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Joshua Garroway





Balaam the Seducer of Jews and an Early Christian Polemic





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Joshua Garroway





Balaam the Seducer of Jews and an Early Christian Polemic








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Balaam the Seducer of Jews and an Early Christian Polemic

Ancient Jewish interpreters imagined Balaam as the prototypical Gentile seducer. This trope was used by John of Patmos, the author of the book of Revelation and himself a Jew, to polemicize against his rivals among the early Christians.


Balaam the Seducer of Jews and an Early Christian Polemic

John the Theologian on the island of Patmos. 2012. Artist A.N. Mironov -Wikimedia

Of the 27 books of the New Testament, few feel as overtly “Christian” as the last of them, the Apocalypse of John, or Revelation.[1] The famed four horsemen, the beast who emblazons 666 on hands and foreheads, the battle of Armageddon, the lake of fire in which the damned are tormented for eternity— these images, thanks to the likes of Dante, Michelangelo, and Jonathan Edwards, are viewed as the distinctive features of a specifically Christian eschatology. In fact, however, Revelation is perhaps the most natively Jewish of the Christian scriptures, composed by a meticulously observant Jew who would scoff at Christianity today.

Among the telltale clues that point to this author’s Jewish perspective is his treatment of the biblical Balaam.

The Torah’s Three Balaams

Balaam wears three distinct hats in Numbers:

  1. Num. 22-24 – A loyal and unwavering prophet of the Lord, a “saint” according to Jacob Milgrom.[2]
  2. Num. 22:22-35 – The hapless seer whose prophetic gifts and insights prove less impressive than those of his ass.
  3. Num. 31:8 and 31:16 – The councilor who encouraged Midianite women to corrupt the Israelites at Peor (Num. 25:1-18).[3]

Documentary scholars more or less agree on the provenance of these traditions. The generous, “saintly” portrait of Balaam is often attributed to a northern, or E, tradition; the lampoon in Num. 22:22-35 to a southern, or J, tradition; and the denunciation of Balaam as a seducer of Israel to the priestly source.[4]

Although the Priestly discussion of Balaam is exceedingly terse when compared with the longer narrative and poetic traditions that precede it, the single verse (Num. 31:16) that portrays Balaam as the force behind the Midianite women’s seduction of the Israelite men made a lasting impression on ancient Jewish readers.

במדבר לא:טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם מֹשֶׁה הַחִיִּיתֶם כָּל נְקֵבָה. לא:טז הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם לִמְסָר מַעַל בַּיהוָה עַל דְּבַר פְּעוֹר וַתְּהִי הַמַּגֵּפָה בַּעֲדַת יְהוָה.
Num 31:15 Moses said to them, “You have spared every female!31:16 Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against YHWH in the matter of Peor, so that YHWH’s community was struck by the plague.

The killing of Balaam by the Israelites—according to this tradition (Num. 31:8; also Josh. 13:22)—during the war of retaliation against the Midianites, likely sealed his fate as a villain in the Jewish interpretive tradition.

Balaam Among Ancient Jewish Interpreters

While positive estimations of Balaam’s prophetic capacities do appear among the ancients, their overall assessment of Balaam is negative.[5] They emphasize in particular Balaam’s role as a seducer of the Israelites, often expanding the brief notice in Num. 31:16 that the Midianite women “were the cause of the Israelites’ unfaithfulness to God at the bidding of Balaam[6] (בדבר בלעם).”

