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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Numbers 22

 

 

Verses 1-19

BALAAM INVOKED

Numbers 22:1-19

WHILE a part of the army of Israel was engaged in the campaign against Bashan, the tribes remained "in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan at Jericho." The topography is given here, as elsewhere, from the point of view of one dwelling in Canaan; and the locality indicated is a level stretch of land, some five or six miles broad, between the river and the hills. In this plain there was ample room for the encampment, while along the Jordan and on the slopes to the east all the produce of field and garden, the spoil of conquest, was at the disposal of the Israelites. They rested therefore, after their long journey, in sight of Canaan, waiting first for the return of the troops, then for the command to advance; and the delay may very likely have extended to several months.

Now the march of Israel had kept to the desert side of Moab, so that the king and people of that land had no reason to complain. But the campaign against the Amorites, ending so quickly and decisively for the invaders, showed what might have taken place if they had attacked Moab, what might yet come to pass if they turned southward instead of crossing the Jordan. And there was great dismay. "Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many; and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel." Manifestly it would have been unwise for Balak the king of the Moabites to attack Israel single-handed. But others might be enlisted against this new and vigorous enemy, among them the Midianites. And to these Balak turned to consult in the emergency.

By the "Midianites" we must understand the Bedawin of the time, the desert tribes which possibly had their origin in Midian, east of the Elanitic Gulf, but were now spread far and wide. On the borders of Moab a large and important clan of this people fed their flocks; and to their elders Balak appealed. "Now," he said, "shall this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field." The result of the consultation was not an expedition of war but one of a quite different kind. Even the wild Bedawin had been dismayed by the firm resolute tread of the Israelites, a people marching on, as no people had ever been seen to march, from far-away Egypt to find a new home. The elders of Moab and of Midian cannot decide on war; but superstition points to another means of attack. May they not obtain a curse against Israel, under the influence of which its strength shall decay? Is there not in Pethor one who knows the God of this people and has the power of dreadful malediction? They will send for him; Balaam shall invoke disaster on the invaders, then peradventure Balak will prevail, and smite them, and drive them out of the land.

There can be no doubt in what direction we are to look for Pethor, the dwelling-place of the great diviner. It is "by the River," that is to say, by the River Euphrates. It is in Aram, for thence Balaam says Balak has brought him. It is in "the land of the children of Amino," {Numbers 22:5} for such is the preferable translation of the words rendered "children of his people." The situation of Pethor has been made out. "At an early period in Assyrian research," says Mr. A.H. Sayce, "Pethor was identified by Dr. Hincks with the Pitru of the cuneiform inscriptions. Pitru stood on the western bank of the Euphrates, close to its junction with the Sajur, and a little to the north of the latter. It was consequently only a few miles to the south of the Hittite capital Carchemish. Indeed, Shalmaneser II tells us explicitly that the city was called Pethor by ‘the Hittites.’ It lay on the main road from east to west, and so occupied a position of military and commercial importance." Originally an Aramaean town, Pethor had received, on its conquest by the Hittites, a new element of population from that race, and the two peoples lived in it side by side. The Aramaeans of Pethor called themselves "the sons of (the god) Ammo"; and, according to Mr. Sayce, Dr. Neubauer is right in explaining the name of Balaam as a compound of Baal with Ammi, which occurs as a prefix in the Hebrew names Ammiel, Amminadab, and others. It is also worthy of mention that the name of Balak’s father-Zippor, or "Bird"-occurs in the notice, still extant, of a despatch sent by the Egyptian government to Palestine in the third year of Menephtah II.

It may be further said with regard to Mr. Sayce’s valuable work, that he does not attempt to deal particularly with the prophecies of Balaam. "They must," he says, "be explained by Hebrew philology before the records of the monuments can be called upon to illustrate them. It may be that the text is corrupt; it may be that passages have been added at various times to the original prophecy of the Aramaean seer; these are questions which must be settled before the Assyriologist can determine when it was that the Kenite was carried away captive, or when Asshur himself was ‘afflicted."’

The divination of which so great things were expected by Balak is amply illustrated in the Babylonian remains. Among the Chaldeans the art of divination rested "on the old belief in every object of inanimate nature being possessed or inhabited by a spirit, and the later belief in a higher power, ruling the world and human affairs to the smallest detail, and constantly manifesting itself through all things in nature as through secondary agents, so that nothing whatever could occur without some deeper significance which might be discovered and expounded by specially trained and favoured individuals." The Chaldeo-Babylonians "not only carefully noted and explained dreams, drew lots in doubtful cases by means of inscribed arrows, interpreted the rustle of trees, the plashing of fountains and murmur of streams, the direction and form of lightnings, not only fancied that they could see things in bowls of water, and in the shifting forms assumed by the flame which consumed sacrifices and the smoke which rose therefrom, and that they could raise and question the spirits of the dead, but drew presages and omens, for good or evil, from the flight of birds, the appearance of the liver, lungs, heart, and bowels of the animals offered in sacrifice and opened for inspection, from the natural defects or monstrosities of babies or the young of animals-in short, from any and everything that they could possibly subject to observation." There were three classes of wise men, astrologers, sorcerers, and soothsayers; all were in constant demand, and all used rules and principles settled for them by the so-called science which was their study.

We cannot of course affirm that Balaam was one of these Chaldeans, or that his art was precisely of the kind described. He is declared by the narrative to have received communications from God. There can, however, be no doubt that his wide reputation rested on the mystical rites by which he sought his oracles, for these, and not his natural sagacity, would impress the common mind. When the elders of Moab and Midian went to seek him they carried the "rewards of divination" in their hands. It was believed that he might obtain from Jehovah the God of the Israelites some knowledge concerning them on which a powerful curse might be based. If then, in right of his office, he pronounced the malediction, the power of Israel would be taken away. The journey to Pethor was by the oasis of Tadmor and the fords at Carchemish. A considerable time, perhaps a month, would be occupied in going and returning. But there was no other man on whose insight and power dependence could be placed. Those who carried the message were men of rank, who might have gone as ambassadors to a king. It was confidently expected that the soothsayer would at once undertake the important commission.

Arriving at Pethor they find Balaam and convey the message, which ends with the flattering words, "I know that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed." But they have to treat with no vulgar thaumaturgist, no mere weaver of spells and incantations. This is a man of intellectual power, a diplomatist, whose words and proceedings have a tone of high purpose and authority. He hears attentively, but gives no immediate answer. From the first he takes a position fitted to make the ambassadors feel that if he intervenes it will be from higher motives than desire to earn the rewards with which they presume to tempt him. He is indeed a prince of his tribe, and will be moved by nothing less than the oracle of that unseen Being whom the chiefs of Moab and Midian cannot approach. Let the messengers wait, that in the shadow and silence of night Balaam may inquire of Jehovah. His answer shall be in accordance with the solemn, secret word that comes to him from above.

Three of the New Testament writers, the Apostles Peter, John, and Jude, refer to Balaam in terms of reprobation. He is "Balaam the son of Beor who loved the hire of wrongdoing"; he "taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication"; he is the type of those who run riotously in the way of error for hire. Gathering up the impressions of his whole life, these passages declare him avaricious and cunningly malignant, a prophet who, perverting his gifts, brought on himself a special judgment. At the outset, however, Balaam does not appear in this light. The pictorial narrative shows a man of imposing personality, who claims the "vision and the faculty Divine." He seems resolute to keep by the truth rather than gratify any dreams of ambition or win great pecuniary rewards. It is worth while to study a character so mingled, in circumstances that may be called typical of the old world.

Did Balaam enjoy communications with God? Had he real prophetic insight? Or must we hold with some that he only professed to consult Jehovah, and found the answer to his inquiries in the conclusions of his own mind?

It would appear at first sight that Balaam, as a heathen, was separated by a great gulf from the Hebrews. But at the time to which the narrative of Numbers refers, if not at the period of its composition, the boundary line implied by the word "gentile" did not exist. Moses had clearly taught to the Hebrews ethical and religious truths which neighbouring nations saw very indistinctly; and the Israelites were beginning to know themselves a chosen race. Yet Abraham was their father, and other peoples could claim descent from him. Edom, for example, is in Numbers 20:1-29 acknowledged as Israel’s brother.

