Who Were Balaam and His Talking Donkey in the Bible?

Balaam, a wicked prophet, encounters a strange phenomenon involving an angel and a talking donkey on his way to speak with the Moabite officials.
Hope Bolinger
Who Were Balaam and His Talking Donkey in the Bible?

One of the weirdest passages in the Old Testament takes place between the chapters of Number 22-24.

Balaam, a wicked prophet, encounters a strange phenomenon on his way to speak with the Moabite officials. In this article we’ll discuss who Balaam was, what strange thing happened on the road to Moab with his donkey, and why it matters for us today.

Who Were Balaam and King Balak?

Before we dive into the personhood of Balaam, we have to set up the historical context. The Moabites, descendants of an incestuous offspring of Lot (Abraham’s nephew, Genesis 19:37) didn’t like that the Israelites were lurking a little too close to their lands during the Exodus.

Balak, their king, knew how Israel had handled another one of their enemies, the Amorites—descendants of Canaan (Genesis 10:15-16) and fierce warriors.

Fearing for his kingdom, Balak summons a Balaam, a prophet, to come and curse the Israelites people.

Balaam apparently can’t curse the Israelites without receiving the Lord’s permission first. Whether this is reminiscent of Satan having to receive God’s permission before he can afflict Job (Job 2:6) or for some other reason, he needs the go-ahead from God first.

Not surprisingly, God does not allow him to curse the people He has blessed.

Despite all of this, the Moabite king sends more officials who claim Balaam will earn prizes of silver if they accompany him to the king to curse Israel. Balaam saddles his donkey and heads to Moab because God told him, “go with them, but do only what I tell you” (Numbers 22:20.

Balaam’s Donkey Talks, and Balaam Sees and Angel.

God sends an angel to divert Balaam’s path on the road to Moab. Balaam can’t see it but apparently his donkey can (Numbers 22:23). It keeps veering off the path, so its owner keeps beating it.

After the third beating, the donkey turns to him and speaks, asking why Balaam keeps beating him. God opens Balaam’s eyes, and he sees the angel in the road a sword drawn. Then Balaam repents.

The angel tells him to continue to Moab, but instead of a curse, God tells him to say a blessing.

It seems, from this point, that Balaam had turned to God and refused to curse those whom God has blessed, but as we see in the next chapter, even a prophet can put on a false face and make it seem like he’d repented.

Balaam Turns Wicked Again.

Although Balaam could not say anything without God’s permission, he figured out a way to curse Israel indirectly in Numbers 25.

Through coaxing the Moabite women to sleep with the Israelite men, they began to lead Israel astray as they worshipped other gods (Numbers 25:2, Revelation 2:14). Like Solomon’s wives who had encouraged him to go after idols, these women convince the Israelites to worship Baal, an infamous god in the Old Testament (Numbers 25:3).

Anyone who worships this god in this chapter receives the death penalty, 24,000 in all.

What Can We Learn from the Story of Balaam?

This may seem like one of the more obscure stories in the Old Testament, but we can apply a great deal of it to our lives today.

1. Not everyone who speaks words of truth or blessing are from God.

You can find threads of the gospel in secular writings such as Plato’s analogy of the cave. That passage has remarkable hints of the gospel, but it was written by someone who never knew God. Balaam spoke more than one blessing over Israel, but that didn’t mean he belonged to God.

2. People can “repent” and still live without Christ.

It seems, in the story, that Balaam sees the error of his ways. He even admits, out loud, that he sinned. When he goes to bless Israel, it seems as though he made the turn for the better. But in the very next chapter, he enacts a plan that wipes out 24,000 Israelites.

3. The love of money can cause us to do terrible things.

Although not spoken explicitly in the Numbers passage, Jude 1:11 hints he introduced the Moabite women to Israel for financial gain. Maybe Balak would see Balaam found a way to curse them without words, and he would be rewarded handsomely.

Overall, we can learn that God can work through anyone, even those who don’t belong to him. But we have to be wary of the wolves in sheep’s clothing. Someone who blesses you, who does not know the Lord, may curse you in the next breath.

Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a recent graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 400 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, “Blaze,” (Illuminate YA) just released, and they contracted the sequel for 2020. Find out more about her here.

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Random Institute


Originally published August 29, 2019.