Balaam In Context (Num. 20-31)

My last post spent a little bit of time on Balaam, the legendary soothsayer and “pagan prophet” who dominates much of the book of Numbers. While we could probably post endlessly on the Balaam story, as it provides a lot of interesting angles into this particular part of the Old Testament, our limited blogging time and large amount of other books and stories to cover — we still have much of the Old Testament — urge us to move on.

Nevertheless, I’ll spend one more post talking about Balaam. The story of Balaam, like many other stories in the Old Testament, appears now to be the product of multiple authors and traditions. While, of course, much of this is the product of scholarship, and not exactly unquestioned fact currently, the explanation it provides for this bizarre tale should cause us some pause.

What exactly, then, can explain this yarn? Most scholars hold that Balaam’s last two blessings (or “messages”) (See Num. 23-24) are probably much older than the surrounding stories. These stories portrayed Balaam mostly positively, as we see early on in the Numbers tale (Balaam was a well-known figure in the area during the original composition of the stories). Later traditions and writers, probably the P (or Priestly) source, turned Balaam into a dolt by adding the talking donkey. This would explain why the portrayal of Balaam shifts in the story — later traditions started viewing pagan leaders like Balaam more and more negatively, as Israel consolidated and rejected outside traditions; it would also explain why the P source, in later books of the Old Testament, blames Balaam for the Israelites’ sin at Baal Peor (Num. 31:16). Many ancient readers and interpreters of scripture took the Balaam-is-a-bad-dude and ran with it.

What lesson can we learn from this? Well, it should be famliar-sounding. This type of thing has happened all over the Old Testament: bits and scraps of oral traditions and/or stories start, are later edited and re-shaped to fit existing cultural and social conditions, and then re-emerge in the form we find them in today. That is not necessarily a bad thing; often these shorts of edits serve important (usually etiological) functions. But it certainly shows that, if true, this story, like many others, is not to be taken as literal or historical.

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