Sermon preached in King’s College Chapel, University of Aberdeen,

       October 20, 1912;  The Expositor, 8th Series, V (1913) 1-11.








                                      George Adam Smith



THE story of Balaam has engaged the genius and been

illuminated by the expository powers of some of the great-

est preachers of Christianity; conspicuous among whom

(as we all know) are Bishop Butler with his sermon on the

Character of Balaam and John Henry Newman in his dis-

course on Obedience without Love. Both of these classics

display a rich sagacity and a solemn power of searching

the heart. But they take different views of the character

of this extraordinary heathen, and of his conduct upon first

coming under the influence of the true God.

Such differences between high authorities, equally honest

in seeking the meaning of Scripture, are to be explained

by the discovery, made since their time, of the complex

structure of the story, woven as it is from two differing and

even contradictory traditions. We now, also, enjoy a fuller

knowledge of the historical situation and the religious atmo-

sphere in which Balaam is represented as acting. We are

more able to place him on his proper stage in the history

of religion--slowly making its long way up to Christ--and

therefore more able to read the lessons which his story is

fitted to afford us for our own faith and conduct.


1 A sermon preached in King's College Chapel, University of Aberdeen,

October 20, 1912, from these texts: And when Balaam saw that it pleased

the Lord to bless Israel he went not as at other times to seek for omens, but he

set his face towards the wilderness (Num. xxiii. 23). Henceforth I call you not

slaves, for the slave" knoweth not what his lord doeth, but I have called you

friends, for all things that I have heard from my Father 1 have made known to

you (John's Gospel, xiv. 15).


The Expositor VOL. V. JANUARY, 1913.   1


2                 THE EXPERIENCE OF BALAAM


You remember the outlines of the story. Alarmed by
Israel’s defeat of Sihon, the king of the Amorites, Balak

king of Moab sent across the Arabian wilderness for a dis-

tant prophet named Balaam, the son of Beor, to come and

curse this people which threatened to devour the others.

But under the influence of Israel's God Balaam, after some

reluctance and doubt, refused to curse; and in four metrical

Redes or Oracles he blessed Israel, acknowledging their irre-

sistibleness under Divine Providence and predicting their

dominion over their neighbours.

The prose narrative, which tells us all this, is one of the

finest m the Old Testament. Partly from the language,

partly from inconsistencies among the things told, it is clear

that the writer has used (as I have said) two different tradi-

tions of the story and worked them, with some alterations,

into the finished form which excites our admiration.  His

indifference to certain discrepancies of detail, which he has

left standing, is the indifference of a powerfully dramatic

spirit, absorbed by the conflict of rival religious influences,

and by the victory, even in a heathen mind, of that purer and

more potential faith with which Israel was identified. Our

interest in so lofty an issue is not disturbed by the facts that

Balaam is described now as an Aramean from as far away

as the Euphrates, and again as an Ammonite riding into

Moab upon his own ass from the immediately neighbouring

province1 now as convoyed by the princes of Balak, and

again as accompanied by only two servants; now as receiv-

ing God's permission to go to Balak, and again as exciting

God's wrath by consenting to go. Indeed the last of these

differences, and the most curious, may be due not to two


1 Numbers xxii. 5a and xxiii. 7 from Aram; but the rest of xxii. 5

appears (from the Samaritan, Syriac and Vulgate) to have been originally

to the land of the children of Ammon. For many other proofs of a double

narrative see the commentaries, especially Prof. G. B. Gray's.





discrepant traditions, but to the naive effort of one and the

same narrator to convey the first confused effects upon

Balaam's mind of a religious force purer than the spirit

in which he was accustomed to perform his offices. Such

an ambiguity would be natural in a man dazzled by his

encounter with the new light; and the narrator was only

following the methods of his age if he articulated that

ambiguity into a tale of two opposite commands from God.

It is curious that Balaam himself contradicts his biographer.