At the stage of history, then, to which our passage belongs, the strongly marked differences between nation and nation afterwards insisted upon were not realised. And this is so far true in respect of religion, that though the Kenites, a Midianite tribe, did not follow the way of Jehovah, Moses, as we have seen, had no difficulty in joining with them in a sacrificial feast in honour of the Lord of Heaven. If beyond the circle of the tribes any one, impressed by their history, attributing their rescue from Egypt and their successful march towards Canaan to Jehovah, acknowledged His greatness and began to approach Him with sacred rites, no doubt would have existed among the Hebrews generally that by such a man their God could be found and His favour won. The narrative before us, stating that Jehovah called Balaam and communicated with him, simply declares what the more patriotic and religious Israelites would have had no difficulty whatever in receiving. This diviner of Pethor had heard of Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea, had followed with keen interest the progress of the tribes, had made himself acquainted with the law of Jehovah given at Sinai. Why, then, should he not worship Jehovah? And why should not Jehovah speak to him, make revelations to him of things still in the future?

So far, however, we touch only the beliefs, or possible beliefs, of the Israelites. The facts may be quite different. We are in the way of considering revelations of the Divine will to have been so uncommon and sacred that a man of very high character alone could have enjoyed them. If indeed God spoke to Balaam, it must have been in another way than to Abraham, Moses, Elijah. Especially since his history shows him to have been a man bad at heart, we are inclined to pronounce his consultation of God mere pretence; and as for his prophecies, did he not simply hear of Israel’s greatness and forecast the future with the prescience of a clear calculator, who used his eyes and reason to good purpose? But with this the gist of the Bible narrative cannot be said to agree. It seems to be certainly implied that God did speak to Balaam, open his eyes, unfold to him things far off in the future. Although many cases might be adduced which go to prove that an acute man of the world, weighing causes and tracing the drift of things, may show wonderful foresight, yet the language here used points to more than that. It seems to mean that Divine illumination was given to one beyond the circle of the chosen people, to one who from the first was no friend of God and at the last showed himself a malicious enemy of Israel. And the doctrine must be that any one who, looking beneath the surface of things, studying the character of men and peoples, connects the past and the present and anticipates events which are still far off, has his illumination from God. Further it is taught that in a real sense the man who has some conception of Providence, though he is false at heart, may yet, in the sincerity of an hour, in the serious thought roused at some crisis, have a word of counsel, a clear indication of duty, a revelation of things to come which others do not receive. Still we must interpret the words, "God said to Balaam," in a way which will not lift him into the ranks of the heaven-directed who are in any sense mediators, prophets of the age and the world. This man has his knowledge so far from above, has his insight as a true gift, receives the word of prohibition, of warning, veritably from a Divine source. Yet he does not stand in a high position, lifted above other men. The whole history is of value for our instruction, because as surely as Balaam received directions from God, we also receive them through conscience; because as he opposed God so we also may oppose Him in self-will or the evil mind. When we are urged to do what is right the urgency is Divine, as certainly as if a voice from heaven fell on our ears. Only when we realise this do we feel aright the solemnity of obligation. If. we fail to ascribe our knowledge and our sense of duty to God, it will seem a light thing to neglect the eternal laws by which we should be ruled.

Reaching Pethor the messengers of Balak state their request. Instead of going with them at once, as a false man might be expected to do, Balaam declares that he must consult Jehovah; and the result of his consultation is that he declines. In the morning he says to the princes of Moab, "Get you into your land, for Jehovah refuseth to give me leave to go with you." The question whether Israel was a fit subject for blessing or for cursing has been practically settled in his mind. When he lays the matter before Jehovah, as he knows Him through His law and the history of Israel, it is made unmistakable that no malediction is to be pronounced. But what, then, was the secret of Balaam’s delay, of his consultation of the oracle? If it had been an absolute determination to serve the interests of righteousness, he could now frame his reply to the princes in such a way that they would understand it to be final. He would not say demurely, "Jehovah refuseth to give me leave," for these words allow the belief that somehow the power to curse may yet be obtained. Balaam permits himself to hope that he will find some flaw in Israel’s relation to Jehovah which will leave room for a malediction. He delays, and professes to consult God, diplomatically, that even by the refusal his fame as a diviner acquainted with the Unseen Power may be established. And the answer he returns means that his own reputation is not to be hazarded by any divination which Jehovah will discredit.

Had not the future proceedings of Balaam cast their shadow back on his career and words, he might have been pronounced at the outset a man of integrity. The rewards offered him were probably large. We may believe that whatever reputation Balaam had previously enjoyed this embassy was the most important ever sent to him, the greatest tribute to his fame. And we would have been inclined to say, Here is an example of conscientiousness. Balaam might go with the princes at least, though he can pronounce no curse on Israel; but he does not; he is too honourable even to profess the desire to gratify his patrons. This favourable judgment, however, is forbidden. It was of himself, of his fame and position, he was thinking. He would not have gone in any case unless it had precisely suited his purpose. Understanding that Israel is not to be cursed, he manages so that his refusal shall enhance his own reputation.

Still, the small amount of sincerity there is in Balaam, superimposed on his self-love and diplomacy, is in contrast to the utter want of it which men often show. They are of a party, and at the first call they will make shift to denounce whatever their leaders bid them denounce. There is no pretence even of waiting for a night to have time for quiet reflection; much less any anxious thought regarding Divine providence, righteousness, mercy, by means of which duty may be discovered. It is possible for men to appear earnest defenders of religion who never go even as far as Balaam went in seeking the guidance of truth and principle. They pass judgments with a haste that shows the shallow heart. Tempted by some envious Balak within, even when no appeal is made, they set up as soothsayers and take on them to prophesy evil.

The messengers of Balak returned with the report of their disappointment; but what they had to say caused, as Balaam no doubt intended, greater anxiety than ever to secure his services. One who was so lofty, and at the same time so much in the secrets of the God Israel worshipped, was indeed a most valuable ally, and his help must be obtained at any price. Did he say that Jehovah refused to give him leave? Balak will assure him of rewards which no God of Israel can give, very great recompense, tangible, immediate. Other messengers are sent, more, and more honourable than the former, and they carry very flattering offers. If he will curse Israel, Balak the son of Zippor will do for him whatever he desires. Nothing is to hinder him from coming; neither the prohibition of Jehovah nor anything else.

The conduct of Balaam when he is appealed to the second time confirms the judgment it has been found necessary to pronounce on his character. He behaves like a man who has been expecting, and yet, with what conscience he has, dreading, the renewed invitation. He appears indeed to be emphatic in declaring his superiority to the offer of reward: "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more." The air of incorruptible virtue is kept. The Moabites and Midianites are to understand that they have to do with a man whose whole soul is set on truth. And the protestation would deceive us-only Balaam does not dismiss the men. Giving him all credit for an intention still to keep right with the Almighty, or, shall we say? allowing that he was too clever a man to imperil his reputation by intending a curse which would not be followed by any ill effects, we find immediately that he is unwilling to let the opportunity pass. He asks the messengers to tarry for the night, that he may again consult Jehovah in the matter. He has already seen the truth as to Israel, the promise of its splendid career. Yet he will repeat the inquiry, ask once more regarding the prospect he has distinctly seen. It is ambition that moves him, and perhaps, along with that, avarice. May he not be able to say something that will sound like a curse, something on which Balak shall fasten in the belief that it gives him power against Israel? It would, at all events, be a gratification to travel in state across the desert, to appear amongst the princes of Midian and Moab as the man after whom kings had to run.. And there was the possibility that without absolutely forfeiting his reputation as a seer of things to come he might obtain at least a portion of the reward. He will at all events do the messengers the honour of seeking another oracle for their sakes, though he dishonours the name of God from whom he seeks it.

