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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 23

Peake's Commentary on the BiblePeake's Commentary


Numbers 22-24. ( JE) . The Episode of Balak and Balaam.— It may reasonably be assumed that the Moabites at first regarded with some satisfaction the defeat of their former conquerors, the Amorites, by their own kinsmen the Israelites. But the latter’ s occupation of the Amorites’ land aroused their jealousy and their fears, and accordingly Balak the king of Moab sent for Balaam, a foreigner, whose blessings and curses were believed to be exceptionally effectual for good and for ill, to curse Israel. Balaam so far acceded to Balak’ s appeal as to come to him, but refused to utter anything but what Yahweh inspired him to say; and by Yahweh the Moabite king’ s wish to injure Israel was made conducive to his own undoing, Balaam being inspired to bless Israel. The narrative is designed to display the providential care for Israel manifested by Yahweh, who overruled to their advantage the devices of their enemies; and illustrates alike ( a) the belief that the God of Israel did not entirely confine His revelations to His own people, ( b) the belief in the potency of the spoken word, and ( c) the belief that the lower animals have occasionally been endowed with the gift of speech. The story is derived from JE; and the composite character of this source is disclosed by the presence of certain repetitions and discrepancies which are pointed out below. A reference to Balaam also occurs in P, which connects him with Midian ( Numbers 31:8; Numbers 31:16); and by a combination of the passages taken from all three sources Balaam has been regarded in the sinister light in which he appears in 2 Peter 2:15 f., Jude 1:1, Revelation 2:14. But the worst feature of the conduct attributed to him— his advice to Israel’ s enemies to seduce them by means of their women— is found only in P, the latest and least trustworthy of the Pentateuchal sources. In J, though he is represented as going to Balak without the Divine permission, yet he is depicted as steadfast in communicating faithfully Yahweh’ s revelation; whilst in E there is nothing at all in his behaviour to afford a handle to censure.

Verses 1-6

Numbers 22:41 to Numbers 23:6 . Balak’ s Sacrifices preliminary to Balaam’ s first Oracle.— This section proceeds from E. Balak brought Balaam to Bamoth-baal ( Numbers 22:41 mg.), the site of a sanctuary placed where Balaam could have the objects of his expected curse before him. The sacrifices offered by Balak were designed to dispose God to favour his wishes; and the altars and the victims were reckoned by sevens, because seven was a sacred number among many ancient peoples ( Genesis 21:28, Joshua 6:4, Verg. Æ n. vi. 38). The sacredness attaching to it was perhaps derived from the sun, moon, and five planets known in antiquity (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). The idea of its sanctity was probably derived by the Israelites from Babylonia, where it occurs in inscriptions.

Numbers 22:41 . the utmost part: i.e. the end nearest to the spectator. The LXX rightly gives the sense “ some portion.”

Numbers 23:2 . omit “ and Balaam” ; the offerings were Balak’ s ( Numbers 22:3).

Numbers 22:4 . and he said . . . altar: these words must have been spoken to Balaam by Balak and should be transposed to the end of Numbers 22:2.

Numbers 22:5 . And Yahweh: this should follow the first clause of Numbers 22:4.

Numbers 22:7 . took up his parable: i.e. took upon his lips the oracle he was inspired to utter.

Verses 7-10

Numbers 23:7-10 . Balaam’ s First Oracle.— Its purport is that the secure independence, the imposing numbers, and the undisturbed prosperity of Israel are proof that the people have not been cursed by God and therefore cannot be cursed by Balaam. The poem, which may have been incorporated, rather than composed, by the author of the narrative, seems to date from a period when Israel was most prosperous ( i.e. some time during the undivided monarchy; cf. on Numbers 24:7; Numbers 24:17).

Numbers 23:7 . Aram: i.e. Aram-naharaim ( Genesis 24:10 *, Deuteronomy 23:4 mg.), the country near the Euphrates. This agrees with E’ s view that Balaam’ s home was at Pethor.— defy: better, “ execrate.”

Numbers 23:9 . that dwell alone, i.e. that live secure and unmolested.— shall not be reckoned, etc.: better, “ reckoneth not itself among the nations,” i.e. regards itself as above the level of others by reason of its good fortune, due to its unique relation with Yahweh (see Exodus 19:5 f; Exodus 33:16, Leviticus 20:24).

