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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 22

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verse 1

From Mount Hor to the Plains of Moab

Numbers 21:4 to Numbers 22:1


Numbers 21:4-9

4And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged1 because of the way. 5And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, 6neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

7Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take 8away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. 9And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole; and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.


[Numbers 21:5. Light; Luther, De Wette, mean; Bunsen, wretched; light, not as opposed to solid, but as that which nauseates, disgusts—vile.—A. G.]

[Numbers 21:6. Lange: venomous. The שַׂרָף, literally burning, denotes with נָחָשּׂ and sometimes without (Numbers 21:8, below) a kind of serpent whose bite produces burning heat and thirst. Our word fiery is a good rendering, but is ambiguous. De Wette and others retain the Hebrew word Seraphim.—A. G

[Numbers 21:7. And the people.]

[Numbers 21:8. omit Serpent.]

[Numbers 21:8. נֵם, standard. See Exodus 17:15 : Jehovah-nissi.—A.G.]


Keil gives as the heading to the contents of this section: “The march of Israel through the Arabah.” He starts with the assumption that mount Hor stands near Petra. “Leaving mount Hor, Israel must take the way to the Red Sea, in order to compass the land of Edom, since Edom refused permission to cross its territory, and thus descend the Arabah to the head of the Ailanitic gulf.” But if it is settled that the Arabah forms a part of Edom, and if it is further settled that by the command of Jehovah, Israel must pass around Edom, it is impossible that they should have marched through the Arabah on their way to the Red Sea, for leaving out of view the difficulty of their finding sustenance in this narrow rocky valley (see Shubert, Travels, II. 396), Ritter, Erdkunde XIV., p. 1013 [see however, on the other hand, Robinson, Res. II. 594 seq., and Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, pp. 84, 85.—A. G.], they would be in constant danger of attack by the Edomites and of perishing by the sword with their wives and children. As they came up from Sinai to Kadesh through the desert plateau Et Tih. (Paran), so they must have returned through the same desert, although farther to the east, from Kadesh to the Red Sea. The Israelites, it is true, at the end of their march to the Red Sea, must have crossed the limits of the Edomitish territory, as this comes out clearly in Deuteronomy 2:1. They compassed mount Seir many days, and they were commanded to turn northward, not of course back upon the way they had come, but in a north-easterly direction, which shows that they had reached the extreme limits of the Edomite kingdom, and must how penetrate it, passing over below their brethren the sons of Esau, and below the Arabah (comp. the notes in this Commentary, Deuteronomy 2:12).

The desert plateau Et Tih was, according to the testimony of modern travellers, far better fitted for the returning path of the Israelites than the Arabah. See extracts in Ritter’s Erdkunde, part 14, Book 3, p. 830, The Central and Northern Routes across the Desert Et Tih to the Promised Land, from Seetzen, Russegers and others. The description of Seetzen, who went from the north to the south, from Beersheba to Sinai, merits special attention. Here we met several Wadys with broad pasture-lands, our path at times crossing rolling flowery meadows, across heaths blooming with white-flowering heather, now and then by springs or fountains, but also through rocky fields, strewn with flint-stones, while at times also we found “the ground full of holes the homes of serpents, lizards, etc.” The fiery serpents cannot therefore be urged with force in favor of the Arabah. [Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, p. 84, agrees with Keil, and uses this strong language of the Israelites and the Arabah: “It is indeed doubtful whether they passed up it on their way to Canaan; but no one can doubt that they passed down it when the valleys of Edom were closed against them. This was clearly the natural route for them to take; and the very argument which Lange uses against it—the want of sustenance—seems strongly to favor it. The scarcity of food made them more sensible of their dependence upon the manna, and they wearied with the sameness; our soul loatheth this vile bread.—Geographical considerations, the well-ascertained fact that the Arabah abounds in poisonous serpents, and the tenses of the narration all favor the Arabah. The incidents of the later narrative and the easy egress from the Arabah to the plains east of Edom through the Wady Ithm confirm this view.—A. G.]

Numbers 21:4-9. And the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.—The young and vigorous generation found the long return journey wearisome, partly because it seemed like a discomfiture, because they so carefully avoided the Edomites, with whom they had recently tried their strength in the region of Arad, and from whom they may have captured large herds, which proved a source of supply in the march. At all events they were greatly depressed. They sighed for a fruitful land, and the manna from a miraculous food, became to them as a light (contemptible קְלקְ֗ל) bread, while the usual bread and water were wanting. They spake against God (Elohim) and against Moses.—It is observable that they did not rebel against Jehovah, but murmured against the divine guidance and the leading of Moses. [There seems to be little ground for the distinction drawn between Elohim and Jehovah as the object of their querulous complaints.—A. G.] Their unbelief grew out of the delusion which the previous generation expressed, that they also, as their fathers, must die in the desert. The punishment laid upon them is commensurate with their less turbulent and violent disobedience. Then sent Jehovah (not Elohim) fiery serpents among the people.—Here again the judicial providence of God uses the noxious product of the land for punishment, converting the serpents of the desert into a divine punitive visitation. “Fiery, literally burning serpents; so called from the inflammatory nature of their bite, which infuses a burning, deadly poison; as the Greeks also name certain serpents, especially the διψὰς, because its poison wrought like burning fire, προστῆρες and καύσωνες (Dioscorides VII. 13; Aelian, Natura Anim. VI. 51), and not because they had fiery, red spots upon their skins, which are frequently found in the Arabah, and are extremely poisonous.” Keil. But why should they not have been named from the fiery red color of the serpents, which finds its reflection later in the fiery glow of the brazen serpent? The one quality, however, does not necessarily exclude the other. This is clear from a citation from V. Shubert’s Travels: “At midday a very mottled snake, marked with fiery red spots and wavy stripes, which belonged to the most poisonous species, as the construction of its teeth clearly showed. According to the Bedouins, these snakes, which they greatly dreaded, were very common in that neighborhood.” [For similar occurrences see Strabo XV. 723; XVI. 759, referred to in Bible Com. I. 725.—A. G] And much people of Israel died. Although the swarm of serpents was extraordinarily large, we may suppose that the excitement among the people, the confusion, and their conscience awakened to a sense of their guilt, greatly increased their terror. The voluntary repentance of the people, which was wanting in the earlier generation, shows how greatly the present generation was in advance of its predecessor. They confess that they have sinned against Jehovah their covenant-God, and against Moses, and implored him to intercede in their behalf.

The divine answer is adapted to the situation, shows a marvellous and profound psychological insight, and at the same time is of great Christological and soteriological significance. Make thee a fiery serpent (an image of one), and set it upon a pole (standard), and it shall come to pass that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live (shall not die). Moses understood the command correctly, and made a brazen serpent. This goes to show that the assumption that the serpents were named from their red color is correct. The miraculous result corresponds fully with the promise.

This obscure and mysterious narration rises into great importance in its soteriological aspect, through the application which Christ Himself makes of it to His own life, which He also makes in mysterious words. Many theologians therefore have been earnestly engaged in the explanation of this passage. For the literature see in Keil, p. 179, note Eng. Trans., Kurtz, Hist. of Old Cov., Vol. II., p. 428 [see also Lange, Com. on John, Numbers 3:14; Cowles, The Pentateuch, has a brief and satisfactory note.—A. G.] Among the explanations of the brazen serpent, the passage in Wis 16:6-7. It is a symbol of salvation to remind them of the commandment of thy law. We have a clearer interpretation of the symbol here than we find in some modern theologians. The profoundest, but also the most obscure application of the passage is the word of our Lord, John 3:14. Keil gives Luther’s explanation: “In the first place the serpent which Moses was to make at God’s command was to be of brass or copper, i.e. of a reddish color, and in every way (though without poison) like those, who from the bite of the fiery serpents were red and burning with heat. In the second place, the brazen serpent must be set upon a pole for a sign. And in the third place, those who were bitten of the fiery serpents and would live must look to the brazen serpent so lifted up; otherwise they could not recover or live.”

But this is rather a description of the event than an explanation of the symbol. Hengstenberg’s explanation reminds us of Menken: “Christ is the antitype of the serpent in so far as He took sin, the most pernicious of all pernicious potencies, upon Himself, and made a vicarious atonement for it.” The great mistake in this explanation lies in the thought that the serpents here typify sin, whereas they were sent as a punishment and an antidote for sin. Men fall into the mistake through the operation of a dead mechanical principle of hermeneutics, according to which the same image, e.g., the leaven, must always represent the same thing.

But the serpents here have, on the one hand, just as little to do with the serpent in Eden, or with the devil, the old serpent, as, on the other hand, they have with the serpent of Æsculapius, the symbol of healing power or virtue. Keil rejects, with good reason, the interpretation of Winer, Knobel and others, that the view common to the religion of antiquity, that the serpent was a beneficent and health-bringing power, lies at the basis of this narrative. On this supposition the direct, immediate view of the fiery (brazen) serpent must have been much more effective. In sharp antagonism to this interpretation stands the view of the dogmatic realists as wrought out by Menken in his Treatise on the Brazen Serpent (Works, Vol. VI., p. 351, Bremen, 1858). In this view the serpent signifies in the first place the devil, then sin, then further (in entire consistency with that system) inherited original sin, as it clave even to the nature of Christ, but as the sin of humanity, was extirpated through His sufferings upon the cross. To reach the full import of this thought, Menken supposes that the standard upon which the serpent was placed was the principal standard of Israel, the banner of the tribe of Levi, and this most probably was in the form of a cross, so that the sins of humanity appeared here symbolically upon the cross, i.e., overcome and destroyed. As if the poor bitten Jew himself must have thought of all this, or could even have suspected it. Others hold, Sack, e.g., that the symbolism is not in the figure, but in the lifting up (the lifting up of the serpent, the lifting up of Christ). Ewald places it in the symbolic destruction of the serpents which to the believing one who looked was an assurance of the redeeming power of Jehovah.

If we make this our starting point, which clearly results from the narrative, that the fiery serpents indicate not the sins of Israel, but the counteracting agency of the sins, the punishment, thus also the evil, then the mystery, in its great features, soon comes into the light. The view of evil in the confidence that it is Jehovah’s remedy against sin, this is the main thing. Heathenism proclaims its delusion in two words: sin is merely an ill, an endurable fate, but the ill itself is the real peculiar harm, far worse than the sin. Christendom, on the contrary, in its truth proclaims: sin is the intolerable injury, but the ill result, its consequence, is also its remedy. Thus in the cross, or even in death, in the communion in death with Christ, is salvation. In that case therefore the look to the serpent image taught that the true, peculiar, pernicious, fiery serpents were their murmuring disposition and complaints against Jehovah, while the fiery serpents were sent by God for a little season for a terror and warning. Thus also, according to the epistle to the Hebrews, Christians have become free from the bondage of sin and Satan, since with the look to the cross of Christ they have recognized death as the salvation of the world. When this confidence in the healing power of all pure, divinely destined ill is established, then the heart is fixed. In the restful assurance which the Jew found in his look to the brazen serpent, as it symbolized to him the saving virtue and agency of Jehovah, he lost all dread of the fiery serpents, and could assume towards them the attitude of a conqueror. We know not how in any other way the great pestilential scourges which have descended from heathendom, have lost to such an extent, their fearful terrifying sympathetic power, within the sphere of Christendom. A more definite relation between the serpent upon the standard and the Saviour upon the cross, lies firstly in its elevation; it was a raised sign visible to all. The cross of Christ is a sign for the whole world. Then Christ appeared upon the cross, under the assumption by the blinded world, that He was the betrayer and corrupter of men, the serpent in the bosom of the people of God, while in truth He was absolutely the contrary, so that believing humanity must recognize its saving Friend in the form and image of its hereditary foe. Thus He was the antitype of that brazen serpent which had the form of the fiery serpents which filled Israel with dismay, while it was made only as a means of rescue and healing, but at the same time was a symbol of the truth that the external visible fiery serpents did not constitute the real calamity of Israel, but the serpents of cowardice and discontent, comp. Comm. on John 3:14.

The great impression made upon the Israelites by the brazen serpent, appears from the fact that they took it with them into Canaan, where it was at first regarded as a sacred relic, but at last was destroyed in the time of Hezekiah, as it had become an object of idolatrous reverence (2 Kings 18:4).

[Knobel: “In a similar way Alexander lost many men as he marched through Gedrosia, the serpents springing upon the men from the brushwood upon the sand-hills. The Sinaitic peninsula is dangerous to travellers from the number of serpents who have their homes here.”—A. G.].


