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Balak, king of Moab, sends for Balaam to curse the children of Israel: an angel meets Balaam in the way: God opens the mouth of Balaam's ass: Balak takes Balaam up into an high mountain, from whence he might see the camp of the children of Israel.
Before Christ 1452.
Numbers 22:1. And the children of Israel set forward— After the entire conquest of the kingdom of Bashan, the Israelites marched back to the southward, and then bent their course toward the land of Canaan. They pitched in the plains of Moab: plains which had formerly belonged to Moab, but were now in the possession of the Amorites. On this side Jordan, i.e. on the east side of Jordan from Beth-Jesimoth, unto Abel-Shittim, as we read, chap. Numbers 33:49. Here they staid, till, under the conduct of Joshua, they came to Jordan, and passed over it, Joshua 3:1. By Jericho: in the original it is, at Jericho, the ford of Jordan, that ford it seems, being called Jericho, from the neighbouring city of that name which stood on the other side of the river. This event is supposed to have happened in the seventh month of the fortieth year after their departure from Egypt; and when they had left the mountains of Abarim. Compare chap. Num 21:20 with Numbers 33:48. Houbigant joins this verse to the last chapter, and begins the present chapter with the second verse.
Numbers 22:3. And Moab was sore afraid— i.e. Balak the king, and the people of Moab; for they were ignorant of God's commands, prohibiting the Israelites to disturb the Moabites in their possessions. Thus was fulfilled what Moses foretold, Exodus 15:15.
Numbers 22:4. And Moab said unto the elders of Midian— Said, i.e. by messengers, whom he sent to them as being his neighbours and allies; and whom, as his first step, he endeavoured to join in a confederacy against the Israelites, as their common enemy. The elders of Midian means their king and princes; see ch. Numbers 31:8. Joshua 13:21. These Midianites are not the same as those descended from Abraham by Keturah, of whom we read, Gen 25:2 for they were settled on the eastern coast of the Red sea, on the borders of Arabia Felix; whereas these appear to have been in the neighbourhood of the Moabites. Their capital city is placed by St. Jerome on the banks of the Arnon, not far from Ar of the Moabites; and their country is thought to have extended itself along the east side of the Dead sea. They appear to have been in subjection to the Amorites; for the five kings of Midian, who combined with Moab, and perished in their enterprise, are called dukes of Sihon; that is, governors whom he set over them, chap. Numbers 31:8. Joshua 13:21. So that, instead of being offended at the overthrow of the Amorites, they ought to have been thankful to Israel for freeing them from Sihon's tyrannical yoke. See Calmet and Ainsworth. The last clause of this verse, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field, is a lively metaphor, signifying the facility wherewith the Israelites would conquer them, without a timely opposition; and likewise what an universal desolation they would make. The original is, the green of the field; not only the grass, but the leaves of the trees, which are food for oxen; see Isaiah 27:10.
Numbers 22:5-7. He sent messengers, therefore, &c.— There is nothing for therefore in the original; and all the sacred historian seems to express is, that after first confederating the Midianites, Balak thought proper, as the next step, to call in the aid of Balaam. As the miracles performed in Egypt were designed to prove the superiority of Jehovah over the false gods of that country; so the present story seems to have been inserted principally to evince the same superiority of Jehovah over the gods of Moab and Midian. For the better elucidation of this extraordinary piece of sacred history, it may be proper, after the example of the excellent Mr. Saurin, to lay down some principles, which will render the following chapters much more intelligible. First principle. Though the descendants of Abraham, some ages after that patriarch, formed the only nation which God owned, and to which he committed his oracles; there were other worshippers of the true God throughout the world before the conquest of the promised land. His worship and his knowledge were every where spread, when the division of languages scattered the mad builders of Babel. The Holy Scriptures give us an account of believers, of saints, of prophets: Job and his friends dwelt in Arabia; Jethro and his posterity in the country of Midian; and the sojourning of Abraham in Mesopotamia, the country of Balaam, left marks there of the partisans of truth. Second principle. Religious worship was frequently mixed with superstition and idolatry, even among those who professed to adore the one God of heaven and earth: Laban's Teraphim are a proof. Third principle. This odious mixture did not hinder God from revealing himself to those whose religious worship was thus corrupt. He revealed himself sometimes even to professed idolaters. Abimelech and Nebuchadnezzar are instances. Fourth principle. It was an opinion maintained among the Gentiles, that prophets and diviners were able to send plagues among the people: nor was it without grounds. They had likewise another notion, that before they besieged any town, or fought any battle, they should endeavour to bring over to them the tutelar gods of their enemies. When they had subdued any country, they pretended that the gods, by whom such countries were protected, had forsaken them; an opinion, which seems to have been alluded to, ch. Numbers 14:9. We find likewise, that the heathens were wont to imprecate perdition on the people against whom they waged war. Macrobius has preserved a form of the imprecations that were made use of upon the occasion: "O heavenly father," said the priest, who was destined to that employment; "or if thou chusest rather to be called Jupiter, or if any other appellation be more grateful to thee, I conjure thee to pour upon this army (or this town,) the spirit of terror and trepidation: deprive of their sight all those who shall level their strokes against us, our legions, or troops: spread darkness over our enemies, over their cities, their fields, and their armies; look upon them as accursed: bring them under the most rigorous conditions to which any enemies have been obliged to submit. As for me, I devote them also. And for witnesses of the curse I pour upon them, I have the magistrates, the people, &c." It is to this custom that Virgil alludes, when he says, AEneid, 2: ver. 351.
