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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Numbers 22

 

 

Introduction

E. FROM KADESH TO THE PLAINS OF MOAB (chapters 20-25).

The New Beginning.

After the gap for the wilderness wanderings and the return to Kadesh, there now follows a series of historical events which bring Israel to the plains of Moab, and point to a new beginning. History has become important again because Yahweh’s purposes were now going forward. The first section (Numbers 20:1 to Numbers 21:20) deals with the view that was to be taken of the future. It was to be a move from dearth to abundance, from death to life. The old was being put to one side, so that the new could take over, although only under Yahweh.

· It commences with the arrival at Kadesh (qdsh - the holy place) to find little water there, followed by the death of Miriam, the prophetess, who would have been greatly influential among those who had come out of Egypt. All is death. But at the same time it promises that the resulting seeming dearth will be followed by abundant water (Numbers 20:1-11), although even that at the cost of death for it goes on to reveal that neither Aaron nor Moses will enter the land. They will die in God’s time and be replaced by new leaders (Numbers 20:12-13).

· It warns against seeing the future simply in terms of aggression and spoliation. When Edom resist their advance they must not show aggression and seize their land but must go another way. For Edom’s land belongs to Edom and has been given to them by God (this is implicit in Numbers and explicit in Deuteronomy 2), just as shortly their land will belong to them (Numbers 20:14-21). Israel is only to offer death to those who deserve death.

· It tells of the death of Aaron and his replacement as ‘the Priest’ by his son, Eleazar, a member of the new generation, which will lead on to greater blessing (Numbers 20:22-29). Out of death comes life.

· It describes the first defeat of the Canaanites, a further indication of the new beginning and a firstfruit of what was to come. They are at last ready to take the land (Numbers 21:1-3).

· It then warns of what the result will be for those of the new generation who rebel against God, in the judgment of the fiery serpents which were a flashback to and reminder of the old wilderness days (Deuteronomy 8:15). Let them remember the wilderness, for that is what awaits those who rebel against Yahweh, as it had awaited their fathers (Numbers 21:4-10).

And it finally describes the arrival at a place of abundance of water sufficient to cause them to sing with joy and praise, a symbol of the new beginning, a symbol of life (Numbers 21:11-20 compare Numbers 22:5-8).

The second section (Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 25:18) will go on to deal with victory in the Wars of Yahweh including the defeat of the Amorites who had once defeated them (Numbers 21:21 to Numbers 22:1 compare Deuteronomy 1:44), the ‘battle’ with Balaam (Numbers 22:1 to Numbers 24:25), and their establishment in the plains of Moab having received their first instalment of Yahweh’s inheritance (Numbers 25:1 a) which results in the sin of Peor and deliverance by the hand of Phinehas, son of Eleazar (Numbers 25:1-18).

Battles Against Evil Influence (Numbers 22:2 to Numbers 25:18).

Having defeated the Amorites and being in process of possessing their land Israel are now faced with a more subtle threat. This commences with the approach of the Aramean prophet Balaam, and continues with the results of his later evil plan.

3). The Defeat of the Evil Influence of Balaam (Numbers 22:2 to Numbers 24:25).

The follow-up war against the Amorites in Bashan may still have been in progress under different generals while what follows was going on. ("They possessed his land" - Numbers 21:35, and that would take time. See Numbers 32:39-42). But meanwhile Moab, watching Israel from behind their frontiers, wondered what they were going to do next, and decided to take their own initiative.

In those days warfare was conducted on a number of levels. The most obvious was the clash of armies. But behind the clash of armies could be a variety of other activities. These could include interchange of correspondence enforcing their case by citing the power of their gods (see Judges 11:12-28), both encouraging their own troops and dismaying the enemy. Preliminary ‘battles’ taking place between champions in order to determine whose god was the most powerful (see 1 Samuel 17). And so on. But nothing was more important than ensuring that the gods were on your side. And that was where certain men seen as possessing awesome powers came in. Such men, ‘prophets’, ‘soothsayers’ and ‘diviners’ were seen as having special influence with the gods, and operated through dreams, visions, trances, omens, enchantments and the occult. We can compare the execration texts from Egypt, written on pottery against Egypt’s enemies, pottery which was then broken in order to apply the curse. (Amalek probably saw Moses with his hands held up in the same light - Exodus 17:11). One such ‘diviner’ in those days was the mighty Bala‘-‘am (‘the nation swallower’), held in awe throughout the Ancient Near East. It was to him that Moab were to turn.

Thus in these chapters we have revealed in the tactics of Balak, king of Moab, a different approach to the challenging of Israel from those before him. For while Israel had made no attempt to interfere with Moab, Balak was afraid. Here was a large and seemingly belligerent army on his frontiers and he wanted to get rid of them. But he seemingly did not feel up to taking them on in battle. Having probably heard of what Yahweh had done previously, and having seen them destroy the enemy that he himself had been unable to defeat, he decided that he needed ‘similar’ powers on his side, and he needed somehow to influence Yahweh.

So he sent for Bala‘am (the ‘nation-swallower’), the famous prophet-diviner, requesting that he come to him so that he might curse Israel. Balaam, the prophet-diviner, was a man of great reputation who apparently lived in northern Syria. Such people professed to be able to influence events by use of various occult methods. They would often enter into drug induced trances in which they could see and hear almost anything. They hired themselves out for gold, and their fees were high. The subsequent story in fact reveals what an enigmatic figure he was. For while he was certainly wanting to oblige Balak by bringing divine powers to his rescue, at the same time he openly acknowledged that they were not fully under his control. He acknowledged that unless the ‘gods’ were cooperative he could not achieve his ends. Indeed in seeking to exercise his gifts with Yahweh he was revealed as being limited in what he could achieve right from the beginning, by the response that came when he commenced his sorceries.

However, while not approving of his methods, the account does suggest a certain genuineness in what he sought to do, so much so that God was willing to have dealings with him and reveal things to him on behalf of His own people. Yet it is quite obvious that Balaam involved himself in the occult. He clearly considered that he did get in touch with other world beings, and did expect to receive messages from them. He was thus seen as engaging in spiritism and divination. Using Moses’ terms, he contacted devils (Deuteronomy 32:17). But as with the medium of Endor later (1 Samuel 28:6-25), where confronted with such, God was willing to use them in order to bring home His own message.

Bala‘am was not a worshipper of Yahweh, but that he was willing to listen to Him and respond to Him the account makes clear. It would seem that at first he mistakenly thought that he could treat Yahweh like any of his other other-world ‘contacts’. But he soon learned that he was dealing with something outside his previous experience. What harm he could actually have done to Israel we do not know, but certainly at the time everyone thought that he could do great harm.