1. [“The heathen view of the serpent as a blessing or healing power, is not only foreign to the Old Testament, but is irreconcilably opposed to the Biblical view of the serpent as the representative of evil which was founded upon Genesis 3:15. To this we may add that the thought which lies at the foundation of this explanation, viz., that poison is to be cured by poison, has no support in the Scriptures. God, it is true, punishes sin by sin, but He neither cures sin by sin, nor death by death. On the contrary, to conquer sin it was necessary that the Redeemer should be without sin, and to take away the power from death, it was requisite that Christ, the Prince of life, who had life in Himself, should rise again from death and the grave (John 5:26; John 11:25; Acts 3:15; 2 Timothy 1:10).”—A. G.].

2. [The looking of the bitten Israelite and the looking in obedience to the divine direction, and upon the promise, was a part of the typical transaction; as much so as the lifting up. There is scarcely anything which can better represent the simple act of faith than the looking.—A. G.].


[The brazen serpent one of the most significant types of the Old Testament. A proof also of the peculiar and profound attention with which Christ read the Scriptures, and discovered its meaning, when all others had failed. Bible Comm.: “The look to the brazen serpent denoted acknowledgment of their sin, longing for deliverance from its penalty, and faith in the means appointed by God for healing.” Henry: “They that are disposed to quarrel will find fault when there is no fault to find. Justly are those made to feel God’s judgments, that are not thankful for His mercies. They that cry without cause have justly cause given them to cry out their repentance; they confess their guilt; they are particular in their confession; they seek the prayers of Moses for their deliverance. The provision which God made for their relief, was wonderful, and yet was suited to their case. Observe the resemblance, 1. Between their disease and ours; 2. Between their remedy and ours; 3. Between the application of their remedy and ours. The brazen serpent being lifted up would not cure if it was not looked upon. They looked and lived, and we, if we believe, shall not perish. It is by faith that we look unto Jesus, Hebrews 12:2.—A. G.].


Numbers 21:10-20.

10, And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in Oboth. 11And they journeyed from Oboth, and pitched at 2Ije-abarim, in the wilderness which is before Moab, toward the sunrising.

12, 13From thence they removed, and pitched in the valley of Zared. From thence they removed, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, which is in the wilderness that cometh out of the coasts of the Amorites: for Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. 14Wherefore it is said in the book of the wars of the Lord,

What he did3 in the Red sea,

And in the brooks of Arnon,

15     And at the stream of the brooks

That goeth down to the dwelling of Ar,
And lieth 4upon the border of Moab.

16And from thence they went to Beer: that is the well whereof the Lord spake unto Moses, Gather the people together, and I will give them water.

17     Then Israel sang this song:

5Spring up, O well; 6sing ye unto it:

18     The princes digged the well,

The nobles of the people digged it,
By the direction of the lawgiver with their staves.

And from the wilderness they went to Mattanah: 19And from Mattanah to Nahaliel: and from Nahaliel to Bamoth: 20And from Bamoth in the valley, that is in the 7country of Moab, to the 8top of Pisgah, which looketh toward 9Jeshimon.


Numbers 21:14. [וָהֵכ which our version after the older Jewish commentators renders gave, or did, is now regarded as a proper name. סוּפָת not the sea, nor any proper name, but as in Nahum 1:3; Job 21:18, to destroy or overthrow as by a whirlwind.—A. G.].

Numbers 21:14. [Brooks, better valleys. Hirsch., the brooks or wadys forming the Arnon.—A. G.].

Numbers 21:18. Digged or delved with the sceptre מְהֹקֵק or ruler’s staff, Genesis 49:10. Our version gives the sense accurately.—A. G.].

Numbers 21:20. The margin rendering, wilderness or waste, is preferable.


The different and apparently conflicting representations as to this march, leave us in great uncertainty. It is necessary therefore to come to the defective, but established historical data of the Bible. It is clear from Deuteronomy 2:4-8 that the Israelites merely crossed from Ezion Geber the land of the Edomites, on the further side of the Arabah, but did not pass through its length; that they avoided, with the greatest care, the Moabitish territory also, so far as it was inhabited, and in like manner the country of the Ammonites. They thus sought, going out from Ezion Geber, to reach the east side of the kingdoms of Edom and Moab, and marched northwards, keeping along the line between their borders and the Arabian desert, till they touched the region of Ammon. The first station which they reached after leaving the undefined place of the fiery serpents was, according to the narrative here, Oboth, and from Oboth to Ije-Abarim, in the desert eastward of Moab. We may conjecture that Oboth lay on the eastern border of Edom as Ije-Abarim was upon the frontiers of Moab. In the list of stations, chap. 33, they went from Hor to Zalmonah, from there to Punon, and then to Oboth. One of these stations may well have been the undetermined place of the fiery serpents. The record here is so closely connected with the list of stations in chap. 33. that they must be considered together, and we defer the full investigation until that point in the narrative is reached. We confine ourselves here to that which comes in direct connection with the text. [Lange holds the identity of Hor and Hor-hagidgad; of Oboth and Ezion Geber; of Jotbath and Zalmonah, both suggesting the idea of a shaded, well-watered oasis; that Ebronah designates, with tolerable certainty, a crossing place, in which sense it corresponds with Punon (derived from פָּנָה to turn); and that near Ezion-Geber or Oboth they left the plain Et Tih and crossed the Arabah. His theory is constructed on the supposition that they did not march down the Arabah from Hor or Moserah. Keil thinks that Punon is doubtless the same with Phinon, a tribe seat of the Edomitish Phylarch, a village between Zoar and Petra, from which, according to Jerome, copper was dug by condemned criminals. He is compelled however to place Punon to the east of the lines from Petra to Zoar. The localities cannot be certainly identified at present. We may hope for that in the future progress of geographical discoveries. But the general direction is now well-nigh beyond question. They descended the Arabah to the month of the Wady El Ithm, which opens a few hours north of the Akaba or Ezion Geber, and gives easy access to the eastern plain. They then skirted the elevated plateau of Idumea, and began to turn to the north, following essentially the same route taken by the caravans of the present day. The character of the country prevented the Edomites from contesting their passage in this direction. Bible Com. regards the name Oboth as identical with the present pilgrim halting-place, El Ahsa. “The name Oboth, denoting holes dug in the ground,” being the plural of אוֹב. The term hasy, of which Ahsa is the plural, has the same meaning, and thus the modern station corresponds to the ancient both in name and place.” All that seems certain, however, is that the place must be sought in the desert on the eastern skirts of Edom or Idumea.—A. G.]. From Oboth they came to Ije-abarim, in the wilderness which is before, east of Moab. Keil translates “ruins of the crossings,” and thinks the place must be sought for north of the Wady El Ahsy, which divides Idumea from Moab. Ges., while he renders עִיִּים ruins, translates the phrase, tops of the mountain-chain Abarim. We must take a view of this eastern country or we shall fail to have any clear notion amid the confusion of conjectures. The land of Canaan itself is a region of alternate lowlands and highlands. The low-lying coast region is succeeded by the highland of the western mountain plateau; the valley of the Jordan by the Perean highlands. This type appears of a more decided character as we approach Arabia. The Jordan valley is prolonged in the Ghor and the Arabah, the Perean highlands in the mountain range of Abarim, which extends through the land of the Amorites, of Moab and of Edom. This mountain region terminates on the west in abrupt lofty masses, while on the east it slopes off into the first desert table land. This again is bordered by a loftier mountain chain, standing out as high mountains on the west, but falling off eastward into the wide desert plateau towards inner Arabia. This range belongs to the great encircling wall which girts around the larger part of Arabia. The highland of Abarim, however, like the lower regions toward the Ghor, is crossed from east to west by great wadys, which at last break down into mountain gorges. The name Abarim may be regarded as signifying that the heights of these mountains stretch away from and beyond all these ravines and torrent gorges. The Israelites appear to have encamped often by the fords of these streams, as they passed along the eastern edge of the inhabited mountain region, to avoid, as far as possible, the peopled regions of Moab and Edom. Thus they first encamped at Ije-Abarim, i.e., probably the ruins of the mountains rent by the Wady El Ahsy (in its lower stretches called El Kereky) over against the city Ar in Moab. They then pitched in the valley of Zared.—We much prefer to leave the Wady Zared undetermined, than to regard it as Wady Kerek “in the midst of the land of Moab,” or even the Wady Kerek “in the upper part of its course.” [“It is to be identified with the Wady Franjy, the main upper branch of Wady Kerek. The word Zared signifies “osier;” and, remarkably enough, the Wady Safsaf, Willow Brook, still clings to the tributary which unites with Wady Franjy below Kerek.” Bible Com.—A. G.]

Farther on they came to the Arnon, which divides the land of the Amorites from that of Moab, and encamped beyond the wady. Since the Arnon is formed by several smaller streams, and in its lower course passes through deep gorges, which would not admit of the passage of an armed host, it has been justly inferred that the passage was effected in the upper part of its course, and where the affluents still flowed apart. [Ritter quoted by Keil: “It is utterly inconceivable that a whole people, travelling with all their possessions, as well as with their flocks, should have been exposed without necessity to the dangers and enormous difficulties that would attend the crossing of so dreadfully wild and so deep a valley, and that merely with the purpose of forcing an entrance into an enemy’s country.”—A. G.] We come now to a very obscure passage, Numbers 21:14-15. The Sept. renders the passage singularly, but yet with a correct apprehension of the fundamental thought: τὴν Ζωο͂βἐφλὀγισε καὶ τοῦς χειμάρῥους Αρνῶν, καὶ τοῦς χειμάρῥους κατέστησε κατοικῆσαι Αρ, καὶ πρόσκειται τοις ὁρίοις Μωάβ. The Vulgate, in doubt as to the ἐφλὀγισε of the Septuagint, translates: Sicut fecit in mari rubro, sic faciet in torrentibus Arnon. Scopuli torrentium inclinati sunt ut requiescerent in Ar, et recumberent in finibus Moabitarum.

Since it is plainly the passage of the Arnon which is celebrated, it is difficult to see why Luther with others should cut the knot as he does and render Vaheb in Supha and the brooks of Arnon. And it is still harder to understand why Knobel also should read Vaheb in Supha, and add a senseless supplement. [Knobel supposes the verb to be supplied, and refers to the Amorites, viz.: they possessed Vaheb in Supha as their southern limit.—A. G.] Keil explains the passage by referring to the capture of the region by storm, although there has been thus far no allusion to a warlike attack. [So also Bible Com., Kurtz, Hengstenberg.—A. G.]

We offer the following translation:—
And onward unto the Red Sea (הֵב or יָהֵב) and (unto) the brooks of Arnon, and unto the upper current of the brook which reaches unto the dwelling of Ar, and leaneth upon the border of Moab. The passage will then stand connected with the crossing of the Arnon. It compares the passage of the separated streams of the upper Arnon with the passage of the Red Sea. It sees in both events something alike, a heroic deed, corresponding to the divine summons or call. The הָבָה, come on, appears here in הֵב or יָהֵב and הָ- of direction as the suffix of the noun סוּפֹ. What motive could there be for the celebration in a heroic song of a mere geographical notice in and for itself? The Sept. εφλόγισε may mean He glorified, made to shine the Red Sea and the brooks of Arnon, viz., through His leading and power. The Vulg. gives us a peculiar idea of the passage: as He did in the Red Sea, so He will do in the brooks of Arnon. The rocks of the torrents were carried down, so that they first rested in Ar, then lay on the borders of Moab. For the distinction between the Arnon referred to and the modern Ar in Moab, see Keil [also Hengstenberg’sGesch. Bileams, Bible Com., Keil. The Ar here referred to is the city of Moab on the border of Arnon, which is at the end of the Moabitish territory (Numbers 22:36). It was called Areopolis by the Greeks, and probably stood at the confluence of the Lejum and Mojeb in the fine green pasture land in the midst of which there is a hill with some ruins. This Ar is not to be identified with the modern Areopolis in Rabbah, which stood six hours south of the Lejum.—A. G.] The book of the wars of the Lord.—Some have regarded it as an Amoritish book of the conflicts of Baal; others attribute to it a late origin in the time of Jehoshaphat; but it clearly belongs to the Israelitish epic, and from its marks of extreme simplicity may be regarded as the first new awakening of inspired song in the rejuvenated Israel. The book is named only here, but the new poesy bloomed in other productions—especially in the song of the well. [The reference to this book has been seized upon by the negative critics as a grave objection to the Mosaic authorship of Numbers. “They have thought it incredible that such a work should have been extant at the time of Moses. But there is nothing more natural, or which occurs more constantly in the progress of humanity under like circumstances, than a body of song bursting out irrepressibly with the new fresh life of a people and commemorating the great events in its early history. As Baumgarten well observes that such a book should arise in the days of Moses, is so far from being a surprising fact, that we can scarcely imagine a more suitable time for the commencement of such a work. To the cavil that the wars of the Lord had scarcely begun when Moses died, and hence they could not have been referred to in any work written by him, Hengstenberg replies: When Moses wrote the Amalekites, the king of Arad, the king of Sihon, and Og king of Bashan, were all conquered. But the idea of the wars of the Lord in the usage of the Pentateuch is much wider than this (comp. Exodus 12:41; Exodus 12:51; Exodus 14:14; Exodus 14:25; Exodus 15:3; Numbers 33:1). All the signs and wonders in Egypt were regarded as a contest of Jehovah against Egypt and its gods; the march through the desert is the march of an armed host of whom Jehovah is the leader, so that there was the richest material for a book. And the very object of the book is to glorify the leading of Jehovah as He brings His people on their way.” So also Stanley, History of the Jewish Church, vol. I., p. 207.—A. G.].

