Did the non-Israelite prophet Baalam exist?


There is disagreement in the ancient Jewish sources whether Balaam, the non-Israelite prophet who tried to curse Israel, actually existed, or if he did exist, did parts of the story really happen. Whether he existed or not, there is no consensus as to whether he was a good or bad man, and whether he was a sorcerer or a prophet.


Did Balaam exist?

The Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 15a, states: “Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Balaam and Job.” Since the story of Balaam is part of the Torah, why does the Talmud tell us that Moses wrote it? Various answers are given by different commentators. None are entirely satisfactory. The problems with the Balaam and Job stories are many, including Moses could not have known what happened to Balaam and Job, and there is no indication that any Israelite ever saw Balaam or Job or heard what they said. Even more significantly, the story of a donkey criticizing Balaam is impossible, and the tale that a satan argued with God in Job is unbelievable.


Maimonides maintained that if logic or scientific knowledge contradicts the literal sense of the biblical text, that text must not be taken literally, but understood figuratively or allegorically. He understood the narratives of the creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Abraham’s encounters with angels, Jacob wrestling with an angel, Balaam’s talking donkey, and other unnatural events as allegories or parables.[1] Maimonides wrote that the entire book of Job is an allegory.[2] Was he hinting that not only the episode of the donkey but the entire story of Balaam is an allegory?


The scant biblical description of Balaam

The story of Balaam, including an episode where his donkey criticizes him, is narrated in Numbers chapters 22–24 and 31:15–16. A brief neutral recollection is also in Deuteronomy 23:5–6, Joshua 24:9–10, Nehemiah 13:1–2 and Micah 6:5. The recollections only recall that Balaam attempted to curse the Israelites, but that God turned the curses into blessings. No value judgment is made.


Negative depictions of Balaam

The view of the first Jewish philosopher Philo

The first written value judgment of Balaam’s character is contained in Philo (about 20 B.C.E.–50 C.E.). In Vita Mosis, he is pictured as a liar and a hypocrite. Despite Balaam’s claims, God never appeared to him at all. In VM 52.287: the seer proved himself to be even worse than the king…he pressed forward even more readily than his conductor [the king who hired him], partly because he was dominated by the worst of vices and conceit, partly because in his heart he longed to curse, even if he were prevented from doing so with his voice.


The New Testament

There are three New Testament passages that discuss Balaam: 2 Peter 2:15–16, Jude 11, and Revelations 2:14. They disparage the seer as willing to sin because of greed for salary (Peter and Jude) and that he led the Israelites to eat food sacrificed to idols, and to fornication (Revelations).


The treatment of Balaam by early Bible translators

The Palestinian Targums, the translations of the Bible into Aramaic that were composed in Israel, expand upon the pejorative descriptions. The Targum called Neophyti describes Balaam as “wicked.” It states that he lacked understanding, and charged him with taking advantage of his employer’s messengers (in 22:30). Balaam admits in the expanded Targumic version of the story that because of his behavior he expects to have no portion in the world to come in (23:10). He is depicted as being so depraved that he set up his daughters as prostitutes (24:25). Yet in 24:3 and 15, Neophyti ironically praises Balaam as being more honorable than his father and surprisingly states that “what has been hidden from all the other prophets has been revealed to him.”


The Aramaic Translation Pseudo-Jonathan identifies Balaam as Lavan the Aramean, the uncle of Jacob and father of Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel. He was insane because of the burden of his abundant knowledge (22:5). He had no pity for the Israelites despite their being his descendants (22:5). His own ass ridiculed him and called him a fool, criticized him for deceiving Balak’s messengers, and reminded him that he, the ass, had given Balaam carnal pleasure (22:30). Nevertheless, this Targum praises Balaam, as does Neophyti, in 24:3–4 and 15, for being more glorious than his father and for knowing dark mysteries that were hidden from other prophets. Balaam in this Targum’s enlarged version of the episode advised Balak to use seductive women to ensnare the Israelites. He should place them in inns where food and drink are sold inexpensively, so that the Israelites would be enticed to come, have sexual intercourse with them and reject God (24:14, 25, 31:8). He was later killed by Moses’ bother’s grandson Pinchas when he tried to escape by flying through the air with magical incantations. Pinchas, according to this Targum, was able to fly and pursue Balaam because he pronounced God’s holy name. Pinchas flew after Balaam, seized him by the head, pulled him down to earth, and slew him with his sword.


