Messianic motifs: Balaam

Messiah (mâšîah, "the anointed one"): Jewish religious concept, a future savior who will, in some sense, come to restore Israel. The nature of both the Messiah and the restoration was a matter of debate, and there were several claimants.

Literary motifs: Balaam's prophecy

As we have already seen above, the book of Numbers contained the prophecy of Balaam:

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter will rise out of Israel. It shall crush the foreheads of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed.note

Although the writer - or editor - of Numbers seems to have had king Josiah in mind when he composed these lines, from the second century onward, this text was interpreted as a prediction of the coming of the Messiah. Take, for example, the interpretation of this line in the text known as the Testament of Judah.

And after this there shall arise for you a star from Jacob in peace. And a man shall arise from my posterity like the sun of righteousness, walking with the sons of men in gentleness and righteousness, and in him will be found no sin. And the heavens will be opened upon him to pour out the spirit as a blessing of the holy Father. And he will pour out the spirit of grace on you. This is the shoot of God most high; this is the fountain of life of all humanity. Then he will illumine the scepter of my kingdom, and from your root will arise the shoot, and through it will arise the rod of righteousness for the nations, to judge and to save all that call on the Lord.note

This text belongs to a collection of testaments, allegedly written by the twelve sons of Jacob, but in fact written in the second century BCE. It is not the only text that tries to connect the prophecy of Balaam with a shoot - or son - of God who will deliver the Jews from evil. The author of one of the oldest texts of the Qumran sect also seems to understand Balaam's words in a messianic sense. A first example is the quotation from the War scroll we already read above. Another text:

And the star is the seeker of the Law who came to Damascus, because it was written A star has came forth out of Jacob and a scepter has risen out of Israel. The scepter stands for the prince of the congregation. At his coming he shall break down all the sons of Sheth.note

The "prince of the congregation" seems to be have been a common shorthand indicating one of the two Messiahs that the sect at Qumran expected, the war leader who is sometimes called the "Messiah of David" or the "Messiah of Israel". The words "came to Damascus" refer to the members of the Qumran sect, who had entered a "new covenant" in Damascus. It is also possible that these words refer to the sect's founder, the Teacher of righteousness.

This prophecy seems to have become more popular as the years passed. Some examples from the first and second centuries CE may suffice. To start with, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (15 CE - after 50) writes:

For there shall come a man, says the oracle, and leading his host to war he shall subdue great and populous nations, because God has sent to his aid the reinforcement which befits the godly.note

When a comet appeared in late 64 CE,note many Jews expected the coming of the Messiah, and accepted war against the Romans. This is also mentioned in Roman sources, because the ruler it seemed to refer to could also be identified with the emperor Vespasian. For example, Suetonius writes in his Lives of the Twelve Emperors:

There had spread over all the Orient an old an established belief that it was fated at that time for a man coming from Judaea to rule the world. This prediction, referring to the emperor of Rome, as it turned out, the Jews took to themselves, and they revolted accordingly.note

Although the result of this rebellion was the destruction of the Temple (more), the interpretation was still influential in the years after the war. The most famous reference to Balaam's prophecy is, of course, the story about the "star in the east" that was seen by the Magians when Jesus was born. It is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew,note which was written after c.75 CE.

The Aramaic version of the Law of Moses called the Onqelos Targum translates the line in Numbers as:

a king shall arise out of Jacob and be anointed the Messiah out of Israel.

Of course, this is not a translation but an interpretation. Another Aramaic translation, the Fragment Targum, reads:

A king is destined to arise from the house of Jacob, a redeemer and ruler from the house of Israel, who shall slay the mighty ones [...] who shall destroy all that remains of the guilty city, which is Rome.

When Simon ben Kosiba was recognized as Messiah in 132, he was nicknamed Simon bar Kochba, "son of the star". His coins show the messianic star.