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1. The plains of Moab are a narrow strip of land, scarcely six miles in breadth, lying along the eastern bank of the Jordan, opposite to the plains of Jericho. Here occurred the wonderful story of Balaam, “the grandest of all the episodes introduced into the Mosaic narrative,” and the promulgation of Deuteronomy. The plains, though recently conquered by the Amorites, still retained the name of Moab, its former possessor. The Dead Sea is on the south, Mount Pisgah on the southeast, the Gilead mountains on the east, and on the north, losing its specific name, it continues as the Valley of the Jordan to the Sea of Tiberias.
This side Jordan The Hebrew is to be rendered on this side or on that side, according to the position of the speaker. The east side is meant throughout the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua. See Joshua 1:14, note.
Jericho This is the first mention of “the city of palm trees.” For its geography, see Joshua 2:1, note. After its miraculous overthrow it drops out of sight for more than four hundred years, when David appointed it as the place of retirement for his messengers until their “beards be grown.” [Possibly a small hamlet had sprung up near the site of the former city, to which, as to a very quiet secluded place, the spies were permitted to retire for awhile.] After another century Hiel braved the curse of Joshua and attempted to rebuild the city, and, in some way, suffered great domestic bereavement and sorrow. 1 Kings 16:34, note. It. is mentioned again in 2 Chronicles 28:5-16, as the scene of one of the most touching and humane acts to be found in the entire records of ancient or modern warfare, reflecting the highest honour upon the Israelites of the northern kingdom. Jericho is also the place where the wretched Zedekiah was defeated and witnessed the slaying of his sons and had his own eyes put out. And here Jesus gave sight to the blind.
Balak and Balaam.
THE FIRST MESSAGE TO BALAAM 1-14.
While the main body of the people remained at Heshbon, they sent out a successful expedition against Jaazer and against Bashan. After the return of this expedition, or during its absence, the children of Israel left their quarters before Nebo and made the movement recorded in the first verse of this chapter. Hence this verse must not be connected directly with the last verse of chapter xxi, but with Numbers 22:31. This harmonizes Numbers 33:48. In this encampment by the Jordan, opposite to Jericho, the whole congregation was to be put to a severe test by the blandishments of a licentious polytheism, and Moses was to give a solemn recapitulation of the contents of the whole law as the completion of his mediatorial work before his death, being excluded from the Land of Promise by reason of his moral failure at the Waters of Strife. Numbers 20:12.
2. Balak “ A Waster.” This was the complimentary title of the king of the Moabites. His character is evinced by his actions narrated in this and the two following chapters. Zippor may have been the “former king of Moab.” Numbers 21:26. The Jewish tradition is, that Moab and Midian were united into one kingdom and ruled by a king chosen alternately from each.
3. Moab was sore afraid This fear was groundless, since Israel had circuitously passed by the Moabites and had now left them in the rear. They had broken the power of their foes, the Amorites, and had scrupulously obeyed the command, “Distress not the Moabites.” Deuteronomy 2:9.
Was distressed Hebrew, loathed and felt disgust and abhorrence. See Numbers 21:5.
4. Elders of Midian Greek, “The senate of Madiam.” From the absence of any mention of a king of Midian at this time we infer that the people were governed by the body of elders or princes, and that they were so closely allied to Moab as to have but one king. See Numbers 22:2, note. It is impossible for geographers to lay down the boundaries of the Midianites. It is certain that they dwelt on the western shore of the AElanitic Gulf, east of Horeb, and that they stretched northward along the eastern frontier of the tribes of Israel east of the Jordan.
Lick up all This expressive metaphor, still common in the East, was very natural to a pastoral people. Balak wished to arouse the fears of Midian and to secure their aid in the scheme of destroying Israel, not by an alliance of arms but of influence in securing the destructive agency of the renowned Mesopotamian soothsayer.
