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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 23

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary



The New Beginning.

After the gap for the wilderness wanderings and the return to Kadesh, there now follows a series of historical events which bring Israel to the plains of Moab, and point to a new beginning. History has become important again because Yahweh’s purposes were now going forward. The first section (Numbers 20:1 to Numbers 21:20) deals with the view that was to be taken of the future. It was to be a move from dearth to abundance, from death to life. The old was being put to one side, so that the new could take over, although only under Yahweh.

· It commences with the arrival at Kadesh (qdsh - the holy place) to find little water there, followed by the death of Miriam, the prophetess, who would have been greatly influential among those who had come out of Egypt. All is death. But at the same time it promises that the resulting seeming dearth will be followed by abundant water (Numbers 20:1-11), although even that at the cost of death for it goes on to reveal that neither Aaron nor Moses will enter the land. They will die in God’s time and be replaced by new leaders (Numbers 20:12-13).

· It warns against seeing the future simply in terms of aggression and spoliation. When Edom resist their advance they must not show aggression and seize their land but must go another way. For Edom’s land belongs to Edom and has been given to them by God (this is implicit in Numbers and explicit in Deuteronomy 2:0), just as shortly their land will belong to them (Numbers 20:14-21). Israel is only to offer death to those who deserve death.

· It tells of the death of Aaron and his replacement as ‘the Priest’ by his son, Eleazar, a member of the new generation, which will lead on to greater blessing (Numbers 20:22-29). Out of death comes life.

· It describes the first defeat of the Canaanites, a further indication of the new beginning and a firstfruit of what was to come. They are at last ready to take the land (Numbers 21:1-3).

· It then warns of what the result will be for those of the new generation who rebel against God, in the judgment of the fiery serpents which were a flashback to and reminder of the old wilderness days (Deuteronomy 8:15). Let them remember the wilderness, for that is what awaits those who rebel against Yahweh, as it had awaited their fathers (Numbers 21:4-10).

And it finally describes the arrival at a place of abundance of water sufficient to cause them to sing with joy and praise, a symbol of the new beginning, a symbol of life (Numbers 21:11-20 compare Numbers 22:5-8).

The second section (Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 25:18) will go on to deal with victory in the Wars of Yahweh including the defeat of the Amorites who had once defeated them (Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 22:1 compare Deuteronomy 1:44), the ‘battle’ with Balaam (Numbers 22:1 to Numbers 24:25), and their establishment in the plains of Moab having received their first instalment of Yahweh’s inheritance (Numbers 25:1 a) which results in the sin of Peor and deliverance by the hand of Phinehas, son of Eleazar (Numbers 25:1-18).

Battles Against Evil Influence (Numbers 22:2 to Numbers 25:18 ).

Having defeated the Amorites and being in process of possessing their land Israel are now faced with a more subtle threat. This commences with the approach of the Aramean prophet Balaam, and continues with the results of his later evil plan.

3). The Defeat of the Evil Influence of Balaam (Numbers 22:2 to Numbers 24:25 ).

The follow-up war against the Amorites in Bashan may still have been in progress under different generals while what follows was going on. ("They possessed his land" - Numbers 21:35, and that would take time. See Numbers 32:39-42). But meanwhile Moab, watching Israel from behind their frontiers, wondered what they were going to do next, and decided to take their own initiative.

In those days warfare was conducted on a number of levels. The most obvious was the clash of armies. But behind the clash of armies could be a variety of other activities. These could include interchange of correspondence enforcing their case by citing the power of their gods (see Judges 11:12-28), both encouraging their own troops and dismaying the enemy. Preliminary ‘battles’ taking place between champions in order to determine whose god was the most powerful (see 1 Samuel 17:0). And so on. But nothing was more important than ensuring that the gods were on your side. And that was where certain men seen as possessing awesome powers came in. Such men, ‘prophets’, ‘soothsayers’ and ‘diviners’ were seen as having special influence with the gods, and operated through dreams, visions, trances, omens, enchantments and the occult. We can compare the execration texts from Egypt, written on pottery against Egypt’s enemies, pottery which was then broken in order to apply the curse. (Amalek probably saw Moses with his hands held up in the same light - Exodus 17:11). One such ‘diviner’ in those days was the mighty Bala‘-‘am (‘the nation swallower’), held in awe throughout the Ancient Near East. It was to him that Moab were to turn.