Excessere omnes, &c.
The passive gods behold the Greeks defile Their temples, and abandon to the spoil Their own abodes. DRYDEN.
See Macrob. Sat. lib. iii. c. 9.
Dr. Jortin has observed, that Christian Rome has kept up this art of religious execration: see a form of it in his 5th Dissertation. Fifth principle. Supernatural gifts in general, and those of prophecy in particular, did indeed enlighten the minds of the prophets; but did not always sanctify their hearts. The hearts of God's people judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire; the prophets divine for money; Mic 3:11 and our Lord shall declare at the great day, to many of those who shall have prophesied in his name, "I never knew you," Matthew 7:22. Sixth principle. The greatest wickedness and human weakness never went so far as to make them pronounce oracles contrary to what was dictated by the Holy Spirit. They were obliged, by an irresistible power, to speak when God would have them, and to say what he put into their mouths. Sometimes they uttered what they would have concealed if they could, or if they had understood the meaning of it. Caiaphas was an enemy to Jesus Christ; yet he pronounced a noble prophecy concerning him, though without knowing it himself. Sometimes the prophets were made to speak by involuntary motions, and in spite of themselves. Jeremiah had resolved not to speak any longer, yet was forced to do so by supernatural motions which the spirit produced in him; see Jeremiah 20:9. Sometimes they fell into ecstacies and trances, during which they uttered involuntary sounds. There is a remarkable passage in Josephus, much to our present purpose, where he makes Balaam speak thus to Balak: "Can you imagine then, that in the business of prophesying it depends upon us to say, or not to say, what we think fit? It is God who makes us speak as he pleases, without any voluntary concurrence on our part. I have not forgotten the request which the Midianites made me; I came with the design of contenting them; and I thought of nothing less than of proclaiming the praises of the Hebrews, or mentioning those favours which God had resolved to heap upon them. But he has been more powerful than I, who was determined to please men against his will: for when he enters into our hearts, he renders himself master thereof, and now, because he has decreed to make this people happy, and to crown them with immortal glory, he has put into my mouth the words I have pronounced;" Antiq. lib. iv. c. 6. We find a similar passage in Philo. Sometimes the representation of a terrible punishment strongly affecting their fancy, has served as a curb or check to the design the prophets might have formed of changing the oracles which God had dictated to them. We have an instance of both sorts of inspiration in the person of Balaam. We find him in these chapters terrified by a vision, the bare remembrance whereof was perhaps powerful enough to awe him; and we see him in an ecstacy or trance.
These principles being laid down, we seem to have a sufficient key to penetrate into the meaning of what Moses tells us concerning Balaam. He is called the son of Beor; which Beor is thought to be the same with him who was father to Bela, the first king of Edom, Genesis 36:32; consequently Balaam was brother to Belah, the first king of Edom. The tradition of the Jews in St. Jerome's time was, that Balaam was the descendant of Buz, the son of Nahor, Abraham's brother, Gen 22:21 and he was the same as Elihu, one of Job's friends, who is called the Buzite, Job 2:6. He dwelt at Pethor, a village of Mesopotamia, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, i.e. which is near the Euphrates, commonly called the river, Genesis 15:18. Jos 2:15 and must be meant here, as appears from Num 23:7 compared with Deuteronomy 23:4. Dr. Waterland renders it, by the river Euphrates, unto the land, &c. and Houbigant, after the Samaritan, by the river in the land of the children of Ammon; see his note. Though living in an idolatrous country, once famous for the abode of Abraham and his family, Balaam had been enlightened with the knowledge of God, was attached to his worship, and honoured with the gift of prophecy; see First Principle. His reputation made Balak call him to his assistance, in order to get him to curse or devote the children of Israel; see Fourth Principle. To invite him in a manner suitable to the dignity, of his character, which was greatly respected in the first ages, he deputed some of the principal lords of his court to him, with some of those of the court of Midian, whose country was threatened with the same dangers as that of the Moabites. Those deputies offered Balaam presents, which was the most effectual way to win his mercenary soul. It was the custom among the Orientals, never to apply to any person of note without a present; and the same custom remains to this very day.
Numbers 22:8. He said unto them, Lodge here this night— It is very evident, from this and the following verses, that Balaam, however mercenary in disposition, and however addicted to superstition, had communications with Jehovah, the true God of heaven and earth; see Second Principle.
