planned to go up to the top of a Mount Pisgah where Balaam could have a good view of the Israelites camped below on the desert floor. And a better place for Balaam to send out curses over them. But all was not well. The Bible says: “But God was very angry when Balaam went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the road to stop him. (Numbers 22:22) Evidently Balaam couldn’t see the angel but his donkey could see him. Was God playing with Balaam?
Scripture goes on to say: “When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, she (the donkey) turned off the road into a field and Balaam beat his donkey to get her back on the road.” (Numbers 22;23) Have we, like Balaam, gone down a road that we knew God didn’t want us to go on? Two more times the angel of the Lord stood in Balaam’s way and frightened the donkey and two more times Balaam yelled at the donkey and beat her when she refused to keep on going. Finally, the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth and the donkey talked back and asked Balaam why he was beating her. And Balaam still didn’t stop and think that something was amiss!
Was the Lord trying to get Balaam to want His will and to turn around on his own? To do His will without God having to force him to obey? Did God want Balaam to put Him and His will first above the money and power that he would be given by Israel’s enemies? Does God ever want us to want what He wants, without Him having to interfere? Are we willing to follow God’s will when it isn’t popular or when it will cost us? Does God ever test us? Does He allow us to travel with those who are rebelling against Him, even if He wants us to stay true to Him?
Scripture says: “Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he finally saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So, he bowed low and fell facedown.” (Numbers 22:31) The angel of the Lord told Balaam that his path was a reckless one! But that if he wanted to go he should go on with the men. But he was warned by the angel to speak only what he was told to speak. Balaam went on with the king of Moab and his men, still perhaps hoping that he could send out curses and collect his reward.
When Balaam reached the mountain peaks he looked down over the Israelites camped all across the desert. He made sacrifices to God and raised his hands in the air starting to speak his curses, but these words came out of his mouth instead. “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5) He went on speaking – but with a long blessing for Israel as God put all the words in his mouth. Instead of the curses he wanted to give, God put only blessings in his mouth for Israel and would not allow him to curse them. The king of Moab was furious with Balaam for not helping him out. And Balaam went home disappointed that he couldn’t earn big money by using God’s gift of prophecy to gain fame and fortune for himself.
We read about Balaam again shortly after this. Several months later Balaam and his men invited a group of Jewish men to leave their tents and travel to a nearby Midianite religious service where the idol Baal was being worshipped. This Baal worship included wild orgies with human sacrifices, sex, liquor and pagan idol worship. Nude religious prostitutes would be dancing around their demon god while having sexual orgies with the drunken Jewish male guests. Many of the Jewish men were seduced by Balaam to reject the true God and take part worshipping these heathen gods and having sex with pagan prostitutes.
Jesus speaks to the Church in Pergamum warning them against Balaam’s sin. “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you. You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immoralities.” (Revelations 2:14) Also, in Numbers 31:16 it says: “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away for the Lord…”
Apparently, Balaam helped seduce these Jewish men in order to compromise Israel, the Israel God would not allow him to curse! Balaam, who had been given so much from the God, was now turning God’s very own people against Him! And whenever Balaam’s name is mentioned in Scripture there is a warning to stay away from his sin!
Are there Christian priests, ministers and leaders today who have great influence and power like Balaam did? Christian men and women who have been given special talents and gifts to be used in their churches? Can these Christians be tempted today to sin the sin of Balaam? To use God’s gifts and talents to curse their congregations with falsehoods instead of blessing them with the Truth? To seduce their church to worship other gods and bless sexual immorality like Balaam did? These religious leaders may gain popularity, influence and money by turning on God. But Balaam’s life should be a warning to them and to all of us!