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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 23

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary


Machinations of Balak and Balaam against Israel.


The renowned soothsayer having been induced, after much persuasion, to go to the king of Moab to invoke the curse of God upon Israel, and after his flattering reception by Balak being led to the heights of Baal overlooking the entire Hebrew encampment, he began operations by offering worship to Jehovah. After this he made, as stated in this chapter, two unsuccessful attempts to anathematize Israel, but contrary to his purpose, he was obliged to pronounce blessings where he had intended to utter curses.

Verse 1


1. Build me here Against the express prohibition of God Balaam proceeds in his purpose to gain Jehovah’s permission to curse his chosen people. His wickedness he attempts to veil from his own moral sense by his extraordinary religiousness, as some professed Christians lengthen the creed to compensate a shortened decalogue. He is determined to effect his purpose, not in spite of Jehovah, but by gaining his approval. He wishes to obey the will of God after he has won that will to his own purpose.

Seven altars For the symbolism of the number seven, a number denoting perfection, see Leviticus 4:6, note. Here is a strange mixture of paganism and Judaism. The Levitical law never recognises but one altar of sacrifice, which prefigures Christ. Hebrews 13:10. Many altars characterize polytheism. Jeremiah 11:13; Hosea 10:1; Hosea 12:11; Amos 3:14. The seven oxen and seven rams are strictly Levitical. See 1 Chronicles 15:26; 2 Chronicles 29:21; Job 42:8. “The nations of antiquity generally accompanied all their more important undertakings with sacrifices to make sure of the protection of their gods; but this was especially the case with their ceremonies of adjuration.” Keil.

Verse 3

3. Burnt offering See Leviticus 1:3, note.

The Lord will come to meet me In what way he expected the manifestation of Jehovah is seen in Numbers 24:1: “He went not to seek for enchantments,” which, after the manner of false prophets, he colours with the name of Jehovah. See Leviticus 19:26, note. We have here a further commingling of Judaism and paganism an expectation of a revelation of Jehovah’s will, but through the significant phenomena of nature, because heathenism had no “sure word of prophecy.”

A high place A bald height. To such high and solitary places soothsayers were accustomed to resort for an observation of the signs.

Verse 4

4. God met Balaam Not in the flight of birds or in any natural sign of doubtful signification, but by a distinct and unequivocal message which he was commanded to declare to Balak. This was done, not for the sake of Balak, but for the good of Israel. Where his people are concerned God may direct the result of a pagan divination. Ezekiel 21:19-23.

Verse 6

6. All the princes of Moab The king and the princes faithfully watched their smoking altars, anxiously awaiting the return of the man who was reputed to have influence with Jehovah sufficient to call down wasting and mildew upon the glistening tents of their enemies spread out in the plains below. They hoped that the angel of death would hover over their foes with pestilence and destruction on his wings when the curse should stream from the mouth of the mighty magician.

Verse 7


7. Parable Hebrew mashal, a simile. Hengstenberg makes the use of this word in reference to the prophecies of Balaam an indication of the difference between them and real prophecy. All these oracular speeches of Balaam are, in the Hebrew, in a highly poetic form. They are dignified and sublime productions immediately caused by the Spirit of God. The mental eye of the speaker was fixed only upon what he saw, and this he uttered without the least regard to the expectations and desires of his hearers. The very first utterance must have extinguished all hope in the mind of the Moabite king. Aram literally signifies the high land. The Seventy render it Mesopotamia. See Numbers 22:5, note; Deuteronomy 23:4; Genesis 29:1, note. When Aram is used alone it generally denotes Western Syria, and when Mesopotamia is designated the word naharayim, of the two rivers, is added. This high land swarmed with soothsayers.

Of the east The exact direction was northeast. The Hebrews were accustomed to specify only the four principal points of the compass.

Defy Rather detest, with angry threats and fierce indignation. See Daniel 11:30.

Verse 8

8. Whom God hath not cursed Balaam could not curse Israel, because God withheld him from so doing. Thus this master magician confesses that he is neither to help nor to hurt without leave from God. In language strikingly similar is the Babylonian exposed to shame by the prophet. See Isaiah 47:12-14.

Verse 9

9. From the top of the rocks From which he thought that he might most effectually curse the people; but the sight of them did so amaze him that he blessed them.

