Balaam son of Beor first comes to our attention via Chapter 22 of the book of Numbers in the Old Testament. One of the last mentions of Balaam comes in 2 Peter 2:15, where he is given as an example of those false teachers and prophets who loved the wages of wickedness rather than the truth.
But there is a problem. In the Old Testament, Balaam is called the son of Beor. In 2 Peter he is called Balaam son of Bosor. Now your translation of the Bible might read ‘Beor’ in 2 Peter 2:15, but really very few ancient Greek texts have Beor. The vast majority of ancient texts read ‘Bosor’, and even the United Bible Society’s critical text favours ‘Bosor’ in Peter’s second letter over ‘Beor’.
Some people think this use of Bosor is a sign that the Bible writers made mistakes of fact, and conclude that the Bible is not 100% reliable here, or anywhere. I don’t think that is what is happening here.
My supposal is this. What if Balaam was not the son of someone called Beor. What if Balaam designations as the son of ‘x’ is in fact like the Old Testament practice of calling some people ‘sons of Belial’, meaning ‘perverted ones’ (e.g., Judges 19:22), or ‘sons of the prophets’ meaning students of the prophets (e.g., 2 Kings 6:1).
The Hebrew verb that is related to the word ‘Beor’ is Baar. This verb has the meaning of ‘causing harm or injury; to consume’. Balaam, you might recall, was called by the king of Moab to curse Israel. Balaam was known as the hit man: ‘for I know [said the king] that he whom you bless is blessed and he whom you curse is cursed’. Balaam was called in to do harm. In fact, you might say, he was the son of harm (beor) — it was what he did. Interestingly, the name ‘Balaam’ is thought to mean ‘destroyer of the people’, which might lend a little weight to my supposal.
So what about 2 Peter 2:15? Well, Bosor might have been his dad’s name — who knows. But it might be — just a supposal — that Bosor is related to the Hebrew word ‘basar’, which means ‘flesh’. The wicked one who was simply after what he could get here and now. So in Peter’s text, the feature of Balaam’s character is his fleshly attitudes. Peter mentioned ‘carousing’ and ‘adultery’ and beguiling unstable souls before introducing Balaam as an example of these sorts of prophets. Again, you might recall that Balaam was the one who advised sending some pretty Moabite women into the Israelite camp to entice the unstable men there (Numbers 31:16).
So, was Balaam the son of Beor (e.g., the natural child of a father called Beor)? Was he the natural son of Bosor? Was he, perhaps, simply being described according to the more pertinent aspect of his way of life that suited the purpose of particular texts — as one who harmed (beor) or as a fleshly man (bosor)?
I’m beginning to like the idea that his designation as ‘son of b….’ was a description of his work and character rather than an indication of his paternity. What do you think?