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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 24

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.

Verses 1-2

Chapter 24 Balaam’s Final Failed Attempt Is Followed By Various Prophecies.

Numbers 24:1

‘And when Balaam saw that it pleased Yahweh to bless Israel, he did not go not, as at the other times, to meet with enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness.’

Balaam now recognised that it was Yahweh’s intention to bless Israel. So he realised that his enchantments, his ‘persuaders’, would not work and decided to try another tack. He would set his face towards the wilderness and seek to enter into a trance. Perhaps that would work.

Numbers 24:2

‘And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw (or ‘looked on’) Israel dwelling according to their tribes, and the Spirit of God came on him.’

And there Balaam fixed his eyes on Israel dwelling in their usual formation, in their tribes. Now he saw the whole of Israel. And as he did so ‘the Spirit of God’ came on him, and he prophesied. What resulted was not his intention but he is seen as having no choice in the matter. Yahweh intervened again to make him bless Israel.

Verses 3-9

Numbers 24:3-9 (3a-9)

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

Here he begins with what was clearly his normal way of going into deep trance and follows it with a series of contrasts presented chiastically.

Numbers 24:3-9 (3b-9)

“Balaam the son of Beor says,

And the man whose eye was closed says,

He says, who hears the words of God,

Who sees the vision of the Almighty,

Falling down,

And having his eyes open.

a How goodly are your tents, O Jacob,

a Your tabernacles, O Israel!

b As valleys are they spread forth,

b As gardens by the riverside,

b As fragrant aloes which Yahweh has planted,

b As cedar trees beside the waters.

c Water shall flow from his buckets,

c And his seed shall be in many waters,

d And his king shall be higher than Agag,

d And his kingdom shall be exalted.

d God brings him forth out of Egypt,

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

c He shall eat up the nations his adversaries,

c And shall break their bones in pieces,

c And smite them through with his arrows.

b He couches, he lay down as a lion,

b And as a lioness; who shall rouse him up?

a Blessed be every one who blesses you,

a And cursed be every one who curses you.”

Note how different is the opening here. Balaam is deliberately going into a visionary state.

“Balaam the son of Beor says; And the man whose eye was closed says; He says, who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down (or ‘falling into a trance”), and having his eyes open.’ These first phrases would instantly refer back in the reader’s mind to the incident with his ass. There Balaam’s eyes had been closed. That may also have been Balaam’s intention if rumours had begun to spread around about what had happened, (and it was not the kind of thing that servants kept to themselves). But then he had heard the words of God, and had seen the vision of the Almighty, and had fallen down and had his eyes opened (see Numbers 22:31, ‘then Yahweh opened the eyes of Balaam and he saw the Angel of Yahweh -- and he bowed his head and fell on his face -- and the Angel of Yahweh said to him’).

But these phrases may also be words that Balaam regularly used when working himself into a trance, with the name of the right god inserted in each case. He was revealing himself as one who can move from having his eyes closed to having his eyes opened by meeting with, in this case, ‘the Almighty’ (Shaddai). Note the change of title. Calling on Yahweh by His other title ‘the Almighty’ (Shaddai) might succeed.

So the process is outlined. His ‘eyes’ are first closed, then he hears the words of God, then he sees the vision of Shaddai, then he falls into a trance, then his eyes are opened. In his trance-like state all is now ready for him to affect issues by his words.

Once again his incantation could hardly please the frustrated Balak. ‘How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your tabernacles, O Israel! As valleys are they spread forth, As gardens by the riverside, As fragrant aloes (aromatic trees) which Yahweh has planted, As cedar trees beside the waters.’ Israel’s tents were to be ‘goodly’, prosperous and flourishing and fruitful. They were to be like valleys fed by water which are thus luxuriant, like gardens by the riverside which therefore flourish, like aromatic trees which Yahweh has planted giving pleasure to all around, the kind of trees found in king’s gardens (they were Yahweh’s planting - compare Psalms 1:3; Isaiah 27:2-6), and as cedar trees beside the waters, which grow very strong. Cedar trees were not noted for being by water, but the thought was that a cedar in such a place would be even stronger and more luxuriant than normal. Note the emphasis again on water. Nothing mattered to ancient peoples more than water. It was their life source. So Israel’s dwellingplaces would be like fruitful valleys, like flowering gardens, like scented trees and like strong cedars made even stronger by being by the riverside. All these were pictures of what was most desirable to mankind.

“Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters.” This probably indicates fruitfulness in childbearing, and the spreading of His people like refreshing and reviving water among the nations so as to bless them and bring justice to the world. In them will all the families of the earth be blessed (Genesis 12:3; Genesis 18:18; Genesis 22:18; Genesis 28:14). They will flow out to the nations like water and dwell among them abundantly, as the waters of Eden went out to all the world (Genesis 2:10-14).

The thought of water as an agent of life and blessing and bringer in of justice is found everywhere in Scripture. Compare here Isaiah 33:20-22, where Jerusalem would be like an immovable tent where Yahweh would be with His people in majesty, and it would be a place of broad rivers and streams, because Yahweh was their judge, lawgiver and king. Consider also Ezekiel 47:1-12 (compare Numbers 26:25-28) where the flowing forth of water brought life, as expanded in John 7:38, ‘out of your innermost being will flow rivers of living water’; and the going forth of God’s Instruction, and the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:3). Consider also the constant picture throughout Isaiah of spiritual blessedness in terms of water, Isaiah 32:15-17; Isaiah 33:20-22; Isaiah 35:1; Isaiah 35:7; Isaiah 44:3-5; Isaiah 45:8; Isaiah 55:1; Isaiah 55:10-13; Isaiah 58:11.

“And his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.” Agag was probably a royal name of the Amalekite kings like Pharaoh was of Egypt and Abimelech of the Philistines. The Amalekites were doughty fighters, and their Agag was seen as wielding widespread power because of the widespread nature of the Amalekites as they spread over the wilderness descending to take their pickings where they would (compare Num 13:45; Exodus 17:8-16; Judges 6:3; Judges 6:33; Judges 7:12). Agag was feared, but Israel’s future king (whether heavenly or earthly, for the king in mind here may be God) would be more feared. He would enjoy more power and more widespread influence than Agag. Note how Balaam also prophesies against the Amalekites in Numbers 24:20 demonstrating that Amalek were very much in his mind. An Amalekite king under the name was defeated by Saul and slain by Samuel in 1 Samuel 15:8-9; 1 Samuel 15:32-33. Haman the Agag-ite in Esther 3:1 etc. possibly traced his descent back to the dynasty (Josephus links him with the Amalekites).

“His king.” The King here is probably Yahweh (compare verse 21). But it would not be surprising if Balaam spoke of Israel’s ‘king’. He probably knew little of the way in which Israel was run, and would assume a supreme ruler. To him that would be expressed in terms of ‘king’, for all nations in one way or another had a king. His point was simply that whoever ruled Israel would be exalted, and that the sphere of their rule would be exalted. It is not prophesying a particular king.

“God brings him forth out of Egypt. He has as it were the towering horns/strength of the wild-ox. He shall eat up the nations his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and smite them through with his arrows.” Again he compares God as the Deliverer from Egypt to a mighty wild ox, eating up the nations as a wild ox devours the vegetation; breaking their bones in pieces as a wild ox treads down those who stand in its way; and smiting them through with his arrows, because He is more than just a wild ox, but a wild ox typifying a mighty warrior. Who can withstand such a God? And He is on Israel’s side.

The eating up of the nations is in contrast with Israel’s seed in many waters. In the one case blessing, in the other judgment. It is the former who are to be blessed and the latter who are to be cursed.

“He couches, he lay down as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up?” As Numbers 23:24 suggests this description is of Yahweh and his consort Israel. Yahweh is identified with His people. They are like an established pride of lions at rest, best avoided and left undisturbed, lest they rend those who disturb them. It is a brave and foolish people who dare to stir them up. This picture of the sleeping pride of contented lions parallels the earlier pictures of Israel like watered gardens and valleys, and aromatic and towering trees.

“Blessed be every one who blesses you, And cursed be every one who curses you.” This parallels the ‘goodly tents’ of Jacob (Numbers 24:5). They are a people blessed by Yahweh. Thus all who bless them will be blessed, and all who curse then will be cursed, a real smack in the face to Balak.

So with this all round picture of Yahweh’s blessings on Israel we can understand why Balak might feel that somehow he was not being fairly treated.