Numbers 22:9. And God came unto Balaam— That is, he manifested or revealed himself to him in a dream, as he had manifested himself to Abimelech, Genesis 20:3. This is the reason why Balaam said to the envoys from the two nations, tarry here this night. All the known nations of the world have believed that the Deity frequently manifested himself, especially to the first men, and particularly by the ministry of angels. Among the proofs which the celebrated Huet has collected of this truth, there is none more express than the testimony of Catullus (de Nupt. Pelei. & Thetid. 61: ver. 384); and indeed one cannot conceive that Homer would so frequently have introduced the gods shewing themselves to his heroes, had it not been a thing well known, that God anciently revealed himself to the Gentiles as well as to the Israelites, before his making choice of the latter for his people. The idea of these appearances would never have been so generally received, had not the philosophers and people in all parts of the world been convinced that the Deity did reveal himself in this manner. Abaris, the Hyperhorean, and Zamolxis the Getan, were quite as famous among the northern nations, as the Egyptian and Chaldean prophets were among the nations of the south. In process of time, men being corrupted and having abandoned the true God, he also abandoned them, and, permitting evil angels to assume the place of the good, in order to seduce, men fell by degrees into the most shameful excesses of idolatry and vice. Balaam is a proof of this. Honoured, at first, with the revelation of the true God, and of his angels, the abuse which he made of them to gratify his avarice induced the Lord to withdraw from him his spirit, and to send to him a spirit of lying, which taught him the art of enchantments. At present, nevertheless, God works anew upon him by his spirit, with a view to check his evil inclinations; and this it is that hinders him from recurring as formerly to his incantations.
What men are these— "Those who are ever so little versed in the style and genius of the Hebrew and other Oriental tongues," says Mr. Psalmanazar, "will never misunderstand such questions as these; much less believe them to imply, that God wanted to be informed about those messengers, and the occasions of their errand, any more than when he asked Adam in Paradise, Where art thou?—or Cain,—where is thy brother Abel?—Hagar, Sarah's maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? Abraham, where is Sarah thy wife? The like may be said of the question with which the prophet Isaiah prefaced his message from God to Hezekiah, upon his reception of the Babylonish ambassadors, What said these men? Whence came they unto thee? What have they seen in thine house? &c. of all which he was fully apprised before he came to him. Of the same kind are the questions asked of some of the prophets: Jeremiah what seest thou? and many more which need not here be cited."
Numbers 22:12. Thou shalt not curse the people— Though Balaam's cursing the Israelites signified nothing of itself, yet God would not permit it, because the Moabites would have paid so great a regard to what he had promised, that they would thereupon have attacked the Israelites in hopes of being able to overcome and drive them. out, Numbers 22:11. And so a war would have been brought on between the Israelites and Moabites, which God did not design at this time to permit; see Shuckford's Connexion, vol. 3: b. 12.
REFLECTIONS.—Frightened at the progress of the arms of Israel, and apprehensive lest the next stroke might descend on them, the king of Moab, with the elders of Midian, are contriving to save themselves. They need not be apprehensive of danger: their relation, as descendants from Lot, secured them; and probably Moses had informed them that they were safe. But the wicked are in fear where no fear is; and they who are conscious of their own ill intentions, are ever ready to suspect ill of others. 1. The method he pursued. Unable, as he thought himself, to cope with the armies of Israel, he has recourse to Balaam to curse the people, in hopes that under his imprecations he might prevail, though he could not by his sword alone. Note; (1.) The prayers or curses of the wicked are alike impotent to work good or evil. (2.) They who think to purchase heaven by their alms-giving, act as foolishly as Balak did, who wanted by his gifts to procure Balaam's blessing. 2. The refusal given to the ambassadors of Moab. Balaam stayed them that night, that, as he says, he might inquire of God; and God, for his people's sake, is pleased to honour him with his appearance in a dream or vision of the night, forbids his journey, and assures him of the blessing which was upon Israel. In the morning he reports this answer to the messengers, but conceals the more material part, the blessing that God had pronounced on Israel; and they, to flatter their master, make their report, as if the refusal to come was not from God's forbidding, but from Balaam, and that he might be gained by greater invitation, and by presents. Observe, (1.) God may, for wise reasons, employ wicked men. No doubt, many, like Balaam, will perish, though as well as him they may have done many wonderful works. (2.) When we love the sin, and are only restrained by fear, we are but Balaam's followers. (3.) To conceal part of the truth, is often as dangerous as a direct lie.
Numbers 22:15-19. And Balak sent yet again princes— Balak, apprehensive that his first deputation to Balaam was not honourable enough, and that his presents and promises were not sufficiently large, made a second deputation, and sent persons more eminent, with the highest promises, Numbers 22:17. This proposal was at first displeasing to the prophet; at least he returned a noble answer, Numbers 22:18. But it appears from the next verse, that this motion proceeded less from a sincere and solid piety, than a servile fear, and a virtue merely transient and superficial, Numbers 22:19.
Numbers 22:19. Now, therefore, I pray you, &c.— Here, as Bishop Butler well observes, the iniquity of his heart began to disclose itself. A thorough honest man would, without hesitation, have repeated his former answer, that he could not be guilty of so infamous a prostitution of the sacred character with which he was invested, as, in the name of a prophet, to curse those whom he knew to be blessed. But, instead of this, which was the only honest path that in there circumstances lay before him, he desires the princes of Moab to tarry a night with him also; and, for the sake of the reward, deliberates, whether, by some means or other, he might not be able to obtain leave to curse Israel; to do that, which had been before revealed to him to be contrary to the will of God, but which yet he resolves not to do without his permission. See Bishop Butler's Sermons at the Rolls, p. 123.