And from thence they went to Beer—well or place of wells. The encampment is marked by a longed-for well in which the promise of Jehovah is accomplished through human effort. This well was dug by the princes with their sceptres, i.e., under their leading, greeted by the festal hymn of the people and embalmed in a song. The fountain thus praised lies still in the open desert somewhere. The place cannot be definitely determined, probably is the same with Beer-Elim in the north-east of Moab. And from the desert they went to Mattanah.—They pushed their way into the inhabited territory or the Amorites to the west or northwest. It was not their purpose to enter the land of the Amorite in a hostile manner, for the goal of their journey lay across the Jordan. The reference in Deuteronomy: Then sent I messengers out of the wilderness of Kedemoth (the east) unto Sihon king of Heshbon with words of peace, Deuteronomy 2:26, is to this time and place. But when Sihon refused them a peaceable transit, the conquest of his land took place by divine command, (Deuteronomy 2:31, see also Keil, p. 150). The encampments after that at the “well” or Beer, must have preceded the later-mentioned war with Sihon, since the advance of the great mass of the people must have been protected by a victorious warlike expedition, which must have been sent out between the stations Beer and Mattanah. The engagement took place at Jahaz [Keil Jahza] on the border of the Amoritish territory toward the desert. The desire of the writer to complete the list of stations led him to anticipate the record of the last encampments, and this the more that he might connect the subjugation of Og in Bashan with the victory over Sihon; as indeed it was only after the destruction of Og from the land of the Amorites, that the peaceful settlement of the people in the plains of Moab, took place (comp. Numbers 21:31 with Numbers 22:1). For the comparison of the stations in this section with the general register, chap. 33., see that chapter and notes. [Aside from any successful identification of the places mentioned, two principles, as Kurtz. Gesch. d. Alt. Bund., Vol. II., 453 well argues remove all difficulty. In the first place we are to bear in mind that the encampment of such a vast body, especially when they reached a cultivated and thickly settled region, must have included a number of places, some of which may appear in one record, and others in another, while both are strictly accurate. But it is more important to observe the diversity in the character of the different records. Chapter 33. is purely statistical. The author there enumerates only those stations, i.e., regular encampments, where Israel made a considerable stay, and hence not only constructed an organized camp, but set up the tabernacle. Here his interest is not statistical, but historical, and only those places which were of historical importance are mentioned. Hence the names of the stations between mount Hor and Ije-abarim, are omitted in this record, for they were of no historical moment, while we have a larger number between Ije-abarim and the plains of Moab because they were historically memorable, although they may not have been regular encampments.—A. G.]. We content ourselves here with a mere outline of their march through the eastern desert. Going up Wady El Ithm, and crossing the border of Edom, they were free to wander through the worthless common domain of the desert until they reached Beer—probably Beer-Elim—the well which the princes dug with their staves, i.e., presumably acquired as military leaders. Then they moved to Mattanah, i.e., gift, because it was the first camping place in the dominion of the Amorite king Sihon. They must now have passed the field of conflict with Sihon, for (Numbers 21:23) Sihon went out against Israel into the wilderness. The Israelites moreover could not have settled peaceably in the Amoritish country without some victory like this. And from Mattanah to Nahaliel, “Rivers of God.” The name corresponds to the description: Abarim before Nebo. We are ever coming back to the mountain chain Abarim. Nebo, without being definitely determined, may be regarded as forming one of the peaks of Pisgah lying over against Jericho. In this region where several wadys empty into the Jordan, and where the long-wished for Jordan valley first appeared in sight, they may well have said Nahaliel, “rivers of God.” Knobel. [Keil, Kurtz, Bible Com.], identify this place with Encheileh, which now lay far behind the Israelites. [Keil: Encheileh is the name given to the Lejum until its junction with the Saide. The Israelites then went from Beer north westerly to Mattanah or Tedun, and thence westerly to the northern bank of Encheileh.—A. G.]. And from Nahaliel to Bamoth. We can scarcely regard Bamoth (heights), with Keil and others, as identical with Bamoth-Baal, since Israel had before this encamped at Nebo, and certainly had passed the place where Balaam was first solicited to curse Israel. The people were at first busy in taking possession of Heshbon, at the same time capturing Jaazer on the extreme eastern border toward the land of the Ammonites. Then their course lay northwards towards Bashan, and Og, king of Bashan, came out to meet them at Edrei. But as Edrei is found far to the north in Bashan, it is not to be supposed that the armed host should have left the people behind them defenceless in the plains of Moab, where Balak might easily have destroyed them. We therefore accept fully the conclusion that Bamoth, which is here mentioned, was the basis of their warlike operations against Bashan in upper Gilead. Places bearing this name “heights” are common all over the world. After the conquest of Bashan they returned nearly to their former position in the plains of Moab. [The top of Pisgah which looketh toward Jeshimon: across the desert. Keil: “The field of Moab was a portion of the tableland which stretches from Rabbath Amnion, to the Arnon, and which extends to the desert of Arabia towards the east, and slopes off to the Jordan and the Dead Sea towards the west. The valley in this table land was upon the height of Pisgah, i.e., the northern part of the mountains of Abarim, and looked across the desert Jeshimon. Jeshimon, the desert, is the plain of Ghor El Belka, i.e., the valley of desolation on the north-eastern border of the Dead Sea. The valley in which the Israelites were encamped is to be sought for to the west of Heshbon, on the mountain range of Abarim, which slopes off into the Ghor El Belka.” Kurtz holds the same view and identifies this position with the field of Zophim, Numbers 23:14. Bible Com.: “Pisgah was a ridge of the Abarim mountain westward from Heshbon, and Nebo a town on or near that ridge, and apparently lying on its western slope.” See also Grove’s Art. Moab, Smith’s Bib. Dict., Palmer, The Desert and the Exodus, Vol. II., p. 472 et seq.—A. G.].


1. [God ever leads His people by a way which they know not, but leads them safely and well. They pass through the wilderness, but come out upon the top of Pisgah and then across the Jordan. All along the fountains spring up—not without human agency, and yet flowing with the fulness of divine blessing.—A. G.].
2. [The doctrine of God’s providence, and the duty of an implicit trust in it; of a hearty and cheerful compliance with it; and the safety and welfare of those who so yield to it are clearly seen in this narrative.—A. G.].


The march as it overcomes all obstacles. The passage over the river of Arnon, a reminiscence of the passage through the Red Sea, and a pledge of the passage over the Jordan. [Henry, Numbers 21:10. “It were well if we would thus do in our way to heaven, Numbers 21:14-15, what God has wrought for us, what He did at such a time, and in such a place ought to be distinctly remembered, Numbers 21:18. God promised to give them water, but they must open the ground to receive it. God’s favors are to be expected in the use of such means as lie within our power.” The wells—“fountains”—along the way. Wordsworth refers upon the wells of the Bible to Genesis 21:19; Genesis 21:31; Genesis 24:13; Genesis 26:15; Genesis 29:10; Exodus 2:15; Exodus 3:1; John 4:6. Moses gathers the people, God gives the water. This is a work which God is ever doing in His church. He gives the waters in His holy word, in His blessed Son of whom Moses wrote, and in the living waters of the Holy Spirit whom Christ sent.—A. G.].


Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 22:1.Deuteronomy 2:26; Deuteronomy 2:26 to Deuteronomy 3:22.

21And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, 22Let me pass through thy land: we will not turn into the fields, or into the vineyards; we will not drink of the waters of the well: but we will go along by the king’s high way, until we be past thy borders. 23And Sihon would not suffer Israel to pass through his border: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness: and he came to Jahaz, and fought against Israel. 24And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from Arnon unto Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon: for the border of the children of Ammon was strong. 25And Israel took all these cities: and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all the 10villages thereof. 26For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand, even unto Arnon. 27Wherefore they that speak in proverbs say,

Come unto Heshbon,
Let the city of Sihon be built and prepared:

28     For there is a fire gone out of Heshbon,

A flame from the city of Sihon;
It hath consumed Ar of Moab,

And the lords of the high places of Arnon.

29     Woe to thee, Moab!

Thou art undone, O people of Chemosh:
He hath given his sons that escaped,
And his daughters, into captivity
Unto Sihon king of the Amorites.

30     We have shot at them;

Heshbon is perished, even unto Dibon,
And we have laid them waste even unto Nophah,
Which reacheth unto Medeba.

31Thus Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites. 32And Moses sent to spy out Jaazer, and they took the villages thereof, and drove out the Amorites that were there.

33And they turned and went up by the way of Bashan: and Og the king of Bashan 34went out against them, he, and all his people, to the battle at Edrei. And the Lord said unto Moses, Fear him not: for I have delivered him into thy hand, and all his people, and his land; and thou shalt do to him as thou didst unto Sihon king of the Amorites, which dwelt at Heshbon. 35So they smote him, and his sons, and all his people, until there was none left him alive: and they possessed his land.

Numbers 22:1 And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.


Numbers 21:27. Bunsen, De Wette: the poets; Zunz, Hirsch: the proverb speakers. [The Heb. הַמּשְׁלִים to make like, very aptly designates Heb. poems in which one was made like, parallel, to another.—A. G.].

[Numbers 21:30. Lange, we came upon them. Bunsen, Fuerst, Ewald, we have burned. Zunz, we have thrown them down. Hirsch, we came and overthrew them. נִּירָם formerly regarded as a noun, is now accepted as the first person plu. Imp. Kal. from יָרָה with the suffix of the 3d person. Hirsch makes a fut. Kal., and refers for suffix to Ex. 20:30.—A.G.]

Numbers 21:30. אֶשֶׁר Keri אֵשׁ, and hence is rendered by De Wette and others, a fire, burns to Medeba.

Chap. 22.Numbers 22:1. Plains. Keil, Steppes of Moab. Lange, fields.


The message of Israel to Sihon king of Heshbon, is like that sent to the king of Edom. We learn from Judges 11:17, that a similar message was sent to Moab; and we may infer, therefore, that besides a direct passage through Edom, they entertained a hope that they might press rapidly on between the end of the Dead Sea and the Edomitish territory, without seriously irritating the Edomites; as indeed they had later to cross the southern extremity of the land of Edom. Israel had originally only the promise of Canaan west of the Jordan. Even Peræa was not included in the promise. This limitation was carefully regarded in the message to Sihon. But since the Amorites at Heshbon, were included in the condemnation of the Canaanites, so the Israelites were not only at liberty to force their way through their land, but were under obligation to do so by the injunction of Jehovah. How Og. king of Bashan, in the northern part of Gilead, became involved in the conflict, is not explained; a sufficient explanation may be found in the fact that the successful assertion of a religious and moral dominion over Heshbon or lower Gilead, was not possible without the conquest of Bashan. Then we must bear in mind also that in Deuteronomy 3:8, the two kings stand in close connection as “kings of the Amorites.” Knobel strives in a strange way to prove from Deuteronomy 3:10, that there were two Edreis [Adraa; see for its location and description, Porter: Damascus, Vol. II., p. 271, and Giant Cities of Bashan, p. 94 sqq., and Smith’s Bib. Dict., art. Edrei.—A. G.]. A southern to be distinguished from the northern. He gives as the reason that “Og surely did not allow the Israelites to reach the northern boundary of his kingdom before he went out to meet them.” [So also Keil, Bible Com.—A. G.]. The conjecture however is obvious that the terror which the victory over Sihon spread far and wide, may have led the people of Bashan to retreat, until they found it necessary to make a stand at Edrei, their second capital, and not far from their chief city Ashtaroth. [Porter says, “The situation is most remarkable, and in selecting the site, everything seems to have been sacrificed to security and strength.” There was an all-sufficient reason therefore why they should make their final stand here.—A. G.].

It is recorded here that the king of the Amorites had fought against the former king of Moab, and taken all his land out of his hand, even unto Arnon; not, however, that they had reached the Ghor to the west. They had thrust themselves by force between Moab to the right and the desert and the land of the Ammonites to the left. Moab must at this time have exercised dominion in the border-land to the Ghor, for otherwise the plains of Moab would not have been spoken of here. If the dominion of the plains of Moab had been now in the hands of the Amorites, Balak, the king of Moab, would only have rejoiced at their overthrow, and would have sought alliance with Israel. On the other side the Amorites had not been able to conquer the children of Ammon in their mountain-fastnesses, Numbers 21:24. The Israelites were prevented by an express direction of Jehovah not to attempt an assault against these strong borders (Deuteronomy 2:37).

Sihon had as yet no suspicion of the strength of the rejuvenated Israel, and went out against him beyond his own bounds, as far as Jahaz. But Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, i.e. utterly destroyed him. He then took possession of his land, described as reaching from Arnon unto Jabbok. The military occupation is spoken of here; its political incorporation in the land of Israel followed afterward (see Numbers 32:33). They dwelt in Heshbon and all her daughters, i.e. Heshbon, the capital city, and its surrounding and dependent villages or cities. Wherefore they that speak proverbs. Why the proverbs? Why not wherefore says the song? The enigmatical form is probably chosen by design, so as to express the thought: now is Heshbon laid waste, as it just before had laid waste the Moabite capital Ar; and thus the land falls to the Israelites, who could not have held it as a Moabitish territory. Therefore come unto Heshbon; build it up anew. The purpose and burden of the song is that Israel should restore the ruins, rebuild the city. We cannot agree with Meyer and Ewald [Keil, Kurtz, Bible Com. in part also.—A. G.] that the appeal is to the Amorites and ironical. At first the fact is emphasized that this land has been wrested from Moab by right of war. The Amorites had taken it from Moab. Then the thought uttered is that the Israelites have wrested it in turn from the Amorites. [Ewald’s interpretation makes the song lifelike, beautiful and striking: “Come, come home to Heshbon—the city which no longer affords you a home or roof; rebuild, if you can, the city which now lies forever in ruins.” Thus the victors cry to the vanquished. But in order to explain the guilt of the conquered, a second voice verifies the earlier history. Is this the Heshbon from whose gates went the conquering hosts against Moab, poor Moab, over whose fall and the weakness of his god Chemosh the saddest complaints fill the air—that god who had left all his sons and daughters, i.e. all his worshippers, to be driven out and carried captive by Sihon? But then, while that victorious host, sweeping Moab with fire and sword, rests in fancied security, then the loud voice of the victor comes back to the beginning of his song: Then burned we it, and wasted it, from Heshbon, the central royal city, to the utmost limits of his land, and thus Israel avenged Moab.—A. G.]

For there is a fire gone out of Heshbon. The occupation of Heshbon is anticipated. The city is viewed as a point of departure for a conquest which should be completed by the torch of war. Ar of Moab. The earlier capital of Moab lay then in this part of its territory. Moab was not stricken without cause or as guiltless. It was the people of Chemosh, subduer, vanquisher. [Fuerst derives it from a root which leads to the signification “fire-god;” others, “sun-god.” The inscription on the Moabite stone shows that the worship of Chemosh was associated with that of the Phœnician Astarte. Ginsburg, The Moabite Stone.—A. G.] As the god of war, human victims were offered to him, as to Milcom and Moloch. He is not therefore to be regarded as identical with Baal Peor (Keil); for that idol as the god of lust and pleasure was Baal, as the god of misfortune, despair and of human sacrifices, he was Moloch. [It seems probable, however, that these heathen idols were worshipped under different forms according to the special attribute which was in view, or which called forth the special worship. He might thus be the god of war, and at another time, regarding prominently another attribute, the god of lust. See Bible Com. notein loc.—A. G.] Moab perished as the people of Chemosh. The distinction, that the sons took to flight back across the Arnon, while the daughters fell captives to Sihon, is entirely true to nature. Then follows the record of Israel’s victory and conquest. We shot at them, overthrew them. See textual note. Heshbon is perished, even unto Dibon, and we have laid them waste even unto Nophah. The textual difficulties in the last clause seem to be best solved by following the Sept., which some MSS. favor, and read fire upon, or to Medeba. [Keil, Bible Com., Wordsworth, Samaritan text.—A. G.] The confounding of Nophah and Nobach increases the confusion. We suggest, however, this reading: to the ridge of hills which reaches unto Medeba. We rend in Isaiah 15:2 : “He is gone up to Bajith and Dibon, the high places, to weep;” and in the same connection: “Moab shall howl over Nebo and over Medeba.” Even now it is said that Medeba lies on a rocky hill about four miles southeast of Heshbon. It seems to be a sketch of the new possession, and reveals in its very terms the tender conscience of Moses which prevented him from pushing his conquests into Moab.

Numbers 21:32. Jaazer. The special allusion to Jaazer between the narrative of the conquests of Heshbon and Bashan seems to imply that it was an independent province lying between the two small kingdoms. The city with her villages, daughters, was taken and laid waste. Jaazer lay in the direction of Rabbath-Ammon (Philadelphia), “ten miles to the west, and is to be found probably in the ruins Es Szir at the source of the Nahr Szir, in the neighborhood of which Seetzen found pools, which are probably the remains of ‘the sea of Jaazer’ alluded to Jeremiah 48:32.” Keil. Thence the army moved eastwards. To human view the Israelites may have seemed rash, in approaching so nearly the powerful Ammonites. And they turned, for Ammon could not be attacked. Hence the march tends northward towards Og, king of Bashan. It is needless to ask from what point Israel undertook the expedition against Bashan. “The kingdom of Og included the northern half of Gilead, i.e. the region between the Jabbok and the Mandhur (Deuteronomy 3:13; Joshua 12:5), the modern Jebel Ajlun, and all Bashan, or all the region of Argob (Deuteronomy 3:4; Deuteronomy 3:14), the modern plain of Jaulan and Hauran.” Keil. Keil follows Knobel, and recognizes a double Edrei in Bashan; but for the true Edrei at which the kingdom was overthrown by the Israelites, comp. Von Raumer’s Geog., p. 247. It has been inferred from Deuteronomy 3:10 that a second Edrei existed on the northwest border of Bashan, which is supposed to have been discovered in the ruins Zorah or Edrah. Von Raumer designates this place, however, as Esra or El Ira, and describes the ruins of both places. [The weight of authority at present is decidedly in favor of two Edreis.—The significant name might easily have been attached to different places, in a country naturally strong in fastnesses.—A. G.]

[The plains of Moab. After the conquest of the two Amorite kingdoms, the Israelites came down from the heights of Pisgah, and pitched in the Arboth Moab. These plains in the northern Arabah stretched from Beth-Jeshimoth, “houses of mortar,” to Abel Shittim, “the acacia meadow.” Here they remained till the death of Moses. The camp was beyond the Jordan, in the plain, as Lange supposes, still in the possession of Moab.—A. G.]


The song of triumph on the Arnon reminds us in its mysterious words of the song at the passage through the Red Sea. The revival of the spirit of song in the people is also an awakening of the heroic spirit which won the victories over Sihon and Bashan. They are inseparably connected in all ages.


The two great victories east of Jordan foreshadow the conquest of the promised land. New life, new songs. [Henry: “God gave Israel these successes while Moses was yet with them, both for his comfort, that he might see the beginning of that glorious work, which he must not live to see the finishing of, and for their encouragement in the war of Canaan under Joshua. It was the earnest of great things.”—A. G.]


[1]grieved, Heb. shortened.

[2]Marg. heaps of Abarim.

[3]Marg. Vaheb in Suphah.

[4]Marg. leaneth.

[5]Marg. ascend.

[6]Marg. answer.

[7]Marg. field.

[8]Marg. or the hill.

[9]Marg. or the wilderness.

[10]Heb. daughters.

Verses 1-8


Numbers 22:2-8

2And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. 3And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel. 4And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time. 5He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of 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 1 of the earth, and they abide over against me: 6Come 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 wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed. 7And 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. 8And he said unto them, Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the Lord shall speak unto me: and the princes of Moab abode with Balaam.


[Numbers 22:4. Assembly, this congregation, חַקָּהָל, not a multitude, but an organized whole.—A. G.].

[Numbers 22:5. River is emphatic; by the river, to the land.—A. G.]

[Numbers 22:6. Wot, know.]


General preliminary remarks. We shall only reach a full view of the history of Balaam when we consider the section upon his prophecies in connection with the record of his end (chap. 31). Balaam the prophet, the utterer of blessings upon the people of God, the so-to-speak dogmatic Balaam, stands in striking contrast to the Balaam, the wily worldly politician, or the moral tempter of the same chosen people. The hidden, hardly discovered reconciliation of the two apparently contradictory representations of his character has led Knobel and others to suppose that there was a real contradiction in the history; while, on the other hand, Hengstenberg and others have clearly detected the features of the second Balaam in the character of the first, and have recognized also the first in the later counsels of the second, in his wily suggestions as to the celebrations of the religious feasts. We have here the living, vivid image of a remarkable character, thoroughly unstable, vacillating in obedience to predominant motives, two-sided; but a character whose two-sidedness does not show itself in distinct, stereotyped qualities, ever ready for action, but is wrought out in the progress of a spiritual conflict, in which avarice and ambition gradually work his ruin. Below the summit of sacred zeal or inspiration which Balaam seemed to have reached begins the hidden process of his ruin. If it is asked how the Jews came to possess this information, we may hazard the conjecture, that Balaam’s fall began with double-dealing; that he had first made disclosures and offers to the Israelites, by whose camp he must pass on his way home, and then because he did not meet with the expected favorable reception, returned secretly and by the aid of a Midianitish nomad chief, who was probably camping on the skirts of the Moabite territory, to Balak, in order still to secure from him the “reward of iniquity,” seeking all the time to hide from himself the baseness of his conduct under the pretence of a desire to lay upon the broadest basis a sure alliance between Moab and Israel. If he thought of the real approaching downfall of Moab and the glory of Israel, he may have cherished the idea of such an intermediation, as even Judas seems to have been impelled for some time by a similar motive. His fear of the power of Israel may have determined him to greater secresy in the pursuit of his crafty aim. Thus Balaam in this second form in which his character appears stands, in the New Testament, as the prototype of a subtle tempter and destroyer of God’s people, through his teaching a false religious freedom. The remarkable portraiture of Balaam’s character makes the deeper impression of historical truthfulness, since we find the contradictions appearing here, reflected in a thousand instances in the history of religion, in ecclesiastical and profane history, as features of an unstable double-hearted nature.

We note first the contradiction between an ostentatious and vaunted faith in Jehovah, and the ever re-appearing and strong lusting after the rewards of unrighteousness, after the glory and the gold which ultimately leads him to ruin. The seeming piety, aliquid nimis, at once excites suspicion; the frequent use of the name Jehovah, the constant parade of his dependence upon Jehovah’s directions, the multiplication of the offerings in which he compels Balak to take part, the greatness of the sacrifices, as if he might thereby control Jehovah (take providence by storm, as modern hypocrites phrase it) are all suspicious. How much the orthodox and pietistic extravagances of to-day remind us of the methods of Balaam! Then again, as to the form of his faith, we must notice the broad contrast between his fervent language of rapturous inspiration, his soul borne away as it were in inspired vision, and his ordinary states of consciousness, his efforts to tempt God, to carry out his evil selfish plans by means of superstitious practices, and his aiding the heathen king and his subjects in their destructive hostility to the people of God. Even the formal, oratorical exaggeration is a characteristic feature of the superficial nature of his feelings. How often religious, poetical, æsthetic emotion proves itself more or less Balaam-like through its contrast with the real state of the feelings!

The psychological problem of the prophetic enthusiast becomes more difficult through the psychological sympathy of his ass. This contrast and the change in the parts of the performance between the rider and the animal on which he rides, is much greater than the contrast between Don Quixote and his Sancho-Panza.
Still another contrast, and one which we must not overlook, appears in the great flourish and display with which Balaam takes his leave of Balak, and the secrecy in his later operations, after which he is first found among the slain in Midian, and recognized as the instigator of the great calamity.
More conspicuous is the distinction in Balaam, as he speaks, proclaims, sings the blessing, and as he plots the curse. Still while be changes his blessing into a curse, Jehovah transforms the curse into a blessing.
This very remarkable episode in the Mosaic history could not fail to occasion many dissertations. For the literature see Keil, p. 158, note (consult especially Baur, History of the Old Testament Prophecy, p. 329), Knobel, p. 127; also articles in Winer, Worterbuch, Hebzog’s Encyclopædia, Hengstenberg’s Geschichte des Bileams, Baumgarten, Commentar.; This Commen., Introduction to Genesis. [Also Kurtz, Gesh., Vol. II., p. 451 et seq., Bible Com., Smith’s Bible Dic., Wordsworth, Holy Bible with notes, Stanley, History of the Jewish Church, Vol. I., p. 209–218.—A. G.]

“From the very earliest time opinions have been divided as to the character of Balaam. Some (e.g. Philo, Ambrose. Augustine) have regarded him as a wizard and false prophet devoted to the worship of idols, who was destitute of any susceptibility for the true religion, and was compelled by God, against his will, to give utterance to blessings upon Israel instead of curses. Others (e.g. Tertullian, Jerome) have supposed him to be a genuine and true prophet, who simply fell through covetousness and ambition. But these views are both of them untenable in this exclusive form. Witsius (Miscell. Song of Song of Solomon 1:0, lib. 1, c. 16, § 33), Hengstenberg, Kurtz.” Keil. The declaration of Hengstenberg, however, that Balaam was not entirely without the fear of God, nor yet a really pious man and true prophet of God, leaves us without any very definite idea. It is most important here to bear in mind that we are not considering a fixed character, but one passing through a change, and engaged in a serious conflict. The record speaks clearly of a communication between Balaam and God, although not of an intimate and confidential relation with Him. He is at least a monotheist; he clings as a Mesopotamian, perhaps as a descendant of Abraham, to the name of Jehovah in its more general significance, which it had before acquiring its specific meaning, Exodus 3:4 : and hence the writer uses in connection with him the name Elohim, not recognizing him as strictly a worshipper of Jehovah. He thus lies within the primitive, monotheistic traditions, the religious twilight which Melchizedek also represents (see Genesis 14:18). But he had derived from his father Beor, i.e. “consumer,” “destroyer,” as it appears from his own name Balaam, “subverter,” “devourer of the people,” a stronger inclination to curse than to bless. Hengstenberg lays great, stress upon the fact that he is never called nabi, “prophet,” but kosem, “soothsayer.” But we may well suppose that the obscure word kosem originally bore a better sense than that which was attached to it later. It may be true that this word, and those who bore it, as with the worship of high-places, which was originally patriarchal, but afterwards degenerated into idolatry. We distinguish between the primeval religion which runs from Melchizedek down through the Old Testament history, and was never entirely extinguished, and the religion of the Abrahamic promise or covenant, by the inverted order of signs or symbols, and the word. In the primitive religion God is known through the signs, and these are rendered into the word by the interpreting mind, in the covenant religion the word precedes and is afterward confirmed and enforced by sacramental signs. Thus Joseph wears the aspect of a descendant of the primitive religion, and might even appear as a Kosem when he claims that he prophesied out of his cup. Thus Balaam also proceeds to seek for signs, Numbers 23:3; Numbers 23:15. But then there is an evident approach to the Abrahamic form of religion, when he no longer seeks for signs, whose interpretation Jehovah puts into his mouth, but by virtue of the free direct inspiration, as he looks upon Israel, utters his prophetic words, (Numbers 24:1). After this we can no longer class the Kosem Balaam with the later degenerated soothsayers. But surely he does approach that lowered type, when he suffers himself, avowedly at least, to recognize the superstitious notion, that by arbitrary curses he could magically produce calamitous results, even upon a whole people, even against the blessing of Jehovah; and because he was eager and prepared to receive the reward of such enchantments. It may be that it was from the pay which he took, that the prophet, originally, came to wear the altered and less honored name of Kosem. But the possibility of such a designed intermingling of the holy with the unholy, lies in the great divergency between emotional capacity when excited, in highly gifted natures, and the normal condition of the mind. Universally there is a contrast between the man in the ordinary state of his mind, or his habitual tendency, and the same man in his quickened state, in his strivings after ideal heights; between the man in his everyday and in his Sunday life. In the lives of noble men, this divergency sometimes ripens into opposition, as with Peter, Matthew 16:0; and indeed in the very best men there is always the blossom of impulse before the fruit of a new soul-life. But if a fissure opens between these two spiritual states of the soul, which widens at last into a broad chasm, a permanent contradiction, then the Balaam nature is complete, and in the end the evil tendency and nature triumphs over the ideal. Thus it happens that false prophets have been formed out of gifted prophetic natures, in ancient and modern times.

We pass now naturally to the consideration of another erroneous contrast, which supposes that Balaam intended to curse at the very moment of his speaking, but that the Spirit of God compelled him to utter blessings. Hengstenberg says of this view: “Ambrose held a crude notion of the effect of the divine power upon Balaam, as if God put the words in his mouth, quasi cymbalum tinniens sonum reddo.” Calvin held nearly the same view. [Hengstenberg says of Calvin “that in general he clearly recognized and sharply expressed the dependence of prophecy upon the subjective condition of the prophet, while he regards Balaam as an exception to this rule.”—A. G.]. But one could scarcely call this power which thus constrains the soul, inspiration, not even infusion. Here again we must bear in mind that the divine irresistible influence is moral, and is carefully to be distinguished from any physical or magical compulsion, from which it is free. It is a strange coincidence that this assumption has been applied not only to Balaam, but even to the ass on which he rode, although it lacked entirely the organic capacity for human speech. In this respect Hengstenberg has admirably presented the distinction between the ideas of externality and reality; asserting the reality of inward occurrences, as well as the distinction between real visions and bare imaginations, although the two things are held to be one and the same by many thinkers who assume great superiority. But no one can make any great progress in the Holy Scripture, without a sense or capacity for perceiving the reality of genuine visions. But we shall return to this theme in the sequel.

This narrative, moreover, is very important with respect to the doctrines of the divine permission. God forbids Balaam to go. He then permits him to go under certain conditions, while He appears to be offended because he went. To a superficial view the passage seems full of inconsistencies, whereas in truth the apparent change in the divine decisions is determined by the changes in Balaam, is adapted to them, and is thus the result and fruit of the strictest and most sacred consistency.
As some have held that the words of the third and last prophecy point clearly to a later origin, is, according to the fiction of the critics, a vaticinia post eventum, it is necessary that we should examine the passage more closely. In this third prophecy Balaam stands at the very highest point in his inspired intuition. It is no longer (as in Numbers 22:5; Numbers 22:16): “Jehovah put a word into his mouth,” but: “The Spirit of God came upon him.” Before he spake under restraint of fear, now freed from any such limitations, and in the full freedom of revelation (Numbers 24:4-9). The anger of the king at his third utterance of words of blessing seems to have unfettered his own indignation (Numbers 22:12-24).

The passage in which we have the beautiful prediction of the “Star out of Jacob,” does not belong to the line of clear, direct, conscious Messianic prophecy, although Rabbi Akiba held that it did, but refers to the Bar-Cochab: Son of the Star. [There was a pretender who bore this name, with express reference to the prophecy of Balaam: and led the Jews into rebellion against the Roman power in the reign of Hadrian, A. D., 136.—A. G.]. The exclusive references of the Star to the Messiah, have been numerous in Christian authors from Calvin to Baumgarten, see Knobel, p. 146. But since the conception of an ideal, personal Messiah had not reached its full development even at the time of David, 2 Samuel 7:0, it would have been a strange anomaly if it had found expression so much earlier by the heathen Balaam. For other interpretations, as e.g. that which refers the prophecy to David, to David and the Messiah, to the Jewish kingdom and the Messiah, see Knobel, p. 146 [and notes in loc.—A. G.]. As to the appearance of new stars in connection with the birth of great kings, see Keil, p. 192 [who, however, refers to Hengstenberg, who cites Justini, Hist. 37:2; Plinii, H. N. 2:23; Sueton., Jul. Cæs. 100:78; and Dio Cass. xlv., p. 273.—A. G.]. We must bear in mind here first of all, that we are not dealing with an Old Testament prophet. Balaam and his prophecies appear throughout under an historical point of view. But what he meant by a star was a sceptre, a royal ruler, who should arise in Israel, and crush all its enemies. We do not need to be familiar with Jewish history to understand what follows, although Balaam, in a typical, but not in a verbal sense, uttered far more than he was conscious of, even with respect to the star out of Jacob. What could be of greater moment than the crushing of the power of the Moabite princes, since they were even now plotting the destruction of Israel? The Edomites, in a spirit of enmity, bad just before restrained the onward march of the people of God. The Amalekites were old traditional foes of Israel. When now he proceeds further and predicts the victory over the Assyrians, his own countrymen, over the Kenites (in the north), and then the conquest of Assyria and Mesopotamia (Eber) by some western power, he passes from the particular into the universal. At length his prophetic vision reaches its utmost bounds. Chittim shall be overthrown at last. His talent for cursing now comes into full play, and the proud seer in wrath takes leave of the angry king who had thought only that by some superstitious magic spell, he would be able to win back his lost domain, or at least to protect that which was Still left him; takes leave ostensibly never to see him again, but only ostensibly. A Midianitish nomad tribe, coming perhaps from his own home in Mesopotamia, roamed at this time along the extended kingdom. Here among these Midianites Balaam seems to have rested (after having sought in vain a market for his talents among the Israelites) in order to renew his relation with Balak. For various conjectures as to who Balaam was, see Knobel. It was formerly conjectured that he was Elihu or Laban, or one of the magicians of Egypt. Modern guesses are that he was the Arabic sage Lokman. Thus Knobel. For conjecture as to Pethor, see Knobel, 128. [Knobel identifies Pethor with Φαθοῦσαι (Zosian Numbers 3:14) and with the Βέθαυνα of Ptolemy v. 18, 6. He regards both these names as corruptions of Pethor, and thinks the place is found in the present Anah. Keil regards this as very uncertain, while Bible Com. is inclined to favor it. Very little is certainly known.—A. G.] For the faith of antiquity in the efficacy of curses, see Knobel, p. 129. [Also Kurtz, Geschichte des Allen Bundes, and Baumgarten, Com., who holds that the efficacy attributed to them was not merely a superstition or imagination, but had a real ground, and that the narrative here can only be correctly understood on the supposition that it recognizes the actual power of Balaam to bless and to curse. He finds the turning point in the whole narrative, the thought around which it clusters, in the words Deuteronomy 23:6. “The Lord thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the Lord thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee.” Kurtz adopts substantially the same view. For the opposite view see Hengstenberg, History of Balaam.—A. G.]

[The question as to the moral character of Balaam is distinct from that as to the nature of his prophetic gift and position. They are not entirely disconnected questions; but the one is much more easily settled than the other. He could not of course be a good man and a false prophet; but he may have been a bad man and a true prophet. Such in fact he was. Morally Balaam comes before us as a man of keen insight and of wide culture, having broad glimpses of the truth, which seem to have grown clearer with his investigations, a heart susceptible to noble impulses, a conscience awakened, but not authoritative, with strong convictions of right and duty, which are yet sacrificed to the cravings of avarice and ambition; ever practically selling all his better impulses, his convictions and his conscience, for the sake of gain, and yet never doing it without a conscious and serious struggle. As to his prophetic position, he is not to be viewed, as Hengstenberg has fully shown, as a false prophet, a mere heathen seer, who was constrained by God against his own will to bless and not to curse Israel, nor, on the other hand, as a true and genuine prophet, who was only swept away by his avarice and ambition. There are elements of truth in both views; but neither of them is tenable in its exclusive form. “The truth lies,” to use the words of Kurtz, “in the midst. Balaam was in his present position both a heathen magician and a Jehovistic seer. He stood upon the border line between regions, which indeed lie contiguous, but in their nature and character are radically opposed to each other, and exclusive of each other. With one foot still upon the ground of heathen magic and soothsaying, he planted the other within the limits of the Jehovistic religion and prophecy.” The name he bears, קוֹסֵם, a soothsayer, which is never used to designate a true prophet of God; his parleying with the messengers, his seeking permission to go the second time; the eager pursuit of his covetous hopes, and especially his use of signs as the fit-ting and customary means to ascertain the will of God, which were never resorted to by the true prophet, are proofs that he still stood upon the old and lower ground; while his avowed claim to act as a prophet of Jehovah, his delay in going at Balak’s request, his answer to the second and more attractive embassy, and his reply to Balak’s indignant remonstrance because he had not cursed, but blessed Israel, Numbers 23:12, show that be had indeed in part crossed the border and stood within the region of the true prophets of Jehovah. The tidings of the great things which God had done for His people in Egypt, at the Red Sea, in the wilderness, which had been borne to him as the report spread through the nations, had doubtless led him to take a more decided stand. He probably hoped too to make greater gains if he appeared as a prophet of Jehovah.

