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Bible Commentaries

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged

Numbers 23

Verse 1

And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams.

Build me here seven altars. Balak, being a heathen, would naturally suppose these altars were erected in honour of Baal, the patron deity of his country. It is evident from Numbers 23:4 that they were prepared for the worship of the true God, although in choosing the high places of Baal as their site, and rearing a number of altars (2 Kings 18:22; Isaiah 17:8; Jeremiah 11:13; Hosea 8:11; Hosea 10:1), instead of one only, as God had appointed, Balaam blended his own superstitions with the divine worship. The pagan, both in ancient and modern times, attached a mysterious virtue to the number seven; and Balaam, in ordering the preparation of so many altars, designed to mystify and delude the king.

Verse 2

And Balak did as Balaam had spoken; and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bullock and a ram.

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 3

And Balaam said unto Balak, Stand by thy burnt offering, and I will go: peradventure the LORD will come to meet me: and whatsoever he sheweth me I will tell thee. And he went to an high place.

Stand by thy burnt offering - as one in expectation of an important favour.

Showeth me - i:e., makes known to me by word or sign.

Went to an high place - a part by himself, where he might practice rites and ceremomies, with a view to obtain a response of the oracle.

Verses 4-6

And God met Balaam: and he said unto him, I have prepared seven altars, and I have offered upon every altar a bullock and a ram.

God met Balaam - not in compliance with his incantations, but to frustrate his wicked designs, and compel him, contrary to his desires and interests, to pronounce the following benediction.

Verse 7

And he took up his parable, and said, Balak the king of Moab hath brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying, Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel.

Took up his parable, [ mªshaalow (H4912)] - i:e., spoke under the influence of inspiration, and in the highly poetical, figurative, and oracular style of a prophet.

Brought me from Aram. The Maashaal (H4912), or parable, arranged in parallelisms, will stand thus:

`From Aram Balak sent for me, The king of Moab from the mountains of the East.' (BALAK'S MESSAGE) `Come, curse for me Jacob,

And come, defy Israel!' (BALAAM'S ANSWER.) `How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? And how shall I defy, whom Yahweh hath not defied? For from the top of the rocks I see him,

And from hills I look after him: Behold, a people dwelling apart, And among the nations not reckoning itself. Who can count the dust of Jacob, And number even the fourth part of Israel?

Let me die the death of the righteous, And let my last end be like theirs.'

Aram, joined with "the mountains of the east," denotes the upper portion of Mesopotamia (cf. Genesis 25:6; Genesis 29:1), lying on the east of Moab (see the note at Numbers 22:5, where another locality-first suggested by Dr. Beke, 'Origines Biblicae'-is noticed). The East enjoyed an infamous notoriety for magicians and soothsayers (Isaiah 2:6).

Verse 8

How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the LORD hath not defied?

How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? A divine blessing has been pronounced over the posterity of Jacob; and, therefore, whatever prodigies can be achieved by my charms, all magical skill, all human power, are utterly impotent to courteract the decree of God.

Verse 9

For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.

From the top - literally 'a bare place' on the rocks, to which Balak had taken him; because it was deemed necessary to see the people who were to be devoted to destruction. But that commanding prospect could contribute nothing to the accomplishment of the king's object; because the destiny of Israel was to be a distinct, special people, separated from the rest of the nations in government, religion, customs, and divine protection (see the note at Deuteronomy 33:28). 'So that, although I might be able to gratify your wishes against other people, I can do nothing against them' (Exodus 19:5; Leviticus 20:24).

Verse 10

Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!

Who can count the dust of Jacob ... ? [ `ªpar (H6083)] - dry dust. An Oriental hyperbole for a very populous nation, as Jacob's posterity was promised to be; Septuagint: to (G3588) sperma (G4690), the seed-a translation which ignores the metaphor in the original (Genesis 13:16; Genesis 28:14).

The number of the fourth part of Israel? - i:e., the camp consisted of four divisions; each one of these parts was formidable in numbers. But the phrase might be used as denoting generally a fractional part of Israel [The Septuagint has: deemous, multitudes.]

Let me die the death of the righteous, [ yªshaariym (H3477)]. This designation of 'upright,' or "righteous" people, given by Balaam to Israel, was applied to them, not on account of the superior excellence of their national character-for they were frequently perverse, disobedient, and rebellious-but in reference to their being an elect nation, in the midst of which God, 'the just and righteous' (Deuteronomy 32:4), dwelt. The piercing eye of the seer discerned this to be the real secret of their extraordinary prosperity; and from a strong, though temporary admiration of their privileged state, he pronounced them a people happy above all others, not only in life, but at death, from their knowledge of the true God, and their hope through His grace. [The Septuagint renders these words of Balaam as: apothanos hee psuchee mou en psuchais dikaioon, kai genoito to sperma mou hoos to sperma toutoon.]