See commentary on Num 22:15
Numbers 22:20. If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them, &c.— This is better rendered by Houbigant, Since the men are come to call thee, arise and go with them: but thou shalt, or wilt, be able to do nothing beyond that which I shall command thee. God, says he, does not command Balaam to go: for, being soon after angry that Balaam went, how can He be supposed now to command him to go? Num 22:22 for the same reason God gave not Balaam leave to go; he had first commanded him not to go, Num 22:12 but Balaam wished again to hear the will of God; thereby immediately declaring himself staggered by the large promises of Balak. As Balaam, therefore, shews himself thus affected, God speaks to him in this manner, determined to compel him by another method. Go, says he; and, since you speak of these messengers being come, in such a manner as to shew that you are resolved to go with them, go. The Lord adds: Nevertheless, you shall do what I say; i.e. you shall not do what you will, but what I will; and because you go contrary to my will, you shall do that, contrary to your own, which you would wish not to do. Saurin observes, that God knew the motives of Balaam's heart, thus abandoned to covetousness; and, in order to punish him for having asked leave a second time to go into the land of Moab, which God had so positively forbidden, he granted his request: but scarcely had Balaam begun to make use of it, before he had reason to be sensible, that one of the greatest misfortunes with which God punishes indiscreet prayers, is to hear them. Bishop Butler observes, in the before-quoted place, that, as when this nation afterwards rejected God from reigning over them, he granted them a king in his anger; in the same way, as appears from other parts of the narrative, he gives Balaam the permission he desired, who, however, for not hearkening to the voice of God, was left to perish in his own devices. See Joshua 13:22. "When men are foolish, froward, and self-willed," says Dr. Waterland, "and for their humour or vanity, or corrupt views, will take their own ways, notwithstanding the kindest reproofs offered to make them retreat; God then deserts them, and abandons them to follow their own imaginations, to their own undoings. The case was exemplified in the prophet Balaam, who loved the wages of unrighteousness, and pursued his avarice and his self-conceit, till they became his ruin." See his Scripture Vindic. p. 46.
Numbers 22:21. And saddled his ass— That is, according to the usual mode of expression in Scripture, caused his ass to be saddled; for he had servants to wait upon him. Persons of the highest rank, in those times, were accustomed to travel upon asses.
REFLECTIONS.—Balak was earnest to carry his point, and therefore spares no pains to accomplish it. If he had been at but half the trouble to secure God's blessing, and Israel's friendship, he had succeeded better. 1. He increases his embassy, and adds distinguished honour to his presents. Importunate to gain Balaam, he stops at nothing; let him prescribe his own terms, and Balak will ratify them. Note; (1.) A man's heart must be strongly fortified by realizing views of the eternal world, who can stand out against the united temptations of gain and honour. (2.) They who would keep from yielding to sin must resolutely resist and avoid the temptations to it. 2. Balaam receives and entertains the messengers, and whilst professedly adhering to the command of God, evidently betrays his willingness to go with them. He makes most honourable mention of God, and claims high relation to him, seeming to prefer his favour to the riches of the universe; but his heart was deceitful. Note; (1.) Many claim an interest in God whom he will disown for his people. (2.) Sound words do not always speak a sound heart: it is easier to learn the language of God's people, than to shew their fidelity. (3.) The sin is almost already committed when we are seeking an excuse for running into temptation. 3. God in anger gave him permission to go. He should have been satisfied with one denial: could he imagine that there was in God any shadow of changing? Yet even now he is restricted, and cannot speak farther than he is permitted. God holds the devil's chain, and neither he nor his instruments can go a step beyond their appointed bounds. 4. Balaam is in haste to be gone: he does not wait to be called by the princes of Midian, but runs greedily after the bait of Balak's offers. Note; When the heart is gone from God, it will not be long ere the conduct betrays it.
