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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 22

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-20

Moab had not attacked Israel as the people of God had moved north along Moab’s eastern border. In fact the Moabites sold the Israelites bread and water (Deuteronomy 2:28-29). The Moabites probably counted on Sihon, who had formerly defeated Moab, to take care of Israel too (Numbers 21:26; cf. Judges 11:25). When Sihon lost, Balak looked for other help. He allied with his neighbors to the southeast, the Midianites.

Israel’s victories over the two mighty Amorite kings filled Balak, the King of Moab, with fear (Numbers 22:5-6). He allied with Midian and sent for Balaam, a famous magician, to curse the Israelites. Baalam’s town, Pethor (Numbers 22:5), was probably the Mesopotamian village of Pitru by the Euphrates River (cf. Deuteronomy 23:4). [Note: The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Balaam," by A. van Selms.]

Balaam has been a problem for Bible students. On the one hand he appears to have been a pagan, but on the other there are indications that he may have been a believer. Some commentators believe he was an idol-worshipping false prophet whom God compelled against his will to bless Israel. Others hold that he was a true prophet of Yahweh who simply fell before the temptations of ambition and money.

"As a biblical character . . . Balaam appears to be neither fish nor fowl." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 405.]

"Was he a sinner or saint? . . . The text of chs. 22-24 is not concerned to pronounce on the matter. Balaam’s character is incidental to the story. . . .

"As the old saying goes, ’The Lord can strike a mighty blow with a crooked stick,’ . . ." [Note: Ashley, pp. 435, 436.]

Balaam’s name probably came from a Hebrew root meaning "destroyer" or "devourer." His father’s name, Beor, apparently came from another word meaning "to burn," "eat off," or "destroy." The name of Balaam’s father suggests that he may have been a sorcerer and may have given Balaam his power as well as his name at birth. However, Balaam may have received his name later in life when his powers with the spirit world became known. In either case Balaam’s name suggests that he was a veteran conjurer of curses.

The Old Testament never calls Balaam a prophet or seer but a diviner (soothsayer; Joshua 13:22). This title never describes true prophets of Yahweh elsewhere. God prohibited divination in Israel (Deuteronomy 18:10-13), and the Israelites regarded it as a serious sin (1 Samuel 15:23; Ezekiel 13:23; 2 Kings 17:17) as well as a mark of a false prophet (Ezekiel 13:9; Ezekiel 22:28; Jeremiah 14:14). Balaam customarily sought omens (Numbers 24:1) to understand the future by divination. He also had a reputation for being able to persuade the gods to take a particular course of action.

Nevertheless Balaam knew Yahweh, submitted to Him, and received revelations from Him (Numbers 22:8; Numbers 22:13; Numbers 22:18-20; Numbers 22:38; Numbers 23:5; Numbers 23:12; Numbers 23:16; Numbers 24:1; Numbers 24:13). There are many indications in the narrative that Balaam genuinely feared Yahweh. He seems to have been sincerely sympathetic with the Israelites, and he praised them (Numbers 23:10).

Balaam’s behavior is similar to the Jewish exorcists of Jesus’ day who cast out demons in Jesus’ name but did not follow Him (Mark 9:38-39; Luke 9:49). He also resembles Simon Magus who was a sorcerer before he professed faith in Christ and submitted to baptism. Simon’s fascination with supernatural powers and desire for personal gain diverted him from his Christian commitment (Acts 8:13).

"Balaam is the pagan counterpart to Moses the man of God. The recovery of prophetic texts of Balaam in Aramaic from the sixth century at Deir-’Allah in Jordan shows how very famous this man was in the ancient Near East, even centuries after his death." [Note: Allen, p. 887. See also Jacob Hoftijzer, "The Prophet Balaam in a 6th-Century Aramaic Inscription," Biblical Archaeologist 39:1 (March 1976):11-17; "Prophecy of Balaam found in Jordan," Bible and Spade 6:4 (Autumn 1977):121-24; Andre Lamaire, "Fragments from the Book of Balaam Found at Deir Alla," Biblical Archaeology Review 11:5 (September-October 1985):27-39; Charles H. Savelle, "Canonical and Extracanonical Portraits of Balaam," Bibliotheca Sacra 166:664 (October-December 2009):387-404.]

Whether Balaam was a true believer or not, his love of money got him in trouble (2 Peter 2:15; Judges 1:11). He served Yahweh, but he also wanted the reward that Balak offered him. At best he was double-minded. This characteristic accounts for the instability of his character and makes Balaam hard to classify with certainty (cf. Lot). Balaam later died in the Israelites’ battle with the Midianites (Numbers 31:8).

