In 2 Peter 2:15-16, Peter makes an intriguing reference to a strange Old Testament story:

…forsaking the right way they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness, but he received a rebuke for his own transgression; for a dumb donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet.

Peter is warning his readers about those he calls “false teachers” (2:1), and in trying to capture the nature of their error he says they have “followed the way of Balaam.” When we read the story of Balaam, however, it may not be apparent what “the way of Balaam” is and why it is so bad. What does Peter mean by saying that the false teachers are emulating Balaam, and what should that mean to us? As we look at the story of Balaam more closely, we will find that Peter is using an emotionally rich analogy, one that will tell us a lot about the false teachers of our own day.

Is Balaam a good guy?

In its very simplest form, the story of Balaam, found in Numbers 22-24, is easy to tell. The enemies of Israel offer great riches to Balaam, a seer, if he will pronounce a curse upon Israel. God, however, tells Balaam not to curse Israel, but instead to say only what God tells him to say. Four times Balaam, rather than cursing Israel, pronounces a prophetic blessing instead. The enemy king is furious with Balaam, and Balaam departs.

Told in this form, it might seem that Balaam was a pretty good guy. The king was promising him great wealth, and yet Balaam would not pronounce a curse but pronounced a blessing instead. Maybe Balaam was one of those non-Israelite believers like Melchizedek. Clearly, however, Peter does not see Balaam as a good guy. Other New Testament writers also denounce Balaam. So what was Balaam’s problem? To understand the kind of man Balaam was, we need to look at two pieces of evidence left out of the simple version told above. Those two pieces are 1) a weird story about a donkey, and 2) a passing comment by Moses.

Balaam and his donkey

The story about the donkey comes early in the Balaam narrative. Messengers come to Balaam asking him to go with them and curse Israel. God tells Balaam to go with the messengers but that he should only say what God tells him to say. However, when Balaam sets out on his donkey, the text says that God “was angry because he was going,” and so the angel of the Lord, arrayed as a mighty warrior, blocks Balaam’s path. Balaam sees nothing, but his donkey sees the angel and balks at going forward. Balaam is furious and beats the donkey, at which point the donkey starts talking to him. Balaam finally sees the angel himself and understands that God is angry with him. He offers to return home, but once again God tells him to go with the messengers but to say only what God tells him to say.

Two things are strikingly strange about this story, but upon reflection I think they are the key to understanding the kind of man Balaam is.

The first strange thing is that God tells Balaam he should go and then “was angry because he was going.” Is God unfair, blaming Balaam for something God Himself told him to do? Looking at the whole episode, it seems more likely that God is angry not at the mere fact that Balaam goes; He is angry with Balaam’s motives for going. Remember, Balaam has been promised vast wealth if he will come and curse Israel. Perhaps Balaam is not going with the messengers just because God said he could; perhaps he is going with the hope that he can find a way to curse Israel and get rich. The ending of this episode suggests this is the right answer. If God were angry merely because Balaam was going with the messengers, then when Balaam offers to go back home God would say, “That’s right, you go home!” But instead, God repeats His original instructions: go with the messengers, but say only what I tell you to say. God took Balaam through this entire terrifying episode with a warrior angel to drive home one point: when you get there, you had better say only what I tell you to. This strongly suggests that Balaam needed to be warned to say what God told him; he seems to have entertained hopes that he could go off script and pronounce the curses that would make him a rich man. God makes it abundantly clear that Balaam was not to deviate from God’s instructions.

The other strange thing in this story is the talking donkey. It seems more like Aesop’s Fables than biblical history. Again, however, I think that reflection helps us to see the point of this unusual event. Balaam was a pagan seer, a man who fancied himself an all-seeing master of the divine. So God takes Balaam through a supernatural experience with a powerful message, an enacted parable that puts Balaam in his place. Balaam, the all-knowing seer, cannot see the angel of the Lord right in front of his face, but his donkey can. God can make a seer out of a donkey if He wishes, which makes ridiculous Balaam’s presumptuous belief in his own power. Balaam is being put through a divinely orchestrated lesson in humility. Again, it makes sense to assume that Balaam needs that lesson in humility.

The final result, then, of this strange story about a donkey is to show us how much Balaam’s attitudes need correcting. He needs to be warned again to say only what God tells him to, and he needs to be humbled and shown that his prophetic “gift,” to the extent he even has one, is totally dependent on the power of God. He needs these warnings because he thought he was powerful enough to ignore God and win himself a fortune by cursing Israel.

Moses shows us the real Balaam

If it seems that we are being too suspicious of Balaam in the way we are reading this story, a passing comment by Moses removes all doubts about Balaam’s bad motives. In Numbers chapter 31, Israel has gone to war against those same Moabites and Midianites that commissioned Balaam in the first place. They did so because, after Balaam’s failure, they had found a way to bring the curse of God upon Israel. That story is told in Numbers 25:

While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and Yahweh was angry against Israel. (Numbers 25:1-3)

As a result of Israel’s idolatry and immorality, God curses Israel with a plague that kills 24,000 Israelites. Furthermore, we soon learn that the Midianites had deliberately tricked Israel into abandoning Yahweh and earning His wrath:

Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them; for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they have deceived you in the affair of Peor… (Numbers 25:17)

The Moabites and Midianites, under leadership of their king Balak, had hit on a very clever strategy. If Israel could be seduced into abandoning their God, Yahweh, then He would abandon them. And that is what happened. What does this have to do with Balaam? Here is where Moses’ comment comes in, found later in Numbers 31:15. In Numbers 31, Israel is now following God’s instructions and attacking the Midianites as vengeance for what they did to them at Peor.

