Balaam, son of Beor, was a seer from the land of Aram—perhaps in Mesopotamia—who was famous for the power of his blessings and curses. As the Israelites were poised for battle with the Moabites, Balak, king of Moab, summoned Balaam to aid his side by cursing Israel.

As the Biblical account begins, the Israelites are on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. They have already defeated the Ammonites east of the Jordan and are camping on the steppes of Moab. Balak, seeing that their forces are great, fears for his own kingdom. He therefore sends emissaries to Balaam to bring him back to Moab and curse the Israelites. With Balaam’s curse, Balak hopes to defeat the Israelites. In the end, Balaam comes to Moab, but, to Balak’s surprise and anger, Balaam blesses the Israelites and foretells the subsequent victory of Israel over her adversaries.

Balaam is one of the most enigmatic figures in the Bible. Although clearly a foreigner, Balaam was subject to the command of the God of Israel and openly acknowledged that his prophetic powers derived from God. However, his reputation as an effective diviner throughout the ancient world was such that Balak, speaking to Balaam, could confidently state: “I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6).

A detailed account of Balaam’s blessing of the Israelites appears in Numbers 22–24.

When Balak’s emissaries first ask for his help, Balaam immediately tells them he will do only as the Lord instructs him. In a dream, God tells Balaam not to go with Balak’s emissaries, but Balak’s emissaries offer Balaam further pleas and rich reward, so Balaam agrees to go with them, after first obtaining God’s permission.

Although Balaam has God’s permission to go to Moab, his departure nevertheless incenses God. As Balaam rides on his she-ass with Balak’s emissaries on their way back to Moab, an angel sent by God obstructs the road. The she-ass, who alone sees the angel with a sword drawn in his hand, tries to swerve every which way to avoid the angel, and, finally, when she cannot, lies down in the road, refusing to go further. Angered, Balaam beats the creature with his staff. At this point, God grants the gift of speech to the she-ass: “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day,” she says. “Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” Balaam must humbly reply, “No.” God thereupon opens Balaam’s eyes to the angel. Balaam admits his error, and offers to return home. But the angel tells him to go on with Balak’s emissaries.

This is the only animal in the Bible—with the exception of the serpent in the Garden of Eden—that speaks; the story of the exchange between Balaam and the ass has since been immortalized in literature and in art.

Once in Moab, Balaam is taken by King Balak to a high place, Bamoth-Baal, where Balaam can see a group of Israelites encamped below. Balaam warns the king that he can speak only the words that God puts into his mouth. To Balak’s displeasure, Balaam pronounces the following oracle:

“From Aram has Balak brought me,
Moab’s king from the hills of the East;
Come, curse me Jacob,
Come, tell Israel’s doom!
How can I damn whom God has not damned,
How doom when the Lord has not doomed?
As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations;
Who can count the dust of Jacob,
Number the dust-cloud of Israel?
May I die the death of the upright,
May my fate be like theirs!”

(Numbers 23:7–10)

Balak then leads Balaam to another height from which he can see another group of Israelites and again asks him to curse them. But instead Balaam pronounces another oracle of blessing.

In exasperation, Balak asks Balaam neither to curse the Israelites nor to bless them, but to remain neutral. Balaam replies, “Did I not tell you, ‘All that the Lord says, that I must do?’” (Numbers 23:26).

Finally, Balak guides Balaam to the top of Peor. From this height overlooking the desert, Balaam turns his face to the wilderness and again blesses Israel:

“Word of Balaam son of Beor,
Word of the man whose eye is true,
Word of him who hears God’s speech,
Who beholds visions from the Almighty,
Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water;
Their boughs drip with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water.
Their king shall rise above Agag,
Their kingdom shall be exalted.
God who freed them from Egypt
Is for them like the horns of the wild ox.
They shall devour enemy nations,
Crush their bones,
And smash their arrows.
They crouch, they lie down like a lion,
Like the king of beasts;
who dare rouse them?
Blessed are they who bless you,
Accursed they who curse you!”

(Numbers 24:3–9)

Balak, in impotent anger, declares, “I called you … to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them these three times! Back with you at once to your own place!” Balak orders Balaam to go home, but before Balaam leaves, he pronounces yet another oracle in which he foretells the future victory of Israel over its enemies.

“Word of Balaam son of Beor,
Word of the man whose eye is true,
Word of him who hears God’s speech,
Who obtains knowledge from the Most High,
And beholds visions from the Almighty,
Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled
What I see for them is not yet,
What I behold will not be soon
A star rises from Jacob,
A meteor comes forth from Israel;
It smashes the brow of Moab,
The foundation of all children of Seth.
Edom becomes a possession,
Yea, Seir a possession of its enemies;
But Israel is triumphant.
A victor issues from Jacob
To wipe out what is left of Ir.”

(Numbers 24:15–19)

What we know about Balaam in the Bible comes principally from this story of Balaam’s blessing of the Israelites in Numbers. The episode was interpreted as signifying God’s mercy toward Israel because God turned a curse into a blessing; the episode is referred to in Deuteronomy 23:4–5, Joshua 13:12, Joshua 24:9–10, Nehemiah 13:2 and Micah 6:5. The account of Balaam’s oracular gift reflects the extraordinary powers attributed to the spoken word in ancient Israel.