I recently ran across a website comparing Paul’s conversion experience to Balaam’s effort in the book of Numbers to aid Balak’s wish to curse and destroy Israel. The website also compared both with Helidorus’ journey to Jerusalem to rob the Temple treasury in 2Maccabees. I have to admit it is an interesting comparison. I would even go as far as to say that I agree that the comparison is a valid one, but I don’t agree with the author’s conclusion? The reason for my disagreement is that there are key points that the author of the website leaves out.
|Paul rode (implied)||Balaam rode|
|Heliodorus entered the temple treasury|
|with his attendants||with other attendants||with other attendants|
|to oppose God’s people||to oppose God’s people||to oppose God’s people|
|the heavenly Jesus stood before him in a shining light||an angel stood before him||“the sovereign of spirits” stood before him on a horse|
|Paul fell to the ground||Balaam fell down at the sight||Heliodorus fell to the ground|
|and two angels stood each side of him|
|and stopped him||and stopped him||and stopped him|
|his attendants stood speechless||and the attendants of Heliodorus were astounded at the sight|
|Paul was made blind||and total darkness came over him|
|God opened his eyes to see the angel|
|and confessed that he had sinned|
|his attendants led him away||before being commanded to continue his journey, but in obedience to God||his attendants carried him away|
|he was prostrate and speechless|
|he was unable to see and neither ate nor drank 3 days||he was at the point of death|
|God told Ananias to heal him||the attendants asked the priest to pray for him|
|Ananias feared to heal Paul but still obeyed||the priest feared Heliodorus but still prayed for him|
|Paul had received another vision of Ananias mercifully healing him||Heliodorus received another vision offering mercy because of the priest’s prayer|
|Paul recovered and was baptized||Heliodorus recovered|
|and preached Christ to all||and he then blessed God’s people||and reported to all the great power of God|
A very important factor left out of the comparison is that Balaam offered a show of repentance, but he really didn’t repent at all, and Luke expects his reader to pick up on this. After all, if Luke expects us to see that his choice of words that describes Paul’s conversion points to Balaam (and possibly Heliodorus), then he also expects us to take in the whole story.
It can be argued that Luke’s allusion to Balaam not only represents Saul’s heart before he met Jesus, but is also representative of the hearts of those who sent Paul to Damascus to oppose the people of God. In opposing the Gospel the Jewish leadership at Jerusalem brought the like judgment upon their nation that Balaam brought upon himself and the kings of Midian (cp. Numbers 31:8)
The account of Saul/Paul is quite different from how Balaam received his vision (cp. Numbers 25:1-9; 31:16). Luke claims Paul told Agrippa that he wasn’t disobedient to his heavenly vision, for Paul went about telling both Jew and gentile that they should repent and turn to God (Acts 26:19-20). Balaam taught Israel to rebel against God. The point is Paul received the vision of God with obedience and faith, Balaam did not.
A similar situation is shown in the Gospel of John in chapters 8 and 9. In John 8:12 Jesus declares he is the Light of the world, but his words are met in unbelief and the Jewish authorities argue with him (John 8:13 and following). Jesus again declared in John 9:5 that he is the Light of the world, but the blind man obeyed Jesus and went to the Pool of Siloam (John 9:7), where he was healed. The theme in John 8 and 9 is blindness—spiritual and physical. The Jewish authorities refused to see Jesus testimony and remained blind (spiritually). On the other hand, the man born blind (physically) obeyed Jesus, acting in faith, and washed in the Pool of Siloam. He was healed of his blindness (physically) and later in the chapter spiritually as well.
At the end of the day, it is not how many comparisons that can be made between two or more narratives, but in what those narratives tell us. Paul repented and obeyed and was received by God. Balaam continued to act against God’s people, as did the Jewish authorities at Jerusalem who persecuted the Messianic Jews. Neither they nor Balaam repented, and God’s judgment fell upon them in the end. Therefore, if Luke expects us to see his allusion to Balaam (and perhaps Heliodorus) in his account of Paul’s conversion, and I agree that he does, then Luke also expects us to see the whole context of those comparisons.