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Balak was the king of the Moabites (see Moab) at the time that the Israelites were about to enter their promised land, from the east, through Moab which was located east of The Jordan River. The Moabites were actually distant cousins of the Israelites; Moab was a son of Abraham's nephew Lot i.e. "Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father. The first-born bore a son, and called his name Moab; he is the father of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son, and called his name Ben-ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites to this day" (Genesis 19:36-38 RSV). Balaam was a "diviner" from Mesopotamia (known today as Iraq; see also Settlers and Invaders From Iraq). When Balak saw what the Israelites had been doing to all that opposed their march home, he hired Balaam ("with the fees for divination") to put a curse on them.
"Then the people of Israel set out, and encamped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan at Jericho.
Balaam accepted the job, but while Balaam was traveling to Balak, The Lord warned the mentally ill wizard by having his donkey speak to him, an event recalled in the New Testament as well i.e. "Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a dumb ass spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet's madness." (2 Peter 2:15-16 RSV)
"Then The Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?"
Numbers Chapter 23
The Lord allowed Balaam to live, and to continue on to Balak - but he would be given to bless the Israelites, not curse them. Over and over, much to the dismay of his employer Balak, Balaam obeyed The Lord and blessed the Israelites with his "oracles" (see the Fact Finder question below).
"And Balaam took up his discourse ["oracle" in the King James - see the Fact Finder question below], and said, "From Aram Balak has brought me, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains: 'Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!' How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom The Lord has not denounced? For from the top of the mountains I see him, from the hills I behold him; lo, a people dwelling alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations! Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his!"
"And Balaam took up his discourse, and said, "Rise, Balak, and hear; hearken to me, O son of Zippor: God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it? Behold, I received a command to bless: he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it. He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob; nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them. God brings them out of Egypt; they have as it were the horns of the wild ox. For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, 'What has God wrought!' Behold, a people! As a lioness it rises up and as a lion it lifts itself; it does not lie down till it devours the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain." (Numbers 23:18-24 RSV)
Numbers Chapter 24
Balaam was actually prophesying by means of the Holy Spirit ("the Spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse, and said, "The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened," quoted below); unfortunately, he wasted his opportunity for conversion and was later killed by the Israelites ("They warred against Midian, as The Lord commanded Moses, and slew every male. They slew the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian; and they also slew Balaam the son of Beor with the sword," Numbers 31:7-8 RSV)
"When Balaam saw that it pleased The Lord to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness. And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and saw Israel encamping tribe by tribe. And the Spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse, and said, "The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, the oracle of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down, but having his eyes uncovered: how fair are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! Like valleys that stretch afar, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that The Lord has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters. Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted." (Numbers 21:1-7 RSV)
Balaam even saw the "star" that would come out of Israel.
"And he took up his discourse, and said, "The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down, but having his eyes uncovered: I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth." (Numbers 24:15-17 RSV)Fact Finder: What is an "oracle"?