Balaam’s importance in Numbers should be obvious in view of the amount of text Moses devoted to his activities (chs. 22-25). His oracles are the centerpiece of this revelation. God announced through these revelations that He would bless Israel and that He would fulfill His promises to the patriarchs. The restatement of these promises was especially appropriate at this moment in Israel’s experience. The nation received a reminder that God would give them the land of Canaan west of the Jordan, not just the territories of Sihon and Og. That these messages had come through a man who was not an Israelite, but received pay to curse Israel from her enemies, would have given the Israelites even greater confidence. The oracles, therefore, not only weakened the will of Israel’s enemies in Moab, Midian, and the other Canaanite nations, but they encouraged the Israelites.

Balak acknowledged Balaam’s power to bring a real curse.

"Balak believed, in common with the whole of the ancient world, in the real power and operation of the curses, anathemas, and incantations pronounced by priests, soothsayers, and goetoe." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:165.]

This power was real, as is clear from the narrative, though the heathen world may have distorted it.

"The custom of cursing an enemy before battle was widespread in the ancient world . . . ." [Note: Philip, p. 243.]

"In the ancient Near East it was believed that an enemy could be combatted in two ways: with arms or by means of incantations, and if possible by means of a combination of the two. The incantations are based on the concept that a people and its deity constitute a unit; they seek to force, by means of various kinds of magic, the deity of the enemy to withhold his power from his people. Thus the enemy will be powerless and become an easy prey for the opponent. Moab does not dare use the first means, since Israel has already proven to be superior in military power to Sihon, whom Moab had been forced to acknowledge as their superior in the past. This leaves only the second means; they must find the kind of man who in the Euphrates-Tigris valley is called a baru (’seer’). The baru belongs to the priestly class, and his specialty is ’seeing’ what will happen on the basis of phenomena that escape the common person, but are found e.g., in the liver of a ritually slaughtered animal, or in the configuration of drops of oil on water, or in the stars, or in the shape of the clouds. Such barus were believed to be able to influence the will of the gods because of their secret knowledge and mysterious manipulations, and to force the gods to do, or not to do, a given thing." [Note: Noordtzij, p. 199. See also Morris Jastrow Jr., Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria, p. 162-74.]

Had Balaam been completely faithful to Yahweh he would have sent the messengers home and refused to entertain them again (Numbers 22:7-14). Unfortunately his love for reward led him to compromise later.

". . . from the early part of the narrative, when he first encounters the true God in visions, and in the humorous narrative of the journey on the donkey, Balaam begins to learn what for him was a strange, bizarre, even incomprehensible lesson: An encounter with the God of reality was fundamentally different than anything he had ever known." [Note: Allen, p. 887.]

Several types of divination were common in the ancient Near East.

1. Extispicy was the examination of the entrails of a sacrificed sheep by a trained specialist to determine messages from the gods. The intricate arrangements of the internal organs are what believers in this form of divination regarded as indicative of divine revelation.

2. Astrology studied the arrangements of the moon, sun, meteors, planets, and fixed stars to discover the future. Eclipses were particularly significant.

3. Augury was the study of the appearance, movements, and behavior of birds. The seers supposed the direction and manner of flight of birds was revelatory.

4. Kleromancy was divination by means of lots. The various configurations of symbolic objects, actors, and areas yielded a binary ("yes" or "no") answer to a given question.

5. Oneiromancy was revelation by dreams that sometimes contained verbal communication from a god or non-verbal communication. In the latter type certain colors, animals, or activities corresponded to types of misfortune, happiness, or success.

In all the types of divination, fortunetellers used tricks to deceive and impress their clients. They often clothed their predictions in mysterious ambiguous language to cover possible error. Devout Israelites were to reject divination as a way of discovering the likely outcome of events and to rely on God to make known what He wanted them to know. [Note: See Harry A. Hoffner Jr., "Ancient Views of Prophecy and Fulfillment: Mesopotamia and Asia Minor," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30:3 (September 1987):257-65.]

Balaam’s mind had apparently been dwelling on the reward Balak’s messengers had mentioned since he named his price in a clever way (Numbers 22:18-20). He would not go for a large sum, but when his visitors offered a sum larger than what he had mentioned would be inadequate, he reconsidered (Numbers 22:18).

God evidently allowed Balaam to go with the messengers because He intended to bless Israel (Numbers 22:20). God had previously prohibited him from going (Numbers 22:12) because He would not curse Israel. Numbers 22:12 contains the directive will of God and Numbers 22:20 the permissive will of God. The change was due to God’s yielding to Balaam’s desire. Compare God’s yielding to Moses’ intercessory prayers and God giving the Israelites meat. The permission of Numbers 22:20 constituted a test for Balaam, which he failed. Balaam knew the will of God (Numbers 22:12), but God gave him permission to obey or disobey (Numbers 22:20).