5. He sent messengers Balak was the originator of the scheme; Midian was an accessary. See Numbers 22:7.
Balaam Hebrew, Destroyer, Devourer. It is unknown whether he received this name at his birth, as a member of a family in which soothsaying was hereditary, or after he had acquired the reputation of a dreaded wizard and conjurer. From the fact that Beor signifies burning, eating off, destroying, we infer with Keil “that Balaam belonged to a family in which the mantic character, or magical art, was hereditary.” To Balaam the title of prophet, or seer, is never applied, but in Joshua 13:22, he is called the soothsayer, a term never predicated of any true prophet. But it is evident that he was not a mere heathen soothsayer; his acquaintance with Jehovah and his obedience to his commands, as well as his widespread reputation, indicate that he did not belong to the common herd of his profession. “It is one of the striking proofs of the divine universality of the Old Testament that the veil is from time to time drawn aside, and other characters than those which belonged to the chosen people appear in the distance, fraught with an instruction which even transcends the limits of the Jewish Church, and not only in place, but in time, far outruns the teaching of any peculiar age or nation. Such is the discussion of the profoundest questions of religious philosophy in the book of the Gentile Job. Such is the appearance of the Gentile prophet Balaam. He is one of those characters of whom, while so little is told that we seem to know nothing of him, yet whatever that little is, raises him at once to the highest pitch of interest.” Stanley. For a portraiture of his character and a discussion of its apparently contradictory elements, see chapter xxiv, concluding note. Pethor is a place in Aram, (chap. xxiii, 7,) Mesopotamia, which modern research has failed to identify. It was doubtless a seat of Babylonian magi, who were accustomed to congregate in separate towns, as were the Levites in the Levitical cities among the Israelites. It is evident that Pethor was situated among the highlands in Mesopotamia, upon the Euphrates, eighteen or twenty days’ journey from the plains of Moab. From this very region that extraordinary genius, Manes, the early Christian heresiarch, arose from a Magian family, A.D. 240 .
The river The Hebrew Nahar, with the article, here, as elsewhere in the Old Testament, designates the Euphrates.
Of the children of his people This describes Balaam as a native of Aram, which distant residence renders his blessing of Israel more unexpected and wonderful.
6. Curse me this people That is, in my interest. The belief was widely diffused among the ancient heathen nations that certain persons, holding a peculiar relation to the gods, could surely call down their vengeance by certain formulas of cursing. Traces of this are found in the Greek and Roman classics, on the Egyptian monuments, in the traditions of the mediaeval Arabs, and among rude nations of the present day, who ascribe invincible power to the precise words and figures of the curse. In countries purely papal this pretended power of calling down anathemas is a great instrument of priestly despotism.
7. The rewards of divination The customary fee for his professional services. Whether or not it was the design to corrupt Balaam, it is true that the hope of this reward was the cause of his ruin. According to the testimony of Peter and Jude, he “loved the wages of unrighteousness,” and ran greedily after error for reward. There is in Micah 3:10-12, a terrible warning against priests and prophets who discharge their offices from venal motives. “It is worthy of remark,” says Bush, “that while all manner of wizards, conjurors, and witches are ready to engage to help others to the possession of great riches, they never rely upon these means, but upon the fees received from their dupes, to enrich themselves.”
8. Lodge here this night The night, when the external senses, in consequence of silence and darkness, were in a measure closed, was especially appropriate for a vision, the probable mode of the divine communication.
As the Lord shall speak Balaam, in using the name Jehovah, the special and memorial name of Israel’s God, indicates that he is not a mere pagan juggler. He speaks like a Moses or a Paul. Yet some locate Balaam’s primal error at this point, that, knowing that Israel was the peculiar people of Jehovah, he did not promptly refuse to entertain the proposition of Balak and forthwith dismiss the messengers. But it is not certain that he had this knowledge of Israel’s relation to God.