Most notably, Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 B.C.E. – 50 C.E.) turns the “advice of Balaam” into an elaborate scheme of sexual seduction. Frustrated by his inability to defy the will of God by cursing the Israelites, Philo’s Balaam tells Balak how the king might subvert the Israelites another way:

O king! the women of the country surpass all other women in beauty, and there are no means by which a man is more easily subdued than by the beauty of a woman; therefore, if you enjoin the most beautiful of them to grant their favors to them and to prostitute themselves to them, they will allure and overcome the youth of your enemies. But you must warn them not to surrender their beauty to those who desire them with too great facility and too speedily, for resistance and coyness will stimulate the passions and excite them more, and will kindle a more impetuous desire; and so, being wholly subdued by their appetites, they will endure to do and to suffer anything.
And let any damsel who is thus prepared for the sport resist, and say, wantonly, to a lover who is thus influenced, “It is not fitting for you to enjoy my society till you have first abandoned your native habits, and have changed, and learnt to honor the same practices that I do. And I must have a conspicuous proof of your real change, which I can only have by your consenting to join me in the same sacrifices and libations which I use, and which we may then offer together at the same images and statues, and other erections in honor of my gods.” And the lover being, as it were, taken in the net of her manifold and multiform snares, not being able to resist her beauty and seductive conversation, will become wholly subdued in his reason, and, like a miserable man, will obey all the commands which she lays upon him, and will be enrolled as the slave of passion.[7]

Ancient Retellings of the Biblical Account

Two 1st cent. CE works, the Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, likewise expand upon Num. 31:16, albeit with considerably less imagination. According to Pseudo-Philo,

Balaam said unto [Balak]: Come and let us advise what you shall do to [Israel]. Choose out the most comely women that are among you and that are in Midian and set them before them naked, adorned with gold and jewels, and when [the Israelite men] see them and lie with them, they will sin against their Lord and fall into your hands.[8]

Josephus, for his part, observes that the rationale of Moses for waging war against the Midianites was that,

Now Balaam—summoned by the Madianites in order that he might curse the Hebrews, unable to do this owing to Divine providence but having proposed a plan that the enemy adopted, whereby the masses of the Hebrews were all but annihilated with respect to their customary ways (and some, certainly, were diseased in these matters)—this man he [Moyses] honored greatly, recording his prophecies.[9]

Balaam and the Two-Prostitute Trick: A Rabbinic Tale

The tendency to find in Num. 31:16 an elaborate scheme of seduction found its way into the rabbinic imagination as well, as demonstrated by the well-known description of Balaam’s advice to Balak in b. Sanhedrin 106a (author’s trans.):

אלהיהם של אלו שונא זימה הוא, והם מתאוים לכלי פשתן, בוא ואשיאך עצה: עשה להן קלעים, והושיב בהן זונות, זקינה מבחוץ וילדה מבפנים, וימכרו להן כלי פשתן.
“The God of these people hates lasciviousness, and the people desire linen clothes. Come, I will offer you advice. Make curtains for them and seat prostitutes in them—an old one on the outside and a young one inside. They will sell [the Israelites] linen clothes.”
עשה להן קלעים… והושיב בהן זונות, זקינה מבחוץ וילדה מבפנים, ובשעה שישראל אוכלין ושותין ושמחין ויוצאין לטייל בשוק, אומרת לו הזקינה: אי אתה מבקש כלי פשתן? זקינה אומרת לו בשוה, וילדה אומרת לו בפחות. שתים ושלש פעמים.
So, he made curtains for them . . . and he sat prostitutes in them—an old one on the outside and a young one inside. When the Israelites ate, drank, and rejoiced, and went shopping in the market, the old prostitute would say, “Aren’t you looking for linen garments?” The old one quoted him a price at its true value, and the young one quoted him for less. This happened two or three times.
ואחר כך אומרת לו: הרי את כבן בית, שב ברור לעצמך. וצרצורי של יין עמוני מונח אצלה… אמרה לו: רצונך שתשתה כוס של יין? כיון ששתה בער בו.
Then she would say to [the Israelite], “you are like a member of our house! Sit and pick out what you want.” A pitcher of Ammonite wine rested near her, . . . and she said, “don’t you want to drink a cup of wine?” When he drank, [a passion] burned in him.
אמר לה: השמעי לי. הוציאה יראתה מתוך חיקה, אמרה לו: עבוד לזה! אמר לה: הלא יהודי אני. – אמרה לו: ומה איכפת לך, כלום מבקשים ממך אלא פיעור, [והוא אינו יודע שעבודתה בכך]. ולא עוד אלא שאיני מנחתך עד שתכפור בתורת משה רבך…
He said to her, “Surrender to me!” She took out her idol from her bosom and said to him, “Worship this!” He said to her, “But I am a Jew!” She said to him, “What do you care? You merely have to defecate on it.” He did not know that this was how they worshipped it. More than this, she said, “I will not give you rest until you deny the Torah of Moses, your teacher!” 