Strangely Balaam was aware that he must be obedient in revealing God’s message whether for good or ill (Numbers 22:20). This conviction apparently came to him as a result of God’s changed permission. God seems to have been teaching Balaam by these two words (Numbers 22:12; Numbers 22:20) that He is the true God who is flexible but all-powerful. Balaam was learning that Yahweh was not like the lesser spirits with whom he had dealt previously.

"The story of Balaam is thus an example of the folly of attempting to destroy the eternal blessing of the people of the Lord." [Note: Allen, p. 888.]

Verses 1-41

Moab’s attempts to curse Israel chs. 22-24

This section of the book shows what a threat Israel had become to the other peoples in the area that they passed through on the way to the Promised Land. The Moabites’ attempts to frustrate the fulfillment of God’s promise to give Israel the land demonstrate His power in overcoming these enemies and His faithfulness (cf. Genesis 12:3).

Balak’s arrangement with Balaam ch. 22

Verses 21-41

Balaam was sensitive to the spirit world. Either he did not sense the presence of the Angel of the Lord or his greed had blinded him to the Angel’s presence. The Angel had drawn his sword (Numbers 22:23), symbolic of God’s wrath against Balaam, for acting as he was doing (cf. Genesis 3:24; Exodus 12:12). God finally caught Balaam’s attention by speaking through the donkey (Numbers 22:28; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:27). Then he saw the Angel and bowed in submission before Him (Numbers 22:31).

". . . even a beast is more capable of discerning things from the higher world, than a man blinded by sinful desires." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:173.]

Hopefully Balaam appreciated the contrast between his own lack of insight and his donkey’s ability to discern God’s will and learned some humility from the event.

"We see the prophet Balaam as a blind seer, seeing less than the dumb animal. . . . The long shadow of Moses falls across the pages of the Balaam story even though Moses is never named once. Moses spoke face to face with God (see ch. 12); Balaam does not even know that God is near-but his donkey does!" [Note: Allen, p. 893.]

Why did Balaam answer his donkey as though he normally conversed with it (Numbers 22:29)? Perhaps spirits had spoken to him through animals previously (cf. Genesis 3:1; Genesis 3:4). Maybe the donkey exasperated him to the point that he answered before he realized what he was doing.

"The donkey’s acts and words anticipate the problems Balaam is about to face. The ass was caught three times between the angel’s sword and Balaam’s stick. Soon Balaam will find himself trapped between Balak’s demands and God’s prohibitions. Through his third encounter with God, Balaam was reminded that God wields a sword and that disobedience means death. So he goes on his way fully committed to declaring God’s words rather than submitting to Balak’s wishes (35)." [Note: G. Wenham, Numbers, p. 171.]

"The Lord tells Balaam to continue on his journey but to ’speak only what I tell you’ (Numbers 22:35). This is the point of the whole chapter: Balaam the pagan mantic will not be able to speak cursing as he had planned. Instead, he would be the most surprised of all; he would be the most remarkable instrument of God in the blessing of his people, Israel." [Note: Allen, p. 894.]

Some ancient and modern interpreters have pointed out the similarities and differences between the stories of Balaam’s donkey in this pericope and Abraham’s binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19). [Note: See Jonathan D. Safren, "Balaam and Abraham," Vetus Testamentum 38:1 (January 1988):105-13.] The stories appear in inverse form, as a reflection in a mirror. God through Moses may have subtly contrasted Balaam with Abraham to put Balaam in a bad light and to glorify Abraham.

Balak was a bit put out with Balaam for delaying his arrival. He assumed Balaam’s hesitancy was due to doubt concerning Balak’s ability to pay him (Numbers 22:37). The sacrifices (Numbers 22:40) were probably to secure the favor of Balak’s gods.

"The pieces given to Balaam presumably would have included the livers; for as a baru diviner, Balaam was a specialist in liver divination." [Note: Allen, p. 895.]

Balak assumed that Balaam would be more susceptible to receiving supernatural power, and it would be more effective, if he had Israel in view. This is why he took Balaam to places where he could see Israel.

"In order to lay a spell on a people, it was considered necessary to be able to see them, if only in part." [Note: Maarsingh, p. 84.]

None of the sites mentioned are identifiable with certainty, but all were around the area where Israel lay camped.

Numbers 22:41 contains one of the first references to Baal worship in the Old Testament.

"Israel struggled with Baal and his worshippers from the beginning to the end of her national history. Baal worship was the most serious challenge and threat to the worship of Yahweh of all the pagan religions in the ancient Near East. This was true because some similarities and some vast differences existed between Baal and Yahweh." [Note: Ralph L. Smith, "Baal," Biblical Illustrator 10:2 (Winter 1984):15.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 22". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/numbers-22.html. 2012.
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