The account is clearly a unity for it is based on a number of sections which follow a basically chiastic pattern in four installments, Numbers 22:2-14; Numbers 22:15-38; Numbers 22:39 to Numbers 24:13; Numbers 24:14-25. But they also inter-relate. Balaam is the man whose eyes are open in Numbers 24:3; Numbers 24:15. In Numbers 24:4; Numbers 24:16 he is the one who has ‘heard the words of God and saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance (or ‘falling down’) but having his eyes open’. (This certainly sounds like drug use). He ‘took up his parable (incantation)’ five times in Numbers 24:3; Numbers 24:15; Numbers 24:20-21; Numbers 24:23. His extra prophecies are fourfold (Numbers 24:15-24) which with his threefold prophecies/blessings in Numbers 23:7-10; Numbers 23:18-24; Numbers 24:3-9 make up a sevenfold series of prophecies.

The whole account is also notable for the emphasis put on threefold action. The ass avoided the angel of Yahweh three times (Numbers 22:28; Numbers 22:32; see Numbers 22:23; Numbers 22:25; Numbers 22:27). Balaam had three major encounters with Yahweh (Numbers 22:9-12; Numbers 22:20; Numbers 22:32-35). Balaam offered three sets of sacrifices (Numbers 22:39 to Numbers 24:13). Yahweh gives His word to Balaam three times (Numbers 23:5; Numbers 23:16; Numbers 24:2 compare Numbers 22:38). Three times things happen ‘in the morning’ (Numbers 22:13; Numbers 22:21; Numbers 22:41). We can note also that to Yahweh the messengers are but ‘men’ (’anoshim) three times (Numbers 22:9; Numbers 22:20; Numbers 22:35).

But we may ask, ‘why is so much space given in Scripture to this rather strange history when seemingly larger affairs are dealt with in a few sentences?’ The answer lies mainly in the words which God put in Balaam’s mouth. Three times he spoke, followed by further prophecy, and in doing so he confirmed the promises of God to His people. That they were spoken by a non-Israelite prophet of the status of Balaam made them even more significant. The words of such a man as Balaam would be a major encouragement as Israel prepared to enter the land in order to take possession, for they would be seen as coming from an external prophetic source. It was only human nature among the weaker of them that while they might have some doubts about what Yahweh promised, the promises seemed much more certain when spoken by such a man as Balaam. And God graciously allowed it to be so for their sakes.

In his first prophecy Balaam would speak of Israel as being like the dust of the earth (compare Genesis 13:16), and as being innumerable (Numbers 23:10 compare Genesis 12:2; Genesis 13:16), both recognised signs of blessing as promised by Yahweh. He would also describe them as a nation dwelling alone, different from all other nations (Numbers 23:9), a holy nation (compare Exodus 19:5-6), thus further confirming the promises and revealing that they were blessed by their God.

In the second he would speak of their deliverance from Egypt and their being firmly established, with God among them as their King with, metaphorically speaking, the strength and horns of the wild ox (Numbers 23:21), a fearsome Opponent indeed, who could dispense lions with the toss of his head. While Israel themselves were depicted as being, along with their God, dangerous and victorious like a pride of lions (Numbers 23:24). In other words Israel had become a powerful people, with the even more powerful Yahweh living among them as their King and God.

In the third he saw them as being in a land of fruitfulness, with plenteous waters available to them (see Numbers 21:14-18), and spreading that fruitfulness around the world, with their God still being powerful and they still being like a victorious pride of lions.

And finally he saw the coming to them of a future ruler who would be victorious over all around him (compare Genesis 17:6). This remarkable series of prophecies, revealing the rise and triumph of Israel from early beginnings to its final triumph, will be considered in more detail in the commentary. But it explains the importance laid on these prophecies.

Then, secondly, God’s control of Balaam was probably seen as an example of the greatness of Yahweh. The mighty Balaam was feared throughout the Ancient Near East, but he was nothing before Yahweh. He was seen as subject to Yahweh’s will. The thought would be that if Yahweh could defeat Balaam, He could defeat anyone. For that Balaam was an awesome figure comes out in that his name has been found in an Aramaic text written on wall plaster at Tell Deir ‘Alla in the Jordan valley dating from around 700 BC in which he is seen as involved with a number of gods and goddesses whose will he conveys to a disobedient people. His reputation as a powerful contact person between men and the gods had passed into history, it had been immortalised.

The Threefold Activity of Balaam In Moab (22:41-24:13).

In what follows we now have a triad of attempts by Balak to curse Israel which all follow the same pattern. These are sandwiched between Balaam going with Balak (Numbers 22:41) and Balaam being bidden to return home (Numbers 24:12-13). This parallels the triad of encounters with the Angel of Yahweh in the first passage. The reader is intended to see Balaam’s activity in terms of the noble ass, just as Israel were to be seen metaphorically as like a lion or a lioness (Numbers 23:24; Numbers 24:9) and Yahweh as a large horned wild-ox (Numbers 23:22; Numbers 24:8).

This comes out in that there are significant parallels and contrasts with the first account. Here Balak is seen as driving on a reluctant Balaam in the same way as Balaam drove on his reluctant ass. As the noble ass was really controlled, not by his rider but by the angel of Yahweh, so was Balaam to be seen as really controlled, not by Balak, but by Yahweh. Furthermore this happened because Balaam could see what Balak could not see, just as the noble ass could see what Balaam could not see. So Balaam has now replaced the ass as the ‘instrument’ of Yahweh. And as Balaam was angry with his ass three times, so Balak was angry with Balaam three times. As God finally spoke through the ass, so finally did the Spirit of Yahweh come on Balaam (Numbers 24:2) who was now ‘the man whose eyes are open’ (Numbers 24:3; Numbers 24:15), and speak through him. This does not represent Balaam as ‘an ass’ in any derogatory sense, it depicts him as an unwilling instrument of Yahweh, as the noble ass was, but whose eyes were now open as they had not been previously. Thus the incident of the ass illuminates all that follows. Balaam was seen to be as much in subjection to Yahweh as his ass had been to him.

Analysis.

a Balaam goes with Balak (Numbers 22:41)

b Balaam builds seven altars and offers sacrifices (Numbers 23:1-3)

c Yahweh speaks to Balaam and he prophesies favourably to Israel num (23:4-10)

d Balak is angry and asks him to try again (Numbers 23:11-13).

b Seven more altars and seven more sacrifices (Numbers 23:14-15).

c Yahweh speaks to Balaam and he again prophesies favourably (Numbers 23:16-24)

d Balak requests that Balaam ceases either blessing or cursing and asks that he try again (Numbers 23:25-26).

b Seven more altars and seven more sacrifices (Numbers 23:27-30)

c Balaam blesses Israel (Numbers 24:1-9).

d Balak is angry with Balaam (Numbers 24:10-11).

a Balaam castigates Balak (Numbers 24:12-13)


Verse 1

‘And the children of Israel journeyed, and encamped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan at Jericho.’