Thus in these chapters we have revealed in the tactics of Balak, king of Moab, a different approach to the challenging of Israel from those before him. For while Israel had made no attempt to interfere with Moab, Balak was afraid. Here was a large and seemingly belligerent army on his frontiers and he wanted to get rid of them. But he seemingly did not feel up to taking them on in battle. Having probably heard of what Yahweh had done previously, and having seen them destroy the enemy that he himself had been unable to defeat, he decided that he needed ‘similar’ powers on his side, and he needed somehow to influence Yahweh.

So he sent for Bala‘am (the ‘nation-swallower’), the famous prophet-diviner, requesting that he come to him so that he might curse Israel. Balaam, the prophet-diviner, was a man of great reputation who apparently lived in northern Syria. Such people professed to be able to influence events by use of various occult methods. They would often enter into drug induced trances in which they could see and hear almost anything. They hired themselves out for gold, and their fees were high. The subsequent story in fact reveals what an enigmatic figure he was. For while he was certainly wanting to oblige Balak by bringing divine powers to his rescue, at the same time he openly acknowledged that they were not fully under his control. He acknowledged that unless the ‘gods’ were cooperative he could not achieve his ends. Indeed in seeking to exercise his gifts with Yahweh he was revealed as being limited in what he could achieve right from the beginning, by the response that came when he commenced his sorceries.

However, while not approving of his methods, the account does suggest a certain genuineness in what he sought to do, so much so that God was willing to have dealings with him and reveal things to him on behalf of His own people. Yet it is quite obvious that Balaam involved himself in the occult. He clearly considered that he did get in touch with other world beings, and did expect to receive messages from them. He was thus seen as engaging in spiritism and divination. Using Moses’ terms, he contacted devils (Deuteronomy 32:17). But as with the medium of Endor later (1 Samuel 28:6-25), where confronted with such, God was willing to use them in order to bring home His own message.

Bala‘am was not a worshipper of Yahweh, but that he was willing to listen to Him and respond to Him the account makes clear. It would seem that at first he mistakenly thought that he could treat Yahweh like any of his other other-world ‘contacts’. But he soon learned that he was dealing with something outside his previous experience. What harm he could actually have done to Israel we do not know, but certainly at the time everyone thought that he could do great harm.

The account is clearly a unity for it is based on a number of sections which follow a basically chiastic pattern in four instalments, Numbers 22:2-14; Numbers 22:15-38; Numbers 22:39 to Numbers 24:13; Numbers 24:14-25. But they also inter-relate. Balaam is the man whose eyes are open in Numbers 24:3; Numbers 24:15. In Numbers 24:4; Numbers 24:16 he is the one who has ‘heard the words of God and saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance (or ‘falling down’) but having his eyes open’. (This certainly sounds like drug use). He ‘took up his parable (incantation)’ five times in Numbers 24:3; Numbers 24:15; Numbers 24:20-21; Numbers 24:23. His extra prophecies are fourfold (Numbers 24:15-24) which with his threefold prophecies/blessings in Numbers 23:7-10; Numbers 23:18-24; Numbers 24:3-9 make up a sevenfold series of prophecies.