9. What men are these with thee Says Calvin, “By asking the question, ‘Who are these men?’ God indirectly rebukes Balaam’s perverse inclination to go with the messengers.” But Knobel sees no reproof in these words, which he thinks only served to introduce the dialogue.
12. For they are blessed The blessing here pronounced is national and not individual. They are included in the covenant in which not only they are blessed, but through them, as the progenitors of the Messiah, shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
13. The Lord refuseth By this answer he seems to intimate his own willingness, and even desire, to accompany them, but that he was under the necessity of obeying his God. Here is an example of garbling God’s word, to which Satan (comp. Matthew 4:6, and Psalms 91:11-12) and wicked men are ever prone. The most important part of Jehovah’s communication, “Thou shalt not curse the people,” with the reason, “for they are blessed,” is craftily omitted. “If hee had faithfully showed them the whole counsell of God it might have stayed this evill enterprise, and cut off occasion for further sending. But as a man loth to displease, and loving the proffered gaine, hee useth a faint and favourable speech, as if hee should have said, I could be content and glad to gratifie the king herein, but God will not suffer mee at this time to goe; the fault is not mine, therefore I pray thee have mee excused.” Ainsworth. On the contrary, true obedience is illustrated by Paul, Acts 20:27, as it is commanded in Jeremiah xxiii, 28.
14. Balaam refuseth to come Wicked men whittle down God’s truth to as small a point as possible. Balaam reports to the princes less than God had communicated, and they in turn relate to Balak less than Balaam told them; so that when the answer came to the king it was not now the word of God, but of man only, as if God had not forbidden the cursing, but only the will of Balaam stood in the way.
THE SECOND MESSAGE TO BALAAM, Numbers 22:15-35.
15. Princes, more, and more honourable Balak was encouraged to send the second embassy because of the implied wish of Balaam to accompany the first messengers, a wish that was overridden by his high sense of obligation to God. To reinforce this wish in Balaam’s heart, and to make it dominant, a larger and more honourable delegation is sent, who are instructed to present the motive of promotion and great honour. Balaam’s words, as reported to Balak, instead of dulling his purpose, were a whetstone for sharpening it. Says Dr. W.M. Thomson: “In the East every thing is done by mediation, and I have often been pressed and annoyed by such mediating ambassadors. Their importunity will take no denial.” It is still the custom to send the less honourable first, and, on their failure, the “more honourable.”
18. House full of silver and gold “Illustrious words,” says Calvin, “and indicative of a noble firmness. But why did he not instantly send away the unrighteous messengers who were soliciting him to transgress? We see that he chose rather to sell himself than render due glory to God. For he wished by this boast of obedience to acquire the title and honour of a holy prophet.” Here is a picture of the covetous hypocrite who loudly boasts that he will not act contrary to the word of God for a houseful of gold when he will do it for a handful, as Balaam laboured with all his might to do the thing which God had forbidden.
I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord This was a moral inability induced by the fear of Jehovah and the dread of his judgments. “From beginning to end this fact was firmly established in Balaam’s mind, that in the work to which Balak summoned him he could do nothing at all except through Jehovah. This knowledge he had acquired by virtue of his natural gifts as a seer, and his previous experience. But this clear knowledge of Jehovah was completely obscured again by the love of wages which ruled in his heart. Because he loved Balak, the enemy of Israel, for the sake of the wages, whereas Jehovah loved Israel for his own sake, Balaam was opposed to Jehovah in his inmost nature and will, though he knew himself to be in unison with him by virtue of his natural gift. Consequently he fell into the same blindness of contradiction to which Balak was in bondage.” Baumgarten. Thus many a man “holds the truth in unrighteousness.” Romans 1:18; Romans 1:18, note.
19. What the Lord will say unto me more The more desired by Balaam was evidently a different communication, permitting him to go. In this he shows that he rests not in God’s will plainly revealed before. His safety lay in a perfect conformity of his desires to that will by the entire consecration of his soul to Jehovah, so that he could have no joy but in pleasing him. Balaam tempted God by this second consultation, prompted by a dissatisfaction with the prohibition already uttered. Galatians 1:8, note.