Their warfare being in successful process of completion, the people of Israel encamped in the plains of Moab opposite Jericho in Beyond Jordan. The plains of Moab were a large relatively uninhabited region north of the Arnon, in former Amorite territory. Israel would remain there for some time and there Moses delivered his final exhortation and encouragement as revealed in Deuteronomy, prior to his death. Here they were on the verge of the territory known as ‘Beyond Jordan’ which extended on both sides of the Jordan. The Moabites in their land south of the Arnon could hardly be anything but worried. They did not like their seeming inactivity. The inevitable question on their minds was, who were these people going to attack next? So they decided to take the initiative in order to protect themselves.


Verses 2-6

Balak’s Entreaty to Balaam (Numbers 22:2-14).

The story began with Balak sending important messengers to Balaam. These were ‘chieftains’ (sarim - ‘nobles’, ‘chieftains’, ‘princes’) who would seek to persuade him to come to Moab and curse Israel. This was to be the subject of the first fourteen verses.

Analysis.

The first fourteen verses relate to Balak’s first appeal to Balaam. These can be analysed chiastically.

a Balak is afraid of the children of Israel and fears that they will spoil Moab (Numbers 22:2-4)

b He sends messengers to Balaam describing ‘the people who have come from Egypt’ (Numbers 22:5)

c He calls for him to come and curse Israel and drive them from the land (Numbers 22:6)

d The elders leave with rewards in their hand to persuade Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 22:7)

e Balaam tells them to wait while he obtains a word from Yahweh. (Numbers 22:8)

e The word of God comes to Balaam, ‘What men are these? (Numbers 22:9)

d Balaam says that Balak sent them, and wanted Israel cursed (Numbers 22:10-11)

c God tells him not to go and not to curse Israel (Numbers 22:12)

b Balaam tells messengers to return home (Numbers 22:13)

a The chieftain messengers return. Balaam will not come. (Numbers 22:14)

Balak Is Afraid of the Children of Israel and Fears That They Will Spoil Moab (Numbers 22:2-4)

Numbers 22:2

‘And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.’

Balak, king of Moab (Numbers 22:4), had received notice of all that Israel had done to the Amorites. This would especially relate to what he knew had happened in the adjacent kingdom. Whether Og had also been defeated at this time we do not know. We can, however, understand Balak’s fear when he saw all the Amorites slain and their cities taken, for he himself had not been able to withstand the Amorites who had possessed half his land. He was not aware of Yahweh’s word to Moses that Moab was not to be disturbed, or if he had received messages to that end he probably thought that he had cause not to believe them. He clearly did not lay as much stress on the family relationship as God did (Deuteronomy 2:9).

Numbers 22:3

‘And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many, and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.’

So Moab were dreadfully afraid of Israel, because of the size of their army. And as they saw them encamped seemingly permanently almost on their borders and heard what they were accomplishing elsewhere they were ‘distressed because of the children of Israel’. They waited pensively and apprehensively, wondering when the attack would be turned on them.

Numbers 22:4 a

‘And Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now will this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.’

In their dilemma they also consulted with their allies, a group of Midianites (probably including Amalekites and Kenites, both of whom were inter-related to the Midianites through Abraham - see Numbers 24:20-21; Genesis 25:2; Genesis 36:12; Exodus 18:1 with Judges 1:16; Judges 4:11) who had been settled in the kingdom of Sihon (Joshua 13:21) and who had quite possibly escaped to Moab territory. They described to the ‘elders’ (chief men and advisers) of these Midianites how Israel were denuding their neighbours like a hungry ox denudes a field, as they had good cause to know. It would surely be their turn next. They suggested that they needed to act together to rid themselves of this menace.

Balak Sends Messengers to Balaam Describing ‘The People Who Have Come From Egypt’ Who Are In Large Numbers (Numbers 22:5).

Having consulted with the Midianite elders, Balak, king of Moab, sent messengers to Balaam pleading with him to come and help them against Israel, emphasising the huge numbers that they were opposing.

Numbers 22:4 b

‘And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time.’

This note is put in so as to explain why it was he who acted and responded to the people’s fears. It was because at that time he was the king of Moab. (His pre-eminence in the matter suggests that the Midianites in mind here were in Moabite territory and in treaty relations with him - compare Abraham with the king of Salem in Genesis 14)

Numbers 22:5

‘And he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the River, to the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, “Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt. Behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me.’

Balak was aware that Moab could not defeat Israel unless somehow they were weakened and the power of their God neutralised. So he formulated a plan. He sent messengers to Balaam, the son of Beor, the great prophet of Pethor by the Euphrates, (probably the Pitru of Assyrian inscriptions), which was ‘the land of the children of his people’. This may mean simply his native land, or may indicate that it was a place where many such diviners and sorcerers had taken up residence. In Joshua 13:22 Balaam is called a ‘diviner’ (qasam). This clearly also involved him being in contact with the spirit world. Some see ‘his people’ (‘ammo) as referring rather to ‘the land of the ‘Amavites’ mentioned in a 13th century BC inscription from Alalakh.

For Balak to send to a stranger in so far off a place for assistance must have meant that the reputation of Balaam was awesome. Balaam had obviously built up an extensive reputation as being effective in cursing people, for the Midianites later called on him again in spite of his failure in this case, and it was then that Balaam was slain along with the Midianite leaders (Numbers 31:8). This was because he who had advised the method of destroying the Israelites by causing them to offend Yahweh (Numbers 31:16). This last incident warns us against seeing him as deserving of Yahweh’s approval.

Numbers 22:6

‘Come now therefore, I pray you, curse me this people, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.’

Balak’s intention was that Balaam might weaken Israel by putting a curse on them so that Moab could then smite them. And he called for him to come and curse Israel, so weakening them that he and his armies could deal with them. For he knew that when Balaam cursed men, they were cursed, and conversely that when he blessed men they were blessed. If he could be blessed and Israel could be cursed, in his view this would give him a real advantage. This confirms the kind of reputation that Balaam had in this direction. Many an army would be unwilling to fight and would fight less well if they heard that they had been cursed by a man like Balaam. It would be enough to put them off fighting altogether. And many would fight better because he had blessed them.


Verse 7

The Elders Leave With Rewards In Their Hand To Persuade Balaam to Curse Israel (Numbers 22:7).

Numbers 22:7

‘And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand, and they came to Balaam, and spoke to him the words of Balak.’

Certain Midianite princes, along with their tribes, who were now probably refugees in Moabite territory as a result of the defeat of Sihon in whose kingdom they had been settled (Joshua 13:21), were united with Moab in their evil intention against Israel (see also Numbers 22:4; Numbers 25:6; Numbers 25:17-18; Numbers 31:1-12). Their elders, chief men of the tribes, thus combined with the elders of Moab to seek out Balaam. And they took in their hands ‘the rewards of divination’. It may be that there was a recognised fee for such an action as Balaam was to be called on to perform. Or it may simply have been a large bribe. Then, when they arrived where Balaam was, they told him the words of Balak, which presumably included the fact that he wanted him to neutralise Yahweh’s power.


Verse 8

Balaam Tells Them to Wait While He Obtains Words From Yahweh. (Numbers 22:8).