It was possible for Balaam during the interval of the two embassies to recover himself. He was one who could understand integrity, who knew enough of the conditions of success to see that absolute consistency is the only strength. There was a straight way which he might have followed. But temptation pressed on him. Tired of the narrow field within which he had as yet exercised his powers, he saw one wider and more splendid open to him. The wealth was no small inducement. He was in the way of divining for reward; this was the greatest ever in his reach. And Balaam, knowing well how base and vain his pretext was, resigned his integrity, even the pretence of it, when he bade the messengers wait.

Yet was his fault a singular one? We cannot say that he showed extraordinary covetousness in desiring Balak’s silver and gold. For the time, in the circumstances, scarcely anything else could be expected of a man like him. To judge Balaam by modern Christian rules is an anachronism. The remarkable thing is to find one of his class at all scrupulous about the means he employs to promote himself. We say that he was guilty of perverting conscience; and so he was. But his conscience did not see or speak so clearly as ours. And are not Christian men liable to have their heads turned by the countenance of those in a higher rank than their own, and to succumb to the enticement of great wealth? When they are asked to reconsider a decision they know to be right, do they never tamper with conscience? It is one of the commonest things to find persons nominally religious indulging in the same desires and acting in the same way as Balaam. But the earthly craving that makes any one go back to God a second time about a matter which ought to have been settled once for all, involves the greatest moral hazard. No human being, in any situation, has spiritual strength to spare. There is a point where he who hesitates casts the whole of his life into the balance. For young persons, especially, a great warning, often needed, lies here.

The fault of Balaam, a fault of which he could not fail to be conscious, was that of tampering with his inspiration. The insight he possessed-and which he valued-had come through his sincere estimate of things and men apart from any pressure brought to bear on him to take a side either for money or for fame. His mind using perfect freedom, travelling in a way of sincere judgment, had reached a height from which he enjoyed wide prospects. As a man and a prophet he had his standing through this superiority to the motives that swayed vulgar minds. The admission of sordid influences, whether it began with the visit of Balak’s messengers or had been previously allowed, was perhaps the first great error of his life. And it is so in the case of every man who has found the strength of integrity and reached the vision of the true. The Christian who has held himself free from the entanglements of the world, refusing to touch its questionable rewards, or to be influenced by its jealousy and envy, has what may be called his inspiration, though it lifts him to no prophetic height. He has a clear mind, a clear eye. His own way is plain, and he can also see the crookedness of paths which others follow and reckon straight enough. He can go with a firm step and say fearlessly, "Be ye followers of me." But if the base considerations of gain and loss, of ease or discomfort, of the applause or enmity of other men, intrude, if even in a small way he becomes a man of the world, at once there is declension. He may not be ambitious nor covetous. Yet the withdrawal of his mind from its sole allegiance to God and the righteousness of God tells at once on his moral vision. It is clouded. The oracle becomes ambiguous. He hears two voices, many voices; and the counsels of his mind are confused. Like others, he now takes a crooked course, he feels that he has lost the old firmness of speech and action.

It is a sad thing when one who has felt himself "born to the good, to the perfect," who has gained the power that comes through reverence, and sees greater power before him, yields to that which is not venerable, not pure. The beginnings of the fatal surrender may be small. Only a throb of self-consciousness and satisfaction when some one speaks a word of flattery or with show of much deference prefers an astute request. Only a disposition to listen when in seeming friendship counsel of a plausible kind is offered, and milder ways of judging are recommended to lessen friction and put an end to discord. Even the strong are so weak, and those who see are so easily blinded, that no one can count himself safe. And indeed it is not the great temptations, like that which came to Balaam, we have chiefly to dread. The very greatness of a bribe and magnificence of an opportunity put conscience on its guard. Peril comes rather when the appeal for charity, or the casuistry of protesting virtue, sends one to reconsider judgment that has been solemnly pronounced by a voice we cannot mistake; when we forget that the matter is only rightly determined for men when it is clearly and irrevocably decided by the law of God, whatever men may think, however they may deplore or rebel.

"Thou and God exist-So think!-for certain; think the mass-mankind-Disparts, disperses, leaves thyself alone! Ask thy lone soul what laws are plain to thee-Thee and no other, -stand or fall by them! That is the part for thee: regard all else For what it may be-Time’s illusion."

Men in their need, in their sorrow, their self-esteem, would have the true man revoke his judgment, yield a point at least to their entreaties. He will do them kindness, he will show himself human, reasonable, judicious. But on the other side are those to whom, in showing this consideration, he will be unjust, declaring their honour worthless, their sore struggle a useless waste of strength; and he himself stands before the Judge. The one sure way is that which keeps the life in the line of the statutes of God, and every judgment in full accord with His righteousness.


Verses 20-38

BALAAM ON THE WAY

Numbers 22:20-38

THE history is moving towards a great vindication of Israel and prediction of its coming power, all the more impressive that they are to be wrung from an unwilling witness, a man who would pronounce a curse rather than a blessing; all the more impressive, too, because the enemies of Israel will themselves arrange on a mountain pinnacle the scene of the revelation, with smoking altars and princely spectators. The great Actor in the drama is unseen: but His voice is heard. However tractable the omens may have been under other circumstances in the hands of the soothsayer, he now finds a Master. As the story unfolds, Balaam is seen attempting the impossible, endeavouring to force the hands of Providence, held as in a chain at every stage. There is a Power that treats him as if he were a child. Finally, with most unwilling eloquence, he is compelled to fling far and wide a challenge to Israel’s enemies, the praises of her rising star.

In harmony with this general movement is the result of Balaam’s second appeal for permission to take the journey to Moab. He receives it, but with a reservation. Fear of the great God whom he invokes holds him to the conviction that whatever he may do no word must pass his lips other than Jehovah gives him to speak. In repeating his inquiry he has assumed that the God of Israel is amenable to human urgency; and as he will have Jehovah to be, so within limits he seems to find Him. Yet there is more to reckon with than a dubious oracle, discovered through signs and portents of the sky or whisperings of the breeze at night. Jehovah has brought His people from Egypt, fed them in the desert, given them victory. Balaam finds that this God can send angels upon His errands, that there is no escape from His presence nor evasion of His will.

It was in a kind of madness the diviner set out from Pethor by the way of the Euphrates ford. Excited by the hope of gaining the rewards and enjoying the fame awaiting him in Moab, he was at the same time conscious of being in opposition to the God of Israel, and committed to an adventure that might end disastrously. He went in a mood of wilfulness, hoping and yet half doubting that his way would become clear, irritable therefore, ready to resent every hindrance. A diviner of repute, credited with powers of blessing and cursing, he perhaps felt himself safe on ordinary occasions, especially among his own people, even when he went against those who consulted him. But could he count on the forbearance of the king of Moab into whose country he was venturing? Jehovah might be opening his way only to destruction. Such fears could hardly be avoided.

And men who have gone back to conscience endeavouring to extort from it a sanction or permission previously denied, who, with some half assurance that the way is open, set out on a desired course, are practically in the same mad mood, have equal reason to dread the issue. Is this understood? It may be safely asserted that half the wrong things men do-taking an average of human action, half at least-are done not in despite of conscience, but with its dubious consent, when the first clear decision has been set aside. No doubt the urgency is often very great, as it was in Balaam’s case, and frequently of a less questionable kind. Not the desire of envious persons to have others cursed or evil in-treated, but possibly the desire of some to have the shadow of adverse judgment taken away, may be the plea, and be supported by the promise of large reward. The first word of conscience is distinct-have nothing whatever to do with the matter: the shadow has fallen on the wrongdoer; he has not repented; let him suffer still. But his agents come with gold and silver, with plausible words, with seeming Christian arguments. Then the appeal to conscience is renewed, and he who should be firm in judgment finds a false permission. Or the case may be of one in business, tempted to some practice, common enough, but dishonest, vile. His first feeling has been that of disgust. He could not for a moment contemplate a thing so base. But under the pressure of what appears to be necessity, plausible arguments and pretexts gain ground. The fact that reputable men find no difficulty about the matter, the notion that a custom is excusable because it is followed by most if not by all, along with other considerations of a personal kind, are allowed to have some weight, and then to overbalance the sense of duty. And the result is that the moral atmosphere is confused. The man sets out on a way which appears to be opened for him; but he goes under the shadow of a haunting fear.