The whole account is also notable for the emphasis put on threefold action. The ass avoided the angel of Yahweh three times (Numbers 22:28; Numbers 22:32; see verses 23, 25, 27). Balaam had three major encounters with Yahweh (Numbers 22:9-12; Numbers 22:20; Numbers 22:32-35). Balaam offered three sets of sacrifices (Numbers 22:39 to Numbers 24:13). Yahweh gives His word to Balaam three times (Numbers 23:5; Numbers 23:16; Numbers 24:2 compare Numbers 22:38). Three times things happen ‘in the morning’ (Numbers 22:13; Numbers 22:21; Numbers 22:41). We can note also that to Yahweh the messengers are but ‘men’ (’anoshim) three times (Numbers 22:9; Numbers 22:20; Numbers 22:35).

But we may ask, ‘why is so much space given in Scripture to this rather strange history when seemingly larger affairs are dealt with in a few sentences?’ The answer lies mainly in the words which God put in Balaam’s mouth. Three times he spoke, followed by further prophecy, and in doing so he confirmed the promises of God to His people. That they were spoken by a non-Israelite prophet of the status of Balaam made them even more significant. The words of such a man as Balaam would be a major encouragement as Israel prepared to enter the land in order to take possession, for they would be seen as coming from an external prophetic source. It was only human nature among the weaker of them that while they might have some doubts about what Yahweh promised, the promises seemed much more certain when spoken by such a man as Balaam. And God graciously allowed it to be so for their sakes.

In his first prophecy Balaam would speak of Israel as being like the dust of the earth (compare Genesis 13:16), and as being innumerable (Numbers 23:10 compare Genesis 12:2; Genesis 13:16), both recognised signs of blessing as promised by Yahweh. He would also describe them as a nation dwelling alone, different from all other nations (Numbers 23:9), a holy nation (compare Exodus 19:5-6), thus further confirming the promises and revealing that they were blessed by their God.

In the second he would speak of their deliverance from Egypt and their being firmly established, with God among them as their King with, metaphorically speaking, the strength and horns of the wild ox (Numbers 23:21), a fearsome Opponent indeed, who could dispense lions with the toss of his head. While Israel themselves were depicted as being, along with their God, dangerous and victorious like a pride of lions (Numbers 23:24). In other words Israel had become a powerful people, with the even more powerful Yahweh living among them as their King and God.

In the third he saw them as being in a land of fruitfulness, with plenteous waters available to them (see Numbers 21:14-18), and spreading that fruitfulness around the world, with their God still being powerful and they still being like a victorious pride of lions.

And finally he saw the coming to them of a future ruler who would be victorious over all around him (compare Genesis 17:6). This remarkable series of prophecies, revealing the rise and triumph of Israel from early beginnings to its final triumph, will be considered in more detail in the commentary. But it explains the importance laid on these prophecies.

Then, secondly, God’s control of Balaam was probably seen as an example of the greatness of Yahweh. The mighty Balaam was feared throughout the Ancient Near East, but he was nothing before Yahweh. He was seen as subject to Yahweh’s will. The thought would be that if Yahweh could defeat Balaam, He could defeat anyone. For that Balaam was an awesome figure comes out in that his name has been found in an Aramaic text written on wall plaster at Tell Deir ‘Alla in the Jordan valley dating from around 700 BC in which he is seen as involved with a number of gods and goddesses whose will he conveys to a disobedient people. His reputation as a powerful contact person between men and the gods had passed into history, it had been immortalised.

The Threefold Activity of Balaam In Moab (22:41-24:13).

In what follows we now have a triad of attempts by Balak to curse Israel which all follow the same pattern. These are sandwiched between Balaam going with Balak (Numbers 22:41) and Balaam being bidden to return home (Numbers 24:12-13). This parallels the triad of encounters with the Angel of Yahweh in the first passage. The reader is intended to see Balaam’s activity in terms of the noble ass, just as Israel were to be seen metaphorically as like a lion or a lioness (Numbers 23:24; Numbers 24:9) and Yahweh as a large horned wild-ox (Numbers 23:22; Numbers 24:8).

