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 of 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?