Numbers 22:22. God's anger was kindled because he went— It may seem strange that God should first strictly forbid Balaam to go; should then, secondly, suffer him, and afterwards be angry with him for going. 1. With respect to the first, why he was first forbidden, and then suffered to go, Psalmanazar judiciously remarks, that it was for the greater pomp and grandeur of the thing. Had he been suffered to go with the first messengers, who, as the text intimates, were but few in number, and persons of a lower rank, their report of the extraordinary oppositions which he was to meet with on the way, having no other witness than they and the prophet's two servants, might have been liable to suspicion, and so have failed of making a due impression upon those who had sent him. But when Balak sees himself obliged to send new ones of higher rank, as well as in greater numbers, (who may be supposed to have had a suitable retinue after them, being stiled princes, Numbers 22:15.) these accompanying the prophet all the way, and being eye and ear witnesses of what happened to him in his journey to the land of Moab, can hardly be supposed to have countenanced, much less combined with him to invent a fiction so contrary to his interest and their own sanguine expectations; and as this scene of wonders was to be a kind of prelude to Balak's disappointment, their confirmation of it could not, but give it an unquestionable sanction with the Moabites and Midianites, and add weight to the prophecies which were to follow in favour of the Israelites. But, 2. Why was God angry with Balaam for going with the messengers, when he had permitted him to do so? The common solution which the Jewish and Christian writers give us is, that Balaam flattered himself God had, or might have, been prevailed upon to alter his intentions with respect to the Israelites, either by his sacrifices or enchantments; by which means he should gain considerable preferment, as well, as great reputation among the Moabites. But, if this had been the only cause of God's anger, would he not more probably have suffered him to go on in his fond conceit, and then punished his presumption in the face of Moab and the Midianites, either by forcing him to bless instead of cursing, or by turning his curses into blessings, which would equally have answered his end, without being at the trouble of sending an angel to obstruct his way? It must be owned, that the crime which the angel says to his charge (see the note on Numbers 22:32.) is but obscurely expressed, and, according to most versions and commentators, implies no more than that he had warped or perverted his way before God; i.e. that he either proposed to himself a different issue of this expedition than God had decreed, or that he was mediating on some way to elude or frustrate the Lord's designs, if he should find them contrary to his own and Balak's expectation; or perhaps, lastly, was considering how to palliate the matter with Balak and his people, so as to avoid their resentment in case he did not succeed. In any of which cases, he appears to have had a greater regard to his own credit and interest than to God's commission and design. Where, then, is the improbability of an angel being sent to reprove him for his selfish views, to enjoin him to proceed as he was directed, and to leave the issue of the whole to the Divine Providence? especially as such an extraordinary apparition could not but add a further weight to what he should afterwards be bid to say or do. Bishop Newton, in this view, observes, that the miracle was a proper sign to Balaam, and had a proper effect; and we may the more easily believe it, when we find Balaam afterwards inspired with such knowledge of futurity. It was not more above the natural capacity of the ass to speak, than it was above the natural capacity of Balaam to foretel so many distant events. The prophecies render the miracle more credible; and we shall have less reason to doubt of the one when we see the accomplishment of the other.
He was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him— By which is not meant that he was not alone, separated from the rest of the company; for it is said expressly in the 21st verse, that he went with the princes of Moab, who, doubtless, were witnesses of this extraordinary scene. The difficulty, however, is easily solved, by an attention to the text. God, in the 20th verse, tells Balaam, if the men come to call thee, rise up and go with them. In this 22nd verse it is said, God's anger was kindled because he went: the Hebrew is הוא כיאּהולךֶ ki-holek hu, which may be rendered, because he went of himself; of his own proper inclination, without waiting to be called upon by the messengers of Balak: for we never read that they did call upon him. The Arabic version renders it, the anger of the Lord was kindled against him, because he went out of covetousness.
Numbers 22:23. The ass saw the angel of the Lord— The same great angel, or messenger of the covenant, as many commentators suppose, who appeared to the patriarchs; and by whom, as it is thought, God manifested himself to Balaam. This angel stood to oppose him in the way; and, whether it was that he was struck with a temporary blindness, or that his mind was intent upon something else, so as not to prevent his attending to what was before him, Balaam saw not the angel, though he was displaced in all his terror to the ass, who accordingly fled from him, and at length, unable to pass him, sunk down beneath her master, (Numbers 22:27.) who continuing to strike her, God wrought a miracle to confound him, and caused the animal to pronounce articulate sounds. (Numbers 22:28.) The Jews have not been able to persuade themselves that so extraordinary an event really happened: Philo suppresses it in his Life of Moses; and Maimonides pretends that it came to pass only in a vision: and yet how often have the rabbis themselves fancied more marvellous events without the least necessity! What right have they, who give mystical interpretations to the most simple events, to refuse acknowledging this miracle? The most severe philosophy cannot deny but that God is able to make beings, destitute of knowledge and reflection, pronounce sounds full of sense, reason, and truth: above all, the heathens have no right to reproach us with this history, who relate so many of the like nature, but not at all supported; as Achilles' horse, Phryxus' ram, Europa's bull, Porus's elephant, &c. See Bochart's Hieroz. p. 192. Indeed, as Bishop Newton well observes, the proper use of citing such authorities, is, not to prove that those instances and this of Balaam are upon an equal footing, and equally credible, but only to prove that the Gentiles believed such things to be true, and to lie within the power of their gods; consequently, that they could not object to the truth of Scripture history on this account. Diss. on Prophecies, vol. 1: p. 118. Mr. Wogan, in his Essays on the Proper Lessons, vol. 3: remarks, that if Satan inspired the mute serpent to speak to and beguile our first parents, why should it be thought a thing incredible, that the Divine Power should give human speech to the dumb ass, in order to shut the mouth of this other instrument of Satan who was going to curse his people? The opening of the mouth of the dumb ass could not but be a convincing proof, says Psalmanazar, both to Balaam and his company, how vain and fruitless it would be for him to attempt, or them to bribe him, to speak otherwise than God should think proper, who, if he was able to make a brute beast speak, contrary to his nature, was no less able to interdict the tongue of its rider from uttering any thing but what should be dictated to him. God might, indeed, without any further miracle, have put it wholly out of his power to have done otherwise; but if, instead of depriving him of his liberty upon this extraordinary occasion, he is rather pleased to deter him from abusing it, and his Moabitish retinue from tempting him to do so, by the miraculous speaking of a dumb ass, was not this a most striking way to convince both of his divine interposition in favour of the Israelites?