20. If the men come Inasmuch as the men have come.
Go with them Because Balaam obeyed the first injunction with inward repugnance, his second prayer for the divine direction is answered in wrath, so that he was in danger of dying by the sword of the angel, a type of the sword of Israel which pierced his heart. Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22. This seeming change of mind in God misled Balaam to repeated and vain endeavours to procure leave from God to curse his people. Men who will not hearken to the voice of the Lord are given up to walk in their own counsels, as God gave Israel a king in his anger when the theocracy had been rejected.
But yet This proviso shields Israel from all harm from Balaam, while it allows him to hope that he will attain his desire. In the place of the first plain oracle, Numbers 22:12, a darker response is given, Thou shalt do the word that I shall speak unto thee. Balaam thought he would hear more from God, but heard less, and lost that which he had heard before. A rebellious will gets less and less light from prayer to God. Matthew 6:23, note.
21. In the morning In contrast with Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice all to God in Isaac (Genesis 22:3) is Balaam’s greediness to clutch the wages of iniquity.
22. God’s anger was kindled because he went The Hebrew is capable of the following interpretation: The anger of God burned when he was g oing. Why so, since he had permitted him to go? Because Balaam had changed his mind on the way, and had decided to curse Israel, a purpose which he could not hide from God, as it appears in Numbers 22:32, thy way is perverse. This encounter with the angel did not occur at the commencement, but rather toward the close, of the journey. The nearer Balaam came to his destination the more was his mind dazzled with the honours and riches in prospect, so that he was in danger of casting to the winds the condition imposed by God.
The angel of the Lord Jehovah himself in one particular phase of his self-manifestation. See Numbers 20:16, note; Genesis 16:10; Genesis 22:11-12; Exodus 3:2-6.
For an adversary To turn him from his wicked purpose of cursing Israel, called in Numbers 22:32 his “perverse way.”
23. And the ass saw the angel “To the great disgrace of the prophet, the glory of the angel was first of all apparent to the ass.… He had been boasting before this of extraordinary visions, and now what was visible to the eyes of a beast was invisible to him! Whence came this blindness, but from the avarice by which he had been so stupified that he preferred filthy lucre to the holy calling of God?” Calvin. All who are versed in natural history agree that irrational animals have a much keener instinctive presentiment of many natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, storms, etc., than man has with his five senses. “The fact is equally undeniable,”
says Keil, “that many animals, as horses and cows, see the so-called second sight.”
Sword drawn A symbol of the wrath of Jehovah. 1 Chronicles 21:16; Joshua 5:13, note.
24. A path of the vineyards A footpath between the walls of two adjoining vineyards.
25. Crushed Balaam’s foot By this second sign God came nearer unto Balaam, and revealed to him the vanity of his divining art, showing that he could not foresee the evil that was about to befall him. “The children of God have the angels to keep them in all their ways, and to bear them up lest they dash their foot against a stone. Psalms 91:11-12. But Balaam, tempting the Lord, hath his angel to withstand him, whereby, his foot is crushed against the wall; yet maketh he no good use thereof.” Ainsworth.
26. No way to turn This narrowing way between two walls fitly represents the dealings of God with wicked men first threatening them with his rod, yet sparing them; then touching them mildly, as in the case of the bruised foot; and at last bringing them into such a strait that escape is impossible.
27. Balaam’s anger was kindled Although he was saved from instant death by the falling down of the ass, (Numbers 22:33,) like all unbelievers restrained from the pit of woe by divine chastisements, he is enraged at the means of his own deliverance.