Numbers 23:10. Read, “ Who can count the dust ( i.e. the numbers, Genesis 13:16) of Jacob? Who can reckon (LXX) the tens of thousands of Israel?”— Let me die, etc.: the death of such righteous people as the Israelites is so long deferred and so peaceful that the speaker can desire no better sequel of life for himself. For “ end” cf. Proverbs 23:18 mg., * though the LXX takes the word to mean “ posterity” ( Psalms 109:13). The epithet “ righteous,” here applied to individual Israelites, is applied collectively to the nation in the title “ The book of Jashar (or the Righteous),” given to a collection of poems celebrating national achievements (p. 45, Joshua 10:12 f. 2 Samuel 1:18). The name “ Jeshurun” (a word from the same root and of similar meaning) is also used to describe Israel in Deuteronomy 32:15; Deuteronomy 33:5; Deuteronomy 33:26, Isaiah 44:2.

Verses 11-17

Numbers 23:11-17 . Balak’ s Sacrifices preliminary to Balaam’ s second Oracle.— Balak’ s disappointment at Balaam’ s first utterance leads him to take Balaam to the field of Zophim (or “ the watchmen” ) in the hope that the different locality might dispose God to accept his renewed sacrifices and to grant his wishes. Some places were thought to be regarded by a divinity with greater favour than others ( 1 Samuel 5:8 *). For Pisgah, see Numbers 21:20 *.

Numbers 23:13 . shalt not see them all: it might be expected that Balak on the second occasion would show Balaam the whole of Israel, and not a part only (as on the first); and these words may have been introduced by the editor because of the third occasion in Numbers 24:2 (which probably comes from another source).

Verses 18-24

Numbers 23:18-24 . Balaam’ s Second Oracle.— This goes beyond the preceding in frustrating the hopes of Balak, for it declares that God has not only not cursed Israel, but has positively blessed it, and describes Israel’ s freedom from adversity and its formidable strength.

Numbers 23:19 . Cf. 1 Samuel 15:29

Numbers 23:20 . he hath blessed, etc.: read (LXX), “ I must bless and I must not reverse it.”

Numbers 23:21 . He hath not beheld, etc.: read (Syr.), “ I have not beheld calamity in Jacob, nor have I seen trouble in Israel.”— the shout of a king: i.e. the shouting in honour of a king (a title of Yahweh, 1 Samuel 8:7), whose symbol, the Ark, was welcomed with shouts, 1 Samuel 4:5). The parallelism favours the interpretation of “ king” here as a Divine, not a human, ruler (as in Numbers 24:7), and for “ shout” the LXX has “ glory” ( cf. Zechariah 2:5).

Numbers 23:22 . the wild ox: an extinct species ( bos primigenius), of great size and fierceness ( cf. Deuteronomy 33:17).

Numbers 23:23 . enchantment: better, “ divining.” God’ s favour towards Israel was due to the absence in it of the practice of observing omens which was so common in other nations.— Now shall it, etc.: read “ At the due season (LXX) it is wont to be told to Israel and to Judah what God will do,” i.e. Israel, instead of seeking to discover the future by divination, receives revelations from the Almighty ( cf. Amos 3:7). But the translation is precarious; and as the whole verse interrupts the sequence of Numbers 23:22 and Numbers 23:24 (both of which compare Israel’ s strength to that of the strongest animals), it is perhaps intrusive.

Verses 25-30

Numbers 23:25 to Numbers 24:2 . Balak’ s Sacrifices preliminary to Balaam’ s third Oracle.— The scene of these was Peor, some mountain overlooking the desert bordering the Dead Sea on the W. The inconsistency between Balak’ s indignant dismissal of Balaam in Numbers 23:25 and his renewed attempt in Numbers 23:27 f. to gain what he wanted has suggested that with Numbers 23:25 one account of the episode ends, and that what follows comes from another, with editorial links. The allusion in Numbers 24:1 to the use of enchantments (better, “ divinations” or “ omens” ) on previous occasions certainly does not correspond to the accounts in Numbers 23:3 f., or Numbers 23:15 f., so that the conclusion that here the editor has used another source of which a portion has been omitted, seems justified. Probably E has been mainly employed in Numbers 23, and J in Numbers 24.

Bibliographical Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on Numbers 23". "Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pfc/numbers-23.html. 1919.
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