Why he remained in this position; why he did not advance still more decidedly and completely into the new region which opened before him; or rather why attempting to stand upon the border-line, to unite and hold fast in himself that which differed so widely and irreconcilably, he ultimately went back to his old service, sank completely down to the lower level upon which he stood before, and into all the deeper darkness because he had turned away from the light, the progress of the history makes perfectly clear. It is just here that his moral character bears upon his prophetic position. He was not willing to part with his lusts. “He loved the wages of unrighteousness.” He could not bring himself to serve God with an undivided heart. It was no intellectual defect, nor any want of fitness for a higher calling, for the position of a true and genuine prophet, but his clinging to his lusts, his attempt to carry them over with him into the service of Jehovah, which restrained his progress. Through the call of Balak he was brought into a position at which he must decide “whether,” as Kurtz says, “the old heathen, or the new Jehovistic principle of life should rule within him, whether he should go on to the full, genuine, prophetic condition, or fall back upon the old stand-point, and in so doing fall of course into a more decided hostility towards Jehovah, towards the theocracy and the people of His choice. This development of circumstances, which serves for the glorifying of Jehovah, for the encouragement of Israel, for the discouragement of the enemies of Israel, has also for Balaam most momentous, indeed decisive importance. He fell. Covetousness and ambition were stronger in him than the desire for salvation.”—A. G.]

Sec. A. Numbers 22:1-8.

The Moabites, like the Edomites, had sold the Israelites bread and water while they were passing along their eastern border. But now when they saw them settling down in the dominion of Sihon, upon their northern border, the wounds of which were not yet healed, terror seized upon them. They excited the Midianites by appealing to their fears, lest the Israelites should lay waste all their green meadow-lands, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. They could not hope to conquer those who were victorious over the Amorites, against whom they had been unable to stand. Then Balak (whose name seems to be without significance) in consultation with the elders of Midian, strikes upon the diabolical thought, that he might perhaps secure the destruction of this mighty people through fanatical curses, through magical incantations; a thought suggested perhaps by Midianitish traders, to whom the reputation of Balaam, as a great magician and imprecatory prophet, was familiar. However confused may have been the prevalent conceptions in these regions as to supernatural agencies, so much is clear, that the reputation was in accordance with them. His father “called Beor (from בָּעַר) on account of the destructive power attributed to his curses.” The son of this fanatical destroyer (for the form Bosor, 2 Peter 2:15, see Keil, who holds that it probably arose from the peculiar mode of pronouncing the guttural ע) is called Balaam, ensnarer or destroyer of the people. [Hengstenberg: “He bore the name as a dreaded wizard and conjurer, whether he received it at his birth as a member of a family in which this occupation was hereditary, or whether the name was given to him at a later period, when the fact indicated by the name had actually made its appearance.”—A. G.] Balaam understood well how to destroy the people not only with burning curses, but by the wily use of worldly and fleshly allurements. It must have been already known, too, that his powers and gifts were in the market, and could be purchased for gold or renown. Moses indeed may have despised the superstition of heathen antiquity that curses could actually work injurious results—a superstition which in some of its forms, reaches even to the present time, and therefore may have regarded the curses of Balaam as having no importance in themselves; but still as mere fanatical delusions they might produce injurious results, as they might inflame the Moabites, and dishearten and weaken the Israelites. [Balak who was king of the Moabites at that time. The words seem to intimate that he was not the hereditary king of Moab. If, as Bible Com. regards as probable, “the Midianitish chieftains had taken advantage of the weakness of the Moabites after the Amoritish victories to establish themselves as princes in the land, as the Hyksos had done in Egypt,” we see at once why Balak should have turned for counsel to the elders of Midian, and why he should have had such confidence in the power of Balaam—A. G.] Accordingly he sends messengers to Balaam with the rewards of soothsaying (Kosem the soothsayer), to Pethor, an unknown city, probably, according to Keil, a seat of Babylonian sages, if it was not rather the seat of monotheistic hermits, among whom the Semitico Abrahamic tradition was still preserved. Balak did not think that the curses of Balaam in themselves could destroy the Israelites; but he firmly believed that with the aid of this superstitious delusion he could so work upon the temper of both peoples, so animate his own people and the Midianites, and so discourage the people of God, as to secure the victory. [It is far more probable that Balak shared the belief, which, strange as it may seem to us, was common among the heathen, that persons like Balaam could by their sacrifices work upon the gods they served, and so determine and control their purposes and power. As Balaam was avowedly now the servant of Jehovah, the God of Israel, Balak doubtless hoped that if he could secure his influence, he would work upon Jehovah, and so change the current of events.—A. G.] Come curse me this people, for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall smite them and drive them out of the land.—As thou art the great curser, the highest adept in that great art, so thou canst with thy curses infuriate the Moabites and dispirit and confound the Israelites; then I can smite them. This people is come out of Egypt, he said, as if he knew nothing more of them. They cover the eye of the earth is his scornful expression. They abide over against me, as if he did not know that they did not wish any conflict with him. He will have revenge because the Israelites have conquered the Amorites his own enemies. Knobel, speaking of the belief in incantations, loses sight of the distinction between prophetic announcement of curses, and the mere incantation of common superstition and witchcraft. [Keil: “The fact that the Lord did not hearken to Balaam, but turned the curse into a blessing, is celebrated as a great favor to Israel. Deuteronomy 23:5; Joshua 24:10; Micah 6:3, assumes that Balaam had power to bless and to curse. This power is not traced, it is true, to the might of heathen deities, but to the might of Jehovah, whose name Balaam confessed; but yet the possibility is assumed of his curse doing actual, and not merely imaginary harm to the Israelites.”—A. G.].

Balaam receives the messengers of Balak. As he acknowledges the name of Jehovah, he must have known at once that he could not curse the people of Jehovah. He invites them, however, to remain over night, assuring them that he will in the night receive instructions from Jehovah. He thus intimates that he expects his instructions in the form of nocturnal dream-visions, although this is not the only thing, upon which he relied as an interpreter of signs. He regards or presents as in doubt what he should have known at once. He tempts Jehovah; and thus he enters the path of perdition.


[1]Heb. eye.

Verses 1-41


Numbers 22-36

Balak and Balaam, or the Curse as a Weapon against Israel Frustrated

Numbers 22:2 to Numbers 24:25

Survey: a. Balak’s resort to Balaam, Numbers 22:2-7. b. Balaam’s formal, but heartless opposition, Numbers 22:8-14. c. Balak’s’s second attempt, Balaam’s irresolution, and the beginning of God’s judgment upon him in the permission of the journey, Numbers 22:15-21. d. Balaam’s journey and his speaking ass, Numbers 22:22-40. e. The first blessing by Balaam, Numbers 22:41 to Numbers 23:10. f. The second blessing by Balaam, Numbers 23:11-26. g. Balaam’s apparent victory over temptation. His third and greater blessing. And as an appendix his angry announcement of judgment upon Moab and other enemies of Israel, at last upon all heathen, Numbers 23:26 to Numbers 24:25.

Verses 9-14


Numbers 22:9-14

9And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee? 10And Balaam said unto God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent 11unto me, saying, Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt, which covereth the face of the earth: come now, curse me them; peradventure 2I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out. 12And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed. 13And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land: for the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you. 14And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us.


[Numbers 22:11. קָכָהּ from a root which signifies to hollow out; to pierce, perforate, and so curse from the penetrating power of the curse. Hirsch regards it as an anomalous form used in the sense of curse only in this narrative, and signifying to hollow, make empty, to take away the whole contents of its object—to make it as chaff—or a shadow.—A. G.].


God (Elohim) the writer tells us comes to Balaam in the night. Balaam speaks of Jehovah as if he knew the God of Salvation. [He had this knowledge partly from the primeval traditions which were probably preserved more fully and clearly in his native region than elsewhere, but mainly from the report of the great things which God had done in the deliverance and leading of His people, which had spread far and wide and produced a deep impression on all the neighboring tribes. Balaam was prepared to welcome the report and turn it to his own selfish ends, if possible. See Kurtz’s History.—A. G.]. What men are these with thee? asks Jehovah, so that his vague, uneasy suspicion that these guests might bring him to ruin, might work itself out clearly. [Hengstenberg: The question was intended to awaken the slumbering conscience of Balaam, to lead him to reflect upon the proposal which they had made, and to break the force of his sinful inclination.—A. G.]. Balak had said He whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed. But God speaks otherwise. Thou shalt not curse the people, for they are blessed, i.e., thy curses would have no effect. The cunning seer, however, tells them nothing of this; he simply says: The lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you.—The answer was intelligible to the Moabitish courtiers. [Their report to Balak shows clearly that they understood the position and inclination of Balaam. They saw that he wished to come, and that a larger bribe would probably bring him. Balaam does not appear to have sought the counsel of God. When asked, Who are those men with thee? the question was a surprise to him. And he fails intentionally to give to the messengers the very gist and kernel of the announcement God made to him. That would have defeated his secret plan and hopes. It would have convinced Balak and Midian that their effort was useless.—A. G.].


[2]Marg. I shall prevail in fighting against them.

Verses 15-21


Numbers 22:15-21

15And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honourable than they. 16And they came to Balaam, and said to him, Thus saith Balak the son of Zippor, Let 3 nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me: 17For I will promote thee unto very great honour, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me: come therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people. 18And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I can not go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more. 19Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the Lord will say unto me more. 20And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I 21shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do. And Baalam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.


The politic Balak saw clearly through the answer of Balaam, and knew how to approach him. A more stately embassy, flattering his love of distinction, a confidential alluring prayer of the king (אַל־נָא), the prospect of high honor or rich rewards suited to his strong desire would prevail. Balaam understands the courtly message well, when he say: If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, etc.—[Hirsch: “Balaam’s answer betrays his real character. However much he seeks honor, he seeks wealth still more. Balak had not intimated in his message anything about gold. He has spoken only of great distinction, and said that every wish should be gratified. But Balaam immediately translates honor into gold. This is the supreme good with him.”—A. G.]. The real thought of his heart shines out clearly through this seemingly strong resolution. Still more when he asks them to tarry another night, as if to ascertain in a second nightly vision what more Jehovah would say to him, he intimates that he deemed it possible that He would decide differently this time. Knobel says, “there are other instances in the Old Testament in which God changes His mind when besought to do so (Numbers 16:21 sqq.; Exodus 32:14; Jonah 3:10).” Knobel ignores entirely the distinction between the merely seeming “changes of mind” in the way of mercy, and the still more apparent “change of mind” in judgment. He regards Balaam in a very favorable light. But one has examined the passage very superficially if he regards the second command of God as a concession. Now indeed the consequences of his character and conduct begin to gather around him, so that he goes on involved in inconsistencies, until the final disruption and ruin takes place. It had been easier for him to refuse Balak positively, than to make use of the permission to go, coupled with a condition which must entirely defeat his object. But yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do. The deceitful heart allowed him to hope that Jehovah would at last grant him his wish, while the grand irony of the divine providence went on, giving him over to the judgment of his own double-heartedness. He might have been saved if now, when God tried or tested him, because he had sought to tempt God, he had sought permission to remain. [Upon the apparent contradiction between the prohibition, Numbers 22:12, and the permission, Numbers 22:20, and the anger of God at his going, Numbers 22:22, See Hengstenberg, Beiträge 3, 469; History of Balaam, p. 44, Note. The whole difficulty vanishes at once when we consider that the prohibition was to go and curse Israel, and in the permission to go he is still forbidden to curse. The curse was that for which Balak sent for him. That is forbidden throughout. The permission, or rather the command to go, for as Hengstenberg well says, “that which he sought to do in the service of his own sinful lusts, he must now do after any such hope has vanished, in the service of God,” was in fulfilment of the divine purpose and given partly with reference to Balaam himself, and partly through Balaam’s blessings to bless His own people, and to glorify His name among the heathen and in Israel. Balaam now became the unwilling instrument in the execution of the divine purpose. The anger of God was kindled against him, not because he went merely, but because he was going with a blind and persistent adherence to his own plan, under the control of his own lusts, and probably in the hope that in some way he would secure his own distinction and wealth. God holds His instruments in His own hands.—A. G.].


[3]Marg. Be not thou letted from.

Verses 22-40


Numbers 22:22-40

22And God’s anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the Lord stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. 23And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and 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. 24But the angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. 25And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again. 26And the angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. 27And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s 28anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff. And the Lord 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? 29And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee. 30And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass 4upon which thou hast ridden ever since 5I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto 31thee? And he said, Nay. Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face. 632And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? Behold, I went out to withstand thee, 7because thy way is perverse before me: 33And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive. 34And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, 8if it displease thee, I will get me back again. 35And the angel of the Lord 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.

