The Angel and the Ass

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Avatar-BiVOT SS Lesson #16

The story of Balak and Balaam is a study in the marvelous complexity and richness of Biblical literature.  The pericope includes five narrative sections, four poetic prophecies, and a fable (the tale of the angel and the ass).  It also includes commentaries found elsewhere in the scriptures.

When teaching this lesson in the past, I have started with the narrative sections, which contain the foundation of the story.  The first narrative, found in Numbers 22:1-21, tells of Balak, king of Moab, who becomes distressed because the Israelites have come out of Egypt in a mighty company and he is afraid of their military strength.  He wishes to drive them out of the land, so he seeks out and offers a reward to Balaam, a prophet, if he will lay a curse upon Israel.  Balaam first refuses, but then agrees to prophesy, warning Balak that he will only speak the words that Jehovah gives him to say.  It has been pointed out that very few people in the Bible are as confusing and contradicting as Balaam. As a result there are many views concerning him; was Balaam a true believer in God, a false, pagan prophet, or a back-slidden believer who succumbed to the temptations of life?  This first narrative yields a clue — Balaam refers to the Lord as “Jehovah my God.”  The fact that he uses the tetragrammaton here tells me that although Balaam is a non-Israelite from Pethor, he is intimately familiar with the Hebrew God.  This God speaks to him many times throughout the story.

Those of you who know your BiV will remember how impressed I am by a man who can quote scripture or recite poetry. So it won’t surprise you that I am head-over-heels in love with Balaam when he does both by the end of Chapter 23.  After the second narrative section, Numbers 22:36-23:6, in which Balaam builds seven altars [1] and offers sacrifice in the mountains overlooking the camp of Israel, God speaks to the prophet in the first of four of the most lovely examples of Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament.  Biblical Hebrew scholars will know what I mean, but for the rest, I have translated these prophecies into a poetic form English speakers will recognize. [2]

Balak, the king of Moab from the mountains of the East
Hath brought me from my country to perform a shameful deed:
Come and curse this Jacob, come hinder Israel.
But how shall I rebuke those upon whom God’s mercies dwell?
How can I smite the nation that Jehovah keepeth well?
From high atop the rocky cliff, I see this mighty fold,
From the hills above this place, their army I behold.
A people who shall stand apart and always live alone;
Among the nations’ reckoning, they scarcely shall be known.
But yet the dust of Jacob shall soon be too vast to count;
The tribes of Israel shall be in numbers that will mount.
O may my death be likewise, my rest an endless fount! (Numbers 23:7-10)

In the third narrative, Numbers 23:11-17, King Balak remonstrates with Balaam for blessing, rather than cursing Israel.  He takes the prophet to a smaller hill, where the view of the encroaching army is not so large or terrifying.  There Balaam again builds seven altars and offers sacrifice.  The prophecy comes as follows:

Arise, Balak, and listen; hear now, O Zippor’s son:
God is no man, no liar he, no human who must run.
What he hath spoken he’ll make good, his sayings shall be done;
He bids me bless, and once I bless, constrained, I call back none.
There is no sin in Jacob, no fault in Israel;
Jehovah God is with him, shouting for this King as well.

God brought them out of Egypt’s pox,
Like the lofty horns of a wild ox.
Jacob scorns the enchanter’s pow’r;
To Israel the diviners cower.

Behold this mighty people who now rise up as a lion
And eat the prey and drink the blood — What God hath wrought in Zion! (Numbers 23:18-24)

As expected, Balak is none too pleased with the second prophecy.  But he tries one more time to use Balaam’s power to his advantage.  This is not surprising, for there is evidence from outside the Bible record that Balaam was a well-known seer; a cursing prophet living in the environs of Deir Alla, Jordan. [3] In this fourth narrative, Numbers 23:2524:2, Balaam is taken to an even less advantageous vantage point.  Altars are once again built, and sacrifices offered.  But this time, Balaam approaches God in a more humble spirit.  He goes, seeking not “nechashim” (translated in our KJV Bibles as “enchantments”).  We have encountered this word before — just a chapter before Balaam’s story begins. Nechashim are the serpents which afflicted the children of Israel in the wilderness, a brazen one of which Moses lifted up on a pole to symbolize the Savior.  These serpents are described as “seraphim,” translated variously as “fiery,” “poisonous,” or “enchanter.”  I like to interpret them as being symbolic of false gods, with Moses’ brazen serpent standing for the true Messiah. [4] This would mean that Balaam is turning from any false system of thought that might remain in his beliefs after communing with Jehovah, and striving for the truth.  And the word of the Lord comes to him again:

How goodly, Jacob, are thy tents,
And Israel’s dwellings, tribe by tribe:
As aloes green, as valleys wide,
As gardens by the riverside,
As cedars near the stream abide.