Numbers 22:24. In a path of the vineyards— In the parting of the vineyards. Hiller, 179.
Numbers 22:29. And Balaam said unto the ass— It is strange, says Mr. Saurin, that Balaam should not shew any kind of surprise when he heard the ass speak like a human creature. Some critics have thought they solved the difficulty, by supposing, that this prophet had embraced the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, which they prove to be very common in the East. See Le Clerc. But could Pythagoras or Plato themselves, who were such great promoters of that doctrine, have heard, without astonishment, an ass speaking like a man? The conciseness of Moses' narration certainly supplies us with a better and more solid answer to this objection. He has, without doubt, omitted some circumstances which would entirely have removed it had they been known. Josephus represents the prophet as greatly astonished at the event, Antiq. lib. iv. c. 6
Numbers 22:30. The ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass?— The same divine power which made the ass speak at first continued to form such an answer as might convince Balaam of his error: not that the ass understood what Balaam said, and thereupon returned this pertinent answer, as some doating interpreters have absurdly dreamed. Ever since I was thine, is, in the Hebrew, meodka; ex quo tu, says Houbigant; i.e. from a long time: not ever since thou wast, as it is in our margin. In the words, was I ever wont to do so unto thee? it is insinuated, that this being the case, he should have thought some extraordinary cause had now forced her to do what she had never done before. But before we quit this subject, it may be proper to obviate a little further the objections commonly made to this dumb creature's speaking with a human voice; which certainly is not more against nature, or above the power of an almighty Agent, than any of those miracles which were wrought in Egypt, or at the Red Sea: for if it be once allowed, that God had still reserved to himself the power, for some wise and important ends, to dispense with his own laws, how can it be made appear, that it is more above the power of an almighty Being to enable a dumb animal to pronounce some few articulate words in a rational order, than to cleave the Red Sea, to rain down manna six days, and withhold it on the seventh, or to cure the deadly sting of fiery serpents by the bare looking on an artificial brazen one? And if it be further objected, that the dumb beast shewed a greater degree of wisdom than the prophet who rode it; where, even then, will be the wonder, if we consider who inspired it? And if some of the brute creation do, in many cases, display a greater sagacity in their actions than those of the human species, who value themselves so much on their superior faculties, need we be surprised here, that the most stupid of all animals, being on such a particular occasion as this endowed with a much higher degree of rationality, (which is the utmost extent that can be allowed to the miracle,) should argue more justly than its master, whose judgment was hurried away by the torrent of his boundless ambition, and the prospect of considerable advancement? If any thing seem to challenge our admiration on this occasion, it must be, one should think, the method which the Divine Being made choice of to expose the stupidity of the prophet, 2 Pet. 11. 16 and to deter both him, and those who sent for him, from pursuing their malevolent views against the Israelites; and his choosing by that means rather to forewarn them of the danger they would bring upon themselves, than to punish them for persisting in them. He might as easily have ordered the angel to put Balaam to immediate death, as barely to obstruct his career; but if he prefers the sparing him, in order to make him a more effectual instrument to convince both Moab and Midian, how vain and dangerous their efforts would prove against a people whom he had taken under his special favour, why should the singularity of the miracle be deemed a sufficient proof against the reality of it, when it is in all other respects so agreeable to the Divine goodness? See Psalmanazar's Essays, p. 173. Bishop Newton justly observes, that the words of St. Peter, in the passage above quoted, prove that this miracle is to be understood literally; and the ass, says he, was enabled to utter such and such sounds, probably, as parrots do, without understanding them: and say what you will of the construction of the ass's mouth, of the formation of the tongue and jaws being unfit for speaking, yet an adequate cause is assigned for this wonderful effect; for it is said expressly, that the Lord opened the mouth of the ass: and no one who believes in God can doubt of his having power to do this, and much more.
Numbers 22:31. Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam— i.e. He presented to his view the angel who had hitherto been invisible; or, as others interpret it, he awakened his attention, and made him take notice of the angel, whom he had not before observed. See Genesis 3:7; Genesis 21:19. Bishop Patrick understands it as the dissipation of a blindness which had surrounded him, and which he supposes to be similar to that with which the Sodomites were stricken; Genesis 19:11; see 2 Kings 6:17.
