This is our last chapter with Balaam and it opens with something interesting: “Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel” (v 1). Balaam couldn’t be bribed by Balak’s offering of presents (v 13), nor does he seem intimidated by his threats. Balaam instead only cares about pleasing the LORD.

That would tend to reflect positively on Balaam. Yet I know that later on in Numbers 31 he’s made out to be a villain for encouraging Israelites to worship other gods (thanks for the spoilers, wikipedia).

One possible way to reconcile the relatively positive depiction of Balaam here and the negative one later on is that Balaam wasn’t a monotheist. The inscription in Jordan said he worshiped the Shadayyin, and in these final two oracles he references God (Elohim), the Almight (Shaddai), and the Most High (Elyon). To the Israelites those were all just titles for YHWH, but perhaps Balaam really did believe in multiple deities. YHWH may have been the powerful protector of the Israelites, as he’s depicted in these oracles, but Balaam may not have seen any problem with worshiping other deities as well. In other words, he didn’t understand the exclusive nature of the religion of the Israelites at all.

Or perhaps while Balak couldn’t bribe or threaten him to give false oracles, he could bribe or threaten him to introduce other deities. That doesn’t really mesh with the end of this chapter, where Balaam and Balak go their separate ways in the final verse.

Or maybe some later writer didn’t like that a non-Israelite was depicted as so pious and wanted to smear his name, and attributed someone else’s story to him. There’s a very xenophobic strain in works like Ezra, it’s not impossible.

I genuinely can’t shake the feeling that Balaam’s story originally ended on this positive note, and it was only later, when Israel lost the belief that all the different high gods were the same god, that a prophet of another people just had to be evil somehow, and added not just Numbers 31, but the host of rabbinical traditions explaining exactly how Balaam got his powers etc. etc.

I’d rather leave him telling off Balak and heading back home in dignity.

The Japanese: korasu “to fix on, to concentrate” (v 2), sunda “clear (as water)” (v 3), ikani “how…!” (v 5), hotori “on the bank of, alongside of” (v 6), te o uchinarasu “to clap” (v 10), keikoku suru “to warn” (v 14), aogu “to look up,” shaku “scepter,” komekami “temple (of the forehead),” uchikudaku “to smash, to crash” (v 17), tayasu “to wipe out, to exterminate” (v 19), tokoshie ni “everlastingly” (v 20).