Water from thy branch shall flow,
Thy seed in many waters go;
Thy king be highest, and the best,
Thy kingdom ris’n above the rest!

God brought thee forth from Egypt’s scorn,
Just as the wild ox’s horn
To eat the nations, break their bones
And pierce them through with arrows honed.

Thou shalt couch down as a lioness,
And bless all those who call thee blessed,
And curse all those who fail the test. (Numbers 24:3-9)

A cursing at last!  But not upon Israel, rather, her enemies.  Following this prophecy, the narrative tells us (Numbers 24:10-14), Balak is furious.

“I was going to promote you to great honor,” he tells Balaam.  “But now, forget it!”

Balak replies by making it abundantly clear that though the king might offer him a house full of silver and gold, he cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord. And then he gives a final prophecy, for good measure, one he says concerns the latter days. This one turns out to be Messianic. Fifteen hundred years later, seers from the East will take these words seriously and use them to find a babe in an obscure location in Israel:

Balaam, the son of Beor am I —
I hear the words of the Most High,
I see his vision with mine eye,
Yea, I behold him, but not nigh.

A star from Jacob in the skies
From Israel, a scepter rise;
Smiting Moab’s corners ’round
And breaking Seth’s descendants down.

Edom, too, shall be possessed,
Seir, the adversaries, pressed —
Israel doeth this with zest.

From Jacob, One will have the rule,
And shall destroy the remnant cruel.
Amalek was first of all,
But in the end the great shall fall.

And Cain, though firm from every knock,
A nested one upon a rock
Nonetheless shall wasted be,
When Assyria comes for thee.

God appoints this: do not boast.
Ships shall sail from Kittim’s coast,
Afflict Assyria by ploy,
And Eber also shall destroy. (Numbers 24:15-24)

Now, you Sunday School teachers will have noticed that what I have written above gives a different interpretation than our Lesson Manual.  I find it curious that the indications we have that Balaam was not a completely righteous prophet come from later scriptures, namely the following:

  • Num 31:8: Moses’ warriors slew Balaam
  • Num 31:16: Balaam counseled the Midianites how to cause the Israelites to commit sin.
  • Deut 23:3-6: The Lord turned Balaam’s curse into a blessing
  • Josh 13:22: The Israelites slew Balaam, who was a soothsayer
  • 2 Peter 2:15-16: Balaam loved unrighteousness, was rebuked for his sin when his ass forbad his madness.
  • Jude 1:11: Woe unto those who run greedily after the error of Balaam for reward
  • Rev 2:14: Balaam taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.

There are additional passages which mention Balaam, but not in a condemnatory manner.  This leaves open the possibility that the Balaam pericope was initially quite positive.  Later attitudes toward toward Balaam may have changed when Israelite misfortunes at the hands of neighboring nations, with whom Balaam was identified, brought him into disrepute.

And NOW it is time to discuss the story of the angel and the ass.  (Did you think I’d forgotten?)

Many Biblical scholars conclude that the Tale of Balaam’s Ass is a distinct literary entity which derives from a separate source.  This fable is an adaptation of an originally independent folktale in a mode similar to ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature.  The Tale reflects the late, hostile evaluation of Balaam common to other Biblical passages. [5] As I read Numbers 22:21-35, it seems quite clear that this fable has a different purpose than the rest of the scripture block.  There is a sudden switch, from verse 20, where God tells Balaam to go with Balak’s men, to verse 22, when without explanation God’s anger is kindled against the prophet for taking the journey.  The story of an angel trying to prevent Balaam from proceeding seems extraneous to the story as a whole, whereas the speaking donkey lends a comical and fantastical air to what otherwise is a sober and spiritual message.

The student of the Bible must decide how the fable and the later Biblical verses referencing Balaam fit in with the primary passages.  Were these parts added as Balaam became associated with surrounding hostile nations?  Is this a more likely explanation than more conservative, traditional views that Balaam’s allegiances changed, or that found in the OT SS Manual that Balaam’s greed for wealth and lust for honor swayed him from his determined course?

As you have studied this prophet and poet, do you concur with Bruce R. McConkie, as quoted in our manual, that “Balaam, … inspired and mighty as he once was, lost his soul in the end because he set his heart on the things of this world rather than the riches of eternity”?

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[1] Look up the symbolism of the Hebrew number seven!

[2] Hebrew poetry doesn’t use rhyme, but uses other techniques readily recognizable as poetry, such as parallelism. Here I have used meter and rhyme to render the Hebrew poetry into English.

[3] In 1967 an ancient Aramaic text was found in Deir Alla, Jordan, dating to the time of the Biblical Balaam. The text begins with the title “Warnings from the Book of Balaam the son of Beor. He was a seer of the gods.” Much of the document describes curses uttered by this prophet.

[4] The Hebrew word “nachash” is used as an adjective (bright, brazen) and as a noun (serpent, hiss, enchantment) I also like to think of the “nachash” in the Garden of Eden as a wordplay using all the meanings in the semantic range of this word: an enchanter, deceiver, or false god, who was shining or serpentine in appearance.

[5] see Jonathan D. Safren, “Balaam and Abraham,” in Vestus Testamentum XXXVIII, 1, 1988.

Comments

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Comments 18

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  2. Thanks for the link BiV! This story of Balaam is quite an interesting story to me. My post is rather long, so I’ll give you my conclusions here.

    The student of the Bible must decide how the fable and the later Biblical verses referencing Balaam fit in with the primary passages. Were these parts added as Balaam became associated with surrounding hostile nations? Is this a more likely explanation than more conservative, traditional views that Balaam’s allegiances changed, or that found in the OT SS Manual that Balaam’s greed for wealth and lust for honor swayed him from his determined course?

    On my blog, I think I lay out a pretty good case that Balaam was never a prophet. This whole idea that he built altars to sacrifice to Baal seems to disqualify him as a prophet, IMO. Add the fact that Moses was alive during this time of Balaam, and Balaam was more sympathetic to Balak and the heathen god Baal, it seems to me that one can make no other conclusion than Balaam was not a true prophet. I will also note that these idolatrous city-states believed in a pantheon of gods, so Jehovah could have been part of the pantheon with Baal (and probably was in the pantheon of gods.) In these days of polytheism, Balaam could have been paying homage to Jehovah, the god of Israel simply because Moses was winning the war. By the mindset of these early Midianites, Moabites, etc, if your army beats my army, then your god is the true god over my god–at least on teh day of battle. Tomorrow, my god might team up with other gods and beat your god. So, polytheistic gods were powerful, but not all-powerful. Balaam probably did lust for money, but in his polytheistic world, this was probably an acceptable character trait of a polytheistic prophet. It certainly seems to be a serious character flaw in a monotheistic Judeo-Christian prophet.

    As you have studied this prophet and poet, do you concur with Bruce R. McConkie, as quoted in our manual, that “Balaam, … inspired and mighty as he once was, lost his soul in the end because he set his heart on the things of this world rather than the riches of eternity”?

    No, I do not concur–I think McConkie’s interpretation does not truly grasp the culture of polytheistic Palestine prior to Moses and Joshua. Balaam lost his soul because he was a polytheist. Setting his heart on riches is a much less important character flaw than polytheism and idolatry. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is the first of the 10 commandments, and if Balaam was a prophet, he was pretty lousy at breaking that commandment as he prepared sacrifice on the altars of Baal. The fact that he blessed Israel on the altars of Baal is a curious development, and an interesting story.

