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Friday, December 1st, 2023
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 23

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-12

Balaam offered seven burnt offerings to God on seven separate altars. Pagans as well as Israelites regarded seven as a complete number based on the seven days of creation and seven days of the week. Pagans commonly offered sacrifices on important occasions, as did the Israelites, to secure divine favor and help.

"The most arresting element of the introductory section is in the words ’God met with him’ (Numbers 23:4) and ’the LORD put a message in Balaam’s mouth’ (Numbers 23:5). Despite the pagan and unsavory actions of this ungodly man, the Lord deigns to meet with him and to speak through him. This is utterly remarkable. We often say that God will never use an unclean vessel. This is not quite accurate. God may use whatever vessel he wishes; the issue concerns what happens to an unclean vessel when God has finished using it for his purposes." [Note: Allen, p. 896.]

Aram (Numbers 23:7) is Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in northern Syria (cf. Paddan-aram in Genesis 28:2; et al.). Israel was not reckoned among the nations (Numbers 23:9) because of her divine vocation in the earth that set her apart from all other peoples.

Israel had increased in number as God had promised Abraham. The Israelites were as numerous as dust from Balaam’s perspective (Numbers 23:10; cf. Genesis 13:16). The "fourth part of Israel" refers to that quarter of the camp that was closest to Balaam as he prophesied. He could not even count the quarter of the nation that was closest to him. This is another indication, besides the number of Israelite males counted in each tribe, that the population of Israel was great at this time.

"The account of Pharaoh’s first attempt [to suppress God’s blessing of Israel in Egypt] (Exodus 1:11-14) is intended to show that ’the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread’ (Exodus 1:12). In his first oracle Balaam focused precisely on this point: ’How can I curse those whom God had not cursed?’ (Numbers 22[sic 23]:8), and he concluded by stressing the phenomenal growth of God’s people: ’Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel?’ (22[sic, 23]:10)." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 407.]

Balak became disappointed and angry because he expected that Balaam would control the gods. Balaam acknowledged that the God of Israel controlled him. Balak concluded that the site was not conducive to his purpose, so he took Balaam to another place hoping that the spirits might be more favorable there.

This first oracle was not as specific as those that follow, but it did reveal that Yahweh was backing Israel rather than Moab. The fulfillment of the promise to multiply Abraham’s seed stands out in this oracle (Numbers 23:10).

Verses 1-30

Balaam’s seven oracles chs. 23-24

"Chapters 23 and 24 are two of the brightest chapters in the book of Numbers. Scores of wonderful things are said about Israel, mainly prophetical. The dark sins of the past were forgotten; only happy deliverance from Egypt was cited." [Note: Jensen, p. 99.]

Verses 13-26

A new site afforded a better view of Israel, though the whole nation was still not in view. Balak repeated the same ritual of sacrifice.

God does not change His ultimate purposes or go back on His solemn promises. He does, of course, respond to the words and actions of people by adjusting His plans. It is from God’s larger purposes that He does not "repent" (Numbers 23:19). [Note: See Thomas L. Constable, "What Prayer Will and Will Not Change," in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, pp. 99-113; idem, Talking to God: What the Bible Teaches about Prayer, pp. 147-52; Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "Does God ’Change His Mind’?" Bibliotheca Sacra 152:608 (October-December 1995):387-99; idem, "Does God Deceive?" Bibliotheca Sacra 155:617 (January-March 1998):11-28; and Ashley, p. 478.] The point is that God is not fickle. No one can induce Him to curse those whom He has chosen to bless.

"Balaam is constantly shifting, prevaricating, equivocating, changing-he is himself the prime example of the distinction between God and man." [Note: Allen, p. 901.]

"It may be of interest to note that Pharaoh’s plans were stymied by the apparent deception of the Hebrew midwives and that in Balaam’s second oracle he states, ’God is not a man, that he should lie’ (Numbers 23:19)." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 407.]

God had "not observed misfortune [iniquity] in Jacob" to the extent that He would curse rather than bless the nation (Numbers 23:21). Obviously Israel had sinned, but her sins were not sufficient to change God’s ultimate purpose to bless her.

"Only in the family is the sinfulness of the people addressed. Since Yahweh the King is in their midst, they are invincible from outside attack." [Note: Allen, p. 902.]

Israel would be victorious in battle as well as enjoy God’s blessing (Numbers 23:24; cf. Genesis 49:9-11; Micah 5:8-9). This was the opposite of what Balak wanted to hear. No one can curse someone whom God has blessed.

Since Balaam’s curses had turned out to be blessings, Balak instructed Balaam to say nothing rather than continue to prophesy.

