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And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him.
And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said:
He hath said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open:
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!
As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes which the LORD hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters.
He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his 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 lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee.
Balaam. Numbers 24:2-9 (KJV).

Balaam was a Prophet of Yahweh written about in the Old Testament, son of Beor, and known to have blessed Israel three times before Israel's war against Moab. He is also known for the miracle of the Donkey who spoke.

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History

The main story of Balaam occurs during the sojourn of the Israelites in the plains of Moab, east of the Jordan River, at the close of 40 years of wandering, shortly before the death of Moses and the crossing of the Jordan. The Israelites have already defeated two kings in Transjordan: Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. Balak, king of Moab, consequently becomes alarmed, and sends elders of Midian and his Moabite messengers, to Balaam, son of Beor, to induce him to come and curse Israel. Balaam's location, Pethor, is simply given as "which is by the river of the land of the children of his people" also known as the land as Ammon.

Balaam sends back word that he can only do what YHWH commands, and God has, via a nocturnal dream, told him not to go. Balak consequently sends higher-ranking priests and offers Balaam honours; Balaam continues to press God, and God finally permits him to go but with instructions to say only what He commands. Balaam then sets out in the morning with the princes of Moab. God becomes angry that he went, implying that he only used Balaam as a tool to further his will, and sends the Angel of the Lord to prevent him. At first, the angel is seen only by the donkey Balaam is riding, which tries to avoid the angel. After Balaam starts punishing the donkey for refusing to move, it is miraculously given the power to speak to Balaam, and it complains about Balaam's treatment. At this point, Balaam is allowed to see the angel, who informs him that the donkey's turning away from the messenger is the only reason the angel did not kill Balaam. Balaam immediately repents, but is told to go on.

Balak meets with Balaam at Kirjat Huzoth, and they go to the "high places of Baal", and offer sacrifices on seven altars, leading to Balaam being given a prophecy by Yahweh, which He speaks to Balak. However, the prophecy blesses Israel; Balak remonstrates, but Balaam reminds him that he can only speak the words put in his mouth, so Balak takes him to another "high place" at Pisgah, to try again. Building another seven altars here, and making sacrifices on each, Balaam provides another prophecy blessing Israel.

Balaam finally gets taken by a now very frustrated Balak to Peor, and, after the seven sacrifices there, decides not to "seek enchantments" but instead looks upon the Israelites from the peak. The Spirit of God comes upon Balaam and he delivers a third positive prophecy concerning Israel. Balak's anger rises to the point where he threatens Balaam, but Balaam merely offers a prediction of fate. Balaam then looks upon the Kenites, and Amalekites and offers two more predictions of their fates. Balak and Balaam then go to their respective homes.

Myths and Legends

Balaam in the New Testament, Josephus, and Philo

In the New Testament, Balaam is cited as a type of avarice; for example in Book of Revelation 2:14 we read of false teachers at Pergamum who held the "teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication." Balaam has attracted much interest, alike from Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Josephus paraphrases the story more so, and speaks of Balaam as the best prophet of his time, but with a disposition ill-adapted to resist temptation. Philo describes him as a great magician in the Life of Moses; elsewhere he speaks of "the sophist Balaam, being," i.e. symbolizing "a vain crowd of contrary and warring opinions" and again as "a vain people" — both phrases being based on a mistaken etymology of the name Balaam.

Balaam in the Quran

Regarding the Islamic view of Balaam, no clear reference is made to Balaam in the Qur'an. However, the commentators argue that he is the one to whom the following text is referring:

Relate to them the story of the man to whom We sent Our signs, but he passed them by: so Satan followed him up, and he went astray.
If it had been Our will, We should have elevated him with Our signs; but he inclined to the earth, and followed his own vain desires. His similitude is that of a dog: if you attack him, he lolls out his tongue, or if you leave him alone, he (still) lolls out his tongue. That is the similitude of those who reject Our signs; So relate the story; perchance they may reflect.
Qur'an 7:175–176.

The Muslim commentators explain that Balaam was a Canaanite who had been given knowledge of some of the books of God. His people asked him to curse Moses (Musa) and those who were with him, but he said, "How can I curse one who has angels with him?" They continued to press him, however, until he cursed the Israelites, and, as a consequence, they remained 40 years in the Wilderness of the Wanderings. Then, when he had cursed Moses, his tongue came out and fell upon his breast, and he began to pant like a dog.

The story as told by Tabari is somewhat more Biblical. Balaam had the knowledge of the Most Sacred Name of God, and whatever he asked of God was granted to him. The story of Balaam and the ass, then follows at length. When it came to the actual cursing, God "turned his tongue" so that the cursing fell upon his own people and the blessing upon Israel. Then his tongue came out and hung down on his breast. Finally, he advised his people to adorn and beautify their women and to send them out to ensnare the Israelites. The story of the plague at Baal-peor and of Cozbi and Zimri follows.

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