Numbers 22:32. Because thy way is perverse before me— There is great difficulty, says Psalmanazar, in fixing the true meaning of the word ירטני iretni: He (God) hath given me over, or shut me up into the hands of the wicked, as our version renders it; or, as it might be still more literally expressed, He hath bowed me down by the hands of the wicked; alluding, as the context seems to hint, to the depredations which Job had suffered from the plundering Sabaeans, &c. mentioned Job, Job 1:15; Job 1:17. According to which sense, the expression made use of by the angel, Tret haderek lenegdi, thy way, or view, is base and low in my eyes, from the context, may thus be paraphrased: "Because thou hast stooped so low as to prostitute thy prophetic office to thine own selfish views, and hast hired thyself to curse that very people whom thou wert told by God himself were the objects of his favour, nay, and to make use of all thy enchantings and arts, so that thou mightest but obtain the wages of unrighteousness." The celebrated Mr. Schultens proves by divers authorities, that the word ירט iaret, signifies, properly, a way from which one cannot extricate one's self, and which leads to destruction. See his Commentary on Job 16:11. According to which, the sense is, "I oppose myself to thee, because thou art going to cast thyself into destruction, from which thou canst not be extricated."
Numbers 22:33. Unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, &c.— The words of the angel respecting the ass, candidly interpreted according to the Hebrew idiom, and duly compared with the context, may be thus paraphrased: "How couldst thou thus unjustly and repeatedly abuse thine innocent beast, and not rather conclude, from her unusual starting aside, and crouching under thee, that something extraordinary must have stood in her way, and obliged her to do so? For, behold! I was, indeed, sent on purpose to oppose thee, because thy views were perverse before God, and opposite to his design in permitting thee to go with all this people, The sight of me hath made thine ass decline me these three times: and well it is for thee that some divine impulse enabled her both to perceive and avoid me, which was a sure signal to me that I should spare and let thee go on; and that the Divine Providence designed to cross thy malicious purpose against Israel, and oblige thee, in spite of thy sanguine hopes, to declare those signally blessed whom thou wert hired to curse; for, had it not been for that, I had certainly put an end at once both to thy life, and to thy ambitious attempts, and saved thine innocent beast."—For it is plain, that the sparing of the prophet was not owing to the accidental declining of the ass, but to her being able to see and avoid the threatening angel by turning aside from him, and where the narrowness of the way did not permit her to do so, by stopping short and crouching upon her belly; both which, being owing to a miraculous impulse, gave timely notice to the angel to stay his hand: the severer the threatening was, therefore, the more kindly must we judge it to have been meant, as it was indeed the most effectual way to deter the infatuated Balaam from turning further into his utter ruin. See Psalmanazar's Essays.
Numbers 22:34. I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way— It is evident, that this cannot be the true meaning of Balaam's words, as Psalmanazar well remarks; for how could he be guilty in this respect, if his eyes were withheld from seeing the angel? According to the Hebrew idiom they carry a much higher sense, and more agreeable to the context; namely, I have sinned, or transgressed, in that I did not know, or duly consider, that thou stoodest in my way: or, in other words, didst oppose my proceeding; or that it could be displeasing to God, who had given me leave to go. But now, continued he, since I find it to be so, I will readily return home again. According to this sense, Balaam artfully evades the charge laid against him by the angel, of having perverted his way; (see on Numbers 22:32.) i.e. as before explained, of entertaining views so very opposite to the divine will, that he could not but know they were sufficient to expose him to the divine displeasure; though not enough so to make him apprehensive, or even dream of such an extraordinary opposition. But the words in the original are still capable of another sense: I have sinned, therefore did not perceive that thou stoodest to oppose my way; or, in other words, it is my fault that I did not perceive that thou wert averse to my proceedings. Now therefore, since, &c. Here the angel, having thus far deterred Balaam from pursuing his ambitious and hostile design, gives him fresh leave to go with Balak's messengers; Num 22:35 but with this express injunction, that he should not speak any thing but what was dictated to him. See Num 22:20 and ch. Numbers 23:12. Accordingly, he readily declares to Balak, upon his coming to welcome him, Num 22:38 that he had really no power to speak a word for or against the Israelites, but what God should put into his mouth. So far had the rencounter and warning of the heavenly messenger wrought upon the avaricious prophet, that he seems to have been fully determined to renounce all hopes of riches or preferment, rather than go one step beyond his commission. There were two ends for which we may reasonably suppose these extraordinary miracles were wrought: First, to display God's goodness toward even that infatuated prophet, in trying, by rational motives, to direct him from his selfish views, without infringing on his free will. Secondly, to prepare the Moabitish messengers, and by their means, those who had sent them on that hostile and fruitless errand, for the subsequent and more sensible tokens that God was going to give them, as well of his unalterable purposes in favour of the Israelites, as of the folly, impiety, and danger of attempting, by whatsoever means, to obstruct them; in which view, nothing could be better calculated than the present miraculous transaction, wherein the Moabitish princes, who were present, must be well convinced that there could not possibly be any collusion: the ass could not have been made a party with its master, whose character and disposition were such as to render him very free from suspicion on this head; so that the mere relation of so extraordinary an event must have struck the Moabites with peculiar apprehensions.