Like Balaam, one who thus extorts from conscience, that is from God, permission to go where he himself desires, knowing it to be a wrong way, is quite aware, may indeed be eager to acknowledge to himself, that he is still held by a Divine command extending over a part of his conduct. He will not speak a word that shall be against truth. He will resume friendship with the rich transgressor; but he will not in words excuse or palliate his crime. He will adulterate certain commodities in which he deals, but he will never assert that they are genuine. This is the tribute to religion and to conscience that sustains decaying self-respect. By this the man who passes for a Christian endeavours to keep himself separate from those who have no conscience. The most is made of the difference. As compared with those who unblushingly defend the wrong, this man may think himself a saint. He would on no account speak a falsehood. Does he not fear God? Is he a dog that he should do this thing? Nevertheless, the way leads into a bottomless quagmire. For a time the waning light of religion may shine. It may even burst before it dies into a bright flame of indignation against sin - the crimes others commit-or of loud protestation against what are called false charges. But the man dies a Balaam, with a perverted conscience, and must face the dreadful result.

Well has it been said that no virtue is safe without enthusiasm. A man cannot be true to the highest law unless he has the motive within him of pure devotion to God as his personal Redeemer, unless he recognises that his joy in God and his salvation are bound up with fidelity to the moral ideal which is presented to him. Faith, hope, love must inspire and keep the soul in fervour of desire to reach the heights to which it is called by the Divine voice. But the most of men come far short of this enthusiasm. It is rather with reluctance, after a kind of struggle with themselves, that they look duty in the face. And even when they do they find no pleasure in resolving to press on where the absolutely right is seen. Their pleasure lies in doing less than that. They seek accordingly some way of observing the letter of duty while they avoid its spirit. But the sense of having come short in a matter that involves their highest wellbeing, their standing before God, their very right to hope and to live, remains with them. Marriage, for example, is often entered upon after a struggle with conscience in which a clear mandate has been set aside. The desire to please self is allowed to overcome the conviction that the new bond will keep life on the low worldly ground, or drag it back from spirituality. The merely expedient is chosen rather than the ideal of moral independence and power. And of this come fretfulness, dissatisfaction with self, with others, with Providence. All the sophistries that can be used fail to set the mind at rest. Events continually occur which throw flashes of light on the past and reveal the lost hope, the forfeited vision.

God does not make the wrong way smooth for one who has extorted permission to follow it. A man desiring to enter on a course which he sees to be dishonourable or at least dubious may be absolutely prevented at first. His appeal is to Providence. If circumstances allowed his plan he would reckon the Divine will favourable to it. But they do not. Every door he tries in the direction he wishes to take is barred against him. Afterwards one yields to pressure, or is thrown wide because he knocks at it persistently. Then he advances, taking for granted that he has obtained permission from God. But he does not go far till he is undeceived. So, Balaam sets out on his adventure, riding on his ass and attended by his two servants. Yet he does not get clear of the vineyards of Pethor without hindrance. Obstacles to his journey which do not appear in the narrative may have at first stood in his way, certain political complications, we may suppose. Now they are removed. But he is met by others. The angel of the Lord opposes him, one who stands with a drawn sword in hand in a hollow way between the vineyards, a path closely fenced on the one side and the other. Balaam fails to see the adversary; be is absorbed in his own thoughts. But the ass sees, and will not go forward, and as Balaam becomes aware of resistance his anger is kindled.

The narrative here is confessedly difficult. One of the most reverent commentators on the passage declares that he feels too deeply the essential veracity of the story to be troubled with minute questions about its details. "I would not," he says, "force them upon any one’s belief merely by uttering the coarse sentence, that they are in the Bible and therefore must be received. One is afraid of leading people to fancy that they do believe what they do not believe, and so of propagating hypocrisy under the name of faith." To some the narrative may present no serious difficulty. They accept it literally at every point. Others again are not so easily satisfied that the occasion called for miracles like those which appear on the face of the history. It seems to them of no great moment whether Balaam went or did not go to Moab, whether he cursed Israel or blessed it. Neither the curse nor the blessing of a man of Balaam’s sort could make the least difference to Israel. These readers accordingly would find a parabolical or pictorial explanation of the incidents. Literal belief, in any case, need not be made a test of reverence; the spirit is surely more than the letter. The point of greatest importance is to believe that God dealt with this man, opposed his perverse will by gracious influences and unexpected protests. To Balaam, no doubt, the angel’s appearance and the ass’s rebuke were real, as real and impressive as any experiences he ever had. He was humbled; he acknowledged his sin and offered to return. When he reached the land of Moab, the recollection of what befell him by the way had a salutary influence on all he said and did.

In many unforeseen, singular, and often homely ways, men are checked in the endeavour to carry out the schemes which ambition and avarice prompt. The angel of the Lord who opposes one bent on a bad enterprise often appears in familiar guise. To some men their wives stand in the way, some are challenged by their children. What in voluntary blindness they have declined to see-the madness of the wrong course, the intrinsic baseness of the thing undertaken-those who look with pure eyes perceive clearly and are brave enough to condemn. At other times obstacles are placed in the way by the simple ordinary duties which claim attention, occupy thought and time, and tend to bring back the mind to humility and saneness. Yet covetousness can make men very blind. Under the influence of it they suppose themselves to be acting cleverly, while all the time those whom they think they are outwitting see them posting on the way to bankruptcy and shame.

Even a good man may lose his spiritual discrimination occasionally when he fancies himself called to curse not Israel but Moab, and sets out in heat upon the errand. He fails to see that the case of Balaam is so far parallel to his own that he ought to expect an angel to oppose him. The critical Balaam who feels it his high duty to pronounce maledictions on some theological opponent, not for silver and gold, but for the cause of God, is resisted by many an angel bearing the sharp sword of the Word, set to declare the great tolerance of Christ, and to vindicate the liberty that is in Him. That men fail to see these angels, or else ride past them, is abundantly evident, for the altars smoke on many a height, and scrolls of futile condemnation are flung upon the breeze.

Balaam smites the ass even when she falls down under him in her abject terror. He endeavours to force her on till at last he is put to shame by her rebuke. We are pointed to the irrational way in which, those act whose moral judgment is blinded. Their course being wrong, they do not turn against themselves, but rise in passion against every person or thing that hinders. The husband who is resolved to take a wrong path thrusts away his faithful wife; the son bent on what will be his ruin pushes off his weeping mother when she pleads before him. Often an apparently inexplicable fit of temper in public or in private means that a man is in the wrong and is aware of a mistake, from the consequences of which he would fain escape. One’s heart bleeds for none more than for those victims of selfish anger who suffer under the abuse of the Balaams of society. They have seen the angel in the way. They have sought by a gesture or a warning word to arrest the friend who would go on to evil. Then the cruel strokes fall on them, curses, foul abuse, taunts often directed against their religion. They are charged with setting themselves up as holier and better than other people. They are denounced as meddlers and fools. They protest without effect often, and suffer apparently to no purpose. Yet shall we suppose their endeavours altogether lost? Good is surely stronger than evil. Every right act and word is germinal. After long years it bears fruit.

In Balaam’s case there was a happier issue than is often seen. The protest against his cruelty opened his eyes to the truth that a messenger of God stood in his way. The rebuke came home to him. So might a hard self-willed man who rode rough-shod over the feelings and rights of others be brought suddenly to a sense of his cruelty by the look on the face of a dog. Bad as men and women may be, violent and abusive as they may become in times of anger and impatience, there are ways of softening their hearts. They go on for years attempting to justify themselves in a rough and selfish course. But who shall say that even the seeming worst are beyond recovery? When there appears to be no redeeming feature left in the character, the crisis may be at hand, the transgressor, may be so taught by the piteous look of a dumb animal that his infatuation will come to an end. Recoiling from himself he will acknowledge his perversity and turn to better thoughts.

