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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 22

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Many have wondered where Moses received all of the remarkable details in these chapters about Balaam and his “cursing” of Israel, but there is no need whatever to suppose that Joshua, or some later writer, “added” the account here. The detailed records of Balaam’s unhappy excursion were probably in the archives of Moab, and when Israel completely defeated them, their archives, or library, naturally fell into the hands of the victors. In exactly the same manner, historians today find many items of interest concerning the fall of Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich. They were taken from that defeated nation in World War II. We reject as untruthful and undependable the speculations that deny either the date or the origin of these materials contained in the Fourth Book of Moses.

W. F. Albright, a celebrated Bible scholar, published an article in 1944 from which the following declarations are quoted:

“The Greek text (of these chapters) differs repeatedly from the Masoretic tradition in its use of divine names, and no attempt to distribute the prose matter between J and E has succeeded without a suspiciously large amount of emendation… There is nothing in the matter of the poems that requires a date in the tenth century (B.C.) or later. The Baluah Stele (from the twelfth century B.C.) proves that there was already a well-organized monarchy in Moab. The name Balaam is characteristic of the second millennium, and has survived in at least two place names, one of which goes back to the fifteenth century B.C., and there is no reason why they may not be authentic.”(F1)

With regard to the critical efforts to divide the material between J and E, it should be noted that there are not merely two names for God in this account, there are at least FIVE. Not only that, there are two other names of God with suffixes, making SEVEN in all! How do they get around that? Well, as Gray said, “The last three names (actually five) may be dismissed from consideration”!(F2) Indeed! That simply ignores five names that contradict their theories, and arbitrarily allocates the whole passage to the two names of their choice. This is only one of hundreds of examples where such unfair, unscientific, and arbitrary devices are utilized by critics who were purposely blind to the mountains of evidence against them.


Since Balaam is the principal actor in these chapters, we shall take a little closer look at this Biblical character. That he was indeed a historical person is attested by the place-names which memorialize him, dating from the mid-second millenium B.C. But actually, who was he? Was he a true prophet of God who went wrong, or was he a mere charlatan soothsayer whom God used as a special vehicle of the prophecies he uttered? There is no conclusive evidence either way.

His name, Balaam, means “devourer, destroyer, or devourer of the people.”(F3) In 2 Peter 2:15-16, Balaam was referred to as having “forsaken the right way,” indicating that certainly, at one time, he was in the right way. Also, it is clearly declared in the narrative before us that “the Spirit of God” enabled him to deliver valid prophecies. Thus, there was surely a period of his life when he walked in the truth, even praying that his “latter end” be like that of the faithful. Peter also called Balaam a prophet (2 Peter 2:16).

However, upon the occasion of Balaam’s death, when he was slain along with the enemy opposing Israel, Joshua referred to him as “the soothsayer” (Numbers 13:22), a description that fits both the beginning and the final period of Balaam’s life. Soothsayers were proscribed under the law of Moses, and the practice of that art was utterly forbidden to Israel.

Despite God’s use of this prophet in the matter of frustrating the desires of Balak, however, this favor of God was insufficient to keep Balaam in the right way. The reason for this stated in the N.T. is that “he loved the wages of the unrighteousnesss.” Balaam evidently thought to make amends for his failure to give satisfaction to Balak, and this he did by advising Balak to accomplish the destruction of Israel by seducing them to commit adultery with the daughters of Moab. The manner in which this seduction was carried out is reported in Numbers 25. Balaam also joined forces with the Moabites against Israel and died in the battle that resulted in their defeat. The account of this evil counsel which originated with Balaam is in Numbers 31:16. That this was one of Balaam’s greatest sins is evident in the fact that in the message of the Holy Spirit to the church at Pergamum (Revelation 2:14), one finds this:

“But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there some that hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication.”

Thus, the total picture of Balaam reveals a man who by disposition and desire was a pagan, but who nevertheless had a knowledge of the true God of Israel, perhaps handed down to him from his remote ancestors of primal times. His name suggests a descent from that Beor who was the father of Bela, first king of the Edomites (Genesis 36:32). Edom (Esau) was of course a brother of Jacob, the son of Isaac, and from that source, certainly some knowledge of the true God still remained among all the connections of the family. There also appears in the prophetic utterances of Balaam, during that period, a strong desire of Balaam to follow the Word of God, but, like Demas of the N.T., the allurement of riches and his unholy desire to compensate Balak for the performance of a task that he could not accomplish resulted, at last, in his total departure from the truth. Alas, this also has been the record of many a Christian in our own times.

Verse 1

“And the children of Israel journeyed, and encamped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan at Jericho.”