The rabbis thus elaborate the single phrase in Num. 31:16, “at the bidding of Balaam,” into a ribald tale of seduction in which Israelite men end up fornicating with foreign prostitutes, committing idolatry, and even denying the Torah.

John the Jew

Among the ancient Jewish interpreters who viewed Balaam as the paradigmatic Gentile seducer is a figure rarely identified as a Jew—namely, John of Patmos, the man who penned Revelation at the turn of the second century (ca. 96 CE). This John is to be distinguished from two other prominent Johns in early Christianity: John the Baptist, the ascetic preacher who baptized Jesus in the Jordan, and John, the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus.

Christians have traditionally identified John the disciple as the author of the fourth gospel and the three New Testament epistles attributed to a “John.” In fact, however, the fourth gospel is anonymous and was attributed (probably falsely) to John in the second century, while the epistles are pseudonymous and stem from still a different hand. John, coming from the Hebrew Yohanan, was in any case a common name for Jews in antiquity. Just ask the founder of rabbinic Judaism, Yohanan (John) ben Zakkai.

As for Yohanan of Patmos, Princeton’s Elaine Pagels, Boston University’s David Frankfurter, and other prominent New Testament scholars have argued that this John was almost certainly a devoutly observant first-century Jew who looked upon his own adversaries as seducers of the Jewish people.[10]

Jewish Apocalyptic Believes in the 1st Cent. C.E.

True, he was a first-century Jew who believed that God had just recently sent into the world the messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who was then killed and resurrected, and would return soon to culminate history and transform the world into a new reality. Nevertheless, in terms of his belief that the world was on the brink of a dramatic transformation, John was hardly unique among Jews.

Ever since the Hasmonean revolt more than two centuries earlier, figures like pseudo-Daniel,[11] pseudo-Solomon,[12] and the Dead Sea writers envisioned an imminent culmination to history as we know it.[13]

Indeed, a contemporary of John was probably the Jewish author of an apocalypse known as 4 Ezra.[14] Writing in the wake of 70 ce, the author of 4 Ezra predicted that God would soon exact violent vengeance upon the Romans before commencing a final judgment of humanity.

John, too, wrote in the decades following the Roman-Jewish war. He may even have been a refugee from the conflict, escaping to safer confines in one of the great cities of western Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), where he met up with fellow believers in the resurrection of Jesus and became a prominent teacher among them. He taught them to remain faithful in advance of their impending redemption—faithful to God, to God’s Torah, and to God’s messiah Jesus.

For reasons that are not clear, John eventually secluded himself on Patmos, an island of the eastern Aegean (today’s Greece), and from there, he penned the apocalypse that would become the final book of the Christian Bible.

John’s Apocalypse

Most of John’s Apocalypse, like Daniel 7-12 or 4 Ezra, offers a detailed account of the wild events that will occur in advance of history’s dramatic conclusion—the beasts, the battles, the plagues, the judgment, and so on. Before he embarks upon that narrative, however, John issues a series of seven short letters to the seven communities of Asia Minor to whom his account will be delivered, seven cities in which John presumably had preached. These letters prove invaluable in determining what sort of Jew John was.

The letters are ostensibly report cards, detailing how faithful each community has been. John usually reproves the communities that have proven less faithful for having tolerated the erroneous preaching of rival teachers. The epithets he ascribes to these rivals are telling.