How far did Balaam’s repentance go? There can be little doubt the motive of it was the sudden discovery that the God of Israel was mightier and more observant than he had imagined; in short, that Jehovah was his master. Balaam yields, changes his mind, not because he is in the least degree more disposed to do what is right, but because he finds the antagonism of God falling suddenly upon his life. To the angel he says: "I have sinned: for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again." This is an acknowledgment of authority, but not of an obligation into which any sense of God’s goodness enters. It is the sullen acquiescence of a foiled adventurer, who at the very outset is made to understand the terms and narrow limits of his power. He has his knowledge, his vision. When he set out he intended to use them, if possible, under such conditions as would secure his own liberty. He is now made to understand that he is not free. The angel with the drawn sword will be in Moab before him, ready to cut him down if he should do or say anything opposed to the mind of the God of Israel. He is cowed, not converted.

And so it often is with men who find their schemes counteracted, and are made to feel their weakness in presence of the forces of human government, or of the natural world. Their confession of sin is really a sullen acknowledgment of impotence. Sift their feelings and you discover no sense of guilt. They miscalculated, and they regret having done so, because it is to their shame. They will go back to make other plans, to lay the foundations deeper with greater subtlety, and by-and-by, if they can, to carry out their ideas and gratify their covetousness and ambition in other ways. Sometimes indeed it may become clear to a man that his efforts to advance himself, such as he is, cannot prosper because Omnipotence is against him. Then acknowledgment of defeat is confession of despair. Of this we see an example in the first Napoleon after his final capture when he was on the voyage to St. Helena. He had forced his way over obstacles enough, leaving blood and ruin behind him. But at length the stronger power came down to meet him, and he knew that the game was lost. Beneath the seeming acquiescence there lurked rebellion. He often spoke as a believer in God; but the God he knew was one he could have wished to foil. In the island to which he was confined he schemed desperately to regain his freedom that he might renew the vain conflict with Providence for his own glory and the glory of France. "I have sinned: I will get me back again." Yes. But will it be to lay other and more cunning plots for self-aggrandisement, and recover the lost ground by some daring stroke? Then it will be also to meet other angels, and at the last the minister who bears the sword of doom.

Balaam will return, confessing himself defeated for the time. But he learns that he may not. He has come so far with designs of his own; he must now go on to Moab to serve the purposes of God. The permission he wrested, so to speak, from Providence, was not wrested after all. There are deeper schemes than Balaam can form, the great far-reaching plans of the God of Israel, and by these, however unwillingly, the soothsayer of Pethor is now bound. This journey has been of his own perverse choosing; now he must finish it, feeling himself at every point a servant, an instrument; and if danger and even death await him, still he must proceed. Easy it is to begin in the craftiness of human purpose and the foolishness of earthly hope; but the end is not under the control of him who begins. There is One who orders all things so that the gifts of men and their perversity and their wrath shall all praise Him, shall all be woven into the web of His evolving purpose, universal, holy, sure.

It is a startling thought that in a sense whatever we begin in pride or self-will playing, as it were, the first act of the drama on some stage we ourselves select, the movement cannot be arrested when we choose. In one way or another, act after act must proceed to the very end which God foreordains. Many human purposes appear to be sharply and completely broken off. In the midst of his days man hears the call he cannot disobey. His tools, his hopes, his declared intentions must be laid aside. But the end is not yet. The curtain has fallen here. It will be raised again. And in many unfoldings of Divine purpose we witness scene after scene, in scene after scene have to play our part. One who has begun ill may sincerely repent, and then the development takes a direction which will be to the glory of Divine grace. That act of repentance over, another comes, in which the humble thought of the penitent reveals itself. He is seen a new man, timorous where he was bold, bold where he was timorous. Beyond there are other scenes, in which he shall be found endeavouring to repair the evil he has done, to gather the poisoned arrows he has strewed about the world. And the consummation shall be reached when the task at which he has vainly laboured is completed for him by Christ, and his recovery and the restitution he toiled for shall be complete.

But if there is no penitence, still the drama must go on to its finish. The man resenting, yet unable to resist, shall do what God requires, what God permits. He shall attempt to curse, yet be constrained to bless. He shall in bitterness of anger frame new devices and carry them out. Then, when the cup of his iniquity is full, and all is done Providence allows, retribution shall overtake him. In the thick of battle the sword of the angel shall smite him to the ground. For each man, under God’s rule, in the midst of the forces He upholds, there is a destiny, some stages of which we can trace. Entering on life we of necessity become subject to great laws which our revolt cannot in the least affect. And these are moral laws. The seeming success of the immoral who are intellectually or brutally strong is within the narrow limits of time and space. In the breadths of eternity and infinity there is no strength for any but the good.

There is a purpose of God which Balaam is unwilling to subserve; and of that the man becomes gradually aware. When he is met by Balak and his train and upbraided with his reluctance to come where honours and rewards are to be had, the soothsayer realises his peril and begins at once to prepare the Moabite ‘king for disappointment. "Lo, I am come unto thee," he says: "have I now any power at all to speak anything? The word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak." What we see now is a contest between the influence of Balak, with his power to reward and also to punish, and the consciousness of a constraint which had entered deeply into Balaam’s mind. The sense of Jehovah’s authority over him on this occasion was indeed supported by another strong motive which the diviner never allowed to fall into the background. He had his reputation to maintain. At whatever hazard, he must show himself to Moabites, Midianites, Aramaeans, a man who knew the knowledge of the Most High. The ignorance of Balak is seen in his absurd hope that for the sake of some bribe of his the prophet of Pethor will be induced to fling away his fame.

There are things which even money cannot buy. There is a limit beyond which even a false and avaricious man cannot venture for the sake of hononrs and rewards. It is a vulgar judgment that every man has his price. One who is not particularly conscientious on most occasions will sometimes touch the bounds of concession and take his stand for what is left, all the self he has in any true sense. Neither will money buy nor threats compel his further acquiescence in what he deems wrong. Again, as in Balaam’s case, the limit of the power of gold or of threats may be fixed by pride. There are gifts, qualities, distinctions possessed by some, in virtue of which they seem to themselves to occupy a place which all might covet. The veteran has his decoration, once attached to his uniform by some honoured commander under whom he served. No money could buy that. He would die rather than part with it. Another is proud of his name. To dishononr that would be treachery to his ancestors. Balaam has his unique power of vision, and for a while at least he preserves it. A man like Balak, measuring others by himself, regards a diviner as one of a lower order who may be moved by menaces and promises. He finds that Balaam has pride enough to lift him above them. Thus vanity counteracts vanity; the comparatively base keeps the base in check.


Verses 39-41

BALAAM’S PARABLES

Numbers 22:39-41, Numbers 24:1-9

THE scene is now on some mountain of Moab from which the encampment of the Hebrew tribes in the plain of the Jordan is fully visible. At Kiriath-huzoth, possibly the modern Shihan, about ten miles east of the Dead Sea, and to the south of the Amon valley, preparation for the attempt against Israel’s destiny has been made by a great sacrifice of oxen and sheep intended to secure the good-will of Chemosh, the Baal or Lord of Moab. On the range overhanging the Dead Sea, somewhat to the north of the Amon, perhaps, are the Bamoth-Baal, or high places of Baal, and the "bare height" where Balaam is to seek his auguries and will be met by God.

