Balaam – an Old Testament character referenced in Revelation

  • Question from DRI, United Kingdom

    Who was Balaam, mentioned as a teacher in Revelation 2 verse 14?

    Revelation is a complex book and the opening sections addressed to the Seven Churches of Asia are no less difficult than the later chapters. In chapter 2 the church in Pergamum receives a prophetic word through the writer of Revelation, traditionally identified with John the apostle. During this the church is criticised in verse 14 of chapter 2 because “You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.

    The church in Pergamum would have instantly identified Balaam as a character from the Old Testament. He was a sorcerer and oracle summoned by Balak the Moabite king in Numbers chapter 22 to try and halt the progress of the Israelites as they headed out of Egypt towards Moab. Despite being a practitioner of magic, he recognised the hand of Yahweh on the people of Israel and refused to prophesy disaster for them (see Numbers 24 verse 12). However, after Balaam’s involvement with Balak, some of the men of Israel got involved with Moabite women and began worshipping their idols (chapter 25 verses 1-3). Balaam thus became identified with this idolatrous and immoral behaviour.

    In his book Thunder and Love, Stephen Smalley notes that in the Jewish mindset Balaam became symbolic with religious syncretism, that is, the mixing of religions into an impure faith. According to Smalley, John’s warning to the church at Pergamum “is probably referring to those in the church who were guilty of religious infidelity, more than sexual licence” (op cit pp87-8). A similar coded warning is given to the church at Thyatira who “tolerate that woman Jezebel” (chapter 2 verse 20) – a ‘so-called prophetess’ who is leading the church astray. Calling the woman ‘Jezebel’ harks back to the idol-worshipping wife of King Ahab (1 Kings chapter 16 and following) who became a byword in Jewish lore for an immoral woman.

    The ‘Balaam’ in verse 14 may have been an individual teaching a pluralistic worldview – encouraging members of the church to participate in the pagan rites of the city. Calling this person ‘Balaam’ was a way of letting the church in Pergamum know that his message deserved no place among the people of God.

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