28. The Lord opened the mouth of the ass These words irresistibly compel the conclusion that the animal was the direct object of the divine operation. Peter’s statement, (2 Peter 2:16,) that “the dumb ass speaking with man’s voice forbade the madness of the prophet,” is a strong affirmation of a real utterance. No other narrative in the Bible has given rise to so much dispute, ridicule, and false exposition. Every scoffer at the Holy Scriptures delights in a ride upon Balaam’s ass. The ridicule is all the more piquant by reason of the general estimation of Master Long-ear by the western nations as the ideal of absurdity and stupidity an estimation of which there is not the least trace among the Orientals, especially in antiquity.
29. Because thou hast mocked me It has been remarked that there are no evidences of surprise or alarm in Balaam at this wonderful phenomenon, and that his calmness proves that it was not a real speaking by the ass. Argumentum e silentio, the argument from silence, is the least cogent of all proofs. The mind is incapable of being swayed by two different emotions at the same time. While anger was dominant terror was in abeyance. There is no need of supposing that Balaam was accustomed to such prodigies.
Now would I kill thee Note the madness of the wicked, who with words and blows persecute their monitors.
30. Unto this day Several versions add, from thy boyhood.
31. Opened the eyes His natural eyes, which up to this time had been unable to see the angel. Luke 24:16, note. Says Hengstenberg, “This is a statement which cannot possibly be understood of any thing but the inward eye.” Query: Did the ass also see the angel with his inward eye? Was the beast in an ecstatic state? The literal exegesis is far more rational than that which reduces this whole affair to a phantasm supernaturally wrought in the mind of the man and the beast.
Fell flat on his face Hebrew, he bowed himself to his face, that is, either upon his own face, or to the face of the angel, in adoration. “Adored him, [falling,] prone to the ground.” Vulgate. “He bowed, and worshipped upon his face.” Targum of Onkelos.
32. Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass That God cares for the well being of the brutes is shown by the fact that the first words of the angel of the Lord are a reproof for the abuse of the ass.
To withstand thee Hebrew, to be Satan, that is, adversary unto thee. The name Satan is here given to a good angel who opposes himself to Balaam, both for the sake of Israel and of Balaam himself. But the devil is called Satan because he arrays himself against God and his people.
Thy way is perverse He had formed the purpose to curse Israel. See Numbers 22:22, note. As Balaam smote the beast for turning from the way of his master, so Jehovah would have rightfully smitten to death Balaam for turning in his heart aside from the Lord’s way.
33. Unless she had turned “This rendering,” says Keil, “cannot be defended according to the rules of the language.” He translates it thus: “Perhaps it turned out before me; for otherwise I should have killed thee and let her live,” leaving it uncertain why the ass had turned out of the way. Knobel suggests a slight alteration of the text, so that it will read unless instead of perhaps. Furst sustains the amendment.
And saved her alive An instance of killing a prophet and sparing his ass occurs in 1 Kings 13:23-28. The cabalists infer that this ass did die immediately after speaking, lest the heathen should worship her as a god.
34. I have sinned An instance of a superficial repentance which confesses to sinful acts and still clings to wrong principles and cherishes evil purposes. The heart of Balaam was still swayed by covetousness.
If it displease thee He still dwells upon outward acts, overlooking the motive in which the guilt or innocence of an act lies. The going had been permitted, the cursing had been forbidden. Balaam goes with the intention of cursing. Of this wicked intent there is no sign of repentance.
35. Go with the men Since neither the first prohibition of his going (Numbers 22:12) nor the portents and perils which he had encountered in the way had turned his heart from his wicked purpose, the Lord permitted him to go on in his judicial blindness, till he should stumble over the precipice of ruin. His primal error was in admitting to his breast, through the cursed thirst for gold, the intent to curse Israel. This cherished desire vitiated his repentance, and proved his faint offer to turn back to be hypocritical.
That thou shalt speak “The whole procedure was intended to sharpen his conscience and sober his mind, that he might pay attention to the word which the Lord would speak.” Keil. Thus the immutability of the divine purpose in the adoption of Abraham and his seed is to be more clearly demonstrated through the mouth of a Gentile soothsayer.