Verse 10

‘And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together, and Balak said to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, and, behold, you have altogether blessed them these three times.” ’

By this time Balak was very angry. He smote his hands together in his fury and cried, ‘I called you to curse my enemies and --- you have blessed them three times.’ A threefold blessing was completeness of blessing. Thus instead of a curse they had received multiplied blessing. The very opposite of what Balak had wanted had been accomplished.

Verse 11

Therefore now flee you to your place. I thought to promote you to great honour, but, lo, Yahweh has kept you back from honour.”

Then he warned him to flee before vengeance overtook him. He had been given hospitality and could therefore not be harmed, but let him not assume that he would be safe if he stayed around. And he reminded him that he had intended to give him great honour and that Yahweh had kept him back from it. So he would do well to offer less of these eulogies about Yahweh Who had robbed him of so much.

Verses 12-13

‘And Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not speak also to your messengers whom you sent to me, saying, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of Yahweh, to do either good or bad of my own mind. What Yahweh says, that will I speak?”

But Balaam replied equally strongly and reminded him that he had done nothing other than he had said he would do. He had said from the beginning that even if Balak gave him his treasure house stocked to the brim, he would not go beyond the word of Yahweh. He would not, nay could not, do good or bad in his own mind. It was not within his ability to do so. He was not the master of the gods, he was their interpreter. He could only say what Yahweh had said to him. (He would have made the same reply to a Babylonian king about Marduk. His view was that he dealt with ‘gods’ and even though he did try to influence their decisions, and had ways of doing so, in the end simply brought the message that they gave, and was in no position to force them if they did not respond as he wanted. All he could do was keep trying).

Verse 14

The Prophecies of Balaam (Numbers 24:14-25 ).

Balaam then told Balak that he would be returning to his people. This may signify his fellow soothsayers, living together as a people. Or it may simply mean he was returning to the Amavites. However, before doing so, being in prophetic mode, he offered him a prophecy for free. In view of Balak’s attitude it no doubt gave him great satisfaction, for in it he foresees the defeat of Moab.


a Balaam says he will return home after prophesying (Numbers 24:14)

b Balaam prophesies concerning Israel (Numbers 24:13-19)

c Balaam looks at and prophesies concerning wandering Amalek (Numbers 24:20)

c Balaam looks at and prophesies concerning the wandering Kenites (Numbers 24:21-22)

b Balaam prophesies concerning Eber (Israel and their fellow Semites) (Numbers 24:23-24)

a Balaam returns home (Numbers 24:25).

Numbers 24:14

And now, behold, I go to my people. Come, and I will advertise you what this people shall do to your people in the latter days.”

Balaam then declared that he was returning to his people, but was meanwhile in such constraint in spirit that he had to give another prophetic declaration concerning the distant future of ‘this people’, the Israelites.

Verses 15-19

Balaam Prophesies Concerning Israel (Numbers 24:15-19 )

Numbers 24:15

‘And he took up his oracle (parable), and said,

“Balaam the son of Beor says,

a And the man whose eye was closed says,

b He says, who hears the words of God,

c And knows the knowledge of the Most High,

b Who sees the vision of the Almighty,

a Falling down, and having his eyes open.

(Note how the introduction follows the usual pattern, taken up again in what follows).

a I see him, but not now,

a I behold him, but not nigh,

a There shall come forth a star out of Jacob,

a And a sceptre shall rise out of Israel,

b And shall smite through the corners of Moab,

b And break down all the sons of tumult.

b And Edom shall be a possession,

b Seir also, his enemies, shall be a possession,

a While Israel does valiantly.

a And out of Jacob shall one have dominion,

a And shall destroy the remnant from the city.

As before he goes into a trance. ‘Whose eye was closed’ may be a wry reference to his experience on the road with his ass, rumours of which may have been spreading around. Compare Numbers 24:3. But as previously the whole first phrases were his way of ‘entering’ the sphere of the gods.

“I see him, but not now, I behold him, but not nigh,” He firstly declares that what he speaks of is not to happen in the near future. It refers to the distant future (compare Numbers 24:14). It is ‘not now, -- not near’. Indeed in all his proclamations the ‘far future’ is in mind. Thus he had desired that his last end should be like that of Israel, one that resulted in length of days because of righteousness (Numbers 23:10), he had stressed that the lioness of Israel would not lie down until with Yahweh they had eaten of the prey and drunk the blood of the slain (Numbers 23:14), he had looked ahead to Israel’s seed being in many waters, his king higher than Agag, and his kingdom exalted (Numbers 24:7). Now he was to speak further of that king.

