Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms, http://www.borders.com, or http://www.christianbook.com.
Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet known from both biblical and extrabiblical sources as a person from the region of Transjordan skilled not only in divination but also in performative acts. His fame in the culture of the ancient world places him alongside Noah, Daniel, and Job as a folk hero in the repertoire of the storyteller.
Balaam appears commonly in the ot and regularly in the nt as an example of an evil artist, a prophet who would sell his skill for the proper price without reference to the Word of God supposedly represented by his words (Deut. 23:4, 5; Josh. 13:22; 24:9, 10; Neh. 13:2; Mic. 6:5; 2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11; Rev. 2:14). The fable in Num. 22:21-35 constitutes a narrative from this facet of the tradition. In the fable, Balaam, known to tradition as a seer of the gods cannot see as well as his ass. Moreover, Balaam carries the responsibility for causing Israel to sin at Baal-peor (Num. 31:8, 16).
In contrast, the legend in Num. 22-24 holds Balaam in a favorable light. When the antagonist, Balak, hires Balaam to curse the armies of Israel so that his defense against the Israelite threat would be manageable, Balaam responds with an appeal to his prophetic virtue. He can offer Balak only the word given him by God for the occasion. Balaam finishes the scene with an affirmation of his prophetic virtue: Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will; what the Lord speaks, that will I speak? (Num. 24:12-13).
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer