Bible Study #27: Balaam

In this episode Fr. Anthony shares the scriptures that describe why Balaam, a prophet who said things that were true, is still a false prophet of God.  Enjoy the show!
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OT Bible Study #27: Balaam and His Donkey

Make the pure light of Your divine knowledge shine in our hearts, Loving Master, and open the eyes of our minds that we may understand the message of Your Gospel. Instill also in us reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that overcoming all worldly desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, both thinking and doing all things pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the Light of our souls and bodies, and to You we give the glory, together with Your Father, without beginning, and Your All Holy, Good, and Life- Creating Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen. (2 Corinthians 6:6; Ephesians 1:18; 2 Peter 2:11)

Administrative: This our last Bible Study of the Year. Classes will resume on 2/23.

Warm up on Balaam: from our services

From Nativity Vesperal Liturgy: Numbers. (24:2-3, 5-9, 17-18(19))

From Matins (Odes) of St. Michael and the Bodiless Hosts

In days of old the angel appeared at a cross road / fearfully rebuking Balaam the seer, / for he was not persuaded before the ineffable, divine miracles of God. / By showing him an animal who was a reasonable being, / he changed what he knew of nature.

From Matins (Praises) the pre-Feast of the Nativity (Tone 6)

The oracles of the seer Balaam are fulfilled, / for the Persians marvel at an unfamiliar star / shining down upon Christ, the never-setting light, / our compassionate God, Who takes flesh in Bethlehem. Beholding its radiance, they run to worship Him, // foreseeing His voluntary death by their precious gifts.

From Matins (Odes) of the Eve of Nativity

By thy rising as a Star from Jacob, O Lord, thou didst fill with joy / the wise initiates in the word of Balaam the Prophet of old, / the Watchers of the Stars, who were led unto thee as the first-fruits of the / Gentiles, and didst manifestly receive them: // Glory to thy might, O Lord.

From Compline (Canon) of the Nativity

The riddles of the soothsayer and diviner Balaam are now fulfilled, / for a star has dawned from Jacob // leading the Magi, kings from Persia, bringing gifts

to the Sun of Glory!

Christ is now born of Jacob, / spoke Balaam of old: / And He shall rule over nations. / His Kingdom shall be exalted in grace // and shall remain throughout all ages.

By the star Christ calls the Magi to knowledge, / the disciples of Balaam the stargazer, / He who clothes the heavens with clouds / is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lies in the manger. / He before whom the cherubim tremble, / Who is everywhere present and fills all things, // accepts to be contained in a dark cavern.

From Matins (Canon) of the Nativity

Master, You have risen as a Star out of Jacob / You have filled with joy the watchers of the stars / who interpreted wisely the words of Balaam the ancient seer. / As the first fruits of the gentiles they were led to You, / and You received them openly as they brought You acceptable gifts. // Glory to Your might, O Lord!

From Vespers (Aposticha) of the Post-Feast of the Nativity, Tone 5

We have heard the words of Balaam, / the Magi answered the pure one; / we have carefully observed the heavens. / We have seen the birth of a star, radiant with pure light. / Its rising in perfection was strange to us. / We have followed it; we did not delay to hurry on our way. / Tell us! Who is this mighty Child you hold in your arms? / How can we worthily adore this great mystery, all-holy one? // Through you the world is given great mercy!

Some Church Fathers that used Balaam as an example:

St. John of the Ladder, The Ladder of Divine Ascent” , Step 25. On Humility

54. The man of humble mind always loathes his own will as wayward, and in his requests to the Lord he studies with unwavering faith to learn and to obey. He does not direct his attention to the life of his masters but casts his care upon God who used an ass to teach Balaam his duty. A worker of this kind, although he does everything and thinks and speaks according to the will of God, yet he never trusts himself. Self-confidence for the humble is just as much a weight and a burden as another man’s choice is for the proud.

St. Gregory Palamas; The Triads, D. Deification in Christ, II. Iii: 8 & 10

The monks know that the essence of God transcends the fact of being inaccessible to the senses, since God is not only above all created things, but is even beyond Godhead. The excellence of Him Who surpasses all things is not only beyond all affirmation, but also beyond all negation; it exceeds all excellence that is attainable by the mind. This hypostatic light, seen spiritually by the saints, they know by experience to exist, as they tell us, and to exist not symbolically only, as do manifestations produced by fortuitous events; but it is an illumination immaterial and divine, a grace invisibly seen and ignorantly known. What it is, they do not pretend to know…

The hesychasts in fact never claim that this light is an angel. Having been initiated by the teaching of the Fathers, they know that the vision of angels takes place in various ways, according to the capacities of those who behold it: sometimes in the form of a concrete essence, accessible to the senses, and visible even to creatures full of passions and totally foreign to all initiation; sometimes under the form of an ethereal essence which the soul itself can only see in part; sometimes as a true vision, which only those who are purified and who see spiritually are worthy to behold. But you, who have not been initiated into these different modes of seeing angels, think to show that the angels are invisible to one another not because they are incorporeal, but in their essence; and implicitly you class the contemplators of God with Balaam’s ass, which also is said to have seen an angel!