Letter to Pergamum: You Are Followers of Balaam

To his followers in Pergamum[15], for example, John writes,

I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication (2:14).[16]

It is not clear whether John dubs a rival teacher “Balaam,” or simply ridicules the rivals’ teaching as similar to Balaam’s, but in either case the lamentable behavior that results is obvious. Certain Jewish believers in Jesus living in Pergamum are eating meat sacrificed to idols. Meat-eating for Jews of the Hellenistic diaspora presented a challenge, since most meat available for purchase were leftovers from the local shrines. Pious Jews, John suggests, would not deign to consume such meats.

Determining what “to practice fornication” means presents a more difficult challenge. The Greek porneia (to which the word “pornography” is related) could simply be a metaphor for idolatry (see the frequent Hebrew Bible metaphor of whoring after other Gods, e.g. in Hosea 1-3). Alternatively, John might be suggesting that Jewish believers in Pergamum are marrying non-Jews.

Letter to Thyatira: You Are Followers of Jezebel

Similar problems appear to have surfaced in Thyatira[17], though John hurls a different epithet in castigating his rival there,

I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings.[18]

It is not hard to see what the names “Balaam” and “Jezebel” have in common. They are the two non-Jewish characters in the Bible most notorious for leading Jews into idolatry—Balaam in the wilderness, Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31-33; 18:4; 19:1-2; 21:25) through the influence she wielded as the wife of King Ahab. His decision to use these figures to denigrate his rivals makes patent John’s understanding of himself and his followers as pious Jews threatened by foreign elements in the Jesus movement that tolerate, or even encourage, behaviors not permissible under Jewish law.

Who Were John’s “Balaam and Jezebel”?

Who constituted these threatening foreign elements? Almost certainly they are Gentiles in the Jesus movement who had been swayed by the teachings of the apostle Paul. A half century earlier, in the 50s, Paul had preached about the risen Jesus in the cities of the Aegean, but his understanding of the implication of the resurrection on Jewish law differed markedly from John’s.

Whereas John believed that the resurrection of Jesus and his imminent return meant that Jews (and Gentile proselytes) should cling with ever more zeal to Jewish observance, Paul argued that many aspects of Jewish law had become obsolete. Paul weighed in specifically on the issue of meat sacrificed to idols in a letter to the Corinthians, concluding that consumption of such meats is permissible.[19]

Gentiles in cities like Corinth[20] and Ephesus[21] were especially pleased by Paul’s proclamations, for it meant they could initiate a relationship with the Jewish God and survive the impending judgment by his messiah, Jesus, while not yoking themselves to the burdensome Jewish Law.

For a Jew like John at the end of the first century, the continued preaching of Paul’s gospel was an abomination. It was simply contemptible to encourage Jews to become lax in their observance of the Torah. Even worse was to tell Gentiles that they can join God’s people Israel through baptism that indicated faith in a messiah, with no need for circumcision and observance of the commandments. The teachers of such sacrilege merit the epithets he throws at them and their ilk: “Balaam” and “Jezebel,” as we have seen, but also “so-called Jews,”[22] and a “synagogue of Satan.”[23]

A Jewish Revelation in a Christian Bible

In time, of course, the likes of “Balaam,” “Jezebel,” and Paul carried the day. The movement heralding Jesus as a resurrected Messiah became increasingly non-Jewish in constitution and decreasingly observant of the Torah’s ritual commandments. It became Christianity, and Christianity ultimately incorporated John’s Apocalypse into its canon (though, I suspect, without knowledge of its original context).

As the primary canonical Christian description of the end times, its rich imagery ranks among the most recognizable in all of Christianity. Historical criticism has enabled modern readers to see, however, that something unmistakably Jewish lurks beneath the surface: a pointed Jewish polemic, deploying a typically Jewish take on the biblical Balaam, in which the author takes aim at the sort of Christianity that Christianity ultimately became.


July 4, 2017


Last Updated

April 12, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi Joshua Garroway is the Sol and Arlene Bronstein Professor of Judaeo-Christian Studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He holds a Ph.D. from the Religious Studies Department at Yale and ordination from HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. He is the author of, The Beginning of the Gospel: Paul, Philippi, and the Origins of Christianity.