BALAAM RECEIVED BY BALAK, Numbers 22:36-41.
36. He went out to meet him This compliment indicates the greatness of Balaam’s reputation and the greatness of Balak’s expectations. See Genesis 14:17-18; Genesis 46:29; Exodus 18:7. Because of this act of Moab, and because a like honour was not done to Israel when he appeared on the border of Moab on his exode from Egypt, Jehovah’s former command, “Thou shalt not distress Moab,” was changed into this: “Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all the days of thy life.” See Deuteronomy 23:3-6.
Unto a city of Moab This frontier city on the Arnon must have been Areopolis, or Ar. See Numbers 21:15, note.
37. Promote thee to honour After a gentle reproof for refusing his first invitation, Balak excites Balaam’s imagination by promises of honour. But instead of bestowing honours, Balak dismissed him in disgrace. Numbers 24:10-11; Matthew 4:8-9.
38. That shall I speak With this reply he sought, at the very outset, to soften down the expectations of Balak, inasmuch as he concluded at once that his coming was a proof of his willingness to curse. For the angel with his drawn sword was still before his eyes, and the miraculous words were sounding in his ears, and he dared not do otherwise than as he was commanded. It is a singular fact that we find the remainder of this interesting dialogue not in the Mosaic record but in the prophet Micah, Micah 6:5-8; Numbers 22:6-7, disclose the agony of the king, and Numbers 22:8 the lofty conceptions of the Gentile seer. This reply of Balaam breathes a spirit of righteousness as lofty as any utterance found in Mosaism.
39. Kirjath-huzoth, the city of streets, is mentioned only here. Nothing is known respecting it but the name. Knobel conjectures that it is the same as Kerioth, Jeremiah 48:24, the modern Kereijat or Korriat, at the foot of Jebel Attarus, on the top of which were the heights of Baal.
40. Balak offered oxen and sheep These clean animals indicate that the king offered a propitiatory sacrifice to Jehovah, the God of Balaam, for the favourable issue of their undertaking. And sent to Balaam portions of the offerings as a pledge of honours soon to be bestowed. “All things have this aim, that Balaam, befooled by flatterers, should be ashamed to deny any thing to a king so magnificent, by whom he had been treated not only in a friendly but in a princely manner.” Calvin.
41. High places of Baal Bamoth Baal, heights of Baal. See Numbers 21:19, note. This is the first mention in the Bible of Baal, the chief male deity of the Phenicians and Canaanites. See Judges 2:11, note. His worship was the predominant religion over nearly all of Western Asia. He had large numbers of trained priests who were accustomed to offer bloody sacrifices upon his altars, dancing and leaping upon the altar, cutting themselves with knives in fanatical frenzy, to the astonishment and awe of the spectators. According to Jeremiah 19:5, human sacrifices were offered to Baal. Modern research has cast much new light on this pagan cult by the discovery and interpretation of ancient inscriptions, and by tracing its spread from country to country with slightly varying names of the God, as Bel, Isaiah 46:1; Baal-berith, Judges 8:33; Baal-peor, Numbers 25:3; Baal-zebub, 2 Kings 1:6, and the golden calves of Bethel and of Dan, Hosea 2:8. It is essentially the same as the Phallic worship, described by Herodotus as widely prevalent in the Orient, and is to-day polluting India with its unspeakable defilement. It conceives the divine principle as both male and female, productive and receptive Baal and Astarte and fills its temples with gigantic images of the male organ of generation. See “Phallus” in McClintock & Strong’s Cyclopaedia. There were two reasons for choosing a high place for cursing Israel. (1.) It was thought the curse would be more effectual with the people in full view. (2.) Mountains were considered by the ancients as sacred, since they are nearer to heaven, the source of all holiness.
The utmost part of the people The whole encampment to the farthest extremity. See Numbers 23:13. This was done in order that the curse might be more powerful and fatal.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 22". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany