🔼The name Balaam: Summary
- Swallowing Up The People, Destroyer Of People
- From (1) the verb בלע (bala'), to swallow, and (2) the noun עם ('am), people or kinsman.
🔼The name Balaam in the Bible
The Midianite Balaam of Pethor, son of Beor, is a prophet who is hired by Balak the king of Moab in order to curse Israel (Numbers 22:5). Balaam initially finds the endeavor not a good idea (Numbers 22:18) but he goes anyway and ends up starring in one of the most curious scenes in the Bible: that of the talking donkey (Numbers 22:21-35).
When he finally gets there, Balaam ends up blessing Israel in every possible way, predicting even the coming of the Messiah (Numbers 24:17). Still, Israel engages Midian in a bloody genocide, kills the five kings and Balaam as well (Numbers 31:8).
Later in the Bible Balaam has become something of a byword. Peter speaks of "the way of Balaam (Βαλααμ), who loved the wages of unrighteousness" (2 Peter 2:15). Jude speaks of the "error of Balaam" into which men of nothing but beastly instinct rush headlong (Jude 1:11). And John the Revelator speaks of "the teaching of Balaam," which involved putting a stumbling block before Israel (Revelation 2:14).
It may be that Balaam serves in the Bible as the personification of divination and the reading of omen, that is the art of harvesting the environment for clues about the way things work without actually having to go through the trouble of learning to understand reality. Divination degenerates nature to a manipulable device with a few buttons, and separates the diviner and his audience from their rightful place in nature and ultimately from God.
For a closer look at the art of divination, please review our article on the roots נחש (nahash).
🔼Etymology of the name Balaam
The meaning of the name Balaam is multifarious and suggestions for etymologies abound. One suggestion is a combination of the Hebrew particle of negation בל (bal), not, plus the noun עם ('im), people:
The verb עמם ('mm) probably expressed to be inclusive or comprehensive. Its rare uses in the Bible relate to making secrets or making info available to an in-crowd. Preposition עם ('im) means 'with', מעם (me'im) means 'from', and עמה ('umma) means 'beside'. Noun עם ('am) means a people, ranging from all of mankind to the in-crowd of a small village. Noun עם ('am) refers to one's (paternal) kinsman.
Hence, this suggestion would render the name Balaam as Not Of The People, or: a foreigner. This interpretation is now no longer considered founded on possible etymology (says HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament ) but there is no law against being reminded of these words.
Another possibility is a combination of the words בל, the name Bel, or בעל, the name Baal, and any of the words עם listed above, which may be the name of a god Am (says BDB Theological Dictionary), or a Baal-specification (such as Baal-peor), or simply the word עם ('am), kinsman (on the father's side), or עם ('am), people, as used in names like Amram and Rehoboam, or עם ('im), the preposition 'with,' such as found in the name Immanuel (With Us Is God).
Most commentators nowadays prefer a combination of the word עם ('am), people, and the verb בלע (bala'), meaning to swallow:
The verb בלע (bala') means to swallow with the implication of destruction of what was swallowed. Noun בלע (bela) means either a swallowing and by implication: a destruction, or a thing swallowed or destroyed.
Thus the name Balaam means Destroyer Of People (NOBSE Study Bible Name List), Destruction Of The People (Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names), or Confuser Of The People (Jones). Jones also adds Swallowing Up The People.
Some commentators see a connection between the name Balaam and the New Testament name Nicolas. These two names seem to convey similar meanings and John the Revelator mentions both in close proximity (Revelation 2:6 and 2:15 for the Nicolaitans and Revelation 2:14 for Balaam).