St Peter of Damascus, A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, On Spurious Knowledge (Philokalia) Spurious knowledge, or ‘knowledge falsely so called’ (1 Tim. 6:20), is that which a man possesses when he thinks he knows what he has never known. It is worse than complete ignorance, says St John Chrysostom, in that its victim will not accept correction from any teacher because he thinks that this worst kind of ignorance is in fact something excellent. For this reason the fathers say that we ought to search the Scriptures assiduously, in humility and with the counsel of experienced men, learning not merely theoretically but by putting into practice what we read; and that we ought not to inquire at all into what is passed over in silence by Holy Scripture. Such enquiry is senseless, St Antony the Great tells us, speaking with reference to those who want to know about the future rather than renouncing any claim to such knowledge on the grounds of their unworthiness. If God in His providence does impart such knowledge, as He did to Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Dan. 2:31-45) and Balaam (cf. Num. 23:8-10), He imparts it for the benefit of all, even if some of the recipients are unworthy of the gift. In such cases, it does not come from the demons, especially when it is given through dreams and certain forms of imagination. We are not told much about these things, lest we search the Scriptures simply with our minds and then out of pride think that we have grasped something.

Book II, 1. On Spiritual Wisdom (Philokalia)

According to St Isaac the ideas that arise spontaneously in the intellect of those who have attained a state of stillness, free from discursive thought, are to be accepted. But what comes from discursive thought is a purely subjective and individual notion. St Antony says that every word or act ought to be supported by divine Scripture. It is in this spirit that I begin to write, just as the ass of Balaam began to talk (cf. Num. 22:28-30). I do this not in order to teach others – God forbid! – but in order to reprove my unhappy soul, so that, shamed by my own words, as St John of the Ladder says, I who have done nothing but speak may begin to act.

A chapter in a a popular devotional book for Advent:

13: The Star of Bethlehem

Papavassiliou, V. (2013). Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth (pp. 113–119). Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing.

Balaam laid before us precisely the meaning of the words he spoke in prophecy, when he said that a star would dawn, a star that quenches all prophecies and auguries; a star which resolves the parables of the wise, and their sayings and their riddles, a star far more brilliant than the star which has appeared, for He is the Maker of all the stars, of whom it was written of old: “From Jacob there dawns a little Child, God before the ages.” (Ikos of the Kontakion of the Nativity)

Another popular theme and image of the Nativity is the Star of Bethlehem. This is yet another prophecy from the Old Testament: “I will show Him, but not now; I bless Him, but He is not near. A Star shall rise out of Jacob; and a Man shall rise out of Israel.” (Num. 24:17)

Many assume that the Star of Bethlehem was an astronomical phenomenon. St. John Chrysostom did not agree. He gives four reasons the Star of Bethlehem was not really a star:

That this star was not an ordinary one—or rather not a star at all, in my opinion—but some invisible power in the form of a star, is in the first place evident from its course. For not one of the stars moves like this, but whether you take the sun, or the moon, or all the other stars, we see them going from east to west; but this one travelled from north to south—for Palestine lies south of Persia.

Next, one can also draw this conclusion from the time. For it does not appear at night, but at midday, while the sun is shining; and no star can do this, not even the moon. For when the sun appears the moon immediately disappears. But the splendor of this star overcame even the rays of the sun and shone even brighter than them.

Thirdly, from its appearing and disappearing. For on their journey to Palestine it appeared leading them [the Magi], but after they reached Jerusalem, it hid itself. But when they had left Herod and were about to leave, it showed itself. This is nothing like the motion of a star, but of some highly rational power. It did not even have a direction of its own, but when they moved, it moved; when they stopped, it stopped, like the pillar of the cloud for the Israelites.

