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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Numbers 24

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.]

Verses 15-19

Before Balaam departed he gave Balak four more revelations from God. They dealt with the future of Israel, Moab, and Israel’s other neighbors. They were entirely futuristic in their prophecies. Each one began with the phrase "took up his discourse and said." In all, Balaam made seven discourses that Moses recorded in the text.

The fourth oracle dealt with Israel, Moab, and Edom. Balaam seemed to sense that what he predicted would take place in the distant future: "I see him, but not now, . . ." (Numbers 24:17). Saul and David partially fulfilled these prophecies. However Jewish and Christian interpreters have seen them as looking beyond the early monarchy to Messiah at His first and second advents.

The "star" (Numbers 24:17) was a common symbol for a king in biblical and non-biblical ancient Near Eastern literature (cf. Isaiah 14:12; Ezekiel 32:7; Revelation 22:16). [Note: See Riggans, p. 186; and Merrill, "Numbers," in The Bible . . ., p. 244.] This identification finds support in the reference to the "scepter" in the next line (cf. Genesis 49:10; Amos 1:5; Amos 1:8; Psalms 45:6). One wonders if it might have been this prophecy that was in the minds of the three wise men who came from Balaam’s country to Bethlehem to look for the promised King of the Jews (Matthew 2:1-2).

"If . . . we compare Balaam’s prophesy of the star . . . and the sceptre . . . with the prediction of the patriarch Jacob, of the sceptre that should not depart from Judah, till the Shiloh came whom the nations would obey (Gen. xlix. 10), it is easy to observe that Balaam not only foretold more clearly the attitude of Israel to the nations of the world, and the victory of the kingdom of God over every hostile kingdom of the world; but that he also proclaimed the Bringer of Peace expected by Jacob at the end of the days to be a mighty ruler, whose sceptre would break in pieces and destroy all the enemies of the nation of God." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:201.]

"An interesting implication of the parallels presented here between the account of the birth of Moses in Exodus 2 and the announcement of the ’star’ to arise from the family of Jacob in Numbers 24 is that Moses thus appears to be portrayed in these narratives as a prototype of the ’star of Jacob.’ Such a view of Moses is consistent with the fact that elsewhere in the Pentateuch Moses is cast as a figure of the coming king (Deuteronomy 33:5) and prophet (Deuteronomy 18, 34). This is also consistent with the fact that later biblical writers often saw in Moses a picture of the future Messiah (e.g., Hosea 2:2[?])." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., pp. 406-7.]

"Seir" (Numbers 24:18) is another name for Edom. Mt. Seir was the principle geographical feature of Edom. God at first commanded Israel not to wage war with Edom because the Edomites were her kinsmen. As time passed, the Edomites became bitter antagonists of the Israelites. God punished them for this enmity beginning in David’s reign and after that (2 Samuel 8:14; 1 Kings 11:15-16; 1 Chronicles 18:12-13). In the years following David’s reign Edom was alternately subject to Israel’s kings and free. Edom attacked Israel several times, but John Hyrcanus eventually conquered her in 129 B.C. Thereafter Edom ceased to exist as a nation. Edomites lived among the Jews until Titus the Roman destroyed the Jewish nation in A.D. 70. The Greeks called the Edomites Idumeans. Herod the Great was an Idumean. He tried to kill the infant Messiah as Pharaoh had tried to slay baby Moses (Matthew 2:1-12). [Note: See The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Edom, Edomites," by J. A. Thompson.]

Verse 20

This oracle deals with the Amalekites who lived in southern Canaan and the Sinai peninsula and were implacable foes of Israel (cf. Exodus 17:8-16; Numbers 14:43-45; Judges 6:3; Judges 6:33; et al.). Saul and David both defeated the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:20; 1 Samuel 30:17), but this nation finally suffered complete destruction in King Hezekiah’s time in fulfillment of this prophecy (1 Chronicles 4:43).

Verses 21-22

The Kenites, who were identical to or part of the Midianites, were Israel’s neighbors to the southwest of the Dead Sea (cf. Numbers 10:29; Judges 1:16; 1 Samuel 15:6; 1 Samuel 27:10; 1 Samuel 30:29). The Asshurites who lived in the northern Sinai (Genesis 25:3; Genesis 25:18; 2 Samuel 2:9) and the Assyrians eventually defeated them. "Asshur" may refer to either or both of these nations. Probably Balaam prophesied concerning the future great Assyrian Empire.

"Why the Kenites come under attack here is not sure, except that it is possible that they became associated with the Midianites who come under the scourge of Israel (Numbers 31). The mention of Assyria is also a surprise, as its ascendancy to power in the ancient Near East was centuries away from Balaam’s day; yet Assyria was known as a powerful city-state even in Abraham’s day." [Note: Allen, p. 912.]

Verses 23-25

The final prophetic oracle deals with the overthrow of other powers of the ancient world. "Kittim" refers to Cyprus as representative of western powers (the Philistines, Greeks, Romans, and others at various times). "Asshur" here probably refers to the eastern Semites including the Assyrians. "Eber" includes the western Semites descended from Eber (Genesis 10:21) who settled in Canaan, excluding the Israelites. Thus Numbers 24:24 is a very broad prophecy ranging over thousands of years foretelling the ultimate destruction of these Semites by western powers. Final fulfillment awaits the Tribulation period and the second advent of Messiah.

Balaam returned to "his place," perhaps in Ammon or Mesopotamia (Numbers 31:8; Numbers 31:16; Deuteronomy 23:4). [Note: See idem, "The Theology of the Balaam Oracles," in Tradition and Testament, pp. 79-119. For a sermon on Balaam, see John Marshall, "The Prophet Balaam," The Banner of Truth 275-76 (August-September 1986):41-54.]

In summary, the first three oracles were a reconfirmation of the Abrahamic promises to Israel and a testimony to their partial fulfillment thus far in Israel’s history.

Oracle 1: seed promise (Numbers 23:10)

Oracle 2: land promise (Numbers 23:24)

Oracle 3: blessing promise (Numbers 24:9)

In each case the allusion to the promise concludes these oracles. The writer showed that God’s promise to bless those nations that blessed Abraham’s descendants and curse those who cursed them was reliable. The key to the future prosperity of Israel’s neighbor nations was their treatment of God’s chosen people.

The fourth through seventh oracles differ from the others in that they looked farther down the corridors of time. They prophesied the success of Israel in the years ahead culminating in Israel’s ultimate glory under her great Messiah’s reign.

"Not only do the Balaam narratives play an important role in developing the themes of the Abrahamic covenant, but they also serve as an inclusio to the Exodus-wilderness narratives. That is, the Balaam narratives restate the central themes of these narratives at their conclusion in a way that parallels the statement of these themes at their beginning.

"The Balaam story, which lies at the close of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, parallels many of the events and ideas of the story of Pharaoh at the beginning of the book of Exodus." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 43.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 24". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.