This verse actually concluded the preceding chapter, placing Israel during the times of the episode about to be related as poised upon the banks of the Jordan before beginning the assault on Canaan at Jericho. The incident centering around Balaam was one of the very greatest importance to Israel, for it was at Baal-Peor that they formally rejected God and “joined themselves to Baal,” a decision that would finally result in the destruction of both Israel and of Judah, following the turbulent days of the monarchy.

Verses 2-6

“And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel. And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now will this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time. And he sent messengers unto Balaam the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the River, to the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me. Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land; for I know that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.”

“Moab was sore afraid” The Israelites had just defeated Sihon and the Amorites who had wrested much of the Moabite territory away from them during the reign of a king preceding Balak, the king of Moab at the time of the mission of Balaam. This change in the monarchy of Moab was explained by the words, “And Balak… was king of Moab at that time (Numbers 22:4).” This reference, therefore, is not at all “an indication of later origin” of this passage. Some, of course, import such a meaning into this place; but it is absolutely on a parity with what the apostle John said in his account of the trials of Jesus that, “Caiaphas was high priest that year” (John 18:13); and this was added merely to indicate that a different king was then reigning over Moab.

“Unto the elders of Midian” (Numbers 22:15). “Balak here acted for Midian as well as for Moab. The Midianites were a weak people and had probably placed themselves under the protection of Balak.”(F4) It is a gross error to view the narrative here as a post-Mosaic addition, as alleged by Smick: “It reflects the fact that this line is a post-Mosaic sentence, or that the whole account was added in post-Mosaic times.”(F5) There is not a single phrase in any of these chapters that justifies such a conclusion.

“To Pethor, which is by the river, to the land of the children of his people” Based upon the literal reading in the Hebrew here, which is, “The land of the children of Ammo,” that is, “the children of Amaw,” a place which has been identified as a city west of the Euphrates. Emar, the capital of Amaw is less than fifty miles from Pethor, and is identified in the Idrimi Inscription and also in the tomb of the Quen-amun of Egypt in the second half of the fifteenth century B.C.,”(F6) a date corresponding exactly with the time of the writing of the Pentateuch of Moses. The assertion of Gray that the two places listed as the place of Balaam’s residence, “One on the Euphrates, and the other in the place of `the children of Ammo,’ is an inconsistency,”(F7) is typical of such criticisms. Of course, Ammo was virtually on the banks of the Euphrates!

“They abide over against me” (Numbers 22:5). This would not be exactly the case at the time when Israel was encamped before Jericho east of Jordan, and this indicates that, “The embassies to Balaam must have occupied some time, and that at the sending of the first of these Israel had not yet arrived before Jericho.”(F8) After all, the distance to Balaam’s residence near the Euphrates would have required a great deal of time.

Verses 7-14

“And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand; and they came unto Balaam, and spake unto him the words of Balak. And he said unto them, Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as Jehovah shall speak unto me: and the princes of Moab abode with Balaam. And God came unto Balaam and said, What men are these with thee? And Balaam said unto God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent unto me, saying, Behold, the people that is come out of Egypt, it covereth the face of the earth: now, come curse me them; peradventure I shall be able to fight against them, and shall drive them out. And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land; for Jehovah refuseth to give me leave to go with you. And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us.”

This should have ended the whole episode, but, as we shall see, the greedy heart of Balaam led him to solicit God’s permission a second time. We find no basis whatever for agreement with Dummelow’s assertion that it “is unfair” to see any blame on Balaam’s action here. “On the occasion of the first message from Balak, he was honestly in doubt(!) whether or not to go!”(F9) How could he have been “in doubt”? God said, “Thou shalt not go!” What is ambiguous or uncertain about that? Furthermore, Balaam, in giving God’s response to his request to the princes of Balak, “omitted all reference to the fact that the people Balak desired him to curse were indeed blessed of God.”(F10) The logical conclusion of Balak’s messengers was predictable enough; they thought that Balaam merely desired larger rewards, a conclusion that Balaam’s incomplete answer fully justified.

“What men are these with thee” (Numbers 22:11). This is like the question in Genesis 4:9, “Where is Abel thy brother?” God already knew the answer to this; the question was merely to warn Balaam of the evil purpose of his guests.

Verses 15-20

“And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honorable than they. And they came to Balaam, and said to him, Thus saith Balak the son of Zippor, Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me: for I will promote thee unto very great honor, and whatsoever thou sayest unto me I will do: come therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people. And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of Jehovah my God, to do less or more. Now therefore I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what Jehovah will speak unto me more. And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them; but only the word that I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do.”

At this point Balaam had already compromised himself; and God gave his permission, in exactly the same manner as he granted Israel’s request for a king. It was permitted, but it was still contrary to the will of God. Long before this, “Balaam should have dropped the matter, but he was lured on by the love of money.”(F11)

“If the men have come to call you” (Numbers 22:20). This is an idiomatic expression with the meaning, “Since the men have come to call you.”(F12) Balaam had already (by his actions) requested a higher reward, and Balak had responded with greater promises.

