Balaam and The Issue of Compromise
A quick glance at Numbers 22 - 24 could leave a person with the
impression that Balaam was a godly prophet, who provided an exemplary
model of devotion and loyalty to the God of the Bible. However, a
closer look at these chapters, as well as at references about Balaam
found elsewhere in the Bible, reveals that his superficial piety
covered up a deceitful and corrupt heart.
Below, we examine various issues which are related to Balaam and the
events that came about because of him.
Throughout the account (chapters 22 - 24), even though Balaam
frequently seems to have a willingness to do only what God tells him
to do, there are continual hints that something is wrong on a deeper level.
Balaam was a diviner for hire. (Numbers 22:7; Joshua 13:22)
- He was willing engage in occult practices, for pay, in an attempt
to influence matters (in a way favorable to the one paying the
money), or to provide guidance, or to reveal things about the future.
This willingness to rely on demons and spirit beings is a detestable
offense to God, who alone is worthy of our devotion and who alone has
sovereign control over all things.
- At the same time, some of the things Balaam says would make it
sound as though he were devoted and loyal to the God of the Bible,
and that he intended to obey God. (See 22:8.)
- It was common for people of Balaam's day to have more than one
"god." Balaam would have considered the God of the Bible to
be merely one of many - a concept that is actually a rejection of the
God of the Bible.
After God tells Balaam that Israel is blessed, and that he must not
try to curse them (22:12), there should have been no further
questions about it. Yet when King Balak offers a greater reward,
Balaam asks God a second time. (All the while, he acts very
"spiritual" about it - 22:18.)
The fact that God allows Balaam to go (v. 20), yet is angry with him
for doing so (v. 22), shows that something is wrong.
- Balaam is warned that he is going down a reckless path (v. 32),
one that leaves him worthy of death. (If it weren't for the
faithfulness of his donkey, he would have been put to death!) [In the
New Testament, people who follow Balaam's example are described as
wandering off the "straight (or right) path." Such conduct
is considered an expression of "madness," which, in
Balaam's case, was restrained only by the actions of his donkey! (2
- From the perspective of an observer, Balaam may have appeared to
be devoted to God. Yet when confronted by God, Balaam admits that he
has been sinning. This shows us that there are deeper issues of sin,
hidden from the casual observer by Balaam's appearance of spirituality.
- Balaam acts as though he is willing to turn around and go back
home. But the fact that God allows him to continue on suggests that
the deeper issues have not been dealt with. (This suspicion is
confirmed elsewhere in the Bible - see below.)
Wealth and riches are often mentioned in these chapters (Numbers 22 -
24), as a reward for Balaam, if he succeeds at cursing Israel.
- A true prophet is not motivated by wealth and riches. He may
accept a gift as an expression of love - after all, he also has to
eat, in order to survive! Yet he will refuse a payment (or bribe)
that is intended to influence his actions, or the outcome of his
prophetic activity. He will not do prophetic activity for the purpose
of personal material gain. (Look, for example, at Elisha's response
to Naaman, in 2 Kings 5. Even in the New Testament, the apostles
refused to let money influence their actions - see Acts 8:18-23. In
contrast, Balaam loved the "wages of wickedness" - 2 Peter
2:16. And because of his love for money, he eagerly "rushed"
into his error - Jude 1:11.)
- Even though Balaam claims he will say only what God allows him to
say, he never rejected the idea of receiving the reward. The
reason he didn't curse Israel wasn't because of loyalty to
God, but because God would not let him do anything except bless them
(22:35 and later). God overruled Balaam's desires (Joshua 24:9-10).
If he had been successful in cursing Israel, he would have gladly
taken the reward.
When Balaam speaks his prophetical oracles, he constantly affirms
that he can only speak what the Lord has told him to say
(Numbers 23:12, 26; 24:13). This may have the appearance of
"spirituality," but in reality, he had no choice. He
was helpless to do otherwise, for God would not let him do so (23:8,
20). Remember that God had already threatened him with death (22:33)!
Various issues show that Balaam is not a true prophet of God, and
that there are spiritual problems in his heart.
As already mentioned, Balaam claims to have loyal devotion to the
Lord, yet he practices divination and related occult activities - a
thing which God hates. A true prophet of God would know God's will on this
issue, as much as he would know God's will on other issues!