    BiV, I’m not sure where you stand on the position of whether this story is a fable or not. I guess we can’t prove it one way or the other–I do find the talking donkey a bit curious, and probably an embellishment. The archaeological finding of the story of Balaam to 760 BC in Deir Alla does not fully date to the time of Moses, but it is pretty ancient. Whether Balaam’s donkey talked will never be known, but I think there could be some circumstantial evidence supporting the idea that a man named Balaam could have lived, and parts of the story could be legit. Since the temple dates to 760 BC, it seems that this story is quite old, and had been passed down for a considerable time before it was recorded on the temple walls.

  3. Thanks for this!! Last Sunday I was visiting my sister’s ward in Utah, and was looking forward to attending GD–I’ve been in a Primary Pres for the last couple years–and all I got was just one Shrek joke/impersonation after another from the teacher. After about the fourth I was ready to go back to the Primary room until RS.

  4. MH: I think it is a common mistake for LDS to conflate or to confuse Biblical prophets with prophets that lead the modern Church. There is quite a difference between the two. A modern-day prophet is not necessarily known for his prophecies or ability to produce scripture, though he is said to have this capability. He seems to function more as a leader and head of the corporate entity that is the Church. There is also only one on the earth at a time who has the right to exercise all priesthood keys. In OT times, a prophet wasn’t necessarily the leader of the main group of the covenant people, although he could be. An OT prophet was defined more by his or her ability to declare God’s word, and (maybe due to lack of easy communication among the peoples of the world?) there may have been several prophets who functioned during the same time period. Thus you have Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Lehi, for example, all “prophets” at the same time among different groups of people. So the fact that Moses was alive during the time of Balaam’s prophetic activity does not disqualify him from consideration.

    The question of whether Balaam was a “true” prophet is a difficult one. However, one only need look at his prophecies, which were given to him by Jehovah God and centered around Israel and the coming of the Messiah, to see that these utterances fit definitively into the category of Biblical prophecy. Thus I feel very comfortable assigning Balaam this title. Bruce R. McConkie and other LDS Church leaders have been comfortable calling him a prophet as well, though they see him as a fallen one.

    My reading of Numbers 23-24 leads me to the conclusion that the sacrifices prepared by Balaam were offered to Jehovah. These were NOT offered “on the altars of Baal,” in fact, the scripture specifically notes that the altars were built under the direction of Balaam. They were done in the Israelite manner, sacrificing a bullock and a ram on each of seven altars. Balaam performed these sacrifices fully expecting that JEHOVAH would come to meet him (Num 23:3-4, 15) which he then did! I have read the comments on your blog post and fail to see any evidence offered for your assumption that these sacrifices were made to a god other than Jehovah.

    I think there are many reasons to believe that Balaam was an actual historical character. As I have shown in my post, however, it is likely that the story of the angel and the ass is a fable and a later addition, as well as New Testament views that Balaam was connected with the sins of the children of Israel.

  5. The key in the OT story, imo, is the assertion that he suggested a way to weaken Israel morally so they could be defeated once their God stopped supporting them – although, “If you can’t beat them, draw them away from the source of their strength” is a great miliatary strategy.

    I realize that might be an insertion by a later editor, but I think it’s the real measure of whether or not he was a fallen prophet.

  6. One of the weirdest stories in the OT and certainly one of the only times a animal spoke to man. No Shrek jokes but I did reference Mr Ed! Also seemed out of place in the narrative of the People of Israel journey.

    The only real reference to Balaam (pronounced Bilaam in Hebrew, not sure where the “Balaam” came from) as a Prophet is the fact that he talks to God. He didn’t want to curse the Israelites outright but rather helped them to condemn themselves. I thought that was also the point of the fragility of the relationship of God (Jehovah) with the Israelites. That they seemed or at least some seemed to be willing to revert to idol worship at the drop of the hat. Apparently, the Golden Calf incident had no lasting effect on them.

    I am willing to accept the McConkie explanation but I don’t dispute what MH had to say about Bilaam either.

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    He didn’t want to curse the Israelites outright but rather helped them to condemn themselves.

    Jeff, that’s an interesting way to put it — it goes along with Rev 2:14 and with what Ray says, but rather flies in the face of the prophecies Balaam contributed to the scriptural canon, wouldn’t you say?

    …his [Israel’s] kingdom shall be exalted. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows. He couched, he lay down as a alion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee.

