Q/A: Why Was God Mad at Balaam for Going If He Said He Could?
During the period of Israelite history when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Promised Land, Numbers 21 indicates that the Israelites defeated the Amorites—a nation of people dwelling to the east of the Jordan River. In Numbers 22, we read that Balak, the king of the Moabites (descendants of Lot—Genesis 19:36-37—also dwelling east of the Jordan River), had heard of the Israelite invasion, and had become fearful for his own nation. His response was to call for the “diviner,” Balaam, to come curse the Israelites (vss. 5-6). The text says that God spoke to Balaam, telling him neither to go with the messengers from Balak nor to curse the Israelites (vs. 12). Balaam complied, and the messengers returned to Balak with the bad news, but Balak refused to give up.
A larger entourage of noble princes was sent by Balak to Balaam to plead with him to curse the Israelites. In response, Balaam wisely said, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more” (vs. 18). Balaam told the messengers to stay with him that night, while he waited to see if God would give him more information. Sure enough, God spoke to Balaam again. It is argued that in verse 20, God gave Balaam permission to go with the men, as long as he only spoke what God told him to speak. The text then says that “Balaam rose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab” (vs. 21).
The question has been raised, if God gave Balaam permission to go to Balak, why would He then change His mind and become angry with Balaam “because he went” (vs. 22)—so much so that He sent His Angel to stand in the way of Balaam? Verse 33 even indicates that the Angel would have killed Balaam had it not been for his donkey, which could see the Angel, though Balaam could not. Is this a legitimate contradiction that has been raised against the Bible or the nature of God? Is God “wishy-washy” or untrustworthy? How can He be a fair and just God and yet have anger towards Balaam in this instance, when he only did what God said he could do?
The key to the answer lies in the two letter word—“if.” It is easy to read through God’s statement to Balaam and miss the condition that He placed on giving Balaam permission to go: “If the men come to call you, rise and go with them” (verse 20). Matthew Henry concurs, stating that,
God gave him leave to go if the men called him, but he was so fond of the journey that we do not find he staid for their calling him, but he himself rose up in the morning, got everything ready with all speed, and went with the princes of Moab, who were proud enough that they had carried their point. The apostle describes Balaam’s sin here to be that he ran greedily into an error for reward, Jude 1:11 (2014, Numbers 22:21).
The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary similarly argues that “[t]he displeasure arose partly from his neglecting the condition on which leave was granted him—namely, to wait till the princes of Moab ‘came to call him’ (Numbers 22:20), and because, through desire for ‘the wages of unrighteousness’ (2 Peter 2:15), he entertained the secret purpose of acting in opposition to the solemn charge of God” (2012, Numbers 22:22). Adam Clarke explains,
Mr. Shuckford observes that the pronoun הוא (hu) is sometimes used to denote a person’s doing a thing out of his own head, without regard to the directions of another. Thus in the case of Balaam, when God had allowed him to go with the messengers of Balak, if they came in the morning to call him; because he was more hasty than he ought to have been, and went to them instead of staying till they should come to him, it was said of him, not כי הלך (ki halach), that he went, but כי הולך הוא (ki holech hu), i.e., he went of his own head—without being called (2013, Numbers 22:20).
One might assume that Balaam’s request that Balak’s messengers stay with him that night meant that they would stay with him in his own tent or house. This would seemingly make God’s condition on Balaam going—“If the men come to call you” (vs. 20)—trivial, as they would have already been with him in the tent. Their “calling him” in the morning would seem to be an inevitability, and therefore, the text would not need to directly state the fulfillment of the condition. However, the fact that the disclaimer is given is significant, as God does not waste words. Every word of God would be expected to be and is significant and noteworthy (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 5:18; 12:36).
In truth, it is highly unlikely that the entourage was staying in the same tent with Balaam, considering that the text indicates there were “numerous” princes in the caravan (vs. 15), and most certainly, an envoy of many troops to protect the princes and servants to see to their needs. More likely, a large camp with several tents was set up. Thus, God intended for Balaam to wait for the princes to come to Balaam’s tent the next morning to inquire after God’s will—a humbling experience for them, to be sure. This would highlight to the messengers that God was the ultimate Source of authority for blessings and curses, and would help alleviate the impression Balaam was surely giving: that he was all too eager to go with the men to do their bidding: to curse God’s people—who God said in verse 12 were blessed. In light of 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11, it is likely that Balaam’s greedy desire for profit from the Moabites would have certainly shown itself as eagerness to the envoy.
Sadly, Balaam ignored God’s condition. His eagerness for gaining money, his desire to appease Balak, and perhaps his own interest in cursing the Israelites overpowered him. Instead of waiting for the men to call the next morning, he got up, saddled his donkey, and left with the princes. God did not unjustly threaten Balaam. God’s anger was aimed at Balaam’s presumptuous disregard for His stipulations, and His response was to send His Angel to confront him for his error and warn him of his impending doom. If he ignored God’s first stipulation, it would have been easy for him to ignore the second stipulation—that he was to only speak what God told him to (vs. 20). While God’s disfavor with Balaam for ignoring His first stipulation was obviously significant, if Balaam attempted to curse the Israelites, it would have most certainly caused his own death.
Balaam’s eagerness was clearly getting away from him. From his perspective, it is reasonable to suppose that since God allowed him to go, he would also allow him to do what the Moabites desired and curse the Israelites. Unfortunately for Balaam, the words he would be given by God to communicate to Balak were far from what he wanted to say. The blessing he bestowed on the Israelites would have been a humiliating experience for Balaam and a very dangerous action to engage in in front of the king of the Moabites. Ironically, if Balaam had bridled his greediness (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11) and simply listened to God the first time he asked to curse the Israelites and not gone to Balak (Numbers 22:12), he would have saved himself the trip, embarrassment, and personal danger from the Moabites. Instead, he made himself look like a fool to the king, and simultaneously does the unthinkable: he blesses the Israelites three times at the word of the Lord (Numbers 23:5-24:11). Sadly, Revelation 2:14 records that Balaam found another way to “curse” the Israelites through teaching Balak how to create stumbling blocks for them, but ultimately, it ended badly for Balaam. Numbers 31:8 indicates that Balaam was killed with the sword by the Israelites.
Clarke, Adam (2013), Adam Clarke’s Commentary (Electronic Database: WORDsearch).
Henry, Matthew (2014), Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Electronic Database: WORDsearch).
Jamieson, Robert, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown (2012), Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary: Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (1871) (Electronic Database: WORDsearch).