(In this case, once Balaam realized these practices were not working
- Numbers 23:23 - he stopped using them - 24:1. But it wasn't because
he considered them wrong.)
Balaam and Balak made sacrifices together (Numbers 23:1-2),
even though Balak served a false god (Baal). A genuine prophet of God cannot
tolerate the worship of a false god, and will always oppose anything
that usurps the rightful place of the true God. Balaam, however, was
willing to cooperate in worship with an idolater.
Balaam's influence was the cause of the problems Israel had in
- He wasn't able to curse them himself, so he devised a plan that
(whether he knew it or not) would cause them to bring down a curse
upon themselves! What he did was to get them to compromise, both
spiritually and morally. And actually, he was teaching them to do
nothing more than what he himself had been doing (compromise). They
might not have realized it, but they were following Balaam's example!
[The connection between Balaam and the events of Numbers 25 is not
clearly stated in that passage, but we find out later (Numbers 31)
that he was the instigator of those events.]
- Balaam supposedly went home (24:25) - a distance of approximately
400 miles (compare with 22:5, where his home town is said to be near
"the River" - that is, the Euphrates River). Yet later we
discover that he had come back to the area (probably still trying to
find a way to get the money), and was advising the Midianites (and
Moabites) on how to indirectly destroy Israel. [Ironically,
though he had expressed the desire to die "the death of the
righteous" (23:10b), he ended up dying the death of the wicked,
for he ended up getting killed along with the Midianites (31:8).]
Concerning Israel's sin and the judgments that followed.
They were deceived or tricked into compromise, through the
allurements of the Moabite and Midianite women (Numbers 25:1-3, 6, etc.).
- They didn't necessarily consider it an abandoning of
Israel's God. More likely, it was just an addition of a second god.
[Even today, people often have multiple gods - they just don't
normally call them "gods." A person who claims to be a
"Christian," yet loves wealth, has two gods. Today,
"Christians" often have many gods - health,
wealth, security, sports, entertainment, family, celebrities,
religious activities - and anything else which is given more
attention and devotion than God. Yet it bothers them no worse than
it bothered Balaam or the people of Israel.]
- The connection between idolatry and immorality is a natural one.
These two actions often go together, for both involve the same
attitudes of the heart. Both involve issues related to purity,
faithfulness and loyalty, and when any of these godly character
traits is abandoned for one of these sins, there is very little to
prevent it from being abandoned for the other. [This connection is
seen throughout Scripture - in fact, the very nature of the physical
union between male and female was intended (by God) to teach us about
spiritual principles. One such example is the relationship between
Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:22-33). On the other hand,
spiritual compromise, such as an attempt to be friends with both God
and the world's way of life, is described as adultery (James 4:4).]
These women were following Balaam's advice, according to 31:16.
- Balaam's advice was fully compatible with the compromising way he
lived. Having already given-in to compromise, and being blinded by
the riches that had been offered to him, he probably saw nothing
wrong with his advice.
- Both Midianite and Moabite were involved. But the emphasis on the
prominent Midianite woman (25:15-18), as well as the nature of the
judgment that followed (chapter 31), suggests that the Midianites
were the primary instigators of this sin.
The Midianites provided the leadership, and the women were examples
for the others to follow (compare to 25:15-18; 31:16). Because of the
nature of their sin, their judgment was death.
- This included the incident in which Phineas, a priestly leader of
Israel, killed an Israelite man and a prominent Midianite woman,
while they were in the very act of committing this sin. What he did
was described as an act of righteousness - Numbers 25:6-9. He did
this for God's honor, and to stop the sin (hence to stop the
plague, which was causing the deaths of thousands). It was not done
as an expression of personal vindictiveness - 25:10-13, but for God.
- This judgment involved the Midianites who were residing in that
area - in the land of the Amorites - Joshua 13:22. Other Midianites
lived elsewhere (further south) and in later years became a major
problem for Israel - Judges 6 - 7.
- Interestingly Moses' wife was the daughter of a Midianite, who
lived in this region to the south - Exodus 2:15-22; 3:1.