The evening of Balaam’s arrival has been spent in the sacrificial festival, and in the morning Balak and his princes escort the diviner to the Bamoth-Baal that he may begin his experiment. After his usual manner, Balaam pompously requires that great arrangements be made for the trial of auguries by means of which his oracle is to be found. Balak has offered sacrifices to Chemosh; now Jehovah must be propitiated, and seven altars have to be built, and on each of them a bullock and a ram offered by fire. The altars erected, the carcases of the animals prepared, Balaam does not remain beside them to take actual part in the sacrifice. It is, in fact, to be Balak’s, not his; and if the God of Israel should refuse His sanction to the curse, that will be because the offering of the king of Moab has not secured His favour. Accordingly, while the seven wreaths of smoke ascend from the altars, and the invocations of the Divine power which usually accompany sacrifice are chanted by the king and his princes, the soothsayer withdraws to a peak at some distance that he may read the omens. "Peradventure," he says, "Jehovah will come to meet me."

It was now a critical hour for the ambitious prophet. He had indeed already found distinction, for who in Moab or Midian could have commanded with so royal an air and received attention so obsequious? But the reward remained to be won. Yet may we not assume that when Balaam reached Moab and saw the pitiable state of what had been once a strong kingdom, the cities half ruined, filled with poor and dejected inhabitants, he conceived a kind of contempt for Balak and perceived that his offers must be set aside as worthless? God met Balaam, we are told. And this may have been the sense in which God met him and put a word into his mouth. What was Moab compared with Israel? A glance at Kiriath-huzoth, a little experience of Balak’s empty boastfulness and the entreaties and anxiety which betrayed his weakness, would show Balaam the vanity of proposing to reinvigorate Moab at the expense of Israel. His way led clearly enough where the finger of the God of Israel pointed, and his mind almost anticipated what the Voice he heard as Jehovah’s declared. He saw the smoke streaming south-eastward, and casting a black shadow between him and Moab; but the sun shone on the tents of Israel, right away to the utmost part of the camp. {Numbers 22:41} The mind of Balaam was made up. It would be better for him in a worldly sense to win some credit with Israel than to have the greatest honour Moab could offer. Chemosh was in decline, Jehovah in the ascendant. Perhaps the Hebrews might need a diviner when their great Moses was dead, and he, Balaam, might succeed to that exalted office. We never can tell what dreams will enter the mind of the ambitious man, or rather, we do not know on what slender foundations he builds the most extravagant hopes. There was nothing more unlikely, the thing indeed was absolutely impossible, yet Balaam may have imagined that his oracle would come to the ears of the Israelites, and that they would send for him to give favourable auguries before they crossed the Jordan.

Rapidly the diviner had to form his decision. That done, the words of the oracle could be trusted to the inspiration of the moment, inspiration from Jehovah, whose superiority to all the gods of Syria Balaam now heartily acknowledged. He accordingly left his place of vision and returned to the Bamoth where the altars still smoked. Then he took up his parable and spoke.

"From Aram Balak brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the east; "Come, curse for me Jacob, And come, menace Israel."

"How can I curse whom God hath not cursed? And how can I menace whom God hath not menaced? For from the head of the rocks I see him, And from the hills I behold him. Lo, a people apart he dwells, And among the nations he is not counted."

"Who can reckon the dust of Jacob, And in number the fourth of Israel? Let my soul die the death of the righteous; And be my last end like his!"

In this parable, or mashal, along with some elements of egotism and self-defence, there are others that have the ring of inspiration. The opening is a vaunt, and the expression, "How can I curse whom God hath not cursed?" is a form of self-vindication which savours of vanity. We see more of the cowed and half-resentful man than of the prophet. Yet the vision of a people dwelling apart, not to be reckoned among the others, is a real revelation, boldly flung out. Something of the difference already established between Israel and the goim, or peoples of the Syrian district, had been caught by the seer in his survey of past events, and now came to clear expression. For a moment, at least, his soul rose almost into spiritual desire in the cry that his last end should be of the kind an Israelite might have; one who with calm confidence laid himself down in the arms of the great God, the Lord of providence, of death as well as life.

A man has learned one lesson of great value for the conduct of life when he sees that he cannot curse whom God has not cursed, that he would be foolish to menace whom God has not menaced. Reaching this point of sight, Balaam stands superior for the time to the vulgar ideas of men like the king of Moab, who have no conception of a strong and dominant will to which human desires are all subjected. However reluctantly this confession is made, it prevents many futile endeavours and much empty vapouring. There are some indeed whose belief that fate must be on their side is simply immovable. Those whom they choose to reckon enemies are established in the protection of heaven; but they think it possible to wrest their revenge even from the Divine hand. Not till the blow they strike recoils with crushing force on themselves do they know the fatuity of their hope. In his "Instans Tyrannus" Mr. Browning pictures one whose persecution of an obscure foe ends in defeat.

I soberly laid my last plan

To extinguish the man.

Round his creep-hole, with never a break,

Ran my fires for his sake;

Overhead, did my thunder combine

With my underground mine:

Till I looked from my labour, content

To enjoy the event.

When sudden how think ye, the end?

Did I say, ‘Without friend’?

Say rather from marge to blue marge

The whole sky grew his targe,

With the sun’s self for visible boss,

While an Arm ran across,

Which the earth heaved beneath, like a breast

Where the wretch was safe prest!

"Do you see? Just my vengeance complete,

The man sprang to his feet,

Stood erect, caught at God’s skirts and prayed! -

So, I was afraid!"

In smaller matters, the attempts at impudent detraction which are common, when the base, girding at the good, think it possible to bring them to contempt, or at least stir them to unseemly anger, or prick them to humiliating self-defence, the law is often well enough understood, yet neither the assailants nor those attacked may be wise enough to recognise it. A man who stands upon his faithfulness to God does not need to be vexed by the menaces of the base; he should despise them. Yet he often allows himself to be harassed, and so yields all the victory hoped for by his detractor. Calm indifference, if one has a right to use it, is the true shield against the arrows of envy and malice.

Balaam’s vision of Israel as a separated people, a people dwelling alone, had singular penetration. The others he knew-Amorites, Moabites, Ammonites, Midianites, Hittites, Aramaeans-went together, scarcely distinguishable in many respects, with their national Baals all of the same kind. Was Ammon or Chemosh, Melcarth or Sutekh, the name of the Baal? The rites might differ somewhat, there might be more or less ferocity ascribed to the deities; but on the whole their likeness was too close for any real distinction. And the peoples, differing in race, in culture, in habit, no doubt, were yet alike in this, that their morality and their mental outlook passed no boundary, were for the most part of the beaten, crooked road. Strifes and petty ambitions here and there, temporary combinations for ignoble ends, the rise of one above another for a time under some chief who held his ground by force of arms, then fell and disappeared-such were the common events of their histories. But Israel came into Balaam’s sight as a people of an entirely different kind, generically distinct. Their God was no Baal ferocious by report, really impotent, a mere reflection of human passion and lust. Jehovah’s law was a creation, like nothing in human history ascribed to a God. His worship meant solemn obligation, imposed, acknowledged, not simply to honour Him, but to be pure and true and honest in honouring Him. Israel had no part in the orgies that were held in professed worship of the Baals, really to the disgrace of their devotees. The lines of the national development had been laid down, and Balaam saw to some extent how widely they diverged from those along which other peoples sought power and glory. Amorites and Hittites and Canaanites might keep their place, but Israel had the secret of a progress of which they never dreamed. Wherever the tribes settled, when they advanced to fulfil their destiny, they would prove a new force in the world.

For the time Israel might be called the one spiritual people. It was this Balaam partly saw, and made the basis of his striking predictions. The modern nations are not to be distinguished by the same testing idea. The thoughts and hopes of Christianity have entered more or less into all that are civilised, and have touched others that can scarcely be called so. Yet if there is any oracle for the peoples of our century it is one that turns on the very point which Balaam seems to have had in view. But it is, that not one of them. as a nation, is distinctly moved and separated from others by spirituality of aim. Of not one can it be said that it is confessedly, eagerly, on the way to a Canaan where the Living and True God shall be worshipped, that its popular movements, its legislation, its main endeavours look to such a heavenly result. If we saw a people dwelling apart, with a high spiritual aim, resolutely excluding those ideas of materialism which dominate the rest, of them it would not be presumptuous to prophesy in the high terms to which the oracles of Balaam gradually rose.