Numbers 22:8

‘And he said to them, “Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as Yahweh shall speak to me,” and the chieftains of Moab abode with Balaam.’

Balaam clearly had a fairly large establishment as he was able to put up all the elders who had arrived with their servants. And he invited them to lodge with him that night while he received a word from Yahweh and found out what he would say. It seems from what follows that the purpose in bringing in Balaam lay in the belief that he could persuade a nation’s own god/gods to turn against their people and remove their protection from them. Thus in this case, having been informed that Yahweh was Israel’s God, he recognised that he would have to deal with Yahweh on the matter. Meanwhile the ‘chieftains of Moab’, representatives from Moab and their allies, remained with Balaam.


Verse 9

Yahweh Comes with Words For Balaam (Numbers 22:9).

Balaam wasted no time. That night he sought to make contact with Yahweh. We are not informed of what methods he used, but they were seemingly successful, for ‘God came to Balaam’. (Not just another god, but the only God).

Numbers 22:9

‘And God came to Balaam, and said, “What men are these who are with you?”

Starting by using his own methods of divination in order to ‘contact’ Yahweh, Balaam became aware that Someone was there and ready to speak to him. Then God came up with a question. ‘Who are these men who are with you and what is their status and purpose?’ (Balaam was used to ‘hearing voices’).

Note that Yahweh was now described in terms of ‘God’. It was important that it was recognised that He alone was God, not just one among a number of ‘gods’ contacted by Balaam. And that to Him, Yahweh, those who came to Balaam were but ‘men’ (see also Numbers 22:20; Numbers 22:35. Note the threefoldness). It was a conflict between ‘God’ and ‘man’. (See Numbers 23:19). So the writer makes clear that Balaam was not here just contacting his usual spiritual ‘contacts’. It was God Himself Who came to him.


Verse 10-11

Balaam Explains That Balak Has Sent Them, Wanting Israel To Be Cursed (Numbers 22:10-11)

Numbers 22:10-11

‘And Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, “Behold, the people which is come out of Egypt, it covers the face of the earth. Now, come curse me them, perhaps I shall be able to fight against them, and shall drive them out.”’

Balaam explained the situation. Balak, an important king, had sent to him telling him of a people who had come out of Egypt in great numbers and he wanted them to be cursed so that he would be able to drive them away from his country.


Verse 12

God Tells Him Not to Go and Not to Curse Israel (Numbers 22:12)

Numbers 22:12

‘And God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” ’

Note again that the One Who spoke to him was called ‘God’ and not ‘Yahweh’. He was not to be seen as one of many gods whom Balaam contacted (which was how Balaam would have seen Yahweh). He was the living God, the only God. He sternly informed Balaam that he must not go, and that he was not to seek to curse this people, for they were blessed. In other words they had special protection over them and were strengthened and watched over by Him. So no one must touch them (compare Psalms 105:15).


Verse 13-14

Balaam Tells The Messengers To Return Home, And They Return (Numbers 22:13-14)

Numbers 22:13

‘And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said to the nobles/chieftains of Balak, “Get you into your land, for Yahweh refuses to give me leave to go with you.” ’

Next morning therefore Balaam told ‘the nobles/chieftains of Balak’ to return to their land because he had been consulting Yahweh, (he recognised the One Who had come as Yahweh) and Yahweh had refused to permit him to go. The chieftains would be suitably impressed. Once they had told Balak this he would know that he was dealing with the right man for the job. Here was someone in touch with Yahweh, Israel’s God. They may well have thought inwardly that Balaam was simply delaying in order to seek a better price.

Note that ‘the elders’ who were sent were ‘nobles’ or ‘chieftains’ (the word sar can indicate princes, rulers, nobles, chieftains, or captains depending on context). A good impression had to be made on Balaam. He was not just anyone.

“In the morning.” This phrase is another feature of the narrative. It occurs here and in Numbers 22:21; Numbers 22:41. We can compare a similar idea (but not the same phrase) in the story in Numbers 16-17. See Numbers 16:5; Numbers 16:7; Numbers 16:41; Numbers 17:8.

Numbers 22:14

‘And the chieftains of Moab rose up, and they went to Balak, and said, “Balaam refuses to come with us.”

So the chieftains rose and returned to Balak, and informed him that Balaam refused to come with them.


Verses 15-19

Balak’s Second Entreaty to Balaam Followed By The Threefold Activity of Balaam’s Ass (Numbers 22:15-40).

No doubt feeling that the reason why Balaam had not come was because he was not satisfied with the price offered, ‘the rewards of divination’ (Numbers 22:7) that he had previously sent, Balak sent even more important messengers to Balaam, offering him even greater rewards. He could not see why Balaam, the manipulator of gods, could not manipulate this one for him.

While what follows might seem strange to most of us, it would not seem so strange to those who are involved in spiritism and the occult. Evil spirits are still open to being contacted by humans, and although more modern ‘diviners’ might talk with their cat rather than their ass, they would in many cases tell you that their cat spoke back to them. They are used to hearing what they consider to be voices from ‘the other side’. (How it is to be interpreted is another matter. Scripture indicates that such activities are connected with devilry - Deuteronomy 32:17; 1 Corinthians 10:20).

But the description of Balaam’s dealings with his ass are not just a matter of that, nor are they as trivial as they might appear. They are intended to bring out the extremely important point that while Balaam was mighty in dreams and visions of the night, in the broad light of day he was blinder than his ass. For in what next occurred it was not Balaam who took the central stage, but his ass. This put Balaam right into perspective. His powers were limited. At times even his ass saw more than he did.

Analysis of the passage.

Note the threefold consecutive pattern in the middle which is also repeated in the next series. There could have been no more emphatic way than this to indicate that Balaam was behaving like his noble ass when he three times sought to use his powers against Israel. To retain the perfect chiastic pattern the threefold activity g h, g h, g h could be treated as one, (as one large g). The threefoldness is deliberately inserted for the purposes of emphasis and in order to indicate completeness.

a Chieftains are sent from Balak (Numbers 22:15).

b They bring Balak’s word to Balaam (Numbers 22:16).

c He offers great reward which Balaam is not convinced by (Numbers 22:17-18).

d Balaam tells the men to wait while he receives Yahweh’s word (Numbers 22:19).

e Yahweh permits Balaam to go but is angry at his willingness to do so (Numbers 22:20-21).

f Balaam’s meets the angel of Yahweh in the way (Numbers 22:22).

g The ass sees the angel and refuses to move forward (Numbers 22:23 a).

h Balaam beats the ass (Numbers 22:23 b)

g The ass again sees the angel of Yahweh and cowers into a wall (Numbers 22:24-25 a)

h Balaam beats the ass again (Numbers 22:25 b)

g The ass collapses to the ground in fear because there is nowhere to turn (Numbers 22:26-27 a)

h Balaam berates and beats the ass for refusing to move forwards and is answered (Numbers 22:28-30).

f Balaam’s eyes are opened and he is aware of the angel of Yahweh in the way (Numbers 22:31-33).

e Balaam admits his guilt and is permitted to go forward (Numbers 22:34-35).

d Balaam meets Balak and receives Balak’s word (Numbers 22:36).

c Balak points out he can give Balaam great reward (Numbers 22:37).

b Balaam says that he can only speak Yahweh’s word (Numbers 22:38).

a Balak sends provisions to Balaam and the chieftains (Numbers 22:39-40).

