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A Worthy Opponent

Balaam was, in his way, the most impressive of the Old Testament villains.
| May 13, 2015 | 8 comments | Series:

After Israel destroyed the eastern Amorite kings, they journeyed on to the Jordan. There they camped on the plains of Moab, covering the land.

Moab was, understandably, alarmed. Balak son of Zippor, Moab’s king, wanted to fight and drive out the Israelites, but he was shrewd enough to seek an advantage before attempting what two kings had already failed. So he sent for Balaam son of Beor, and so opened one balaamof the most memorable episodes in biblical history, starring one of the most enigmatic figures in biblical history. Balaam spoke with God and practiced sorcery, received visions from God and practiced divination; he was rebuked by a donkey, nearly slain by the angel of the LORD, and left a legacy to be anathematized more than a thousand years later by Jesus Christ and His apostles.

Balaam cursed and blessed, evidently with power, and Balak’s idea was that if Balaam cursed Israel, he would be able to defeat them. But God thwarted him, turning Balaam’s curse into a blessing. Balaam went home, but the story didn’t end.

Unable to curse Israel, and apparently unwilling to attack her, Balak turned to what is, when honed to a fine edge of malice and cunning, the subtlest, most treacherous form of warfare: seduction. With the help of Midian, he enticed the Israelites to sexual immorality, and from there to worshiping the Baal of Peor. Israel incurred God’s wrath, and before it was all over, 24,000 Israelites died in a plague.

And it was all Balaam’s idea. He was the one who taught Balak how to entice the Israelities into sin, who advised the Midiantes to seduce them into worshiping the Baal of Peor. Even when Balak was offering Balaam riches to curse Israel, the sorcerer understood what the king did not: That you could not curse those whom God has blessed. It didn’t matter who was against Israel as long as God was for them.

Nor did it much matter who was for Israel when God had turned against them. Often, when Israel was unfaithful, God “sold” her to her enemies, who were unwitting instruments of His discipline and justice. They didn’t understand that it was not their own strength, or even Israel’s weakness, that made her their prey; it was her sin. Only Balaam, with his scheme to lead Israel to prostitute herself at the altar of Baal, ever seemed to understand.

It was probably worse for his soul. But it also made Balaam, in his way, the most impressive of the Old Testament villains. His cleverness in turning God’s people against Him, and so He against them, is frightening, but not nearly as frightening as his audacity.

Balaam belongs to that type of villain that is my favorite in fiction – the smart villain. (In real life, I’d rather the villainous and criminally-minded come dumb. It’s safer that way.) Intelligent villains are the best – the most worthy opponents, the most interesting to see in action, the scariest to deal with. A genuinely clever villain elevates the plot and even the hero. And once you combine Balaam’s level of cunning with his level of audacity – well, the fun would be worth the price of admission.

What about you? What type of villain do you prefer?

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Kat Vinson
Member

And yet the villains still do their villainous deeds – they always think they’ll be the one clever enough to dodge the consequences. We just finished covering this chapter in my weekly Bible study – but I don’t think the ladies quite connected the dots the way you just did. I’m going to have to read this to them when we start meeting again in the fall.

Shannon McDermott
Guest

I don’t think Balaam’s role in the seduction of Israel at Peor is mentioned until five or so chapters later, and Balak isn’t explicitly connected to it until Revelation. That’s the way the Bible is sometimes – it weaves stories together, or adds to them, in unexpected ways and places.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I prefer the sympathetic villain, or the “different shades of right” villain. I didn’t always, but something that opened my eyes was the realization is that as a Christian, I am a villain now too. That in a lot of people’s minds, I follow an evil organization that needs to be suppressed or fought against.

It’s quite a paradigm shift, and it makes it hard to like the classic “faceless evil” story. Classic myths of majority makes right can be looked at critically once you aren’t a part of it.

Becky Farb
Guest
Becky Farb

I guess I like my villains with a strong arrogant streak, and the skill to back up that arrogance. It makes it so much more satisfying when they’re finally brought down.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Excellent article, Shannon. I’d never thought of Balaam in these terms before. I saw him as a greedy manipulator—didn’t give him credit for intelligence or conniving.

The kind of villain I like in fiction is one who looks like he can win and just might do so. Unless he’s a credible threat (not a bumbling buffoon), he brings the whole story down because there really is no danger.

As you point out, a worthy villain elevates the hero who must work that much harder or be that much smarter to bring him down.

Becky

Shannon McDermott
Guest

Thanks, Becky.

Villains who are just thugs, or just buffoons, are all right for minor roles – but there should always be a competent villain to provide a real challenge. It’s fairly common in Disney movies, actually, to use the lesser villains for comic relief.

Sarah Parks
Member

First: i appreciate the insight on Balaam as well. Reminds me of some of the interesting perspectives my dad has shared with me. 🙂

In crime shows, i love the criminals who come with the big, red button that says “push me!” – the egomaniac who confesses when the detectives lavish admiration on his fall guy for his genius, the serial killer who locks up with anger when the FBI agent mocks him, the wanna-be-somebody who comes straight to the police station when a press conference implies he’s nothing. Kind of a “pride goeth before destruction” thing.

I also like the tragic, well-intentioned bad guy, when done well.

I guess for me, it comes down to passion, in a way. Whether i hate them, feel sorry for them, want to see them redeemed or brought down, the more i feel it, the better i like them.

Provided that what i feel is the way i’m intended to feel, that is. I still want to see Regina from Once Upon a Time taken down and made to answer for her crimes, but the show is apparently treating her like a “hero” now. Bleck.

Shannon McDermott
Guest

I guess for me, it comes down to passion, in a way. Whether i hate them, feel sorry for them, want to see them redeemed or brought down, the more i feel it, the better i like them.

Makes a lot of sense.

Provided that what i feel is the way i’m intended to feel, that is. I still want to see Regina from Once Upon a Time taken down and made to answer for her crimes, but the show is apparently treating her like a “hero” now. Bleck.

I only started watching that show this season; I haven’t seen any of the earlier episodes, which affects my perspective. Yet I’m amazed the way they can get over everybody’s crimes but Rumpelstiltskin’s.

Rumpelstiltskin is, incidentally, the epitome of the intelligent villain … and the sympathetic villain.