This comes out in that there are significant parallels and contrasts with the first account. Here Balak is seen as driving on a reluctant Balaam in the same way as Balaam drove on his reluctant ass. As the noble ass was really controlled, not by his rider but by the angel of Yahweh, so was Balaam to be seen as really controlled, not by Balak, but by Yahweh. Furthermore this happened because Balaam could see what Balak could not see, just as the noble ass could see what Balaam could not see. So Balaam has now replaced the ass as the ‘instrument’ of Yahweh. And as Balaam was angry with his ass three times, so Balak was angry with Balaam three times. As God finally spoke through the ass, so finally did the Spirit of Yahweh come on Balaam (Numbers 24:2) who was now ‘the man whose eyes are open’ (Numbers 24:3; Numbers 24:15), and speak through him. This does not represent Balaam as ‘an ass’ in any derogatory sense, it depicts him as an unwilling instrument of Yahweh, as the noble ass was, but whose eyes were now open as they had not been previously. Thus the incident of the ass illuminates all that follows. Balaam was seen to be as much in subjection to Yahweh as his ass had been to him.


a Balaam goes with Balak (Numbers 22:41)

b Balaam builds seven altars and offers sacrifices (Numbers 23:1-3)

c Yahweh speaks to Balaam and he prophesies favourably to Israel num (23:4-10)

d Balak is angry and asks him to try again (Numbers 23:11-13).

b Seven more altars and seven more sacrifices (Numbers 23:14-15).

c Yahweh speaks to Balaam and he again prophesies favourably (Numbers 23:16-24)

d Balak requests that Balaam ceases either blessing or cursing and asks that he try again (Numbers 23:25-26).

b Seven more altars and seven more sacrifices (Numbers 23:27-30)

c Balaam blesses Israel (Numbers 24:1-9).

d Balak is angry with Balaam (Numbers 24:10-11).

a Balaam castigates Balak (Numbers 24:12-13)

Verses 13-17

The Second Attempt To Influence Yahweh (Numbers 23:13-26 ).

Numbers 23:13

‘And Balak said to him, “Come, I pray you, with me to another place, from where you may see them. You shall see but the utmost part of them, and shall not see them all. And curse me them from there.” ’

It is interesting to note that Balak reluctantly accepted the explanation and decided that this particular height clearly brought them in contact with ‘gods’ not favourable to their cause. These were ‘the heights of Baal’. Clearly Baal was in league with Yahweh. The solution must therefore be to try another place. Perhaps on a new mountain the gods there could be persuaded to call on Yahweh to act in his favour. We see from this something of the beliefs of people outside Israel, and the uniqueness of Israel’s religion.

“You shall see but the utmost part of them, and shall not see them all.” The impression being given is that their numbers were so large that wherever they stood they could not all be seen at once.

Numbers 23:14

‘And he took him to the field of Zophim (the watchers), to the top of the Pisgah, and built seven altars, and offered up an ox bull and a ram on every altar.’

This time Balak took Balaam to the field of Zophim, to the top of the Pisgah. There again they went through the motions of Balaam’s usual approach to his control. Zophim means ‘the watchers’. The previous site was the ‘heights of Baal’. The names may therefore link with particular deities seen as connected with particular Moabite holy places.

Numbers 23:15

‘And he said to Balak, “Stand here by your whole burnt offering, while I meet yonder.” ’

Once again Balaam told Balak to stand by his offering. This was important so that the ‘gods’ would know to whom they owed this offering that they had received, and might be persuaded by it. It was a considerable offering. Then he went to ‘meet’ whoever would appear.

Numbers 23:16

‘And Yahweh met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth, and said, “Return to Balak, and thus shall you speak.” ’

Once again Balaam sought his ‘control’, and once again Yahweh met with him and put His word in Balaam’s mouth (either through Balaam’s control, or more probably directly). He was to go back with it to Balak.