Shall dwell alone This predicts not so much quietude and safety as unprecedented separation from all the Gentile world. This isolation was manifested to the natural eye of the seer in the fact that the Israelites were then dwelling in a separate encampment on the plain. “In this his spirit discerned the inward and essential separation of Israel from all the heathen.” Baumgarten. As soon as they lost this peculiarity by copying heathen ways they lost their independence.

Shall not be reckoned Literally, shall not reckon itself among the Gentiles, having a different God and Defender. The capacity of the Jews to resist absorption into the nations among which they have been scattered for eighteen centuries is one of the world’s perpetual wonders. The Jews are a standing, incontrovertible proof of the truth of revelation.

Verse 10

10. The dust of Jacob Posterity so multiplied as to be countless as the dust. The hyperbole was a common rhetorical figure with Oriental writers, especially in indicating a great number. Genesis 13:16, note; Exodus 32:12.

The death of the righteous The qualities which in Balaam’s conception are implied in the term righteous are, “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.” Micah 6:8. He ascribes these qualities to Israel as a whole, because there were some among them of unquestioned rectitude, and others who evinced their rectitude of heart by prompt repentance after any temporary defection. There is no sufficient evidence that Balaam’s desire embraced blessedness beyond the grave. The whole prophecy has reference to unbroken prosperity up to a peaceful death. “How much soever men differ in the course of life they prefer, and in their ways of palliating and excusing their vices to themselves, yet all agree in one thing, desiring to die the death of the righteous. This surely is remarkable. The observation may be extended further, and put thus: There is no man but would choose, after having had the pleasure or advantage of a vicious action, to be free of the guilt of it to be in the state of an innocent man. This shows, at least, the disturbance and implicit dissatisfaction in vice arising partly from an immediate sense of having done evil, and partly from an apprehension that this inward sense shall, one time or another, be seconded by a higher judgment, upon which our whole being depends.” Bishop Butler.

Verse 12

12. Must I not take heed This truly noble utterance implies that Balaam did not speak under physical constraint from Jehovah, a mere fiction of Philo, but as a free agent, clearly perceiving and admiring the right, but strongly desiring the wrong. Says Bishop Butler: “He is plainly represented to be under no other force or restraint than the fear of God.” This double part which Balaam is playing, his apparent readiness to obey Jehovah and his wish to minister to the wicked desire of his employer, will ere long bring certain ruin upon himself.

Verse 13

THE SECOND PROPHECY, Numbers 23:13-26.

13. But the utmost part Balak attributes the failure of Balaam’s first effort to the fact that the magnitude of Israel’s encampment, taken in at one sweep of his eyes, had influenced his mind and changed the curse to a blessing. He is now taken to a place from which only one edge of the camp can be seen.

Verse 14

14. The field of Zophim was the cultivated field of the watchmen on the slope or top of the range of Pisgah. Mr. Porter identifies it with the ruins of Main, at the foot of Attarus, which he calls Pisgah. The watchers may have been sentinels in war or augurs in peace observing the heavens and the birds.

Verse 15

15. Stand here Rather, Do thou stand thus, as thou art.

While I meet In the Hebrew this verb meet has no object. It is technically used for going out for auguries, (Numbers 24:1,) or for the words of Jehovah. Literally, I will meet thus, that is, in the required manner.

Verse 16

16. Put a word in his mouth An instance of verbal inspiration. God can impress words upon the human mind in ways which our poor philosophy cannot fathom.

Verse 17

17. He stood by his burnt offering The seven smoking altars, surrounded by the anxious king and his expectant princes, present a scene worthy of the painter.

Verse 18

18. Rise up, Balak, and hear The king, who was already in an erect bodily attitude, is called to elevate his thoughts for the reception of the divine revelation. He is called to a hearing with an alert and minute attention.

Verse 19

19. God is not a man, that he should lie The aim of Balak’s second sacrifice was to produce such a change in Jehovah as may be effected in the purposes of men. The king is informed that God is unchangeable, and so wholly unlike fickle men. The principles governing his acts toward man are unalterably fixed independent of what man will freely perform. Having announced that he will reward the righteous and punish the wicked, to reverse this decree would be to overturn his own throne of moral government.