Fourthly, one can see this clearly from its way of indicating. For it did not remain high up to point out the place—for they could not have found it that way—but it came down and pointed it out. For surely such a small space, about the size of a hut, or rather of the body of a little child, could not possibly be marked out by a star, since the greatness of its height could not accurately indicate so confined a spot, and reveal it to those who wished to see it. And this any one may see from the moon, which is far larger than the stars, yet seems equally near to every one that lives on the whole wide world. How then, tell me, did the star point out a spot so confined—just the space of a manger or a hut—unless it left that height and came down, and stood over the very head of the young child? And this is what the Evangelist was hinting at when he said, “The star went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was” [Matt. 2:9].

Do you see by what a large number of proofs this star is shown not to be one of the many, nor to have shown itself according to the order of the visible creation?

Chrysostom, like other Church Fathers, compares the Star of Bethlehem to the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire in Exodus 13:21–22, which are clearly manifestations of God Himself:

God led them, by day in a pillar of cloud to show them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire. Thus the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before all the people. (Ex. 13:21–22)

Another manifestation of God in a cloud and an instance in which the light of God shone brighter than the sun is the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor:

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” (Matt. 17:1–5)

The bright cloud of Tabor is also compared by the Church Fathers to the pillar of cloud in the Old Testament, and the blinding light of the Transfiguration is considered a manifestation of the Uncreated Light—that is to say, the Light of God Himself. This may be the reason that the light of the Star of Bethlehem in the icons of the Nativity is painted in exactly the same way as the light of God on Mount Tabor in the icons of the Transfiguration.

The Star of Bethlehem was no star, but a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. He testifies to the Son of God, who bears witness to the Father.1

Digging Deeper – why did some pagans and Jews think the Messiah was imminent?

Balaam’s Prophecy of the Timing of the Great Messiah’s Coming

Who was Balaam (Mercenary Prophet/Seer, Son of Boer during time of Exodus); he is a “type” of bad wiseman (e.g. Gnostics, Simon Magi, Dn. Nicholas)

St. Caesarius of Arles: Barlaam was a Pagan Magician, known for his curses. This Balaam was exceedingly famous for his magical art and very powerful with his harmful verses. He did not possess the power or skill of words in blessing but only in cursing, for the demons are invited to curse but not to bless. As he was experienced in such matters, for this reason he was esteemed by all men in the Orient. Indeed, abundant proofs of it had happened before when he had frequently turned back an armed enemy with his curses. Otherwise the king surely would not have presumed that what could not be accomplished by iron and the sword could be done by words. Therefore Balak was sure of it and had frequently tried it, for he put aside all instruments and aids of war and sent ambassadors to him saying, “A people has come here from Egypt, who now cover the face of the earth and are settling down opposite us.” SERMON 113.2.

Numbers 22: he is hired by Balak (son of Zippor; King of Moab; a leader of Midian). Fun ensues.

True prophecies come to him from God (Numbers 23-24). Cannot curse Israel. The fourth prophecy has to do with the coming of the Messiah – it is a huge trope in our hymnography, especially 24:17).

St. Ambrose of Milan. No, God didn’t Trick Balaam; he was guilty. What offense does Balaam commit, except that he said one thing and plotted another? For God seeks out a pure vessel, one not corrupted by impurity and squalor. Balaam was tested, therefore, but he was not found acceptable: “For he was full of lies and guile.” In short, when he first inquired whether he ought to go to that vain people and was stopped, he made excuses. Later, when more important legates were sent and more copious things were promised, he was enticed by the richer gifts—although he should have renounced them—and decided that there should be another consultation, as though God could be affected either by a bribe or by gifts. The response was given as though to a greedy man and not as to one seeking the truth, so that he might be mocked rather than informed. He set out, and an angel met him in a narrow place. He revealed himself to the ass. He did not reveal himself to the seer. He revealed himself to the one; he disgraced the other. Nevertheless, in order that he himself might at some point come to recognition, “he opened his eyes.” He saw and still did not believe the clear oracle. He who should have believed his own eyes responded obscurely and ambiguously. LETTER 28 (50).6–7.

What happened next? Why isn’t Balaam a prophet? What happened with the “daughters of Moab” (Numbers 25)? What was Balaam’s role in that?

  • Numbers 31:16
  • Deuteronomy 23:4-5 (also Joshua 24:9-10 and Nehemiah 13:2)
  • Nehemiah 13:2
  • Micah 6:5
  • 2 Peter 2:15
  • Jude 1:11
  • Revelation 2:14
  • His death: Numbers 31:8, 16 & Joshua 13:22.

Next Lesson: Finish Numbers and Look at Deuteronomy (as a review)


Lienhard, J. T., & Rombs, R. J. (Eds.). (2001). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (p. 243). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.