Balak Sends Even More Important Messengers To Persuade Balaam To Come (Numbers 22:15).

Numbers 22:15

‘And Balak sent yet again chieftains, more, and more honourable than they.’

Balak now set out to impress. In his next deputation he sent a more numerous delegation made up of even more powerful chieftains. The large party would have been an impressive sight, and that was Balak’s intention.

Balak Offers Balaam Great Reward For His Assistance (Numbers 22:16-19).

Numbers 22:16-17

‘And they came to Balaam, and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor, Let nothing, I pray you, hinder you from coming to me, for I will promote you to very great honour, and whatever you say to me I will do. Come therefore, I pray you, curse me this people.” ’

Balak was now desperate. Note the formal style of the diplomatic message. ‘Thus says’ (compare Numbers 20:14). Then the title of honour and identification, ‘Balak the son of Zippor’. Then the plea and offer of great reward. Then the statement of what was required.

Thus he courteously, but firmly, strongly expressed his desire for Balaam to come, with promises that he would promote him to very great honour. He assured him that he would fall in line with all his requirements. Nothing more could have been offered. He was at his wit’s end. He made it clear that all he wanted was that Balaam would come and curse ‘this people’, and that he was willing to pay any price to achieve it.

Numbers 22:18

‘And Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of Yahweh my God, to do less or more.” ’

Note the change of description, ‘the servants of Balak’. To Balaam this impressive deputation were but lackeys to a petty king. He had dealt with higher than these, and he was Balaam. He assured them loftily that wealth mattered nothing if the gods were not responsive. Balak could offer him all his treasure house, but it could not alter the situation. In this particular case where Yahweh was involved he could only act if Yahweh was responsive. He was not at the behest of kings, he was a servant of the gods.

“Yahweh my God.” This cannot mean that he was a worshipper of Yahweh for he was later found meddling again along with the Midianites (Numbers 31:8) seeking to subvert the children of Israel. What he was doing was pointing out to Balak that while he was on reasonable terms with Yahweh he was not Yahweh’s master, but that Yahweh was his master. (To Babylonians he would have said, ‘Marduk my god’.) By ‘my elohim’ he also possibly had in mind one of the particular ‘contacts’ he would use through whom he expected Yahweh would speak to him. But either way he was stressing by it that he responded to gods, not simply made them do what he wanted. Like men gods had to be persuaded, and until they were persuaded he was powerless.

Numbers 22:19

Now therefore, I pray you, tarry you also here this night, that I may know what Yahweh will speak to me more.”

So he informed the delegation that they must once again stay overnight in order that he might consult Yahweh and learn more from Him.


Verse 20

The Words of God (Numbers 22:20).

Numbers 22:20

‘And God came to Balaam at night, and said to him, “If the men are come to call you, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak to you, that shall you do.” ’

Once the deputation were settled down Balaam began his rites for contacting Yahweh through his spirit contacts. But the One Who came to Balaam that night was no spirit contact, it was ‘God’ Himself. And this time He informed him that he could go with the men, but that he must only speak whatever word God gave to him. Note again the derogatory reference to ‘men’ in contrast with ‘God’. God was not impressed with the size and importance of the deputation.


Verse 21

Balaam Therefore Goes with the Chieftains of Moab (Numbers 22:21).

Numbers 22:21

‘And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the chieftains of Moab.’

As God had bidden him Balaam rose, saddled his ass, and went with the chieftains of Moab. Note that he was now supposed to be under God’s orders. But it is clear that his thoughts were seemingly otherwise. He was all mixed up. For God knew that while he was obeying Him, he was still thinking in terms of helping the Moabites. He was measuring up how he could ‘persuade’ God to conform to what he wanted. Thus he needed to be taught a lesson.


Verses 22-35

The Angel of Yahweh Bars The Way Three Times (Numbers 22:22-35).

Numbers 22:22

‘And God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of Yahweh placed himself in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding on his ass, and his two servants were with him.’

This verse puzzles many people. Why, they ask, was God angry if Balaam was only doing what he had been told? The reply is that while God had sent Him, He was angry at the very fact that he was going, or even needed to go. He was angry at the whole situation. The whole affair had aroused His wrath. And now that Balaam was actually going His anger at the overall situation was even more aroused, especially as He recognised that Balaam’s submission was not complete.

For this affair was not something of which He approved. He had recognised that if Balaam did not go, someone else would be called and that Balaam’s refusal to go would not have ended the matter. That indeed was the only reason that He had allowed him to go. But He did not believe that Balaam was approaching the matter with the right attitude. So in order to demonstrate His anger in the situation, and so that Balaam might be fully aware of it, He now sent His Angel to act as an adversary and oppose him. It was important that Balaam did not get carried away. He must learn of the precariousness of his situation.

For He recognised that Balaam was not just going as a meek and willing instrument of Yahweh. He was going as his own man. He had his own agenda, and he still probably thought that in the end he could bring Yahweh round to his way of thinking. While God did not mind him going, as long as he was going for the right reason, He knew that that had to be ensured, and that Balaam must be tamed. Thus God was determined to press home on Balaam that he was not as great and influential a man as he thought he was. He was to be made to recognise that, in the end, when it came to spirit contact, his ass was to be seen as more discerning than he was!

Therefore in order to demonstrate Who was in control He sent His angel, the Angel of Yahweh, Who stood in the way before Balaam, (who was riding astride his ass), in order to oppose him. But He did not make Himself visible to Balaam. Incidentally we learn here also that Balaam had two faithful servants with him, who rode in close formation with him. These would probably be the witnesses from whom the whole story was subsequently learned when they were captured among the Midianites later and questioned.

The Angel of Yahweh appears a number of times in the Old Testament when God wanted to reveal Himself visibly while hiding His glory. Compare Genesis 16:7-13; Genesis 21:17-20; Judges 6:11-24; Judges 13:3-23. Often the purpose was so that those visited might at first see Him as a man. But in each case it was finally made clear that it was God Himself. Yet the Angel is also partly differentiated from God, and even has communication with Him (Zechariah 1:12). The figure of the Angel therefore reveals the fact of interpersonal communion within God Himself. This would later come more into recognition in Jesus Christ. A good example of a similar figure of judgment to the One revealed here is found in 2 Samuel 24:15-17.

Numbers 22:23

‘And the ass saw the angel of Yahweh standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand, and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.’