36And when Balak heard that Balaam was come, he went out to meet him unto a city of Moab, which is in the border of Arnon, which is in the utmost coast. 37And 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 honour? 38And Balaam said unto Balak, Lo, I am come unto thee: have I now any power at all to say any thing? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak. 39And Balaam went with Balak, and they came unto 9Kirjath-huzoth.40And Balak offered oxen and sheep, and sent to Balaam, and to the princes that were with him.


[Numbers 22:22. הוֹלֵךְ the participle “was going” denoting here not only a continuous journey, but a tendency and striving to the end.—A. G.]

[Numbers 22:24. מִשְׁעוֹל a narrow or hollow way, 1 Kings 20:10; Isaiah 40:12, handfuls. Perhaps a path so narrow that one could only pass along step by step.—A. G.]

[Numbers 22:19. Lit. I had killed thee—it had already been done.—A. G.]

[Numbers 22:32. לְשָׂטַּן to be an adversary. יָרַט to precipitate, to be headlong.—A. G.]

[Numbers 22:33. אוּלַי, perhaps. There is no sufficient authority for the rendering unless, surely.—A. G.]

[Numbers 22:39. הֻצוֹת, streets of the city, in which markets were held or trade carried on.—A. G.]


He saddled his ass and departed with the princely envoys and his own servants. But the anger of God was aroused, because he went—that is, went cherishing the hope that he would still win Jehovah to his own wish and plan. Since he now goes out with hostile intent toward God’s people, he encounters the divine opposition in the definite form of the Angel of Jehovah. The seer himself is indeed blinded through his insincerity and falsehood; but his ass, on the contrary, has become clear-sighted. It undertakes his part as a sign that he has taken upon himself the part of the brute. He does not see the angel because his thoughts brood upon the brilliant future which presents itself to his view. Still in the back-ground of his being, stirred by his evil conscience, the visionary power partly freed from restraint, the terror of his spirit passed into the fear of spirits, which at first quickens the vision of the ass, and then indirectly, through its strange acts, works upon himself. Three times the ass starts back affrighted at the sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way with a drawn sword threatening death, in his hand. It is not strange that the animal in sympathy with its master should think that it might pass by the angel. Thus at first it starts aside into the field; then when the angel bars the path between the vineyard walls, it presses closely against the wall, thereby crushing the foot of the prophet; and then at last when it must pass through a narrow path, in which there was no room to turn either to the right hand or the left, with the dread form right before it, the ass falls upon its knees. It has no power to proceed. But now Balaam, in the heat of passion, beats it the third time. Here Jehovah opens the mouth of the ass, and a conversation takes place between the rider and his beast. The visionary condition of the prophet had been already awakened and developed since he heard the ass speak; but it comes out decidedly when reminded that the faithful animal had never behaved in this strange way before, and that therefore some very unusual surroundings must be at work. Now Jehovah can open the eyes of Balaam, that he also may see the angel. Knobel here relates various similar instances of speaking animals, horses, cattle, sheep, and even generally of cases of brute speech (p. 184 and 185). The negative criticism is interested in asserting that according to the writer, the ass has actually (i.e. externally) spoken, and that Balaam heard its utterances with his ears. He enumerates a list of authors from Josephus to Baumgarten and Kurtz, who hold this positive view. When he cites the passage in 2 Peter 2:16 in corroboration of this view, he allows to the New Testament as little as to the Old a symbolical method of expression, or one which recognizes the reality of the inner world. The other interpretation advocated by Maimonides, Herder, Jahn, Michaelis, Dathe, Steudel, Tholuck, Hengstenberg, that it was only in a vision or dream that Balaam heard the ass speak, and that the hearing of the words was barely (barely an inward!) an inward occurrence, he thinks may easily be disproved. “The author says nothing of a vision or dream,” etc.Hengstenberg has justly vindicated the reality of visionary states, and has adduced many arguments to prove that the narrative here treats of inner visions and voices in the form of external and bodily seeing and hearing. Hengstenberg’s merit is all the greater because he did not have a clear hermeneutical understanding of the biblical, historico-ideal or symbolical style, on which to rest. His explanation of the offering of Isaac, of Jephthah’s daughter, and of the Egyptian miracles, is entitled to a like praise, and one may well conjecture that his contempt for the superficial character of many of the negative critics, may have betrayed him later into extreme utterances. Keil seeks to establish an intermediate view. “The angel did really appear upon the road, and in the outward world of the senses; but the form was not a grossly sensuous or material form, like the bodily frame of an ordinary being, for then Balaam would inevitably have seen him.” This conception is perfectly justified, but then when he treats of the speaking of the ass, he falls back into a vacillating state between Kurtz and Hengstenberg. Expositors who regard the letter more than the spirit, sensuous more than inner experiences, have been led here to various and specious shifts and subterfuges. Against the supposition of a spectral angelic appearance, which might alarm an animal of any species akin to that here, we have nothing to mention; but the examples cited by Hengstenberg (after Passavant, pp. 54–61) according to which the terrors of a visionary man, may prove the cause and occasion of the fright of an animal standing in sympathetic relations with him deserve consideration.

Balaam prostrates himself before the angel of the Lord. For the first time the terror of Jehovah overcomes him. Had it come upon him immediately he would have died. The angel tells him that his ass had saved his life. He had withstood him in the way, because his way was headlong, one which would plunge him into destruction. [The rendering in our version unless she had turned from me, surely now, etc., is not in accordance with the usage of the language. The word rendered unless occurs nowhere else in that sense. It is perhaps. Perhaps she turned out before me. Why is not expressed. The result is that he was saved from death. But whether it was the instinctive affection of the animal for its master, as Keil supposes, or more probably the dread and terror which overwhelmed it, as the narrative seems to imply, which led it to turn, is not said.—A. G.]. Balaam confesses that he has sinned—but how? For I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me.—He does not search deeply into the nature of his sin. His obedience, too, springs only from fear, when he says, if it displease thee I will get me back again. In the if his after fate is again foreshadowed. The same angel who withstood him in the way, now bids him to go on, but reminds him anew that he must speak only what he—now the angel of Jehovah—should say to him. [It was not the journey which was displeasing to God, but the spirit and intent with which it was pursued. The angelic appearance was for this purpose: to make a sharp and deep impression upon the mind of Balaam, to rouse his slumbering conscience, and to make him quick to hear and attentive to what Jehovah should speak. That was attained, although the moral condition of Balaam was not changed, and hence he is bidden to proceed.—A. G.]. This is now his purpose. He has made progress in the knowledge of God, has come nearer his salvation, because he proceeds with the determination to obey the word of Jehovah, but still because his insincerity continues he is still nearer destruction.

His reception by Balak is ceremonious and splendid, although accompanied by mild rebukes. The location of the city at which Balak met him corresponds entirely with the circumstances of the times. It lay upon the Arnon, formerly in a central position, now upon the borders, since the Amorites had formed out of the other half, the kingdom of Heshbon, within which the Israelites now lay encamped. Balaam declares at once that he had come indeed, but only to speak what God (Elohim) should put into his mouth. [He practices the same concealment here as with the messengers of Moab at first. He does not tell Balak that Jehovah had forbidden him to come and curse the people, and that only on the ground that it was blessed. Origen holds the notion, Bible Com., that as Balaam’s heart was filled with the lust of gain, God did not put the word into his heart, but only into his mouth.—A. G.]. Thus they enter in company the new capital—city of streets—perhaps as a new city still incomplete. The great project was inaugurated with solemn sacrifices. Keil thinks the city at which they met was Areopolis. Knobel prefers Ir Moab, since Areopolis lies too far to the south. Thence they went (Knobel, p. 137) northward, or northwestward along the Arnon to Kirjath-Huzoth (Jeremiah 48:24; Jeremiah 48:41, Keriot). The offerings which were brought immediately were, in the custom of antiquity, a prayer for success in their undertaking. [Kirjath-Huzoth lay not far from the Arnon, and near Bamoth-Baal. Its situation is now known as the ruins of Shihan, “which lie on a slight eminence about four miles west by south of the site assigned to Ar. or Ir.” Bible Com.—A.G.].

[It is scarcely a fair representation which Dr. Lange makes above, when he says, “It is in the interest of the negative criticism to insist upon the actual and external occurrences of the events here recorded,” as if the narrative was thereby involved in hopeless difficulty. The question is one merely of interpretation, dividing those who are firm believers both in the narrative as inspired, and in the miraculous nature of the events recorded. As stated by Hengstenberg, it is whether the speaking of the ass is to be regarded as an outward or inward occurrence, whether the words attributed to it, actually went from it to the external ear of Balaam, or were words only for his inward ear or sense, a perception by him in an ecstatic or visionary condition. He advocates adroitly and earnestly the latter view, (Geschichte Bileams, pp. 48–63) while Kurtz (Geschich. des Alten Bundes, Vol. 2, pp. 468–478) argues strenuously for the former. Both hold to the supernatural character of the event.

The ordinary reader here would be in no doubt as to what the writer intended. Using language in its common acceptation we have not only a real occurrence, but one in the world of the senses. The history of the interpretation, not only among the Jews but in the Christian Church, shows that this is the obvious import of the narrative. The other view owes its origin probably, not to anything implied or suggested in the narrative but to the feeling that in some way the record here was peculiarly open to reproach, or to the hope that the miracle might be relieved of the difficulties which attend it, or at least be brought more within the reach of our comprehension and explanation. The difficulties which are found in the narrative upon the ordinary interpretation, and which form the staple of the arguments against it, are that Balaam expresses no surprise or astonishment when the ass speaks with man’s voice, but actually proceeds to hold a conversation with it, as with a fellow-man; and that to suppose the ass actually to speak involves a breach of that eternal insuperable barrier which God has placed between man and the brute creation. We pass here with a brief sentence, the circumstance upon which great stress has been laid, that the servants of Balaam and the messengers of Balak do not appear to have heard the words of the ass; for it is not certain that either one or the other were present with Balaam at the time; it is probable that the Moabitish envoys had now gone on in advance to (Numbers 22:36), announce the approach of Balaam; and if they were actually present the fact that they are not mentioned proves nothing. Arguments from silence are confessedly invalid. We must free our minds, too, as far as possible, from the idea that Balaam is here in his prophetic calling or work. He is here simply as a man blinded by passion and struggling against his convictions and conscience. There is no prophetic communication made to him, and he certainly utters none. And even on the supposition, which is a violent one, that the words, Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, refer to the inward eye—to his visionary condition—the speaking of the ass occurred before he was in this condition, and was indeed on this supposition the occasion for his being brought into it. The fact therefore that Balaam afterwards speaks of himself as the man whose eyes are open—open, i.e., in the visionary or ecstatic sense, his bodily eyes closed that his eyes within may be open—has no bearing upon the interpretation of this passage. Whatever may have been true then, when he fell into a prophetic ecstacy or trance, there is no such condition here—certainly there is no such condition until after the dumb ass speaks with man’s voice.

But the difficulties; are they serious? Is it incredible or even strange that Balaam in his rage and blinded by his lusts, should have heard the articulate words uttered by his ass, and yet not manifest surprise and even go on in the conversation? The hardening and blinding power of sin cannot be exaggerated, especially when the sin is persisted in against the voice of conscience. In some respects Balaam was like those who heard the words and saw the miraculous work of our Lord, and still hated and persecuted Him. They saw enough to produce the conviction—secret if not avowed—that Christ was what He claimed to be: and yet they went from the open grave of Lazarus to plot His destruction. They blinded themselves to the light which shone upon them. This is the very process through which Balaam had been passing. Then too the very reply of Balaam to the reproach of his ass shows that he was swept away with insane rage. The violence of his passion leaves little room for reflection, and prevents his surprise, or his expression of it, if it was felt. It is true, moreover, that the difficulty here lies with equal weight against the theory that the words were only heard by Balaam in his ecstacy. For if it is difficult to conceive that Balaam should have heard the dumb ass actually use articulate speech, without uttering any astonishment, it is at least equally difficult to explain how he should hear the groans and shudderings of his ass, coming to his inward sense at least as articulate words; how he could be the conscious subject of supernatural power and still persist in his brutal passion without any reverence or fear. If the ass spake to him, although she did not speak literally, how could he go on and reason with her and give no sign of dismay? In either case the answer is found only in the fearful power of sin to blind the man, and make him insensible. Pharaoh could look over his wasted land, and see the signs of sorrow and death hanging from every door, and rise up and pursue the people of God; unaware, apparently, that God had dealt with him.
But is it true that the line which separates between the intelligent and brute creation, is here broken? Has the speaking ass crossed the wide chasm? If it has passed, as Kurtz says, from the sphere of nature to that of spirit, from the impersonal to the personal creature, then indeed the line has been broken and the objection to any such assumption would be of force. But no such change is here implied. The ass is not presented as a rational creature because she speaks with man’s voice. Then every parrot and speaking animal would have crossed the line. Mere articulate sounds do not constitute human speech; but words as the vehicle of thought, expression of the spirit. When the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, He enabled it to use articulate sounds instead of inarticulate groans. The form was changed, not the nature. She makes no revelation from God, does not speak to Balaam of his headlong way, simply utters the animal feelings and experiences under the brutal treatment of her master. Balaam would not understand her shudderings and groans, the natural and ordinary method of expression. God gave her articulate utterances in her case, the supernatural, extraordinary and therefore more startling and impressive utterance. It is the mere animal soul, feeling, experience put into the form of human speech. The animal has not changed its nature, has not passed into the rank of intelligent creatures. The line fixed by God, which separates the two, has not been broken through or crossed. The objections therefore to the actual historical occurrence, in the world of the senses, have no constraining force. All miraculous events involve difficulties to our minds. We are not competent to explain them. Any attempt to modify our interpretation of the record in order to avoid them is dangerous.

