Balaam was the Old Testament prophet who blessed the Israelites during their wandering in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Balaam’s words "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth." (Numbers, 24: 17) were interpreted as the prophecy of the Messiah’s coming.
According to the Book of Numbers, Balaam lived in Peor on the banks of the Euphratus. When the Israelites reached the plains of Moab, Balak, king of Moab, fearing strength of the Israelites, twice sent messengers to Balaam "Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country. For I know that those you bless are blessed, and those you curse are cursed.” (Numbers, 22: 6). At first, Balaam, at the command of the Lord, refused to fulfill Moab’s request. Finally, Balaam agreed to meet with Balak but warned him that he would do only what the Lord commands him to. Balaam saddled his donkey and set off. But the Lord sent the Angel with a bare sword three times to stop Balaam’s donkey. Not seeing the Angel, Balaam beat the donkey for refusing to move. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth and it said to Balaam “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel and bowed to him. And the Lord said to Balaam: “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” (Numbers, 22: 35).
Three times Balaam ordered Balak to offer sacrifices; three times he went to the high places and appealed to the Lord, and three times the Lord put in Balaam’s mouth the blessing of the Israelites: "God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? I have received a command to bless; he has blessed, and I cannot change it. No misfortune is seen in Jacob, no misery observed in Israel. he Lord their God is with them; the shout of the King is among them." (Numbers, 23: 19–21). Meanwhile, Balaam counseled that King Balak and his people ensnare Israelites by offering them Moabite women. For this, he was killed in a war between the Israelites and the Moabites.
While the Old Testament is overall negative about Balaam, his prophesies about the coming of the Messiah place him on a par with other prophets who foretold the coming of Christ.
The theme of the embodiment of God played an important role in the early Christian era. Depictions of Balaam with a star or with the Angel and a donkey are encountered on the walls of the catacombs or on sarcophaguses, such as the catacomb of Peter and Marceline (3rd – 4th centuries).
In Russian medieval art, the images of Balaam are also encountered on the wall-paintings in churches. The earliest known depiction of Balaam is a fragment of an 11th century composition The Angel of the Lord Appears to Balaam (1037 – 1045) from the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev. In iconography Balaam is featured among other prophets who foretold the birth of Christ (for example, the 14th century icon The Laudation of the Mother of God from the State Russian Museum). The Balaam image is sometimes encountered in the prophets’ row of the high iconostasis.
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.
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3. Васильева О.А. Иконы Пскова. М., 2006. № 136. С. 422.