  8. BiV, you have a valid point that we modern LDS “conflate or confuse Biblical prophets with prophets that lead the modern Church.” Certainly Biblical prophets all operated in a much different mode that the LDS concept of a prophet today. But I think it is very fair to compare Moses with Balaam because they were contemporaries, much in the same way we can compare Pres Hinckley and Pres Benson, who were prophets and contemporaries as well.

    As I have studied the Old Testament, it is apparent to me that monotheism was the exception, rather than the rule. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Canaanites, Midianites, Moabites, etc were all polytheistic. Balak was certainly polytheistic, and ancient Canaanites worshiped not only Jehovah, but Baal, Molech, and Asherah simultaneously. The first commandment “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” was #1 precisely because there were so many gods. As I understand it, Balaam did believe in a god called Jehovah, along with Baal and Asherah too. The revolution of Judaism was essentially to subordinate these “lesser” gods of Baal, Molech and company. This culture of polytheism also explains why idolatry was so difficult for ancient Israelites to overcome (even Aaron created a golden calf.) There are many Canaanite (non-Jewish) inscriptions paying homage to both Jehovah and Asherah. (I believe that Daniel Peterson may have made a reference to the holy family of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Mother–aka Holy Ghost. I think this is an exciting idea, but I don’t want to derail the topic–perhaps a topic for a future post…) I can’t see how Balaam was any different than the predominant polytheistic culture of his day. Moses was the revolutionary for proclaiming monotheism as superior to polytheism. Contrasting Moses with Balaam is a sharp contrast, and I think Balaam fails miserably in a bid to be even a fallen prophet. I don’t believe Balaam was a fallen prophet, because he never achieved exalted prophetic status. He’s more of a diviner like Jeanne Dixon.

    I’m not surprised that Balaam saw the handwriting on the wall that Israel was so strong. In the previous chapter, Moses and company had just wiped out the “land from Arnon unto Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon: for the border of the children of Ammon [was] strong. ” (Num 21:24.) While I can understand why the Israelites liked the idea that Jehovah, the God of Israel was essentially being praised by Balaam, Balaam was most certainly a polytheist. To me that is a major character flaw that says Balaam is not a prophet. I think the modern day equivalent would be calling Jeanne Dixon a prophet because she correctly prophesied of the Kennedy assassination. I can’t see anyone calling Dixon a prophet, and I don’t see much of a difference between her and Balaam’s prophetic abilities.

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    MH: You continue to make strong statements, all based completely on supposition. All I ask is that you present me with your scriptural evidence that Balaam was polytheist. We read that he hails from Pethor, and if later Biblical statements are to be believed, he sinned by counseling the Midianites and Moabites how they might tempt the Israelites. However, I simply cannot find any scriptural support for your conclusion that Balaam worshipped any God other than Jehovah. To the contrary, he refers to Jehovah as “my God,” he offers sacrifice in the Israelite manner, the One God speaks to him and through him blesses Israel in a prophetic way, and he prophesies of the Hebrew Messiah.

    I can’t argue much with the conclusion that Balaam sinned or was a fallen prophet — though it is not my opinion, there is scriptural support for this conclusion. You might also be able to make a case for Balaam being a “diviner” instead of a prophet. But not by asserting that he was a polytheist. This conclusion just is not warranted unless you can show me some evidence that I have missed.

  10. BiV,

    “but rather flies in the face of the prophecies Balaam contributed to the scriptural canon, wouldn’t you say?”

    Yes, it does that exactly. This is the ultimate conflict, I suppose. Here is a guy who knows the mind and will of the Lord concerning Israel, but still harbors this desire for riches and power. It was that desire that led to his downfall, not what he did to the Israelites.

    While I am in agreement with the MH on the overall view of the polytheistic world around him, I do not conclude that Bilaam was polytheistic. But, he was certainly willing to play both sides to achieve his personal goal. Which, of course, he failed at.

    It appears to me that it was the Israelites, of a subset of them, who could not say on track with the monotheism idea.

  11. It appears to me that it was the Israelites, of a subset of them, who could not say on track with the monotheism idea.
    LOL. And there certainly is scriptural evidence for THAT!

