If you have ever scanned through Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Asia in Rv 2-3, you may have come across these confusing words spoken to the Church in Pergamum in Rv 2:14;
“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 immorality.“
Who are these characters Balaam and Balak? These historical figures did not exist at the time of Revelation’s writing, but actually lived around 1500 years prior. Let’s take a look at their story in Numbers.
Who were Balak and Balaam?
In Numbers 22, we see that Balak is the son of Zippor, the king over the gentile nation of Moab.
At this point in time, the Israelites had fled slavery in Egypt and moved through many territories in their journey through the desert to reach the Promised Land. All the while, totally defeating the foreign gentiles that lived in these territories along the way. In this chapter, they had just camped in the plains of Moabs after defeating the King Sihon of the Amorites and King Og of Bashan in Numbers 21.
Balak and the Moabites, reasonably so, are terrified of these Hebrews. As any responsible prince would do, Balak sends messengers to a sorcerer, Balaam, to place a curse on these threatening people of Israel. Interestingly, although Balaam is a gentile sorcerer, he speaks with the God of Israel.
Balaam’s Talking Donkey
God comes to Balaam to tell him not put a curse on the Israelites, and so at first Balaam dismisses Balak’s request. However Balak persists, and God allows Balaam to go with them, but instructs Balaam to only do what He tells him.
When Balaam is on his way to Moab, an angel with a sword blocks the road. Balaam’s trusty steed, a donkey, can see the angel and continuously moves off the road. However, Balaam cannot see this holy roadblock and beats his donkey three times in confusion and frustration. Finally the Lord saves the poor donkey from animal abuse and opens her mouth to rebuke her owner! After that, God opens Balaam’s eyes to see the angel, who reminds Balaam once again to go with the Balak’s men but only do what God says.
Balaam’s Failed Curses
When Balam and Balak meet, Balaam utters five oracles from God, however, each time instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them instead. The oracles praise Israel and its people, prophesies of a heroic ruler and the destruction of Israel’s enemies. While Balak gets angrier each time Balaam blesses the people, Balaam reminds him that he can only do what the Lord tells him. After that each of the men went their separate ways.
The Enticing Moabite Women
It seems like Balaam kept his word to God, and did the right thing in a tough situation. And the Israelites looked as though set up for success in their next campaign against Moab. But for some reason, the events turned south.
In Numbers 25, we see that the Israeli men started engaging in relations with the Moabite women, who also goaded them into worshipping and sacrificing to their Moabite gods. Again, the Israelites broke the First Commandment of the Ten; “do not worship other gods before me.” The worst offense occurred when an Israelite man brought a Midianite woman home to his family while the whole assembly was weeping because of this very situation. Imagine how that ‘first time meeting the parents’ went.
However, did this sexual immorality between the Moabite and Midianite women and Israeli men simply result from the irrationality of star-crossed lovers…the origin of the age-old Romeo and Juliet arc? No. It was all according to a plan.
Balaam’s Plot against Israel
After the Israelites reconciled with God once again, God told them to take vengeance on the Midianites. One may read with surprise that, in Num 31:8, Balaam was killed along with Midianites five kings. What happened?
As we read on, we see that God asks why the Midianite women were spared, when they followed Balaam’s advice to turn the Israelites away from Him. Thus we can conclude that while Balaam at first blessed the Israelites, he ultimately taught Balak the way to curse the Israelites, as mentioned in our first reference, Rv 2:14; to have the women seduce the Israelite men.
As such, before praising the name of Balaam and naming your next child after him, an important takeaway from this story is to always understand the context of the Bible, and to read the whole story. Would we have came to the conclusion that Balaam, in fact, was a man who opposed God instead of obeyed Him? Not if we fell asleep from Numbers 26-30, which recorded the account of the census and a repetition of the laws.
A question still remains; why would Jesus warn the early Christian church of Pergamum, established a millennia and a half later, about the teachings of Balaam, a man long dead? We must conclude that there is a deeper meaning in this letter than meets the eye, and in all the seven letters to all these seven churches in Rv 2-3 as well. Together let’s pray for God’s will in our lives to reveal to us the true understanding of Revelation, the promise that has been left to believers today.