The Mishnah’s view

The Mishnah Avot 5:19 continues the disparaging and insulting portrait of the prophet. It contrasts “the wicked” Balaam, who has an evil eye, a proud soul, and a haughty mind, with the patriarch Abraham, who has a good eye and a humble soul.


The Talmud expands upon the Mishnah

The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 105a–106b, is similarly insulting. It states that the name Balaam denotes his character. He is either belo am, “without a people” – meaning he has no portion in the world-to-come with other people, or blm, “he devoured [or corrupted] a people.” He is identified, as in Pseudo-Jonathan, with Lavan the Syrian. His father was a prophet, but Balaam’s powers were greater. He was reduced from being a prophet to a soothsayer as a punishment for trying to curse Israel. He was wicked. He was blind in one eye and limped on one foot. He practiced enchantment by means of his membrum. He committed bestiality with his ass. Although he offered forty-two sacrifices for an unworthy purpose, to enable him to curse Israel, he was nevertheless rewarded with the privilege of having Ruth, the ancestor of King David, as his descendant. Balaam advised King Balak how to entice the young Israelite males. He later returned to Balak demanding payment for the twenty-four thousand Israelites who were destroyed by a divine plague through his advice.


He was present when the Israelites slew the Midianite kings and was killed with them. He was thirty years old when he was killed. The story is in other books of the Babylonian Talmud: Baba Bathra 15b, Avodah Zarah 4a–b, Taanit 20a, and in the Jerusalem Talmud Sotah 5:8, 20b.


A Midrash is similar

The Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20:6 also slights Balaam. It states that God “raised up Moses for Israel and Balaam for the idolaters,” but it called Balaam a despicable person, “a vessel full of urine.” He destroyed his soul by going to help King Balak (20:11).


Portrayals of Balaam in a favorable manner


Balaam appears in a good light, as a tragic hero in the early biblical interpreter, the Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum of Pseudo-Philo. Balaam has no antipathy for the Israelites, no greed, and no sympathy for Moab’s cause. His only wish is to do God’s will. He was deceived by King Balak whom he pitied. Finally, realizing his mistake, and that he had no chance to return to God’s favor, he committed spiritual suicide by giving evil advice to Balak.


Midrash Sifrei

Midrash Sifrei, like Pseudo-Philo, is also complimentary. It states that although no Israelite prophet compared to Moses, the non-Israelite Balaam was comparable and was greater in three respects. Moses, according to this Midrash, did not know who spoke with him or when the vision would occur, but Balaam knew these facts. Moses, according to this Midrash, had to stand when he received prophecy, while Balaam was able to relax by lying down.


Targum Onkelos

In contrast to the Palestinian Targums, the authoritative, rabbinically accepted early fifth century Babylonian Targum Onkelos, which drew many of its interpretations from the early Midrashim, including the Midrash Sifrei, reflects the view of Sifrei. Thus, in its translation of 22:29, for example, the ass is not said to criticize Balaam, “you have acted ruthlessly,” but the translator softens the words to, “you have mocked me.” This Targum also adds the concept of “prophecy” in 24:2 and elevates Balaam’s role.


Midrash Pesikta d’ Rabbi Kahana

The Midrash Pesikta d’Rabbi Kahana is also positive. It states that no philosophers rose among the nations of the world that equaled Balaam.


Middle path


The first century Jewish historian Josephus wrote (in Antiquities 4, 6, 13, 158) that Balaam …was the man to whom Moses did the high honor of recording his prophecies; and though it was open to him to appropriate and take credit for them himself, as there would have been no witness to convict him [he piously refrained from doing so]…. His memory is perpetuated by the biblical story.


Balaam’s fault, according to Josephus, was his misguided desire to please King Balak. Josephus calls Balaam “the greatest of the prophets at that time,” a man who did not speak by “inspiration,” but by “divine spirit.” He went with Balak’s messengers because he understood that this was God’s will. When he learned through the episode of the ass that God was displeased with his journey, he decided to stop his journey and return home, but God told him to continue the trip. Balaam advised Balak how to corrupt the Israelite men with female prostitutes, yet, he warned Balak that the victory achieved through this scheme would only be a small misfortune and a temporary setback to the Israelites.



Contrary to the view of many, Judaism is not monolithic. Its sages can and do disagree, as shown in the variety of interpretations given to the Balaam story.



[1] Guide of the Perplexed 2:41-42.

[2] Guide of the Perplexed 3:22-23.