Regarding the wish with which the diviner closed his first mashal, hard things have been said, as for example, that "even in his sublimest visions his egotism breaks out; in the sight of God’s Israel he cries, ‘Let me die the death of the righteous."’ Here, however, there may be personal sorrow and regret, a pathetic confession of human fear by one who has been brought to serious thought, rather than any mere egoistic craving. Why should he speak of death? That is not the theme of the egotist. We hear a sudden ejaculation that seems to open a glimpse of his heart. For this man, like every son of Adam, has his burden, his secret trouble, from which all the hopes and plans of his ambition cannot relieve his mind. Now for the first time he speaks in a genuinely religious strain. "There are the righteous whom the Great Jehovah regards with favour, and gathers to Himself. When their end comes they rest. Alas! I, Balaam, am not one of them; and the shadows of my end are not far away! Would that by some mighty effort I could throw aside my life as it has been and is, revoke my destiny, and enter the ranks of Jehovah’s people-were it only to die among them."

Wistfully, men whose life has been on the low ground of mere earthly toil and pleasure may, in like manner, when the end draws near, envy the confidence and hope of the good. For the old age of the sensualist, and even of the successful man of the world, is under a dull wintry sky, with no prospect of another morning, or even of a quiet night of dreamless sleep.

"The weariest and most loathed worldly life,

That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment

Can lay on nature, is a paradise

To what we fear of death."

Courage and peace at the last belong to those alone who have kept in the way of righteousness. To them and no others light shall arise in the darkness. The faithfulness of God is their refuge even when the last shadows fall. He whom they trust goes before them in the pillar of fire when night is on the world, as well as in the pillar of cloud by day. To the man of this earth even the falling asleep of the good is enviable, though they may not anticipate a blessed immortality. Their very grave is a bed of peaceful rest, for living or dying they belong to the great God.

It was with growing dissatisfaction, rising to anxiety, Balak heard the first oracle that fell from the diviner’s lips. Despite the warning he had received that only the words which Jehovah gave should be spoken, he hoped for some kind of a curse. His altars had been built, his oxen and rams sacrificed, and surely, he thought, all would not be in vain! Balaam had not travelled from Pethor to mock him. But the prophecy carried not a single word of heartening to the enemies of Israel. The camp lay in the full sunshine of fortune, unobscured by the least cloud. It was the first blow to Balak’s malignant jealousy, and might well have put him to confusion. But men of his sort are rich in conjectures and expedients. He had set his mind on this as the means of finding advantage in a struggle that was sure to come; and he clung to his hope. Although the curse would not light on the whole camp of Israel, yet it might fall on a part, the remote outlying portion of the tribes. In superstition men are for ever catching at straws. If the anger of some heavenly power, what power mattered little to Balak, could be once enlisted against the tribes, even partially, the influence of it might spread. And it would at least be something if pestilence or lightning smote the utmost part of that threatening encampment.

One must be sorry for men whose impotent anger has to fall on expedients so miserably inadequate. Moab defeated by the Amorites sees them in turn vanquished and scattered by this host which has suddenly appeared, and to all ordinary reckoning has no place nor right in the region. Sad as was the defeat which deprived Balak of half his land and left his people in poverty, this incursion and its success foreboded greater trouble. The king was bound to do something, and, feeling himself unable to fight, this was his scheme. The utter uselessness of it from every point of view gives the story a singular pathos. But the world under Divine providence cannot be left in a region where superstition reigns and progress is impossible-simply that a people like the Moabites may settle again on their lees, and that others may continue to enjoy what seem to them to be their rights. There must be a stirring of human existence, a new force and new ideas introduced among the peoples, even at the expense of war and bloodshed. And our sympathy with Balak fails when we recollect that Israel had refrained from attacking Moab in its day of weakness, had even refrained from asking leave to pass through its impoverished territory. The feelings of the vanquished had been respected. Perhaps Balak, with the perversity of a weak man and an incompetent prince, resented this as much as anything.

Balaam was now brought into the field of Zophim, or the Watchers, to the "top of Pisgah," whence he could see only a part of the camp of Israel. The Hebrew here as well as in Numbers 22:41 is ambiguous. It has even been interpreted as meaning that on the first occasion part of the encampment only was in view, and on the second occasion the whole of it (so Keil in loco). But the tenor of the narrative corresponds better with the translation given in the English Version. The precise spot here called the top of Pisgah has not been identified. In the opinion of some the name Pisgah survives in the modern Siag-hah; but even if it does we are not helped in the least. Others take Pisgah as meaning simply "hill," and read "the field of Zophim on the top of the hill." The latter translation would obviate the difficulty that in Deuteronomy 34:1 it is said that Moses, when the time of his death approached, "went up from the plains of Moab unto Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah that is over against Jericho." Pisgah may have been the name of the range; yet again in Numbers 27:12, and Deuteronomy 32:49, Abarim is given as the name of the range of which Nebo is a peak. We are led to the conclusion that Pisgah was the name in general use for a hill-top of some peculiar form. The root meaning of the word is difficult to make out. It may at all events be taken as certain that this top of Pisgah is not the same as that to which Moses ascended to die. Batak and his princes had not as yet ventured so far beyond the Amon.

At Balaam’s request the same arrangements were made as at Bamoth-Baal. Seven altars were built, and seven bullocks and seven rams were offered; and again the diviner withdrew to some distance to seek omens. This time his meeting with Jehovah gave him a more emphatic message. It would seem that with the passing of the day’s incidents the vatic fire in his mind burned more brightly. Instead of endeavouring to conciliate Balak he appears to take delight in the oracle that dashes the hopes of Moab to the ground. He has looked from the new point of vision and seen the great future that awaits Israel. It is vain to expect that the decree of the Almighty One can be revoked. Balak must hear all that the spirit of Elohim has given to the seer.

Up, Balak, and hear; Hearken to me, son of Zippor: No man is God, that He should lie; And no son of man, that He should repent.

Hath He said, and shall He not do it? And spoken, and shall He not make good? Behold to bless I have received; And He hath blessed and I cannot undo.

He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, Nor seen perverseness in Israel. Jehovah his God is with him; And the shout of a King is with him.

God brings them forth from Egypt: Like the horns of the wild ox are his. Surely no snake-craft is in Jacob, And no enchantment with Israel.

"At the time it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, What hath God wrought? Behold the people as a lioness arises, And as a lion lifts himself up; He shall not lie down till he eat the prey, And drink the blood of the slain."

The confirmation of the first oracle by what Balaam has realised on his second approach to Jehovah compels the question which rebukes the king’s vain desire. "Hath He said, and shall He not do it?" Balak did not know Jehovah as Balaam knew Him. This God never went back from His decision, nor recalled His promises. And He is able to do whatever He wills. Not only does He refuse to curse Israel, but He has given a blessing which Balaam even, powerful as he is, cannot possibly hinder. It has become manifest that the judgment of God on His people’s conduct is in no respect adverse. Reviewing their past, the diviner may have found such failure from the covenant as would give cause for a decision against them, partial at least, if not general. But there is no excuse for supposing that Jehovah has turned against the tribes. Their recent successes and present position are proofs of His favour unrevoked, and, it would seem, irrevocable. There is a King with this people, and when they advance it is with a shout in His honour. The King is Jehovah their God; mightier far than Balak or any ruler of the nations. When the loud Hallelujah rose from the multitude at some sacred feast, it was indeed the shout of a monarch.

Singular is it to find a diviner like Balaam noting as one of the great distinctions of Israel that the nation used neither augury nor divination. The hollowness of his own arts in presence of the God of Israel who could not be moved by them, who gave His people hope without them, would seem to have impressed Balaam profoundly. He speaks almost as if in contempt of the devices he himself employs. Indeed, he sees that his art is not art at all, as regards Israel. The Hebrews trust no omens; and either for or against them omens give no sign. It was another mark of the separateness of Israel. Jehovah had fenced His people from the spells of the magician. True to Him, they could defy all the sorcery of the East. And when the time for further endeavour came, the nations around should have to hear of the God who had brought the Hebrew tribes out of Egypt. With a lion-like vigour they would rise from their lair by the Jordan. The Canaanites and Amorites beyond should be their prey. Already perhaps tidings had come of the defeat of Bashan: the cities on the other side of Jordan should fall in their turn.