It is an undeniable fact that in all kinds of ways animals are very often able to discern strange phenomena, disturbances in their surroundings, when men are oblivious of them. It is not so surprising therefore that an ass should discern an invisible supernatural presence when men were unable to do so (although it would be surprising to people of that day that Balaam could not discern it). Nor do we know what animals actually ‘see’ in such circumstances.

It is, however’ possible that ‘saw’ should be translated as ‘discerned’. What the ass actually saw we cannot know, nor did the ass inform Balaam (we only know the facts and what Balaam saw later - Numbers 22:31). So the thought may be that the ass ‘discerned’ this ‘spirit presence’ (the detail of which was later revealed to Balaam in Numbers 22:31) and turned aside so as not to have to go past it, with the detailed description being added by the writer who knew what the presence was because of Balaam’s later vision. On the other hand the Angel may have actually made Himself visible to the ass. But if so the ass does not later describe Him.

Whatever is the case the ass discerned what Balaam, the supposed ‘spirit’ discerner, did not. It discerned the presence of the Angel and sought to avoid Him. Balaam the ignorant therefore beat his ass for his waywardness, trying to force him back into the blocked pathway. He was thus depicted as less discerning in the spirit world than his ass, and not quite as great as he liked to appear.

Numbers 22:24

‘Then the angel of Yahweh stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side.’

The ass, having left the road to avoid the presence that it had discerned, took the only way open to it and went along a narrow path between two vineyards, which had walls on either side. So the Angel then moved and stood in that path.

Numbers 22:25

‘And the ass saw the angel of Yahweh, and she thrust herself to the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall, and he smote her again.’

The ass, discerning the Angel again, pressed against one of the walls in order to avoid Him. It was clearly terrified at this strange presence. The result was that Balaam’s foot was trapped against the wall. So he beat his ass again. This repeated emphasis is in order to stress Balaam’s spiritual blindness. He himself was still totally unaware of the ‘presence’.

Numbers 22:26

‘And the angel of Yahweh went further, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.’

The angel then allowed the ass through by moving away, and the ass continued along the pathway to a place where it was so narrow that there was no way of turning any way at all. And there the ass discerned the mysterious presence standing in his way again.

Numbers 22:27

‘And the ass saw the angel of Yahweh, and she lay down under Balaam. And Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff.’

This was just too much and with no alternative direction to take the ass now collapsed to the ground in fear. Meanwhile Balaam could not understand his ass’s strange behaviour and beat it again. Here was the great prophet and diviner, but he had no clue about what was happening, even though to his ass the spirit presence was obvious.

So Balaam is here depicted as very much limited. The ancients recognised that strange animal behaviour might well indicate activity of the gods, and therefore this behaviour of his ass should have warned Balaam that something unusual was happening. But he was shown to be so undiscerning that he not only failed to be aware of the presence of the Angel, but also failed to pick up the messages from his ass.

Numbers 22:28

‘And Yahweh opened the mouth of the ass, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have smitten me these three times?’

Then Yahweh intervened in order to ram home His message. He spoke through the ass. Moses was used to hearing the voice of Yahweh from between the cherubim (Numbers 7:89). Balaam received it from between the ass’s ears. It would be quite clear to all who was the greater prophet. But there is no reason why Yahweh should not speak in one way or the other. So to Balaam the voice seemed to be coming from his ass.

The question we may ask is, ‘Was there a genuine voice from the ass, or was it just within Balaam’s cognition?’ A man like Balaam would certainly have experiences of which ordinary men knew nothing. He would be used to ‘hearing voices’. So it is a question that we cannot answer. But what mattered was that Balaam got the message.

To him then the voice spoke as though from the ass. It asked why the ass should be blamed to such an extent that it had been beaten three times, that is, given a thorough beating.

Numbers 22:29

‘And Balaam said to the ass, “Because you have mocked me. I would there were a sword in my hand, for now I would have killed you.” ’

We must not read too much into a story expressed in simple terms, but Balaam’s lack of surprise may indicate that in fact Balaam was used to hearing spirit voices from his ass, and indeed sometimes used it as a kind of spirit medium. (Asses were not figures of fun in those days. Kings rode on them to their coronations. Some modern spiritists claim to have used their cats in the same way). Either way Balaam spoke back boldly to his ass. This was what this great man had come to! And he declared that quite frankly he felt like killing him. Indeed had he had a sword he would have done so. The comment would bring a wry smile to the reader’s face, for he would be aware that there was a drawn sword around, but it was not in the hand of Balaam but in the hand of the Angel of Yahweh.

Numbers 22:30

‘And the ass said to Balaam, “Am I not your ass, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever wont to do so to you?”. And he said, “No.” ’

The voice from the ass then pointed out that the ass had been his faithful companion for a long time. Could Balaam ever remember him behaving in this way before? The inference was that Balaam should therefore have known that something unusual was happening and should have discerned the apparition. He was supposed to be a discerner of spirits. Again the emphasis was on how lacking in discernment he was.

Numbers 22:31

‘Then Yahweh opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of Yahweh standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand. And he bowed his head, and fell on his face.’

And then Yahweh opened the eyes of Balaam. Note the stress. It required the power of Yahweh to give this prophet true discernment, and it was His power that enabled Balaam to see the unseeable (compare Numbers 24:3-4). And the result was that Balaam saw the angel of Yahweh, with His sword drawn in His hand, standing in the way to prevent them from moving forward. And then all he could do was bow his head and fall on his face just as his ass had done. Balaam could now do nothing before Yahweh except submit. It is being made apparent that his position did not give him a sense of superiority to the gods, especially to Yahweh.

Numbers 22:32-33

‘And the angel of Yahweh said to him, “Why have you smitten your ass these three times? Behold, I am come forth as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. And the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times. Unless she had turned aside from me, surely now I would have even slain you, and saved her alive.” ’

Then the Angel spoke to him directly. All pretence was thrown aside. He made the position absolutely clear. He should recognise that the faithful ass had saved his life. Why then had he beaten it when all it had done was seek to save its master’s life? For He, ‘the Angel of Yahweh’, had come as his adversary to prevent his going forward, if necessary by slaying him, so as to emphasise even more that what he was aiming to do was displeasing to Yahweh. It was only the behaviour of his ass which had saved him. (So much for the ‘swallower of nations’).

Numbers 22:34

‘And Balaam said to the angel of Yahweh, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the way against me. Now therefore, if it displease you, I will get me back again.” ’

This brought home to Balaam the recognition that he was dealing with something such as he had never faced before. This situation was unusual and he recognised that Yahweh was angry at his behaviour. He admitted that his whole attitude was wrong. He should never have considered going with the men even though Yahweh had told him to. It was putting him into conflict with the spirit world, and that was not what he wanted. But he pointed out in mitigation that he had not realised what the true position was. It was not that he was trying to oppose God. He had not realised that the Angel was standing in the way against him (even though his ass did!). So if the Angel was displeased he would return home.

Numbers 22:35

‘And the angel of Yahweh said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but only the word that I shall speak to you, that you shall speak.” So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.’