Numbers 23:17

‘And he came to him, and, lo, he was standing by his whole burnt offering, and the princes of Moab with him. And Balak said to him, “What has Yahweh spoken?” ’

Then Balaam returned to where Balak was, obediently standing by his offering with his chieftains. They were agog to know what, message he had received, what Yahweh had spoken. They were hopeful that this time it would be satisfactory, and that Yahweh had been turned against His people. After all he had offered fourteen ox bulls.

Verses 18-26

Numbers 23:18-24 (18a-24)

‘And he took up his incantation (parable),’

Once again Balaam gave out his incantation. Note even here the chiastic construction.

Numbers 23:18-24 (18b-24)

“Rise up, Balak, and hear;

Listen to me, you son of Zippor,

a God is not a man, that he should lie,

a Nor the son of man, that he should repent,

a Has he said, and will he not do it?

a Or has he spoken, and will he not make it good?

b Behold, I have received commandment to bless,

b And he has blessed, and I cannot reverse it.

c He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob,

c Nor has he seen perverseness in Israel,

d Yahweh his God is with him,

d And the shout of a king is among them.

d God brings them forth out of Egypt,

d He has as it were the towering horns (or ‘strength’) of the wild-ox.

c Surely there is no enchantment with Jacob,

c Nor is there any divination with Israel.

b Now shall it be said of Jacob,

b And of Israel, What has God wrought!

a Behold, the people rise up as a lioness,

a And as a lion does he lift himself up,

a He shall not lie down until he eat of the prey,

a And drink the blood of the slain.

They were soon to be disillusioned. The second trance statement began more directly than the first. It asked Balak if he really thought that Yahweh would change His mind.

“Rise up, Balak, and hear. Listen to me, you son of Zippor. God is not a man, that he should lie, nor the son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not make it good?” He learned that Yahweh was not ‘a man’, who might be liable to lie. He was not ‘a son of man’ (the equivalent of ‘man’) that He should change His mind. What He had said, He would do. What He had spoken He would make happen. Thus the word already given was sure of fulfilment. But now in the light of this second approach more was to be added in favour of Israel.

So Balaam then went on to declare that, ‘Behold, I have received the word to bless, and he has blessed, and I cannot reverse it.’ In other words, as Yahweh had chosen to bless Israel, Balaam had no alternative but to declare that blessing. It was something that he was unable to reject or reverse. It was not in his hands to decide.

“He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, Nor has he seen perverseness in Israel.” The hope had always been that in some way ‘Yahweh’ could be made to find fault with Israel or could be persuaded to ‘foresee’ some trouble or misfortune ahead for them. After all the ‘gods’ of other nations were very often seen as taking it out on their people because of some reason or other, or for no reason at all, and could therefore be bribed to cooperate. (Balaam was not used to dealing with the Sovereign God). But he had learned that Yahweh would find no fault with Israel, and that He could see no trouble or misfortune ahead for them, or at least not the kind that could make Him curse them.

Then he declared what Balak did not want to hear (and what Israel did want to hear). ‘Yahweh his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.’

Far from being displeased with His people, he declared, Yahweh was ‘with them’ as their God. He was enthroned among them as their king to Whom they shouted their allegiance. All was well between them and their God. The parallelism confirms that the king in mind here is Yahweh. So this people whom Balak wanted Yahweh to curse actually acknowledged Him as their king and shouted their allegiance to Him, because He was with them and among them. There was therefore no likelihood that He would curse them.

What was more, he pointed out, ‘God brings them forth out of Egypt, He has as it were the towering horns or strength of the wild-ox.’ Not only was Yahweh their King, but as their God Who was among them He had brought them out of Egypt with His mighty power, power and strength which was like that of the towering horns of a mighty wild-ox, totally irresistible. He was thus not a God to be messed around with. And He was the Deliverer of this people.