Dr. Warburton ('Div. Leg.', b. 5:) interprets these words thus: 'Let me die in a mature old age, after a life of health and peace, with all my posterity flourishing about me, as was the lot of the righteous observers of the law.' But they bear a far deeper and more important signification than this cold and feeble construction puts upon them, expressing a wish that the close of his life might be cheered with the comforts of the righteous, and be introduced into the happiness of another life, which the righteous only can enjoy (see Graves 'On the Pentateuch,' part 3:, sec. 3). Balaam was the representative of a large class in the world who express a wish for the blessedness of the Lord's people at last, but are averse to lead a corresponding life.

Verses 11-12

And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether.

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verses 13-15

And Balak said unto him, Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place, from whence thou mayest see them: thou shalt see but the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all: and curse me them from thence.

Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place. Balak was surprised and disappointed at this unexpected eulogy on Israel, but still hoped that if Balaam saw that people from a different point of observation he would give utterance to different feelings.

Thou shalt see but the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all, [ 'epec (H657) qaatseehuw (H7097)] - the end of their extremity; i:e., a limited portion of them. Of course, as posts of observation, there must have been a difference between this and the former height (Numbers 22:41); but this difference, according to Hengstenberg, consisted in the second place being nearer, though still at a distance; and it was because Balaam might naturally expect that its greater proximity would afford him a full view of the Israelite camp, he was apprised on the way that he would still "see but the utmost part of them (though probably to a greater extent), and should not see them all."

Verse 14. And he brought him into the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, [ sªdeeh (H7704) Tsopiym (H6839)] - field of watchers; a flat surface or tableland on the summit of the mountain range east of Jordan, which was cultivated land, and on which Balak had posted sentinels to keep guard and give signals-whence this name is supposed to have originated (see the note at Numbers 21:20, where it is called a Gai, a valley, or plain; bounded on the west by the towering eminences of the Abarim, and at some distance on the east by a chain of hills toward the desert (Robinson's 'Physical Geography,' p. 81; also Numbers 33:17). Pisgah, not an isolated mountain, nor a lofty peak, but an extensive ridge, which is designated interchangeably Pisgah (Deuteronomy 3:27; Deuteronomy 34:1) and Abarim (Numbers 27:12; Deuteronomy 32:49), though the former name is applied in Scripture principally to 'the serrated crests, or line of heights, forming the brow of the mountains on the west of the high plain' (Robinson's 'Physical Geography' p. 58). From that point a distant prospect could be obtained of the Arboth Moab, where the Israelites had pitched their tents. But only a portion of the camp would be visible, in consequence of some intervening heights which intercepted the view. There the king of Moab brought Balaam, who, after the same kind of sacrificial ceremonies had been observed as before, withdrew to a sequestered spot, to await the divine afflatus.

Verses 16-17

And the LORD met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth, and said, Go again unto Balak, and say thus.

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verses 18-24

And he took up his parable, and said, Rise up, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor:

`Rise up, Balak, and hear! Hearken unto me, thou son of Zippori! God is not a man, that he should lie; Neither the son of man, that he should repent:

Hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not execute it? Behold, I have received insructions to bless:

He hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it. He beholds not iniquity in Jacob, And sees not fault (sorrow) in Israel:

Yahweh his God is with him, And the shout of a king is in him. God brought them out of Egypt: Their strength is like that of a room. For there is no incantation against Jacob, Neither any divination against Israel: At the time it shall be said to Jacob and to Israel,

What hath God wrought (done)! Behold, the people like a lioness shall rise, And like a young lion ripe in strength (literally lift up itself); He shall not lie down until he eat of the prey,

And drink the blood of the slain.'

Rise up, [ quwm (H6965)]. This verb is often used in the imperative as a term of incitement. Since Balak was already standing (Numbers 23:17), the expression is equivalent to 'Come, now, attend to me.'

Verse 19. God is not a man, that he should lie - i:e., violate his faith.

Neither the son of man., [ ben (H1121) 'aadaam (H120) signifies in the Old Testament a frail mortal: cf. Job 25:6; Ezekiel 2:1; Ezekiel 2:3.]