“There shall come forth a star out of Jacob, And a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.” As already mentioned the question as to what ‘king’ is meant is not to be particularised. It is not even a prophecy that Israel would have ‘a king’. He simply speaks of their supreme ruler, something which he would assume for them as for all nations. His expression for such would be ‘melek’. He would almost certainly have used that title of Moses. And because Israel were to be exalted, so would be their supreme ruler. Indeed their heaven-supported ‘king’ would be part of the cause of their rise. And here he sees one such in terms of a ‘rising star’, and a ‘sceptre’, one who would be special and would one day smite Moab, and Edom, and Mount Seir, and all who caused trouble to Israel.

“And shall smite through the corners of Moab, And break down all the sons of tumult. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also, His enemies, shall be a possession.” So Moab would be smitten from corner to corner, Edom would be possessed, Seir (His enemies) would be a possession. Thus He would possess both land and people. Those who would cause trouble to Israel are depicted as ‘the sons of tumult’. This might especially have in mind the desert peoples like the Midianites, whom Balaam had already met as being antagonistic towards Israel, the Amalekites, whose fierce king he had already mentioned, and the Kenites (see below).

“While Israel does valiantly. And out of Jacob shall one have dominion, And shall destroy the remnant from the city.” He would with his people ‘do valiantly’ and would have wide dominion, and would ‘destroy the remnant from the city’, that is, would have widespread success and come across no city that could resist him and prevent his total victory. This parallels the rising star and sceptre, declaring his success.

The picture of a rising star, combined with a sceptre, who would have dominion, depicted an especially great king. It was a declaration of the fact that the royal house of Israel would eventually produce a ‘super-star’, a ‘king’ who would rule over many nations. And these nations he depicted in terms of the ones whom he knew to be at odds with Israel at that time. This last fact firmly dates this prophecy to this particular time. Seen in terms of an ‘anointed king’ of Israel this was a ‘messianic’ prophecy. His picture is really one of final triumph, brought about by a supreme king. It is essentially applicable to David, and to strong kings who followed after him, but its final fulfilment required a king who would finally triumph and gain everlasting dominion, and that could only be the Messiah.

For a star as representing the king of Babylon see Isaiah 14:12; and as representing the Messiah see Revelation 22:16. See also Daniel 8:10. The use of stars of rulers in this way was also known in non-Biblical literature. In the future the ‘star of David’ would come to represent the Davidic house. Compare also how Bar Kochba’s Messianic claims were supported by naming him ‘son of the star’ when he led the Jewish rebellion against the emperor Hadrian in c.135 AD.

Verse 20

Balaam Looks On and Prophesies Concerning Wandering Amalek (Numbers 24:20 ).

As we come to this final prophecy we should note that it is specifically stated that Balaam ‘looked on’ Amalek and the Kenite. Exactly the same expression is used in verse 2 of him ‘looking on Israel’ (translated ‘saw’). The verb is also used three times in Numbers 23:13 where again ‘looking on’ Israel was preparatory to an oracle concerning them. And in fact this ‘looking on’ Israel was clearly considered an important part of the process. This would therefore seem to suggest that the Amalekites and Kenites were near enough to be ‘looked on’ for the same purpose (why else introduce the verb which is otherwise redundant). In view of the presence of the Midianites who were often linked with the Amalekites (see Judges 6:3; Judges 6:33 in the light of the whole of Numbers 6:0 where ‘Midian’ regularly signifies the threefold combination of Midian, Amalek and the children of the East) we may probably see that they were present with the Midianites in their association with Moab. The same is probably therefore also true of the Kenites.

Numbers 24:20 a

‘And he looked on Amalek, and took up his oracle, and said,’

This may signify elders of Amalek who were standing by, or an encampment of them in Moab.

Numbers 24:20 b

“Amalek was the first of the nations;

And his latter end shall come to destruction.”