The Angel of Yahweh was now satisfied that he had learned his lesson and informed him that he could again go forward, but that when he did so he must ensure that he only spoke what Yahweh told him to speak. Balaam had had his warning.


Verses 36-40

Balaam’s Arrival in Moab (Numbers 22:36-38).

Numbers 22:36

‘And when Balak heard that Balaam was come, he went out to meet him to the City of Moab (or ‘a city of Moab’), which is on the border of the Arnon, which is in the utmost part of the border.’

Meanwhile Balak learned that he was coming, and Balaam’s importance was such that Balak went with an official welcoming party to the very borders of Moab. ’Ir of Moab may have been the name of the city. Or the idea may simply be to indicate ‘a border city’. It was on the banks of the Arnon, the extreme border of Moab.

Numbers 22:37

‘And Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not earnestly send to you to call you? Why did you not come to me? Am I not able indeed to promote you to honour?” ’

When the two parties met up Balak, while remembering whom he was speaking to, expressed his displeasure. He could not understand why Balaam had prevaricated and had delayed coming. Had he not been made aware of the urgency of his request? Why then had he not come immediately the first time? Did he not recognise the honour that Balak could bestow on him? The stress that Balak felt himself under with the Israelite threat just across the border comes out in his aggravation at the slight delay. (Kings are used to saying what they want, but some of Balak’s followers may have been apprehensive about him speaking to the mighty Balaam in this way. They did not know about the incident of the ass).

Numbers 22:38

‘And Balaam said to Balak, “Lo, I am come to you. Have I now any power at all to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that shall I speak.” ’

Balaam haughtily pointed out that he should be satisfied with the fact that he was here. But with his recent experience in mind he emphasised that he was not in a position to speak anything he wanted. He could only speak what God put in his mouth. And that is all that he would speak. Balak was satisfied with that. After all, that was Balaam’s speciality, making gods do what he wanted.

Numbers 22:39-40

‘ And Balaam went with Balak, and they came to Kiriath-huzoth. And Balak sacrificed (or ‘slaughtered’) oxen and sheep, and sent to Balaam, and to the chieftains who were with him.’

Balak then took Balaam and the chieftains to a city named Kiriath-huzoth, and there Balak offered sacrifices and from the sacrifices provided food for them. ‘Sacrificed (slaughtered).’ This may simply have indicated the slaughtering of animals for a feast, or may have included a ritual ceremony of sacrifices to Chemosh, the god of Moab, and possibly to the god of the Midianites. Note how the whole account began with the chieftains and ends with them.


Verse 41

The Threefold Activity of Balaam In Moab (22:41-24:13).

In what follows we now have a triad of attempts by Balak to curse Israel which all follow the same pattern. These are sandwiched between Balaam going with Balak (Numbers 22:41) and Balaam being bidden to return home (Numbers 24:12-13). This parallels the triad of encounters with the Angel of Yahweh in the first passage. The reader is intended to see Balaam’s activity in terms of the noble ass, just as Israel were to be seen metaphorically as like a lion or a lioness (Numbers 23:24; Numbers 24:9) and Yahweh as a large horned wild-ox (Numbers 23:22; Numbers 24:8).

This comes out in that there are significant parallels and contrasts with the first account. Here Balak is seen as driving on a reluctant Balaam in the same way as Balaam drove on his reluctant ass. As the noble ass was really controlled, not by his rider but by the angel of Yahweh, so was Balaam to be seen as really controlled, not by Balak, but by Yahweh. Furthermore this happened because Balaam could see what Balak could not see, just as the noble ass could see what Balaam could not see. So Balaam has now replaced the ass as the ‘instrument’ of Yahweh. And as Balaam was angry with his ass three times, so Balak was angry with Balaam three times. As God finally spoke through the ass, so finally did the Spirit of Yahweh come on Balaam (Numbers 24:2) who was now ‘the man whose eyes are open’ (Numbers 24:3; Numbers 24:15), and speak through him. This does not represent Balaam as ‘an ass’ in any derogatory sense, it depicts him as an unwilling instrument of Yahweh, as the noble ass was, but whose eyes were now open as they had not been previously. Thus the incident of the ass illuminates all that follows. Balaam was seen to be as much in subjection to Yahweh as his ass had been to him.

Analysis.

a Balaam goes with Balak (Numbers 22:41)

b Balaam builds seven altars and offers sacrifices (Numbers 23:1-3)

c Yahweh speaks to Balaam and he prophesies favourably to Israel num (23:4-10)

d Balak is angry and asks him to try again (Numbers 23:11-13).

b Seven more altars and seven more sacrifices (Numbers 23:14-15).

c Yahweh speaks to Balaam and he again prophesies favourably (Numbers 23:16-24)

d Balak requests that Balaam ceases either blessing or cursing and asks that he try again (Numbers 23:25-26).

b Seven more altars and seven more sacrifices (Numbers 23:27-30)

c Balaam blesses Israel (Numbers 24:1-9).

d Balak is angry with Balaam (Numbers 24:10-11).

a Balaam castigates Balak (Numbers 24:12-13)

Balaam Accompanies Balak To Have A Look At The Target (Numbers 22:41).

Balaam having arrived Balak’s first action was to take him to see the people he was being called on to target. Next day Balak took Balaam to see the people whom he was called on to curse. They went up to ‘the high places of Baal’ (Bamoth Baal). This was probably the name of a nearby convenient height, but may also signify that it was a place where Baal was worshipped, and therefore seen as a sacred mount. And from there they were able to see the nearest section of the base camp of Israel (although some may still have been absent fighting against Gilead and Bashan).

Note the gradual increasing of the degree in which Balaam could ‘look on’ Israel. First the ‘utmost part’ (compare Numbers 23:13), then from Peor all Israel, ‘Israel dwelling according to their tribes’ (Numbers 24:2)

Also note once again the phrase ‘in the morning’ (compare Numbers 22:13; Numbers 22:21).

Chapter 23 Two Attempts To Influence Yahweh That Fail.

The First Attempt To Influence Yahweh (Numbers 23:1-12).

Numbers 23:1

‘And Balaam said to Balak, “Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven ox bulls and seven rams.” ’

Balaam set about the task he had been given willingly enough. He called on Balak to build seven altars and prepare for sacrifice on them seven ox bulls and seven rams. The sevenfoldness was intended to appeal to the gods. All nations saw ‘seven’ as a divine number. The offerings were intended to please Balaam’s ‘contacts’, including, from his point of view, Yahweh, Who could possibly be persuaded by them to change His mind. This was seemingly Balaam’s usual method, and it usually ‘worked’.

Up to this point Balaam had only ever dealt with the lower spirit world. In those circumstances he was usually able to work it so that he got back a message whereby those whom he sought to contact fell in line with his desires. But he had never had to deal with the true God before.