That he should repent - i:e., change His purpose. (See Pye Smith's 'Testimony,' vol 2:, part 1, p. 97, note.) The counsel and promises of God respecting Israel were unchangeable; and no attempt to prevail on Him to reverse them could succeed, as they might with a man.

Verse 21. He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob. Many flagrant sins were observed and punished in this people; but no such universal and hopeless apostasy had as yet appeared to induce their heavenly King and Guardian to abandon them.

The Lord his God is with him - has a favour for them.

And the shout of a king is among them - i:e., such joyful acclamations as of a people rejoicing in the presence of a powerful and gracious sovereign. Verse 22. He (Israel) hath as it were the strength of an unicorn, [ rª'eem (H7214)]. This word occurs seven times in the Old Testament; and in four of the passages it is found in parallelism with bulls (Deuteronomy 22:21; Deuteronomy 29:6; Deuteronomy 33:17; Isaiah 34:6-7), thus affording a strong presumption that it denotes an animal of the bovine species. Gesenius, whose opinion is adopted by Robinson ('Biblical Researches,' 3:, p. 306), thinks it denoted a wild buffalo; Bochart ('Hierozoicon,' lib. 3:, cap. 27), followed by Rosenmuller ('Scholia on Num.') and Winer ('Realworterbuch'), that it designated a fierce species of antelope (oryx leucoryx). Others think that the rhinoceros is intended, that animal being represented on the monuments even of the twelfth dynasty as the Egyptian unicorn (Rawlinson's 'Herodotus,' b. 2:, p. 267, Colossians 1:1-29; also Rawlinson's 'Ancient Monarchies,' vol.

i., p. 284, note). But there are objections to its identification; and, besides, the name 'unicorn,' which is a translation, not of the Hebrew, but of the Greek term, monokeroos, and the Latin unicornis does not correspond with the Biblical descriptions. It is referred to in this passage, and also in Numbers 24:8, as an emblem of strength; and the meaning of Balaam is, that Israel was not as they were at the exodus-a horde of poor, feeble, spiritless people-but powerful, impetuous, and invincible as a reem.

Verse 23. Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob. No art can ever prevail against a people who are under the shield of omnipotence, and for whom miracles have been and yet shall be performed, which will be a theme of admiration to succeeding ages.

According to this time it shall be said, [ kaa`eet (H6256)]. At the time - i:e., now, as well as hereafter-the world shall speak of the wonderful and glorious works which He did in the interest of Israel-namely, by the miraculous passage of the Jordan and the subjugation of Canaan, etc.

Verse 24. Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion ... The energy and rapidity of Israel's campaigning in Canaan, as well as their unceasing course of victorious war, until they were full established in the occupation of the promised land, are graphically portrayed under the image of a prowling ravenous lion.

Verse 25

And Balak said unto Balaam, Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all.

Balak said ... Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all. Balak, being deeply mortified at what he must have considered the extraordinary treachery of Balaam, exclaimed, in the intensity of his disappointment, 'If thou wilt not curse, thou mayest at least refrain from blessing them.' Balak thought he had a constructive right to expect that at least Balaam would refrain uttering a blessing for Israel; because, as Hengstenberg justly remarks, by the very fact of the Mesopotamian seer having complied with the invitation to come to Moab for a definite purpose, he had laid himself under an obligation to do nothing contrary to the interest of the person who had summoned him.

Verse 26

But Balaam answered and said unto Balak, Told not I thee, saying, All that the LORD speaketh, that I must do?

Told not I thee, saying, All that the Lord speaketh, that I must do? This was a remarkable declaration of Balaam's, that he was divinely constrained to give utterances different in what it was his purpose and inclination to do.

Verse 27

And Balak said unto Balaam, Come, I pray thee, I will bring thee unto another place; peradventure it will please God that thou mayest curse me them from thence.

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 28

And Balak brought Balaam unto the top of Peor, that looketh toward Jeshimon.

Brought Balaam unto the top of Peor - the eminence on the Abarim range which stood a little north of Nebo, and nearer the Israelite encampment, commanding a view of the whole host.

That looketh toward Jeshimon - the wilderness, the Arabah, or desert tract on both sides of the Dead Sea. The part of it, however, specially referred to was the site of Israel's encampment, "over against Beth-peor" (Numbers 24:2; Deuteronomy 3:29; Deuteronomy 4:6; Deuteronomy 34:6). There, for the third time, seven altars were erected, and sacrifices offered as on the previous occasions.

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Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Numbers 23". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jfu/numbers-23.html. 1871-8.