Nothing was known that had greater strength than the wild ox with its mighty horns. It was untameable. And thus had Israel’s God shown Himself to be of invincible power,

“Surely there is no enchantment with Jacob, nor is there any divination with Israel.” This parallels the statement that He found no iniquity in them ((Numbers 23:21). He now added that it was really no good trying to fight Israel with enchantments. For enchantments could only counter other enchantments. But Jacob/Israel did not use enchantments. He had been able to discern none among them.

We find here a remarkable confirmation of the fact that at this stage Israel were free from those who worked enchantments, as God’s Instruction had demanded that they should be (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 19:26; Leviticus 19:31; Leviticus 20:6; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:10-12). Israel were not involved in any way in the occult.

“Now shall it be said of Jacob, and of Israel, What has God wrought!”. Here the parallel is with the fact that God had blessed them (Numbers 23:20). They had rather trusted in their God, and He had wrought on their behalf. Thus he, Balaam the enchanter, had no power against them. They were outside his sphere.

“Behold, the people rise up as a lioness, and as a lion does he lift himself up. He shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.” Balaam then finished his prophecy by declaring that Israel were, in fact, like a lioness rising up to commence the hunt, and that Yahweh Himself was like a lion, not lying down again until He has seized the prey. To ‘drink the blood of the slain’ metaphorically referred simply to partaking in their death. All knew that a pack of lions, once they had been roused to the hunt, did not lie down again until they had been successful. This parallels ‘Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?’

So all were to take note that Israel were to be feared because Yahweh was with them. And that like a lioness they should not be disturbed, lest they rise and seize the prey. It was best to let sleeping lions lie.

“To drink the blood of the slain”. Later Jesus would charge the Pharisees with ‘drinking His blood’ in slaying Him. Their fathers had partaken of the blood of the prophets (Matthew 23:30) and now they were seeking His. Yet it was well they did so, for only through the shedding of that blood could men receive life and forgiveness from Him by partaking in the benefit of His death (John 6:48-63).

Numbers 23:25

‘And Balak said to Balaam, “Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all.” ’

Balak had heard enough. He begged Balaam neither to curse or bless them, for it would be better if he did nothing than that he should bless them again as he had done previously. This was strengthening them, not weakening them.

Numbers 23:26

‘But Balaam answered and said to Balak, “Did I not tell you, saying, All that Yahweh says, that I must do?” ’

But Balaam replied that there was nothing that he could do about it. As he had already told him, if he contacted Yahweh he had to do what Yahweh said. In matters like this he was not his own master.

Verses 27-30

The Third Attempt To Influence Yahweh (Numbers 23:27 to Numbers 24:13 ).

The previous two attempts at enchantment having failed Balak decided that he must try again, this time with Baal-peor. Some may wondered at Balak’s persistence, but both he and Balaam probably thought that the next seven offerings would do the trick. For seven times three would be divine completeness and perfection indeed.

Numbers 23:27-28

‘And Balak said to Balaam, “Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps it will please God that you may curse me them from there.” And Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, which looks down on the desert.’

The stark mountain of Peor was his last hope. Here surely Baal-peor would come to his help against these people. So he took Balaam there and called on him to make another attempt to curse Israel for him.

Numbers 23:29

‘And Balaam said to Balak, “Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven ox bulls and seven rams.” ’

Balaam again called on him to follow his usual pattern. It had always ‘worked’ in the past. Another munificent offering to the gods might be successful, and might change Yahweh’s mind. Three times seven was complete divine perfection.

There is in all this a deliberate intent in the writer’s mind to bring out the futility of Balaam’s methods and Balak’s hopes. Yahweh the God of Israel just could not be influenced by these methods. He was over and above them. They were useless. Balaam might be powerful in his own sphere but against God he was powerless. All he could do was prophecy in His favour.

Numbers 23:30

‘And Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered up an ox bull and a ram on every altar.’

So Balak again did all that was required of him. An ox bull and a ram were offered up on each of seven altars.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 23". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/numbers-23.html. 2013.
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