  12. BiV, Numbers 22:41 says, “41 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal, that thence he might see the utmost part of the people.” Now Chapter 23 Balaam instructs Balak build 7 altars and 7 sacrifices that all appear to be to the LORD (note it does not say Jehovah, Baal, or any other diety, but the Bible seems to be clear the Jehovah is answering–perhaps with your Hebrew knowledge you can determine if this is “Elohim” or “Yahweh”, because I don’t know. I believe “LORD” refers to “Yahweh” according to Richard Friedman, while “God” refers to “Elohim”.)

    So whether the sacrifices Balaam performed were to Yahweh or Baal, verse 41 clearly shows a mixing of a Baal altar with a Yahweh sacrifice. I think it provides pretty good evidence of the pantheon of gods evident in the ancient Middle East. (You may disagree.) When we compare Balaam’s sacrifice to the Mosaic law, it seems to me that Balaam is in clear violation of performing sacrifices in altars of another god. Such a position to perform sacrifice to Jehovah at a Baal altar would be considered blasphemous according to Israelite practices.

    Furthermore, I think that we moderns living in a monotheistic Judeo-Christian culture, do not fully appreciate what it was like for the ancient Israelites to live in a polytheistic world. In our Judeo-Christian culture, the idea of sacrificing goats, sheep, and bullocks is a thoroughly foreign idea. I can remember as a missionary wondering if modern Jews followed the ancient Mosaic law, and was quite embarrassed to learn from a rabbi that Jews haven’t performed animal sacrifice for centuries. (I’ve always wondered when it stopped, because certainly animal sacrifices continued in Jesus’ day.)

    LDS author David Wright makes the case that much of the Law of Moses was “borrowed from the Laws of Hammurabi.” I did a post called Did Moses Copy Hammurabi’s 10 Commandments?” The Babylonian king was most certainly a polytheist, and the religion of Moses and Israel was a real novelty at this time in history. Contrary to “Sunday School” interpretations of the Bible where God inspired all prophets from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Joseph to Moses in strict monotheism, it appears that the monotheism that we find so familiar today was completely foreign to the ancient world. Even Jewish scholar Walter Zanger has said that it is not clear that Abraham was a true monotheist. (Certainly Abraham’s father worshiped idols.) (Click here for Zanger’s quote.) I’ll add that even as early as 2000 BC (the time of Abraham), monotheism was a radically new idea. Here’s an excerpt from that post.

    William Dever, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, at the University of Arizona, states that monotheism was a unique religious idea in 2000 BC. (Note these quotes are taken scattered throughout the video. I have tried to put similar quotes together for clarity in this post.)

    “There is nothing like the ethical monotheism of the Hebrew prophets anywhere in the ancient world. If you want to believe in the uniqueness of the Bible, this is a good point to begin with, it is a fact. There is nothing like this anywhere else.”

    Walter Zanger, a Jewish scholar concurs with this opinion. “Every other country in the world, every other civilization had gods whom you had to feed, to sacrifice to them. Abraham had a god who gave him law and behavior. The introduction of a single moral law for king, for commoner, and even for God is a milestone in the history of the world.”

    Dr Nahum M. Sarna, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies, Brandies University. “How did one man, stand up against all cultural and religious notions and accepted views of the time. That’s a question that there just is no answer. You can ask the same question about every innovator every founder of a new religion, every revolutionary. We just have no answers. These are abiding mysteries.”

    While the Bible seems to indicate that Adam down to Abraham were all monotheists, some scholars disagree. Jewish scholar Walter Zanger makes a case that Abraham was not a true monotheist. He says,

    “It’s hard to talk about Abraham as a monotheist. Abraham had an agreement, a covenant with his one god, who is the Lord. Abraham didn’t say, or believe as far as we know, that there weren’t other gods. All the evidence is that there were other gods for other people. And Abraham’s god never insisted on exclusivity.”

    The narrator, Richard Kiley continues, “While experts disagree over whether Abraham was a true monotheist, the Bible does not indicate if he worshiped other gods. It only tells us that led by his fervent faith in his one god, that Abraham informs his family that they will be leaving their secure, familiar world behind.”

    I think it is interesting to note that 400 years passed between the prophet Joseph and the prophet Moses. In that 400 years, the Israelites have thoroughly embraced Egyptian polytheism, (Aaron and the Golden Calf), and subsequently embraced Canaanite deities of Baal, Molech, and Asherah.

