The story of the prophet Balaam is perhaps one of the quirkiest in the Old Testament. It begins as the Israelites are encamped on the border of Moab, ready to conquer the land. Balak, the king of Moab, decided that he had to take drastic action to stop this happening.
In desperation, Balak contacted Balaam, a foreign prophet who lived in what is now Iraq. Balak proposed that in exchange for money, Balaam would use his magical powers to curse the Israelites. Balaam told Balak’s messengers that he wanted to sleep on the idea.
However, God spoke to the prophet in the night to warn him not to curse his people, so he decided against the idea. However, he did agree to travel to meet King Balak. While he was on the journey, an angel appeared on the road to block his path. Unlike Balaam, the donkey he was riding was able to see the angel. The animal retreated in fear and then lay down.
Unaware of why the donkey had stopped, Balaam struck the poor beast to try to get it moving again. God then enabled the donkey to speak – to give Balaam a telling-off! Only then was the prophet able to see the angel, and after apologising for striking his animal, was allowed to go on his way.
On arriving in Moab, he was met by King Balak, who asked him again to curse the Israelites. But God spoke to Balaam, instructing him to bless them instead. After he did so three times, the Spirit of God inspired Balaam to utter a series of prophecies. One was of a distant figure who would come to save Israel: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near — a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.”
From the very beginning of the Church, this was understood as a reference to the future arrival of Christ. In particular, the “star” was understood to refer to the star followed by the Magi on their journey to meet the newborn Christ in Bethlehem.
This scene shows Balaam delivering his prophecy to an unamused King Balak. The Spirit of God is descending on him as a dove, while his poor donkey is seen behind him. The encamped Israelites are depicted in the background, while the star he foresaw shines overhead.
Where to find this work of art
St Etheldreda’s, London
Read the relevant passage
Numbers 22:1 – 24:25