This probably refers to the fact that Amalek was the first of all the nations to attack Israel when they had left Egypt seeking safety (Exodus 17:8-16; Deuteronomy 25:17-18, compare also Numbers 14:43-45; Judges 6:3; Judges 6:33). It was seen by God as a particularly heinous offence for as a result of it we are told, ‘Yahweh has sworn, Yahweh will have war with Amalek from generation to generation’ (Exodus 17:16; compare Deuteronomy 25:19; 1 Samuel 15:2-3). Thus Amalek of all nations would finally be destroyed.

Some, however, see it as signifying their ancient background. They are possibly the Meluhha mentioned in 3rd millennium BC inscriptions. But the Biblical view was that they were descended from Esau (Genesis 36:12). This latter fact would explain why their offence was seen as so heinous. Like Edom they were a brother tribe to Israel. (However, as with Edom and Moab and many nations their descent would be a complicated affair, some being descended from Esau, and others being from sub-tribes who had united with these descendants).

Verses 21-22

Balaam Looks On and Prophesies Concerning the Wandering Kenites (Numbers 24:21-22 ).

Numbers 24:21 a

‘And he looked on the Kenite, and took up his oracle, and said,’

In the same way as with the Amalekites we may see that a group of Kenites were present, connected with the Midianites to whom they were related (see Numbers 10:29 with Judges 1:16; Judges 4:11) and with Moab. The Kenites were metal smiths and tended to move around in small groups. Compare the ones who accompanied Israel (Judges 1:16; Judges 4:11), and those who had an agreement with Sisera (Judges 4:11). By uniting with Moab against Israel they were bringing judgment on themselves.

Numbers 24:21-22 (21b-22)

“Strong is your dwelling-place,

And your nest is set in the rock.

Nevertheless Kain shall be wasted,

Until Asshur shall carry you away captive.”

This may refer to the safe situation that the Kenites had found for themselves in Moab. Or it may have in mind their wilderness dwelling-place in the Sinai area. Either way it stresses that their seeming security will not avail them in the day of trouble. They would find themselves beset by the tribe of Asshur, another brother tribe (see Genesis 25:3; Genesis 25:18; 2 Samuel 2:9; Psalms 83:8), and be wasted and finally taken as slaves.

So the combination of tribes related to Israel (of Moab, of the Midianites, of the Amalekites and of the Kenites), were all included in his prophecies as fated because of their behaviour towards Israel. The presence of a nucleus was sufficient to condemn even those not present, on the basis of tribal solidarity.

Verses 23-24

Balaam Prophesies Concerning Eber (Israel and their fellow Semites) (Numbers 24:23-24 ).

Numbers 24:23 a

‘And he took up his oracle, and said,’

We note immediately that he did not ‘look on’ those of whom he now spoke.

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

“Alas, who shall live when God does this?

But ships will come from the coast of Kittim,

And they shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber,

And he also shall come to destruction.”

The Asshurim may waste the Kenites but they themselves would not escape judgment. They in their turn would be afflicted by ships from Kittim (Cyprus and the Aegean coastlands). It would seem that exploratory raids, if not worse, had already been taking place by the ‘Sea People’, the relatives of the Philistines, and he recognised that these would afflict the Asshurim, treating them as they had treated the Kenites. When brother fights brother judgment awaits.

The same also applied to Eber. This referred to Semites in the area (Genesis 10:25) and may well have been intended indirectly to signify Israel, who would be one of those to suffer at Philistine hands, for Abraham was descended from Peleg, Eber’s son, a descent which was emphasised by appearing on its own and not in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10:25 with Genesis 11:16-18).

Verse 25

‘And Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place; and Balak also went his way.’

The affair of Balaam was now concluded. Israel remained blessed and Balak went one way and Balaam another, with the latter ‘returning to his place’. However to his cost he would return to give assistance to the Midianites and would die for his pains (Numbers 31:8).

As we have sought to draw out in the narrative this Balaam cycle contains many lessons. It reveals that God is above the occult and that such cannot hurt His people. It reveals Him as uniquely unlike the so-called ‘gods’ of the nations. Through the mouth of Balaam it provides us with prophetic announcements about God’s purposes. It reveals that there is no limit to what God can do. And to the Israelites it would be a spur, giving a new incentive to enter the land knowing that they need fear neither god nor man. To us it is another reminder of the coming of the Messiah prophesied long before.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 24". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/numbers-24.html. 2013.
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