The Moabites, were not killed because of this sin. (This
also suggests that they were not the main instigators.) They were
judged, but for other matters.
- First, they were judged because of what Balak did. Second, they
were judged because of their constantly hostile attitude toward
Israel, when Israel was attempting to enter the promised land. The
nation of Ammon also shared in this judgment because of their
hostility toward Israel. (They may have also been in agreement with
what Balak did, but they are not mentioned as direct participants.)
- Their judgment was exclusion from the assembly of the Lord -
Deuteronomy 23:3-6 and Nehemiah 13:1-3. Even their descendants would
be excluded, down to the tenth generation - Deuteronomy 23:3. [This
may refer to participation in the religious activities of worship at
the temple, by those who had joined the community.]
- Interestingly, both the Moabites and the Ammonites were related
to Israel, having descended from Abraham's nephew, Lot - Genesis
19:30-38. Also, one of Jesus' ancestors, Ruth, was a Moabite woman
who turned to the true God (Ruth 1:16-17).
Comments about the judgment against Israel and Midian.
This was a sin against God, more than it was a sin of one
nation against another. And being such a serious sin against God, it
required the death of those who were guilty in both nations.
Today, some people take offense at the way God judged Midian. Some
even try to compare it to "genocide" - in which one group
of people attempts to annihilate another group of people. Here,
however, it was not an issue of one nation against another, but of
individuals from both nations against the God who made them,
and who alone has the right to their loyalty.
- People who have this condemning attitude do not appreciate the
seriousness of this sin - a sin which deserves, and earns, a
judgment of eternal proportions (much worse than mere physical
death). People who take this position (offense over God's justice)
are themselves guilty of compromise; for they have chosen to
disregard the complete incompatibility that exists between truth and
error (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1), and have suppressed what they could
have known about God and his justice (Romans 1:18-21, 32).
- We tend to view things backwards. Otherwise, we would
never accuse God of injustice, when he judges people for sin. It is
the person who isn't being put to death, when he
compromises, who isn't getting what he deserves. (He will, though, at
the coming Day of Justice.)
- The New Testament also says that people who do this
deserve death. God's attitude remains the same from beginning to end
of the Bible (See, for example, Revelation 2:16, where Jesus warns
those who are guilty of this sin that they are in danger of the sword
of judgment.) However, we also learn, in the New Testament, that
there is hope, forgiveness and renewal, for all who are willing to
repent of their ways, to abandon their false gods (whatever form they
may take), and to trust in the true God alone.
There are several things we can learn from Balaam and these events in
Israel's history. Among them are the following:
The apostle Paul tells us that the events in Israel's history were
written down to teach us, to warn us of the consequences of sin - 1
Corinthians 10:6. He uses this very judgment (Numbers 25) as an
example of this. (See 1 Corinthians 10:8, where he tells us that
23,000 Israelites died in one day.)
- According to Paul, the same types of sins can occur among people
who call themselves "Christians." One specific example at
Corinth is mentioned in 10:14-22.
- It is also of note that people in the Corinthian church were
being judged and were sick or dying, because of sin - 11:27-32.
These events show us that God takes the sin of compromise very seriously.
It is not something for us to take lightly. We must
completely reject Balaam's teaching, that compromise is an acceptable
practice (compare to Revelation 2:14).
The fact that God can use a person to accomplish good things is not
a guarantee that the person is saved. God used Balaam to say good
things about Israel, even though Balaam had an evil heart. All this
proves is that God can use people in spite of who they are.
He can even use a donkey, if he wishes (Numbers 22:21-33).
We are under the New Covenant (New Testament), and do not have the
right to kill compromisers who may exist in the church.
However, we still have the mandatory obligation to
deal with the sin and to remove the offenders from the church, if
they refuse to repent. [This was also illustrated at the church of
Corinth. In chapter 5, Paul told them to expel a certain individual
who was guilty of sexual sin.]
Note that this sin of compromise involves issues in which truth and
error are deemed compatible. It involves attempts to encourage
"fellowship" between moral opposites. (See 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1.)
It does not have reference to instances in which people try
to reach an agreement on differences of opinion that do not
involve moral and spiritual issues, or to "compromises"
such as may be suggested in Luke 12:58-59.
Dennis Hinks © 2002