Parallels: The Prophet Balaam

Numbers 22

A friend of mine, Justin, once followed a Bible In A Year reading plan. Such plans are excellent in helping readers familiarize themselves with the bible outside of the few popular stories we all know.

The plan also helps readers notice peculiarities in the biblical texts which would otherwise go unnoticed. Justin immediately noticed a thematic and verbal parallel between the stories of Ruth and Elisha: they both attached themselves to a mentor, who told them to 'go return'; Ruth and Elisha each refuse to 'return from following', objecting that they 'will not leave you'.

However, some of these peculiarities are more confusing than enlightening. Justin came to the famous story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22. In this passage, the Israelites are in the land of Moab. The Moabites are worried that the Israeites will be overrun by the Israeites. So, Moab sends for a famous prophet, Balaam, to come to them. Balaam rides on his donkey to Moab, who hire him to prophesy a curse over Israel.

Justin didn't make it very far into the story before he ran across this puzzle:

That night God came to Balaam and said to him, 'If the men have come to summon you, get up and go with them; but do only what I tell you to do.' So Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the officials of Moab. God's anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of Yahweh took his stand in the road as his adversary.
Numbers 22.20-22

See the problem? God tells Balaam to go to Moab, but is then enraged when Balaam goes to Moab. Why is God angry with Balaam for doing exactly what he told him to do?

If one expects the bible to be inerrant, without contradiction, then the answer to problems like this aren't always satisfying. However, sometimes the unsatisfying answer is still the correct one. In this case, we found a century-old article discussing this passage to be helpful: Julius A. Bewer. 'The Literary Problems of the Balaam Story in Numb., Chaps. 22-24'. The American Journal of Theology, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Apr., 1905), pp. 238-262.

I previously drew attention to the flood myth in Genesis 6-9, where two versions of the same story had been stitched together, with their contradictory details allowed to remain in the text. Here in the Book of Numbers we have a similar occurrence: two versions of the same story have been sewn together. The editors who united the two versions made a few editorial adjustments at the beginning of the story, after which they simply placed the parallel paragraphs one after the other.

In the one version, Moab is represented by its 'elders'. They send for Balaam to curse Israel. Without a word, Balaam promptly saddles his donkey and rides for Moab. In his desire to protect Israel, God is angered that Balaam, a prophet, would abuse his gift this way. So, God sends an angel to oppose Balaam. The donkey sees the angel when Balaam doesn't, Balaam gets angry at the donkey for swerving off the road, and the donkey miraculously talks back. The angel then reveals himself to Balaam, telling him he may go to Moab only if he prophesies what the angels tells him to.

In the other version, Moab is represented by King Balak. Balak sends for Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam first consults God, who tells Balaam not to go. Balaam rejects Balak's messengers. They return a second time to pressure Balaam. Balaam refuses to disobey the command he received from God. After this, God then permits Balaam to go, as long as he does not curse Israel. No angel, no donkey, no wrath of God in this version.

You can see the separated versions in parallel below.

Version A // Version B

Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. And Moab said to the elders of Midian, 'This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.' So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand; in the land of Ammon, [and came] to Balaam son of Beor, saying, 'A people has come out of Egypt; they have spread over the face of the earth, and they have settled next to me. Come now, curse this people for [us], since they are stronger than [us]; perhaps [we] shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land.'

So Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went. God's anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of Yahweh took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. The donkey saw the angel of Yahweh standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back on to the road. Then the angel of Yahweh stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. When the donkey saw the angel of Yahweh, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam's foot against the wall; so he struck it again.

Then the angel of Yahweh went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of Yahweh, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then Yahweh opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, 'What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?' Balaam said to the donkey, 'Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!' But the donkey said to Balaam, 'Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you in this way?' And he said, 'No.'

Then Yahweh opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of Yahweh standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. The angel of Yahweh said to him, 'Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely I would by now have killed you and let it live.' Then Balaam said to the angel of Yahweh, 'I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.' The angel of Yahweh said to Balaam, 'Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.'

Now Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were so numerous. Now Balak son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time. He sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor at Pethor, which is on the Euphrates, to summon him, saying, 'A people has come out of Egypt; they have spread over the face of the earth, and they have settled next to me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are stronger than I; perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land; for I know that whomsoever you bless is blessed, and whomsoever you curse is cursed.'

And they came to Balaam, and gave him Balak's message. He said to them, 'Stay here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, just as Yahweh speaks to me'; so the officials of Moab stayed with Balaam. God came to Balaam and said, 'Who are these men with you?' Balaam said to God, 'King Balak son of Zippor of Moab has sent me this message: "A people has come out of Egypt and has spread over the face of the earth; now come, curse them for me; perhaps I shall be able to fight against them and drive them out."' God said to Balaam, 'You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.' So Balaam rose in the morning, and said to the officials of Balak, 'Go to your own land, for Yahweh has refused to let me go with you.' So the officials of Moab rose and went to Balak, and said, 'Balaam refuses to come with us.'

Once again Balak sent officials, more numerous and more distinguished than these. They came to Balaam and said to him, 'Thus says Balak son of Zippor: "Do not let anything hinder you from coming to me; for I will surely do you great honour, and whatever you say to me I will do; come, curse this people for me."' But Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, 'Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of Yahweh my God, to do less or more. You remain here, as the others did, so that I may learn what more Yahweh may say to me.' That night God came to Balaam and said to him, 'If the men have come to summon you, get up and go with them; but do only what I tell you to do.'

When Balak heard that Balaam had come, he went out to meet him at Ir-moab, on the boundary formed by the Arnon, at the farthest point of the boundary. Balak said to Balaam, 'Did I not send to summon you? Why did you not come to me? Am I not able to honor you?' Balaam said to Balak, 'I have come to you now, but do I have power to say just anything? The word God puts in my mouth, that is what I must say.' Then Balaam went with Balak, and they came to Kiriath-huzoth. Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep, and sent them to Balaam and to the officials who were with him.

On the next day Balak took Balaam and brought him up to Bamoth-baal; and from there he could see part of the people of Israel.