This pattern of sacrifices is paralleled elsewhere. A Babylonian tablet declares, ‘At dawn in the presence of Ea, Shamash and Marduk (Babylonian deities) you must set up seven altars --- and pour out the blood of seven sheep’. In that case too the diviner would then proceed to contact his ‘gods’, having persuaded them to help him.

Numbers 23:2

‘And Balak did as Balaam had said, and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar an ox bull and a ram.’

Balak did what Balaam requested and between them they offered an ox bull and a ram on each altar. These were whole burnt offerings (Numbers 23:3), ‘that which goes up’. The whole went up to the heavens.

Numbers 23:3

‘And Balaam said to Balak, “Stand by your whole burnt offering, and I will go. Perhaps Yahweh will come to meet me. And whatever he shows me I will tell you.” And he went to a bare height.’

Balaam then told Balak to stand by his whole burnt offering, as an indication that he was identifying himself with it, and letting the spirit world know that these magnificent offerings came from Balak who now sought their assistance. Then possibly he might get a favourable response. At this stage it would seem that Balaam still thought that he might get a changed response from Yahweh. He had never met Yahweh’s like before.

Numbers 23:4

‘And God met Balaam, and he said to him, “I have prepared the seven altars, and I have offered up an ox bull and a ram on every altar.”

Note the change again to ‘God’. It was important that Balaam was faced up with the fact that he was not here dealing with a local deity, but with the only true God.

“And God met with him.” Balaam was seeking some sort of ‘contact. He obtained more than he had expected, for God Himself came to him. So to God he explained that he had followed out his usual procedure. He had prepared seven altars and offered seven twofold offerings. Normally this would result in his ‘control’ coming back to him with a positive response. But this time he was dealing with something outside his experience. He was dealing with Yahweh, the true God. His enchantments were not working to pattern (see Numbers 24:1).

Numbers 23:5

‘And Yahweh put a word in Balaam’s mouth, and said, “Return to Balak, and thus you shall say.”

The result was that he received from Yahweh the message that he was to pass on. Note that it was Yahweh who ‘put the word in his mouth’. The message was reliable.

Numbers 23:6

‘And he returned to him, and, lo, he was standing by his whole burnt offering, he, and all the chieftains of Moab.’

So Balaam returned to where Balak and his chieftains were expectantly waiting, the latter confident that this would solve the problem of Israel once and for all. For who could stand against the enchantments of Balaam, the son of Beor? He was not aware of the experiences that Balaam had been through.

So Balaam then delivered his message, probably in a trance-like state (Numbers 24:3-4; Numbers 24:15-17), for we note from Numbers 24:1 that Balaam was said to be ‘using enchantments’. Note the word used of Balaam’s prophetic words (‘parable, saying’), a word never used of the prophets’ full scale prophecies (although used of illustrations used by them). A ‘parable’ (mashal) was a proverb, saying, parable, similitude, and in this case an oracle or incantation expressed metaphorically.

Numbers 23:7-10 (7a-10)

‘And he took up his incantation (parable),

Note again the chiastic arrangement, expressing parallel thoughts.

Numbers 23:7-10 (7b-10)

a “From Aram has Balak brought me,

a The king of Moab from the mountains of the East.

b Come, curse me Jacob,

b And come, defy Israel.

c How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed?

c And how shall I defy, whom Yahweh has not defied?

d For from the top of the rocks I see him,

d And from the hills I behold him.

c Lo, it is a people who dwell alone,

c And shall not be reckoned among the nations.

b Who can count the dust of Jacob,

b Or number the fourth part of Israel?

a Let me die the death of the righteous,

a And let my last end be like his!” ’

Still under the final ‘control’ of Yahweh Balaam uttered his incantation, and tried to work his enchantments, but the words he spoke were not what anyone expected..

“From Aram has Balak brought me, the king of Moab from the mountains of the East. Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel. How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how shall I defy, whom Yahweh has not defied?”

Note the parallels. Balak had brought him from Aram (from Syria), the king of Moab had brought him from the mountains of the East. His reference to ‘the mountains of the east’ was probably supposed to impress. He had contact with the gods of the east! Thus was he declaring in his trance-like state the source of the request to these higher powers. Balak was speaking through one with powerful contacts among the gods. Then he added what the request was. That Jacob be cursed, that Israel be defied. He wanted Yahweh to turn against His own people. Up to this point Balak would have been delighted with what he heard. He was soon to be disillusioned.

For, still caught up in his trance, Balaam then cried, ‘How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how shall I defy, whom Yahweh has not defied?’ This may have been the response of his own spirit control. In spite of his willingness to please Balak he found himself unable to curse or defy them. God had expressed His unwillingness, Yahweh had refused. And He alone could have ensured the curse on them. Thus Balaam recognised that it was impossible for him or his ‘control’ to alter the situation.

He then pointed out in his trance three things about Israel as given in the word of Yahweh. Looking down from the high point on which they were, from ‘the heights of Baal’, the place where ‘gods’ were met with, he first declared that Israel were set apart, a people who dwelt apart, a people not numbered among the nations. They were different and unique. This situation was similar to that described in Exodus 19:5-6 where Israel were declared to be a ‘holy’ people, God’s own treasured possession, a kingdom of priests. They were thus to be seen as unique compared with all other nations. Compare Genesis 15:13-16. They were a chosen nation destined for a chosen land. See Deuteronomy 7:6.

Secondly he pointed out that their numbers were as ‘the dust’, and that even one fourth of them would not be countable. They were thus innumerable. (This may have had in mind the part of the Israelite camp that he could see clearly, those on the south side who would be one fourth of the whole). This expressed the fulfilment of the promises made to the Patriarch that their descendants would be as the dust of the earth, and innumerable like the sands (Genesis 13:16; Genesis 22:17; Genesis 28:14). Such multiplication of numbers would be seen by all as an indication of their being greatly blessed.

And finally he pointed out that they were ‘righteous’, a nation in covenant with Yahweh who were being obedient to Him (see Deuteronomy 6:25). Indeed they were so greatly blessed that he wished his end could be like theirs, following a long and prosperous life, and that he could die with the privileges that they enjoyed. For they were chosen and unique. (There is a twist to this wish. The reader is aware that he will soon be dead at the hands of these very people (Numbers 31:8)).

Numbers 23:11

‘And Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and, behold, you have blessed them altogether.” ’

This was not at all what Balak had wanted to hear. He could not believe his ears, and turning to Balaam he asked him if he realised what he had done to him. He had wanted his enemies cursed, and instead Balaam had counted them as blessed. This was not what he was being paid for.

Numbers 23:12

‘And he answered and said, “Must I not take heed to speak what Yahweh puts in my mouth?” ’

Balaam’s reply was simple. He did not control the words that came through his mouth. He could only speak the words that he was ‘given’ and which Yahweh put in his mouth through his control (or possibly in this unusual case directly). He had done his best by the arrangement of the offerings in his usual manner, but these had seemingly not swayed Yahweh.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 22:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/numbers-22.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, September 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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