This oracle, as the first, began with a criticism of Balak’s theological assumption that people can manipulate God. In this oracle Balaam saw Israel blessed and God as King walking among His people (Numbers 23:21). The Exodus was the supreme example of God’s care for Israel (Numbers 23:22). Israel’s future would be bright just as her past had been (Numbers 23:23-24). Balaam also alluded to Israel’s possession of the land as God had promised Abraham (Numbers 23:26). [Note: For more detailed study of the first two oracles, see Angelo Tosato, "The Literary Structure of the First Two Poems of Balaam (Num. xxiii 7-10, 18-24)," Vetus Testamentum 29:1 (January 1979):98-106.]

Still hopeful, Balak took Balaam to a third site from which he could view the whole of the Israelite camp. Again he offered sacrifices as before.

Balaam had learned that God would bless Israel even though Balak had not. Consequently this time he did not seek indications of the will of God in omens as he had done previously (Numbers 23:1). He simply proclaimed the message the Holy Spirit revealed to him (Numbers 23:2). Balaam intended his opening words (Numbers 23:3-4) to impress upon Balak that the Almighty God had inspired his oracle.

The phrase "falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered" (found also in Numbers 23:16), ". . . has usually been interpreted as describing the particular state in which the prophet-seer received his revelations (e.g., that he was in a prophetic trance or sleep . . . or was falling down in awe, or in the overpowering presence of the spirit of prophecy . . .)." [Note: J. M. Allegro, "The Meaning of nophel in Numbers xxiv. 4, 16," Expository Times 65 (July 1954):317.]

In the article just cited, the author went on to suggest the translation "pared or peeled of eye(s)" (Numbers 23:4; Numbers 23:16), which is possible grammatically.

Balaam pictured Israel as a man carrying two buckets overflowing with water (Numbers 23:7). Water was the source of physical refreshment and blessing in the hot and arid Near East. Israel’s seed would enjoy the richest blessing (i.e., would grow up beside many waters).

"In an ironic reversal of the evil intended by Pharaoh’s order to cast the seed of Abraham into the river, Balaam’s third oracle uses the well-watered gardens that spread out along the banks of a river to speak of the abundance of Israel’s ’seed.’ A literal reading of Balaam’s remark in Numbers 24:7 is ’Their seed is in the abundant waters’ . . . Thus what was once the intended means for the destruction of the promised seed, that is, the ’abundant waters,’ has now become the poetic image of God’s faithfulness to his promise." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 407.]

"Agag" (Numbers 23:7) was the title of the kings of the Amalekites or the name of several Amalekite kings, perhaps a dynasty (cf. Abimelech in Genesis 20:1-2; Genesis 26:1; and Jabin in Joshua 11:1; Judges 4:2). Balaam may have used "Agag" here as the personification of Israel’s enemies. King Saul later defeated another Agag (1 Samuel 15:8).

"It is clear from Numbers 23:24 that Balaam is speaking about the people of Israel and the exodus from Egypt. In Numbers 24:8, however, Balaam repeats the same line and applies it, using singular forms, to the king he has introduced in Numbers 24:7: ’God brought him [singular] out of Egypt; he has the strength of a wild ox.’

"The writer’s purpose appears to be to view the reign of the future king in terms taken from God’s great acts of salvation in the past. The future is going to be like the past. What God did for Israel in the past is seen as a type of what he will do for them in the future when he sends his promised king." [Note: ibid., p. 408.]

"The stunning climax is in the blessing of God on all who bless Israel [Numbers 23:9; cf. Numbers 23:17; Genesis 12:3; Genesis 27:29; Genesis 49:9]. This, of course, takes us back to the original promise of God to Abram. The irony cannot be missed by Balaam or by any who hear his words. In his actions he brings a curse on his own head, even as he speaks blessing!" [Note: Allen, p. 907.]

Balak sent Balaam home without pay because he failed to produce the curse Balak had hired him to deliver.

This oracle is even stronger than the preceding two. As Balaam had alluded to other aspects of the Abrahamic promises previously (Numbers 23:10; Numbers 23:24) here the blessing aspect concludes this oracle (Numbers 23:9; cf. Genesis 12:3; Genesis 27:29).

"Like Pharaoh before him, Balak also made three attempts to thwart God’s blessing for Israel (Numbers 23:1-26; Numbers 23:27 to Numbers 24:9), and each attempt was turned into a blessing (Numbers 23:11-12; Numbers 23:25-26; Numbers 24:10-11)." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 406.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 23". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/numbers-23.html. 2012.
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