On the other hand it may be said: 1. That the rule “that we are not to conceive of dreams, visions or ecstacies in the biblical history unless they are clearly and undoubtedly intimated in the record” seems a good rule and well established (Kurtz, p. 468). There is no intimation of a vision or ecstacy here. The whole drift of the narrative bears against such a supposition. The state of Balaam’s mind, the conscious conflict going on within him, between his conviction of what was right, and the power of his lusts; the eager pursuit of wealth, though he knew it was “the wages of unrighteousness,” upon which he was now apparently more intent than ever, now that he had gone so far, was standing upon the borders of Moab, and saw the coveted prize almost within his grasp, precludes the idea of a visionary condition. Lange, and even Hengstenberg himself, concedes that it was not developed until the ass startled, terrorstricken at the sight of the angel, restive, unmanageable, groaning under its cruel scourgings, had awakened it. There is nothing surely in the brutal passion which Balaam manifests, which should have prepared him to interpret the inarticulate groans of the ass into human speech. The statement “that the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam” is no intimation that a change had occurred in his internal state or condition. It is the opening of the outward bodily eye, as we have already seen, which had been closed by the eager, intent pursuit of gain—his reawakening to the occurrences in the external world—so that his senses were now in full exercise.

2. The words “the Lord opened the mouth of the ass,” although Keil in his attempt to occupy a middle ground holds that they are not decisive, “that all that they imply is that the ass spake in a way that was perceptible to Balaam,” appear to be inexplicable on the theory that the miracle was wrought in Balaam. It is not said that the Lord opened the ears of Balaam, or that at this stage of the narrative any effect had been wrought upon him. He was still under the uncontrolled sway of his lusts and passion. The power of God was upon the dumb animal, opening his mouth to speak, as the Apostle Peter says (2 Peter 2:16) “with man’s voice.” It does not meet the force of this argument to say, that there was indeed some extraordinary divine work calling forth the words (!) of the ass, but that how the words were heard, with the outward ear or not, is not said, for the point here is, that the narrative seems to say and must be understood to say, unless the words are wrested to meet the exigencies of a theory, that the supernatural power was upon the ass. Its mouth was opened. And this interpretation—the plain, obvious one—is confirmed by the words of the Apostle, who gives us not his own construction, but that which had been common with the people of God, from the event itself down to his day, and to which he sets his seal as speaking by the Holy Ghost.

3. The speaking of the ass and the appearance of the angel are closely connected. If the one is heard only in the inward ear of Balaam, the other appears only to his inward eye. All externality is lost. The whole occurrence is subjective, and we have no criterion left by which to test its character, or distinguish it from any mere vivid imagination. Then how are we to explain the fact, admitted by all, (though attributed by Hengstenberg to a kind of second sight) that the ass saw the angel, not in a vague, dim, shadowy form, but distinctly and repeatedly, as a definite form, sword in hand, and in a threatening attitude. The narrative will not allow us to suppose that the angel was distinctly and visibly present to the ass, and only inwardly present to Balaam. If the one occurred in the external world—if the Angel was present to the senses—there is a strong presumption that the words were spoken to the external ear or sense of Balaam.

4. The whole object of the Angelic appearance in its humbling effect upon Balaam, and the result upon the prophetic word which he should utter, is secured more certainly upon the theory that the words were actually spoken by the ass, and actually heard by the prophet. If the whole effect was wrought in Balaam, if the ass did nothing more than to groan and cry out under the abuse it suffered, if it saw no Angel, or only sympathized with its master, who interpreted these groans and shudderings into words, then there was nothing so humbling to the pride of the Seer. He may have been ashamed upon reflection, of his blindness and passion and lust. On any theory the event was impressive. But if he who prided himself upon having eyes for divine revelation did not see in his blindness what the ass saw so clearly; if the irrational brute reproved and admonished his rational but unreasonable master; if the cowering, shrinking ass falling to the ground in terror has thus saved his owner from the doom upon which he was madly rushing; if he was thus brought to feel that his lusts had led him to take the place of the brute, it was an humbling but salutary experience. He saw clearly enough that his own desires and passions could not be followed; that he must indeed speak only the words which the Angel says: I shall speak unto thee. That was the end sought; and how effectually it was secured we learn when we hear the prophet saying at his first interview with Balak: have I now any power at all to say any thing? The word that God putteth in my mouth that shall I speak.—A. G.]


[4]Marg. Who hast ridden upon me.

[5]Marg. Ever since thou wast.

[6]Marg. bowed himself.

[7]Marg. To be an adversary unto thee.

[8]Marg. If it be evil in thine eyes.

[9]Marg. a city of streets.

[10]Marg. on he went solitary.

Verse 41


Numbers 22:41 to Numbers 23:10

Numbers 22:41 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal, that thence he might see the utmost part of the people.

Numbers 23:1 And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams. 2And Balak did as Balaam had spoken; and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bullock and a ram. 3And 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 place1 4And 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. 5And the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak. 6And he returned unto him, and, lo, he stood by his burnt sacrifice, he, and all the princes of Moab. 7And 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.

8     How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?

Or how shall I defy, whom the Lord hath not defied?

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.

10     Who can count the dust of Jacob,

And the number of the fourth part of Israel?
Let me2 die the death of the righteous,

And let my last end be like his!


[Numbers 22:41. Heb. Bamoth-Baal—a definite locality.—A. G.]

[Numbers 23:3. שֵׁפִּי—a bare, bleak height—from שָׁפָּה, to scrape, to make bare, Job 33:21.—A. G.]

[Numbers 23:7. מָשַׁל—“a simile, then a proverb, because the proverb consists of comparisons and figures.” Keil. Hirsch, however, says that “the word always denotes a sentence or saying in which there is a progress from the individual and concrete to the universal or general,” and that it is so used here.—A. G.]

[Numbers 23:7. Defy. Better: be angry against, threaten.—A. G.]

[Numbers 23:10. Or: who can number the fourth part=or perhaps the progeny. Bible Commentary, Hirsch.—A. G.]


1. Balak is politic and cunning. He leads Balaam to a mountain summit, from whence he could see only the ends of the Israelitish camp. A small part of the camp the must see, so that from his mountain height as from heaven he might hurl down the lightnings of his curse upon the people; but only a small part, lest he should be too deeply impressed, and thus his readiness to curse might be restrained.

[A comparison, however, of Numbers 22:41 with Numbers 23:13 seem to show that in the former case the words the ends, or the utmost of the people, refer not to a small part of the camp, but to its extreme limits. He overlooked the whole people, even to its ends or utmost bounds. Balak had strong confidence that his wish would be secured. It was essential in his view that the people should be seen by the prophet, if the curse was to take effect. He led him therefore to a position so that the whole camp lay stretched out before him. But when the prophet blesses instead of curses Israel, then apparently thinking that his mind had been overawed by the prospect; that he could not so readily curse, a people so numerous and powerful, he leads him away to a point from which he says “thou shalt see only the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all.” Thus the two passages are perfectly consistent, and the order of steps as the scene unfolds is natural.—A. G.]

2. Balaam also on his part is a prudent schemer. Balak must build him seven altars, and offer upon them a grand sacrifice: seven bullocks and seven rams, the largest and most costly sacrifice, in the doubled seven. In connection with this pompous pretence of piety the sacrifice bears a most equivocal character. It is offered upon the high places of Baal, and still, as it appears, to Jehovah, from whom he inquires. But for which of the two were the bullocks intended, and for which the rams? Build me here seven altars—says Balaam—Stand by thy burnt-offering.—There is, in fact, a vile union between heathenism and monotheism—between yea and nay. Then Balaam goes up alone to a bare place, or a bald mountain peak, that he may see as much as possible of Israel, and that he may observe a sign, and thereby secure a vision. He appeals to Elohim, calling to witness his sacrifice. But it is Jehovah who puts the word in his mouth; it proceeds from God as the God of Israel. [Balaam went up to meet auguries (Numbers 24:1): I will go—peradventure Jehovah will meet me. “He hoped to receive or discover in the phenomena of nature a revelation from Jehovah.” Keil. Hence he went as the heathen augurs were wont to do, to the mountain summit, where his view above and around him would be unobstructed. God met Balaam, not “through the agencies employed to seek Him, dealing in this case in an exceptional manner,” Bible Com., not through any appearance or sign which Balaam was to clothe in words, but put a word in his mouth: thus thou shalt speak. He had a distinct message from which he could not vary.—A. G.]

3. Balaam’s first saying is richer in its form than in its contents. He speaks at first of the great expectations with which his coming is awaited. A king has sent for him, has brought him here in honor. From a remote land, from the far distant mountains of Mesopotamia, he has come to the mountain of Moab. And for this purpose, that he should curse a people whom he knew not only as Jacob, but as Israel (his words are fitly chosen: Curse, doom to wrath). He might well have said: How shall I curse him whom Jehovah blesseth? but he says somewhat less: whom God hath not cursed, whom God hath not threatened. He intimates that he sees not only a part of Israel, as Balak wished, but sees it in its whole significance and nature, as if he looked down upon it from every rocky peak and summit. The positive blessing includes three things: the isolation of Israel from the heathen, its countless number, and his own recognition of the righteous in it, with whom he wished to die. But in all the three respects the spirit of the typical word expresses much more than was present to the consciousness of Balaam, to wit, the election of God’s people, its blessed and immeasurable extension, and the salvation in life and in death prepared for the righteous. [Shall dwell alone—not isolation, freedom from tumults, and thus security—but the inward separation in character and in their relation to God, upon which the outward isolation depended, and of which it was the symbol. They dwelt alone only while they clave to God—counted not themselves among the nations. The whole Israelitish history is a striking comment upon the text. As the description applies to the N. T. Israel, so the rule likewise.

Who can count the dust?—A reference to the promise, Genesis 13:15, which was already so largely fulfilled, that even the fourth part, alluding, as Keil thinks, to the fourfold arrangement of the camp, could not be numbered.—יְשָׁרִים, a term applied to Israel as the called of God who is just and right, and as expressive of the end of their calling—or destination. It is not so much descriptive of their actual character as of the idea of the people, which was partly realized in the natural Israel, but is to be actually and fully realized in the spiritual. It is always the product of the gracious dealings of God with His people.

Let my last end be like his.—Balaam could not curse the righteous people. His better impulses find expression in the wish that he might share with them at least in their death. The Hebrew word refers not so much to the dying as to that which follows death, the futurity, the last estate. (See Psalms 37:37-38.) While it is true that their ideas of a future state were as yet vague and indefinite, it is not true, as Keil says, “that the Israelites did not then possess a certain hope of a blessed life beyond the grave.” It is difficult to fix just the amount of light they enjoyed, but it is well nigh impossible to read the utterances of the word in regard to their death without feeling that the light shone for them and upon them. And he who walked with God, and died in the consciousness of the divine grace and love, could never have supposed that the light would go out in darkness, or that there was no blessed life beyond the grave.—A. G.]

For the location of Bamoth-Baal see Numbers 21:19-20. It appears here as the most remote point from which the camp of Israel could be seen. For the ancient custom of inaugurating religious questions, undertakings, execrations or blessings with sacrifices, see Knobel, p. 137; Keil, Clark’s Translation, pp. 176, 177. The sign for which Balaam went out alone was the view of Israel which should form a sign and a vision for him.


[1]Marg. on he went solitary.

[2]Marg. my soul or my life.

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 22". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/numbers-22.html. 1857-84.
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