“Balak… sent princes… more, and more honorable” (Numbers 22:15). This means that the delegation was larger in size and that the delegates were even higher rank than those sent at first.

“I will promote thee, etc” (Numbers 22:17). Orlinsky stated that this means, “I will reward thee richly.”(F13)

Verses 21-30

“And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. And God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of Jehovah placed himself in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the angel of Jehovah standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. Then the angel of Jehovah stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. And the ass saw the angel of Jehovah, and she thrust herself into the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again. And the angel of Jehovah went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And the ass saw the angel of Jehovah, and she lay down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff. And Jehovah opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times? And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in my hand, for now I had killed thee. And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.”

Although Balaam went “with the princes,” it is clear that the companies did not travel together, perhaps because the princes came on camels and traveled more rapidly. Balak’s later coming to meet Balaam makes this certain. Also, it is clear that the anger of god was kindled against Balaam, not at the start of the journey, but afterward, as the presence of walled vineyard indicated the approach to the city. Why? The repeated warning (Numbers 22:35) indicates that Balaam had decided in his heart that he would comply with Balak’s request and “curse” Israel. This triggered the anger of God. “Because he went” (Numbers 22:22) therefore has the meaning of “went with the intention of disobeying God.”

Countless comments on the mute donkey speaking cast no light upon the incident. It is still a mysterious and miraculous providence through which God Himself warned the prophet: “He was rebuked for his own transgression, a dumb ass spake with man’s voice and stayed the madness of the prophet” (2 Peter 2:16). Even if the delegates from Balak had been with Balaam at this time, they, no more than the servants of Balaam, would have beheld this wonder. “When God granted visions, they alone for whom they were intended saw them, while others in the company saw nothing (Daniel 10:7; Acts 9:7).”(F14)

It was true that, “Balaam knew that God would not permit him to curse Israel, but he did not tell the princes so. In this way, he was guilty of gross misrepresentation.”(F15) It also appears in this narrative that, enroute, Balaam had decided to “curse Israel,” sufficiently to earn Balak’s money. As Smick expressed it, “Balaam’s heart was swayed by his love for the `wages of unrighteousness’.”(F16) “In his heart, he hoped to evade God’s will and satisfy Balak.”(F17)

Verses 31-35

“Then Jehovah opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of Jehovah standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head and fell on his face. And the angel of Jehovah said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I am come forth for an adversary, because thy way is perverse before me: and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times: unless she had turned aside from me, surely now I had even slain thee, and saved her alive. And Balaam said unto the angel of Jehovah, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again. And the angel of Jehovah said unto Balaam, Go with the men; but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.”

Balaam’s offer to return home shows that he already knew this journey to be contrary to God’s will. However, he had already committed himself to go, and God permitted no turning back.

“Go with the men” (Numbers 22:35). There is a point of no return in every departure from the will of God. What terror must fill the hearts of men who, launched upon an evil course, find that they have gone too far to turn back. At last, there came the time in the life of Judas when God commanded him, “What thou doest, do quickly!” (John 13:27). Many a sinner would like to turn back when the fruits of his wickedness begin to appear; but there stands the angel of Jehovah, always, with the drawn sword, “Go with the men!” When men make their bed with evil, God requires them to lie in it.

Verses 36-41

“And when Balak heard that Balaam was come, he went out to meet him unto the City of Moab, which is on the border of the Arnon, which is in the utmost part of the border. And Balak said unto Balaam, Did I not earnestly send unto thee to call thee? wherefore camest thou not unto me? am I not able indeed to promote thee to honor? And Balaam said unto Balak, Lo, I am come unto thee: have I now any power at all to speak any thing? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak. And Balaam went with Balak, and they came unto Kiriath-huzoth. And Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep, and sent to Balaam, and to the princes that were with him. And it came to pass in the morning, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal; and he saw from thence the utmost part of the people.”

Balak honored Balaam by going to meet him, but chided him for his delay, still assuming that the delay was occasioned by Balaam’s desire for greater rewards. Balaam explained that even though he had come, he would not be able to speak anything except that which God commanded; however, Balak did not for an instant believe him. He proceeded to take the prophet up “into the high places of Baal.” Now, Baal was one of the most detestable of pagan gods; and what a place for the prophet of the true God to find himself! The sacrifice of the animals was a usual procedure for those invoking the aid of their gods. The food shared by Balaam and others afterward was in the form of a “fellowship meal” in the bond of paganism.

Numbers 22:41 here, actually belongs to the following chapter where the account of Balaam’s first oracle occurs.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 22". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-22.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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