If any biblical character ever got a raw deal from God's "inspired" writers, it was the Mesopotamian prophet Balaam, who is famous for the conversation with an ass that Dan Barker alluded to in his article on pages 9-11 of this issue. New Testament writers spoke of Balaam as if he were the very epitome of evil. The writer of 2 Peter compared false teachers, who "walk according to the flesh in the lust of uncleanness and despise authority," to Balaam: "They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness, but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man's voice restrained the madness of the prophet" (2:15-16). In his denunciation of ungodly men troubling the church, the writer of Jude made a similar comparison: "Woe to them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah" (v:11). In Revelation 2, Jesus disparagingly compared false teachers in the church at Pergamos to Balaam: "But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel" (v:14). For some reason, New Testament writers obviously held Balaam in very low esteem, but as we will see, the Old Testament record painted an entirely different picture of him.
The passages cited above made two charges against Balaam: (1) he loved the "wages of unrighteousness" and was "greedy for profit," and (2) he taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel. An examination of Balaam's story as it is told in chapters 22- 24 of Numbers, however, shows that there is no basis at all for characterizing him as New Testament writers did.
Was Balaam greedy for profit? According to the Old Testament account, the opposite was true. Balak, the king of Moab, was concerned about the Israelite hordes who had encamped on his territory, and so he sent elders of both Moab and Midian to Balaam with "the rewards of divination in their hand" (Num. 22:7) to pay Balaam to come to Moab and pronounce a curse on the Israelites. Upon receiving the delegation and learning what they wanted, Balaam invited them to stay the night so that Yahweh could speak to him (as Yahweh was so prone to do in those days) about their proposal. In the night, Yahweh told Balaam not to go with the men, and so Balaam informed them that Yahweh had refused him permission to go (v:13).
That hardly sounds like the actions of a man who was greedy for the "wages of unrighteousness," but if there was any doubt about whether he was motivated by a desire for "profit," that question should have been settled by what allegedly happened next. Balak sent a more "honorable" delegation of princes back to Balaam, who immediately informed them that even "though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of Yahweh to do less or more" (v:18). That sounds even less like the words of a money-hungry prophet.
Inerrantists try to resolve the discrepancy in the images of Balaam as he is depicted in the two testaments by quibbling that Balaam did not end the matter at this point but invited the delegation to spend the night with him while he inquired of Yahweh a second time. It is true that the story claims that Balaam made the second inquiry, but it also states that Yahweh told him on this night that "if the men are come to call you, arise and go with them, but only the word that I speak to you--that you shall do" (v:20). So the next morning, Balaam saddled his ass and went with the princes of Moab (v:21).
Inerrantists argue that Balaam's "error" was in going with the Moabite delegation after Yahweh had told him not to go, but the story clearly states that on the occasion of the second delegation's visit, Yahweh told Balaam to go. Balaam did exactly what Yahweh commanded, yet the story says that "God's anger was kindled because [Balaam] went" (v: 22). That is curious indeed. Yahweh told Balaam to go, Balaam did exactly what Yahweh told him to do, and then Yahweh got angry and sent an angel to block the way so that Balaam's ass would have to turn aside. Such obvious inconsistency as this could happen only in fabulous literature, just as the tale of an ass talking to rebuke Balaam could only happen in fables (as Dan Barker has ably pointed out in his article).
The story of Balaam continued through two more chapters, but nothing can be found there to even suggest that Balaam "loved the wages of unrighteousness." As the story was told by the Old Testament writer, whom inerrantists will claim was inspired of Yahweh, when Balaam finally met the Moabite king, he restated what he had told the delegation, that he would speak only the words that Yahweh put in his mouth (22:38). Balak repeatedly urged Balaam to pronounce a curse on the Israelites, but each time Balaam would pronounce only blessings on them. Finally, when Balak's "anger was kindled against Balaam," the prophet reminded him that he had said all along that even "if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of Yahweh" (24:13). So just what was the "error" of Balaam, whom the Old Testament presented as a man who always did exactly what Yahweh told him to do?
As for Balaam's love for the "wages of unrighteousness" alleged by the writer of 2 Peter, the Old Testament text implies that Balaam received no money at all from Balak. After three failures to curse the Israelites, Balak angrily said to Balaam, "Now therefore flee to your place. I said I would greatly honor you, but in fact, Yahweh has kept you back from honor" (24:11). So just where was Balaam's greedy love of money?
Did Balaam teach Balak to lay a stumbling block before the
Israelites? This charge is even more unfair than the other, because
if we are to believe the presumably inspired Old Testament account,
Balaam never spoke a single word against the Israelites. Everything he
said was described as a "blessing" on them. Furthermore, this whole
affair was presented as Balak's idea, so he was the one desperately
trying to get Balaam to lay a stumbling block before the Israelites,
not the other way around. The inconsistent views of Balaam by different
biblical writers is just one more reason why reasonable people cannot
believe that an omniscient, omnipotent deity had anything to do with
the writing of the Bible. Certainly, no reasonable person can believe
that the Bible is inerrant.