That he should repent “With regard to his own counsels God repents of nothing; but this does not prevent the repentance of God, understood as an anthropopathic expression, denoting the pain experienced by the love of God on account of the destruction of its creatures. Genesis 6:6, note; Exodus 32:14.” Keil. Samuel refused Saul’s request in similar words when urged to revoke his rejection by Jehovah. 1 Samuel 15:29.

Verse 21

21. Iniquity in Jacob The Hebrew aven includes all kinds of sin, especially idolatry. 1 Samuel 15:23. Hence the Chaldee Paraphrase and Targum of Jonathan here read, “No servers of idols in the house of Jacob;” and the Vulgate, Non est idolum in Jacob, nec videtur simulacrum: “There is no idol in Jacob, nor does an image appear in Israel.” The Seventy render it thus: “No misery in Jacob, no molestation or pain in Israel.” But even in the sense of guilt-entailing sin, new Israel, after old rebellious Israel had perished in the wilderness, may have been so diligent in the observance of the altar ritual, especially the day of atonement, (which may have been only the day before,) that the nation was kept in a state of pardon through the blood of sprinkling, God hiding his face from their sins and blotting out their iniquities (Psalms 51:9) instead of setting them in the light of his countenance. Psalms 90:8; Psalms 109:14-15. Says Bishop Butler: “They were a people of virtue, so far as not to have drawn down, by their iniquity, that curse which Balaam was soliciting leave to pronounce upon them.” A shocking perversion of this text is made by those antinomians who quote it as a proof that God does not regard the iniquities of those who are “in Christ,” and that only imputed, and not inwrought, holiness is required. Shocking, indeed, is the antinomianism of McIntosh’s comment: “Beholders many faults may find; but as regards our standing, our God sees us (the elect) only in the comeliness of Christ; we are perfect in him.”

The shout of a king The acclamations which attend the presence of a great and victorious King (Jehovah) are among them, hence they could not be effectually cursed, since his presence was a proof of his favour and protection. This passage is quoted against the Mosaic authorship of the episode of Balaam as implying that the Israelites were governed by a king at the time of its composition. But was not Jehovah, their King, abiding in the very centre of the camp? Israel was surrounded by kingdoms, which might suggest this language respecting the theocracy.

Verse 22

22. God brought them Literally, is bringing; implying that the act was still going on.

The strength of a unicorn This is not the rhinoceros, as some have supposed, but the “wild ox,” (R.V.,) or buffalo, which is untamable and incapable of agricultural service, and formidable on account of its horns. It was common in Palestine. Job 39:9-10; Deuteronomy 33:17; Psalms 22:21. Instead of strength Furst uses fleetness.

Verse 24

24. As a great lion Under the imagery of the king of the forest the invincibility of the Hebrew military power, or of Jehovah energizing obedient Israel, is strikingly set forth. The prediction of Jacob respecting Judah (Genesis 49:9) is here extended to the whole nation, to blast the hope of Balak that he should destroy Israel. See Numbers 24:8-9, notes.

Drink the blood The cruelty and rapacity which these words might seem to indicate are not intended. The simile must not bepressed too far. Strength, courage, and national superiority are symbolized by the lion. Genesis 49:9, note.

Verse 25

25. Neither curseā€¦ nor bless This issue of Balak’s machinations against the people of God is only a single instance of the inspired declaration, “The wrath of man shall praise thee,” which has been fulfilled all along the ages. The efforts of infidelity to destroy Christ have all resulted in his exaltation. The stone, the watch, and the seal, intended to keep the crucified Jesus in the tomb, have become strong proofs of the resurrection of our Lord. The assaults of rationalism, by arousing Christian apologists to deeper researches, have contributed to lay bare the immutable foundations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Verse 27

27. Peradventure it will please God “It was the opinion of the heathen that what was not obtained through the first, second, or third victim might nevertheless be secured through a fourth.” Clericus. Hence the continued altar-building and burnt offerings.

Verse 28

28. Peor Near to Beth-peor, a town of the Reubenites, (Joshua 13:20, note,) was one of the northern peaks of Abarim. “This point answers admirably to Professor Paine’s Pisgah, Mount Siaghah.

Numbers 21:20, note. Either this or the second foreland, where are ruinous heaps, from both of which there is a near and distinct view of the plain from ‘Beth-jeshimon unto Abel-shittim,’ may be the top of Peor.” Ridgaway.

Jeshimon See Numbers 21:20, note.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 23". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/numbers-23.html. 1874-1909.
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