God, he says in one of his Redes,

God is not man to belie,

Neither man's son to repent.1


This, however, is a subsidiary question, and cannot affect

our reading of the writer's treatment of the mind and char-

acter of Balaam. In Balaam himself the writer is interested

throughout. Recently this interest has been ignored or

denied, as if Balaam's character did not matter much in the

devlopment of the drama. It is true that the religious

interests of the story dominate the psychological. The main

issue is between the purpose of God with Israel and the

human powers which from Pharaoh to Sihon and Balak

have sought to frustrate it. But this conflict is described

--in detail and with zest--as being waged, and as issuing

to the assurance of Israel's victory, within the mental ex-

perience of Balaam himself. I sympathise, therefore, with

the older expositors who concentrate their attention upon

the behaviour of this strange being, and take his character

as the pivot of the story; only I agree that some of them

have wrongly interpreted that character. Bishop Butler,

for instance, treats Balaam as if his besetting sin were

avarice. But except for an ambiguous statement-in only


1 N um. xxiii. 9. So evident a contradiction testifies to the original

independence of the poetical Redes and the prose narrative; and, 80

far aa it goes, is evidence for the earlier date of the Redes.


4                 THE EXPERIENCE OF BALAAM



one of the traditions--there is no imputation of avarice to

Balaam. On the contrary, when Balak's promise of reward

is repeated Balaam becomes only more decided not to dis-

obey the word of God. Newman's explanation, that Balaam

illustrates the insufficiency and the danger of obedience

without love, is nearer the truthl; but it lacks a full intelli-

gence of the issues. There is a conflict in Balaam's mind,

but this is not between duty and avarice or ambition. It

is a conflict between the habits and ideas under which the

prophets of the heathen worked and the religious influ-

ence of a higher order which is represented as coming upon

Balaam from the God of Israel. The issue is between the

spirit of Israel's religion and the less rational tempers of

the other religions of the time, and it is worked out in the

experience of one of the prophets of these religions, when

brought face to face with the facts of Israel's history.

Balaam is essentially an Arab seer of an early type--

the type which combined the priest's office of ritual, the

diviner's reliance upon spells and lots, and the prophet's

use of ecstasy and trance. Some of these men rose to great

fame in Arabia, and were frequently called from a great

distance, as Balaam was called by Balak, to assist chiefs or

tribes who were in difficulty. One of the principal func-

tions for which they were employed was to curse the foes

of their employers; and this was regarded as a sacred func-

tion of divine efficacy, and was accompanied by sacrifices

and other rites and by the reading of omens and the casting

of lots.

To such practices our text states that Balaam was accus-

tomed. He himself directs the building of altars and the

elaborate sacrifices which precede his oracles, and he goes

to seek for omens. Observe also in chapter xxiii. that when


1 Newman indeed denies that Balaam "made up his mind for himself

according to the suggestions of avarice or ambition."





one site for these performances proves inauspicious and

fails to compel him to curse Israel, he consents on Balak's

motion to change the stage on the chance that his message

may change with it. That is a resource characteristic of

paganism all the world over; and along with other features

of the story proves the writer's fidelity to the religious

conditions of the time.

But while continuing to try all these, his professional rites

and shifts, Balaam holds true to one thing, that he will

only speak the word which God shall speak to him. To

this he is constant, making it plain both before he will con-

sent to come with Balak's messengers and throughout the

course of gambling artifices which after his coming are

employed to influence his message. His faithfulness is

rewarded and his patience to listen receives an answer. The

word comes to him, and it is a word not to curse but to bless.

On what does Balaam base the conviction for which he

has waited so impartially, and which when it arrives is

strong enough to overwhelm his former practices and

ideas? He rests it on the fact that God has already blessed

Israel. There is no use in him, Balaam, fighting against a

Divine Fact. That is the whole matter-very simple and

very clear.

He puts it in his opening words-

From Aram Baldk doth bring me,

Moab's king from hills of the East.

"Go curse thou me Jacob,

And go damn Israel!"

How curse I, whom God curseth not,

How damn whom the LORD hath not damned?1

 *   *   *   *   *

Behold, to bless I have gotten,

And blessing I cannot reverse it!2


            1 xxiii. 7-8.                 2 xxiii, 20.

6                 THE EXPERIENCE OF BALAAM



The facts are there, and in his various oracles he tells us

how he sees them. The people of Israel already bears to

his eye that strange aspect of peculiarity and aloofness which

even through the centuries of their dispersion has marked

them out as separate from the rest of humanity.

For from the rock's head I see them,

From the heights I behold them.

Lo, a people that dwelleth alone,

Nor reckons itself of the nations!1

There is nothing in their condition which is ominous of

disaster, or which justifies a curse.

I mark nothing wrong with Jacob,

Nor see any strain on Israel--2

any trace of vvearUness or stress. lIe points to their great


Who hath measured the dust of Jacob,

Or counted Israel's myriads?--3

to their wonderful progress out of Egypt-

'Tis ,God out of Egypt that brought them,

And theirs is the strength of the wild ox;--4

to the goodly appearance of their camps, to their fertility,

to the power of their movements, to the ease with which they

defeat their foes:--

How goodly thy tents, 0 Jacob,

Thy dwellings, Israel!

Like valleys they spread,

Like riverside gardens,

Like cedars God planted,

Like oaks upon water!5

*   *   *   *   *


1 xxiii. 9

2 xxiii. 21.                  3 xxiii. 10 after the Greek.          4 xxiii. 22, xxiv. 8.

5 xxiv. 5, 6 (the last two lines from an emended text).





Lo, the folk like a lioness riseth,

Like a lion uprears.

Nor will couch till he eateth the prey,

And drinketh the blood of the slain.1

And finally he, a -stranger and alien to the commonwealth

of Israel, appreciates the faith and enthusiasm with which

the strength of this people is instinct.

The LORD his God is with him,

And the sound of a King is upon him.2

It is in these facts, obvious to the plain man but rhythmic

and eloquent to the poet, that Balaam finds the Presence

and the Will of God, with the substance of the message he

is to give to those who have asked him for it. Against such

a tide of reality what does it avail to set up bulwarks of

altars, of ritual and of magic? Of what use are spells,

enchantments and omens? You will observe that Balaam

does not speak of morality. He has not the conscience of

the later prophets, nor any idea of God's demands for

penitence, purity and service from men. It is historical

and obvious facts on which he insists. Yet Balaam has

his own sense of religion and of the character of God. He

is at least awake to the Divine consistency; and with some

anticipation both of the religious faith and the rational

science of still distant days--which is startling to find in

so early and rude a figure--he affirms the regularity and

faithfulness of all God's working:



Arise and hearken, Balak,

Give ear to me, son of Sippor!

God is not man to belie,

Neither man's son to repent.

Hath He said and doth not perform,

Or spoken and will not fulfil it?3


1 xxiii. 24.                  2 xxiii. 21.                  3 xxiii. 18, 19


8                 THE EXPERIENCE OF BALAAM



There you have his whole equipment and character.

Brought up in the irrational methods of heathenism, accus-

tomed to believe in the omnipotence of rites and spells,

and anxious to magnify his office, Balaam has yet a cer-

tain openness of mind to facts, a capacity of his own to

read their consistency and rhythm and a courage to face

their consequences, which prevail over the prejudices and

interests by which he is swayed. There is a primitive

integrity of mind and a primitive reverence in the man

which grips our respect--grips our respect and also lets us

see how God in all ages has chosen and equipped His pro-


Nor is our appreciation of this mind, groping so far back

there on the confines of light and darkness, lessened by the

fact that it did not rise clear of all the passion of its time

but is described as working heavily in trance or ecstasy.



Rede of Balaam, Bear's son,

Rede of the eye-sealed (?) man.-

In vision he sees the Almighty,

Falling yet open of eye (?).1



In Israel the beginnings of prophecy were also in trance;

and uncontrollable excitement has characterised the origins

of genuinely religious movements within Christianity itself.

Balaam has the servile temper which does not understand

the fulness of the truth that has come to him and staggers

beneath it. He grovels under the approach of his convic-

tions, but he honestly utters them when they arrive. If I

may take another Arabian prophet, upon much the same

stage of development as Balaam, I would remind you that

Mohammed behaved very similarly under the earliest im-

pulses of his calling-a bemused, ecstatic, perhaps epileptic

man: yet he lived to bring all Arabia to his feet.


1 xxiv. 15, 16,




For this is the kind of man whom, though blinded and

"prostrate, God shall one day call to stand up and send upon

his way in full control of his faculties. This is the spirit

which, if it has been faithful as the slave of the truth, shall

at last hear the glad words: Henceforth I call you not slaves,

for the slave knoweth not what his lord doeth but I have called

you friends, for all things that I have heard of my Father I

have made known to you. In Balaam we have one end of

that long course of gradual revelation of which the other

is reached in Christ and His disciples.

For in no other way did God raise up the long succession

of Hebrew prophets who led to Christ. In early Israel we

see Prophecy so evidently rising out of the same low re-

ligious environment and by means of the same convictions

of inspiration by God, that the experience attributed to

Balaam may well stand as the symbol of the origins of Pro-

phecyl; just as at the other end of the history of Israel the

equally curious figure of Jonah is the symbol of some of the

later experiences of prophecy. God picked His prophets

man by man out of a state of religion little removed from

heathenism, and educated their primitive power, to see and

to be true to facts, into the clear knowledge of His nature

and His Will. Like those of their Arab kinsmen the early

Hebrew seers were engaged with a rude ritual-common

to all the peoples of their race-with divination by omens

and lots, with blessing the arms of their people and banning

their foes; while the trance and the dream were their

frequent means of seeking the Divine Will. But gradually


1 Several features both in the prose and in the poetry converge on the

probability that the date of the story as we have it (whatever earlier

elements it may contain) is that of the early kingdom of Israel when the

nation was rich in instincts of power and growth, and when the new order

of prophecy, recently arisen under Samuel, was emerging from its rudi-

mentary conditions. See my Schweich Lectures before the British Acad-

emy on The Early Poetry of Israel in its Physical and Social Origins, 70, 71.


10                THE EXPERIENCE OF BALAAM


they discarded all these things. Under Samuel prophecy

was separated from the ritual with its paralysing influences.

From Samuel onwards prophecy repudiated divination

and magic. With men like Elijah and Amos it threw off

allegiance to political patrons; and in time it rose even

free of ecstasy, till, as St. Paul says, the spirits of the pro-

phets were subject to the prophets. And all these advances

and emancipations depended on the individual prophet's

own mental integrity, on his eye for facts and on his courage

to face them: the facts of his people's history and the truth

of their present condition; the facts of the moral world

and their enduring and impregnable firmness. There, of

course, the prophets soared into realms undreamt of by

Balaam. It was this loyalty to facts which gave them their

scorn of ritual and magic and their uncompromising courage

against the political interests of kings and the vulgar un-

ethical ideals of the people. It was this, and this alone, which

to the last constituted the distinction of the true prophets

from the false; who also claimed to speak in the name of

God and many of whom, though stupid, were not insincere

in the convictions they expressed. Personal character

then, this mental integrity which saw the fact, moral or

historical, and read it and was brave to be loyal to it, was

the basis and condition of the true prophet.

Such men, bred like Balaam in more or less servile rela-

tions to the truth, subject in many ways to the superstitions

and false science of their age, God lifted out of their

slavery and, in the words of Christ, made them His friends.

They enjoyed, as they tell us, a close communion with Him-

self. They were forgiven and they were trusted afresh

by His Grace, past all their deserts or abilities. They were

steeped in His purity, His patience and His love. He

led them into the secrets of His nature and His will. He

made them partners with Himself in His passion for men.


THE EXPERIENCE OF BALAAM                       11



By their own sufferings for the sins of others,1 He gave them

an understanding of His very heart; and they felt how it

was not only full of travail for the spiritual victory of His

children, but itself bore to the uttermost weight the shame

and the misery of their sins and defeats.

That was the friendship to which God lifted the prophets

and Christ lifted His disciples, and that was the Gospel they

won from it for all mankind.

For all mankind-you remember the prayer of one who

was himself a great prophet: Would God that all the LORD'S

people were prophets, and that the LORD would put His spirit

upon them!

My brethren, for you and for me, the lessons of this long,

slow and painful history of our religion are these.

God deals with us one by one on the ground and the tem-

per of our own character. It is true that His Grace does

meet and touch the very lowest-mentally and morally the

very lowest. And of them he can make the highest, for

He maketh all things new.

But He must have on our part a certain truthfulness, if

even He is to work anything with us; a certain mental

integrity, however ignorant; a heart, above all, for facts.

He must have in us reverence and deep awe before the facts of

His moral world; honesty and courage to face the facts. of our

own characters and conduct. For these things mean penitence,

and with the penitent alone He can work. Behold Thou desirest

truth in the inward parts. If that is there, the rest by His

Grace shall follow. Of His slaves He shall make His friends,

lifting us through Christ into His Love-into the freedom

and the trustfulness and the security, which no sincerity, nor

courage, nor any other strength of character may assure-

however indispensable they all are; but which His Love alone

and a daily communion with Him can bring to our weak

wills and feeble hearts.             



1 As notably in the case of Hosea.


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