    I just have a hard time believing that Balaam embraced monotheism in a polytheistic world. Furthermore, Balaam getting the Israelites to sin would be the modern-day equivalent of RLDS prophet Stephen Veazey trying to get Mormons to sin. I just don’t see a prophet doing that, even if we hold to a looser definition of a prophet that somehow allows Veazey and Monson to co-exist at the same time. (Or we could pick Brigham Young and Joseph Smith III as contemporaries in a more divisive time in LDS/RLDS history; I still can’t see Joseph III doing such a thing, or Brigham doing such a thing in the opposite direction.)

    Finally, the ancient Jewish historian Josephus records (click here for larger quote of Josephus referencing Balaam),

    9. Now the young men were induced by the fondness they had for these women to think they spake very well; so they gave themselves up to what they persuaded them, and transgressed their own laws, and supposing there were many gods, and resolving that they would sacrifice to them according to the laws of that country which ordained them, they both were delighted with their strange food, and went on to do every thing that the women would have them do, though in contradiction to their own laws;

    If Balaam was a polytheist, perhaps he was doing missionary work to help the Israelites understand a polytheistic view that “there were many gods”? I think this is a very plausible interpretation in light of the majority opinion that ancient Middle Eastern peoples primarily held polytheistic beliefs.

  13. MH: Numbers 22:4l “clearly shows a mixing of a Baal altar with a Yahweh sacrifice.”
    Here is where you are mistaken. I have tried to explain this to you above. First of all, Balak took Balaam to a place called (in the Hebrew) “Bamoth-Baal,” which some translators have rendered “the high places of Baal.” I believe that it is possible that there had previously been sacrifices offered at that place to pagan gods, however when the two went there together, it was simply a vantage point where they could see the camp of Israel. The altars they built were to the LORD (yes, those capital letters indicate that the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) is being used, which we translate as “Jehovah” and is unique to the covenant people and NEVER, EVER used to indicate any other god. There is NO MIXING of a Baal altar with a Hebrew sacrifice. The altars are built to Jehovah. The sacrifice is offered to Jehovah. Your misreading here has led you into error that you perpetuate throughout your theory.

  14. we believe the bible to be the word of god as far as it is translated correctly. it appears you may have identified a mistranslation. i’ll have to check some other translations when I get out of church.

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  16. Ok, BiV, I’m about to reveal my statistician. Thanks for the link to the parallel translations. There are 15 translations there.

    “Bamoth-Baal” is referenced 4 times.
    “high places of Baal” is referenced 11 times.

    So, right or wrong, “high places of Baal” seems to be the majority opinion of these 15 translations. Below these translations, the Geneva Study Bible references this place as “Where the idol Baal was worshipped”

    Wesley’s Notes says “The high places of Baal – Consecrated to the worship of Baal, that is, of Baal Peor, who was their Baal or God.”

    Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary says, “high places of Baal-eminences consecrated to the worship of Baal-peor (see on [87]Nu 25:3) or Chemosh. ”

    I’d say this agrees with my interpretation that “high places of Baal” seems to indicated that it was a place consecrated to the worship of Baal.

  17. I’d also like to point out a few more things. I think we can agree that the Biblical references to Balaam are far from complete. So, as you asked me to prove by the scriptures that Balaam was a polytheist, can you prove by the scriptures that Balaam is a monotheist?

    Also, as I stated above, William Dever said, “There is nothing like the ethical monotheism of the Hebrew prophets anywhere in the ancient world. If you want to believe in the uniqueness of the Bible, this is a good point to begin with, it is a fact. There is nothing like this anywhere else.”

    If Balaam was truly a monotheist, wouldn’t you expect there to be evidence of another group espousing monotheism in the area? The opposite seems to be true.

    Also, could you comment on Josephus record that Balaam had the women seduce Israel and convince them “there were many gods.” Which is a more likely scenario: Balaam was a true prophet teaching false doctrine of “many gods”, or as a polytheist, Balaam tried to do missionary work for his true beliefs that Yahweh was part of the pantheon of gods with Baal, Molech, Asherah, and other Canaanite deities?

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