And Moses said to them, “Have you spared all the women? Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against Yahweh in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD….” (Numbers 31:15)

Moses urges Israel, at God’s instruction, to be ruthless to the Midianites, who had deliberately tricked Israel into the idolatry which had brought about the plague from Yahweh. But where had they gotten the idea to trick Israel in this way? From Balaam!

Now we have the pieces to put together the full story. Balaam was promised great riches by the Moabites and Midianites if he would curse Israel. God used a terrifying supernatural experience to drive home to Balaam that his “powers” were totally dependent on God and that he had better not say anything other than what God told him to. This was presumably because Balaam was thinking that he was powerful enough to get around Yahweh and earn great wealth by pronouncing the curse anyway. After Balaam is thwarted and unable to pronounce the curse, he goes to the enemies of Israel with another plan. If Israel could be tricked into sinning against Yahweh and committing idolatry, Yahweh Himself would curse them. And that is exactly what happened, with Balaam presumably reaping the riches he had been promised before. It didn’t do him any good, however; as it happens, we know what Yahweh’s final judgment on Balaam was: Balaam was killed in the war that Israel waged against the Midianites.

Now we understand why the New Testament speaks so negatively about Balaam. For example, in the book of Revelation Jesus says this to the church in Pergamum:

But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality. (Revelation 2:14)

Notice that Jesus interprets Numbers along the lines we have suggested. Balak was the king who had tried to hire Balaam to curse Israel, and Balaam was unable to. But afterwards, Balaam taught Balak the king to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel; that is, Balak and his people invited the Israelites to their sacrifices, and this led Israel to sacrifice to idols and commit acts of immorality. And Jesus is suggesting that some in Pergamum are following the same sort of path, putting a stumbling block before the people of God like Balaam did.

Likewise, the book of Jude uses Balaam as a bad example (in a passage that is more or less parallel to the 2 Peter passage):

Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah. (Jude 1:11)

The key phrase is “for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam.” Jude brings out the idea that Balaam was motivated by the idea of financial gain, just as Jude’s opponents were. This fits the strong implication from Numbers that Balaam was motivated by the very great wealth he had been promised.

Finally, let’s turn back to our passage in 2 Peter:

…forsaking the right way they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness, but he received a rebuke for his own transgression; for a dumb donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet. (2 Peter 2:15-16)

Peter affirms some of the same things we deduced from Numbers:

  • Balaam was motivated by greed, by a desire for wealth; he “loved the wages of unrighteousness.”
  • The episode of the donkey was a rebuke against Balaam for his greed.
  • The donkey “restrained the madness of the prophet”; Balaam was mad to think that he could somehow prevail over God and earn great wealth by cursing Israel, and it was only after the episode of the donkey that he realized it was impossible.

Now at last we are in a position to understand why Peter says the false prophets have “followed the way of Balaam.” Balaam was a man who was willing to entice the people of God to their destruction—and all for the sake of his own personal profit. This is exactly how Peter sees the false teachers.

And many will follow [the false teachers’] sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words… (2 Peter 3:2-3)

They are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse with you, having eyes full of adultery and that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed, accursed children; (2 Peter 2:13-14)

For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption… (2 Peter 2:18-19)

The false teachers are enticing the believers into embracing a life of immoral sensuality, and their motive for doing so is greed. We do not know any specifics about what the false teachers were doing or how, but we know that “in their greed they will exploit” the believers to whom Peter is writing. When we look at the many problems the church has faced in the past and today, it is easy to imagine the sort of thing Peter is talking about. A man who would set himself up as a leader can often gather a following by appealing to people’s baser desires. Tell them that the gospel promises them “freedom,” the sort of freedom that allows them to indulge their desire for pleasure and wealth. A man can gain a great deal of power, influence, and riches by telling people what they want to hear. This seems to be the sort of thing about which Peter is warning his readers. The false teachers may look convincing and attractive, but in fact they are leading their followers to destruction for their own selfish purposes.

Seen in this way, the use of Balaam as an analogy has a real emotional kick. Balaam was willing to sacrifice the lives of God’s people for the sake of his own material gain. The false teachers of Peter’s day were the same. In our own day, it is hard not to think of those “ministries” that promise abundance and happiness, all the while collecting massive amounts of money from their poor followers so that the minister can buy his third mansion. In contrast, the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about God forgiving our sin and one day cleansing our hearts of sin forever. To follow that gospel means holding to that hope with such sincerity that our lives are marked by repentance, longing in our imperfect way for the righteousness that will be completely ours one day. All those who set themselves up as “teachers” and yet lead people away from that gospel and that repentance will find in the end that they have indeed gone in “the way of Balaam,” sharing in his error and his destruction.