Balaam Was Not a Prophet

Parshat Balak 5772

This week’s parsha is dominated by the story of Balak hiring the prophet Balaam to curse the Jewish people.

Balaam Rides His Donkey

As Balaam is journeying to meet with Balak, the Torah records this incident (Judaica Press translation):

Numbers Chapter 22

27 The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord, and it crouched down under Balaam. Balaam’s anger flared, and he beat the she-donkey with a stick.
28 The Lord opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?”
29 Balaam said to the she-donkey, “For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
30 The she-donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your she-donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?” He said, “No.”
31 The Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a sword drawn in his hand. He bowed and prostrated himself on his face.

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Opened Eyes

Here are just a few of the odd things about this episode:

1. The donkey could not talk until God granted her that ability (verse 28).

2. The first time the donkey saw the angel was in verse 23. It’s clear in that verse that the donkey was able to see the angel without requiring any Divine assistance.

3. Balaam did not see the angel until God opened his eyes (verse 31).



Based on verse 31, Ramban declares that Balaam was not a prophet (navi). In a nutshell, here are the Ramban’s reasons:

1. A prophet does not require to have his eyes opened to see an angel.

2. Balaam is never called a prophet. In Yehoshua 13:22 he is called a soothsayer (koseim).

3. In the war with Midian, the Jews killed Balaam (Numbers 31:8). Ramban claims that the Jews would not have attempted to kill him if he was truly a prophet.

But God Appeared to Him

It is clear from the incidents recorded in our parsha that Balaam had direct communication from God. Doesn’t that make him a prophet?

Ramban explains that Balaam achieved the level known as “ruach hakodesh.” God did appear to him, but it was all for the sake of the honor of the Jewish people.


I can think of two lessons we can learn from God appearing to Balaam and permitting him to speak.

God wanted to teach the Jewish people about His love and protection of them.

We learn wonderful truths about the Jewish people and the other nations from Balaam’s words.

Further Reading

I’ve written a series of articles about prophets and prophecy. The article What is Prophecy? A Jewish Perspective serves as a good introduction to the topic.

Please share your questions and suggested answers in the comments.

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Picture Credit: from Flickr.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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