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Basically, Balaam is kind of a prophet for hire. For the right fee, he'll bless or curse whomever you want. And according to Balak, the king of Moab who'd really like to defeat and destroy the Israelites, Balaam's work really does the trick—"I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed" (22:6). Get out the checkbook and get ready to win some battles, Balak!
Not so fast. When Balaam hears Balak's proposal (and sees the cash on hand), he refuses to help him. It seems God got to him first. The Almighty flat out tells Balaam that he can't curse the Israelites "for they are blessed" (22:12). Balak, surprisingly, doesn't take no for an answer. After a run in with a talking donkey (1500 years before Shrek) and lots of tries, Balak manages to get Balaam to bless Israel and curse Moab not once, but seven times. Oh, Balak. When will you ever learn?
Over and over again, Balaam, a non-Israelite, defers to the judgment of God. Today, a guy like that would probably be working for the Psychic Hotline, but all of a sudden he's got principles coming out his ears:
Balaam said to Balak, "Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, 'If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will; what the Lord says, that is what I will say'?" (24:12-13)
So, Balaam's pretty great then, right? He's a faithful servant to God and surely he'll be rewarded. Not exactly.
Later when the Israelites attack Midian (one of Moab's allies), the soldiers there kill Balaam. With a sword. Yikes. It seems that Balaam was actually the one behind the whole Midian-women-tempting-Israelite-men-away-from-God debacle:
These women here, on Balaam's advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. (31:16)
But why would faithful Balaam do such a thing? Well, some commentators think that Balaam was looking for a loophole in the whole don't-curse-my-people command. Balaam couldn't curse the Israelites, but he could advise foreign women to try to turn the Israelite men away from God. Then, they wouldn't be blessed anymore. Clever thinking.
Balaam doesn't come off so good in the rest of the Bible though. Deuteronomy, Joshua, Nehemiah, and Micah all allude to the episode (in a not so flattering way). Peter says Balaam "loved the wages of doing wrong" (2 Peter 2:15). Jude thinks that Balaam was in "error for the sake of gain" (Jude 1:11). Revelation claims that Balaam "taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication" (Revelation 2:14).
Sorry, Balaam. You tried, but them's the breaks when you cross God.