REFLECTIONS.—Balak's princes, probably, were in haste to carry the glad tidings to their master, and Balaam was now alone with his servants. 1. God's anger was kindled against him. Sin is not the less provoking to him because permitted. An angel with a flaming sword is sent to obstruct his way. They are God's messengers, sent to defend the heirs of salvation, and to avenge his quarrel against their enemies. How impotent then their attempts against God's church and people guarded by such angelic hosts! 2. The ass he rode upon saw the danger, though Balaam was blind to it. When pride, lust, and covetousness, keep men asleep in the arms of sin, they are insensible, and see not the sword of wrath hanging over their heads. The ass turned aside, and Balaam smote her to bring her into the way. Again, in a narrow part between the vineyards, startled at the same appearance, the beast, eager to avoid the sword, ran close by the wall, and crushed Balaam's foot. Provoked at which, he smote her a second time. So angry are we often at those who would save us from ruin, and so little disposed to inquire whether our ways are not perverse before God, and the cause of the accidents we meet with! At the next place of meeting the angel, a narrow pass precluded all escape, and then his beast fell under him; at which, still more incensed, he struck her the third time. Those who are bent on ruin will take no warning. 3. The dumb ass, speaking with a man's voice by a wonderful miracle, rebukes the madness of the prophet: she complains justly of Balaam's cruelty; he, in rage, vindicates it with a wish that he had a sword to slay her. Note; (1.) The whole creation groaneth under their sufferings; but God hears the cries of the abused brutes, and will remember the cruelty of their tormentors. (2.) The inhumanity wherewith many a poor wretch treats his cattle proves the wickedness and madness of Balaam in his heart. (3.) They, who plead provocation as an excuse for their passions, will find it a fruitless plea at the bar of God. 4. He who gave the dumb beast speech gives her reason also: she expostulates with him on the injustice of the treatment, from his past experience of her serviceableness and care of him; and that never before had he cause of complaint against her. Note; (1.) The usefulness of dumb creatures to us is a great call upon us to treat them with tenderness. (2.) One undesigned false step must not be treated with rigour, when the general tenor of the conduct has been upright. 5. Balaam's eyes are now opened; the terrible vision lays him flat on his face, justly apprehensive of that sword which hung over him. When God opens our eyes, then we shall tremble at that danger to which we were blind before. The angel rebukes the perverseness of his way, and shews him how much indebted he was to the beast that he had so injured. Note; We shall at last find them our best friends, whom we despised, or reviled, for their reproofs of our iniquity. 6. Balaam acknowledges his sin, and professes to be ready to return, willing to escape the danger of the way, though giving no symptom of sorrow for the malignity of his intention against Israel. Thus some are terrified into a partial reformation, whose hearts remain still unconverted from the love of sin. 7. The angel permits his journey, if his mind still led him on; but he is restricted from uttering a syllable farther than God should give him leave, and made the unwilling instrument of blessing instead of cursing Israel. Thus God has in his hands the hearts of of all men, and can restrain their words and actions, and make the bitterest enemies of his people instruments of good to them.
Numbers 22:39. They came unto Kirjath-huzoth— i.e. according to the margin, a city of streets, which was, probably, the capital city of the kingdom, and so called on account of its extent.
Numbers 22:41. Into the high places of Baal— Balak offered peace-offerings in gratitude to his gods for sending Balaam to assist him against his enemies, Num 22:4 and sent to Balaam and the princes to partake of the feast upon the sacrifice; of which Balaam, as a worshipper of the true God, was certainly blameable for partaking: impatient to gratify his revenge, early in the morning he brought Balaam to the high places of Baal, or Lord, which was a common name for various divinities of both sexes in idolatrous countries; but it seems to be most probable, that Chemosh, or Baal-Peor, the god of the Moabites, is here meant: see note on ch. Num 21:29 Num 25:2-3 and Selden de Diis Syr. Syntag. cap. 1. This god, like those in other nations, was worshipped in high places, which were generally planted with groves, whose solemn gloom served to inspire the worshippers with religious thoughts. Those high places to which Balak now brought Balaam appear to have been situated upon the mountains of Abarim, which separated, the kingdom of Moab from those of Sihon and Og. That thence he might see the utmost part of the people, seems to mean, that thence he might have a view of the whole extremity קצה ketze, of the people stretched out in the valley beneath; for it was judged necessary, in there solemn imprecations, to have the persons devoted present to the view of him who pronounced the malediction.
REFLECTIONS.—Balak hastes to welcome Balaam to the borders of Moab; such respect he pays to a wicked prophet! and shall the messenger of curses be thus received. with honour, and God's ministers of peace be despised? He gently chides him for his delay to accept those honours which he designed him, and is now confident of success. Note; When the sinner, in his own opinion, is nearest the summit of his wishes, he stands on the precipice of destruction.—Balaam, with evident grief, declares his power limited, and cannot promise much success from his coming; however, he is nobly entertained, sacrifices are offered to the gods of Moab, and, after the first day spent in festal joy, the ensuing morning they arise early to prosecute their impotent designs, and from the high place of Baal descry the most distant part of Israel's host encamped in the plain beneath. Note; They who will not take warning will be given up, like Balaam, to follow their own hearts.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Numbers 22". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
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