As yet there is nothing in the predictions of Balaam that can be said to point distinctly to any future event in Israel’s history. The oracles are of that general kind which might be expected from a man of the world who has given attention to the signs of the times and perceived the value to a people of strong and original faith. But taking them in this sense they may well rebuke that modern disbelief which denies the inspiring power of religion and the striking facts which come to light not only in the history of nations like Israel but in the lives of men whose vigour springs from religious zeal. Balaam saw what any whose eyes are open will also see, that when the shout of the Heavenly King is among a people, when they serve a Divine Master, holy, just, and true, they have a standing ground and an outlook not otherwise to be reached. The critics of religion who take it to be a mere heat of the blood, a transient emotion, forget that the grasp of great and generous principles, and the thought of an Eternal Will to be served, give a sense of right and freedom which expediency and self-pleasing cannot supply. However man comes to be what he is, this is certain, that for him strength depends not so much on bodily physique as on the soul, and for the soul on religious inspiration. The enthusiasm of pleasure-seeking has never yet made a band of men indomitable, nor need it be expected to give greatness; we cannot persuade ourselves that apart from God our blessedness is a matter of surpassing importance. We are a multitude whose individual lives are very small, very short, very insignificant, unless they are known to serve some Divine end.

It has been seen by one philosopher that if the religious sanction be taken away from morality some other must be provided to fill up the vacuum. Further, it may be said that if the religious support and stimulus of human energy be withdrawn there will be a greater vacuum more difficult to fill. The would-be benefactors of our race, who think that the superstition of a personal God is effete and should be swept away as soon as possible, so that man may return to nature, might do well to return to Balaam. He had a penetration which they do not possess. And singularly, the very apostle of that impersonal "stream of tendency making for righteousness," which was once to be put in the place of God, did on one occasion unwittingly remind us of this prophet. Mr. Matthew Arnold had a difficult thing to do when he tried to encourage a toiling population to go on toiling without hope, to plod on in the underground while a select few above enjoyed the sunlight. The part was that of a diviner finding auguries for the inevitable. But he spoke as one who had to pity a poor blind Israel, no longer inspired by the shout of a king or the hope of a promised land, an Israel that had lost its faith and its way and seemed about to perish in the desert. Well did he know how difficult it is for men under this dread to endure patiently when those above have abolished God and the future life; men, who are disposed to say, yet must be told that they say vainly, "If there is nothing but this life, we must have it. Let us help ourselves, whenever we can, to all we desire." Was that Israel to be blessed or cursed? There was no oracle. Yet the cultured Balak, hoping for a spell at least against the revolutionaries, had a rebuke. The prophet did not curse; he had no power to bless. But Moab was shown to be in peril, was warned to be generous.

Balaams enough there are, after a sort, with more or less penetration and sincerity. But what the peoples need is a Moses to revive their faith. The hollow maledictions and blessings that are now launched incessantly from valley to hill, from hill to valley, would be silenced if we found the leader who can re-awaken faith. It would be superfluous, then, for the race in its fresh hope to bless itself, and vain for the pessimists to curse it. With the ensign of Divine love leading the way, and the new heavens and earth in view, all men would be assured and hopeful, patient in suffering, fearless in death.

The second oracle produced in the mind of Balak an effect of bewilderment, not of complete discomfiture. He appears to be caught so far in the afflatus that he must hear all the prophet has to tell. He desires Balaam neither to curse nor bless; neutrality would be something. Yet, with all he has already heard giving clear indication what more is to be expected, he proposes another place, another trial of the auguries. This time the whole of Israel shall again be seen. The top of Peor that looketh down upon Jeshimon, or the desert, is chosen. On this occasion when the altars and sacrifices are prepared the order is not the same as before. The diviner does not retire to a distance to seek for omens. He makes no profession of mystery now. The temperature of thought and feeling is high, for the spot on which the company gathers is almost within range of the sentinels of Israel. The adventure is surely one of the strangest which the East ever witnessed. In the dramatic unfolding of it the actors and spectators are alike absorbed.

The third prophetic chant repeats several of the expressions contained in the second, and adds little; but it is more poetical in form. The prophet standing on the height saw "immediately below him the vast encampment of Israel amongst the acacia groves of Abel Shittim-like the watercourses of the mountains, like the hanging gardens beside his own river Euphrates, with their aromatic shrubs and their wide-spreading cedars. Beyond them on the western side of Jordan rose the hills of Palestine, with glimpses through their valleys of ancient cities towering on their crested heights. And beyond all, though he could not see it with his bodily vision, he knew well that there rolled the deep waters of the great sea, with the Isles of Greece, the Isle of Chittim-a world of which the first beginnings of life were just stirring, of which the very name here first breaks upon our ears." From the deep meditation which passed into a trance the diviner awoke to gaze for a little upon that scene, to look fixedly once more on the camp of the Hebrew tribes, and then he began:

"Balaam the son of Beor saith, And the man whose eye was closed saith: He saith who heareth the words of El, Who seeth the vision of Shaddai, Falling down and having his eyes opened."

Thus in the consciousness of an exalted state of mind which has come with unusual symptoms, the ecstasy that overpowers and brings visions before the inward eye, he vaunts his inspiration. There is no small resemblance to the manner in which the afflatus came to seers of Israel in after-times; yet the description points more distinctly to the rapture of one like King Saul, who has been swept by some temporary enthusiasm into a strain of thought, an emotional atmosphere, beyond ordinary experience. The far-reaching encampment is first poetically described, with images that point to perennial vitality and strength. Then as a settled nation Israel is described, irrigating broad fields and sowing them to reap an abundant harvest. Why comparison is made between the power of Israel and Agag one can only guess. Perhaps the reigning chief of the Amalekites was at this time distinguished by the splendour of his court, so that his name was a type of regal magnificence. The images of the wild ox and the lion are repeated with additional emphasis; and the strain rises to its climax in the closing apostrophe:

"Blessed be every one that blesseth thee And cursed be every one that curseth thee."

So strongly is Israel established in the favour of Shaddai, the Almighty One, that attempts to injure her will surely recoil on the head of the aggressor. And on the other hand, to help Israel, to bid her God-speed, will be a way to blessedness. Jehovah will make the overflowing of His grace descend like rain on those who take Israel’s part and cheer her on her way.

In the light of what afterwards took place, it is clear that Balaam was in this last ejaculation carried far beyond himself. He may have seen for a moment, in the flash of a heavenly light, the high distinction to which Israel was advancing. He certainly felt that to curse her would be perilous, to bless her meritorious. But the thought, like others of a more spiritual nature, did not enter deeply into his mind. Balaam could utter it with a kind of strenuous cordiality, and then do his utmost to falsify his own prediction. What matter fine emotions and noble protestations if they are only momentary and superficial? Balak’s open jealousy and hatred of Israel were, after all, more complimentary to her than the high-sounding praises of Balaam, who spoke as enjoying the elation of the prophet, not as delighting in the tenor of his message. Israel was nothing to him. Soon the prosperity to which she was destined became like gall and wormwood to his soul. The encampment roused his admiration at the time, but afterwards, when it became clear that the Israelites would have none of him, his mood changed towards them. Ambition ruled him to the end; and if the Hebrews did not offer in any way to minister to it, a man like Balaam would by-and-by set himself to bring down their pride. Weak humanity gives many examples of this. The man who has been an expectant flatterer of one greater than himself, but is denied the notice and honour he looks for, becomes, when his hopes have finally to be renounced, the most savage assailant, the most bitter detractor of his former hero. And so strong often are the minds which fall in this manner, that we look sometimes with anxiety even to the highest.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Numbers 22:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/numbers-22.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, September 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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