Bible Commentary: Numbers 22:1-40

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Numbers 22:1-40

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Balak Sends for Balaam

In chapter 22 we meet some very strong personalities. The first is Balak, king of the Moabites, whose name means "Empty." Next is Balaam, a soothsayer (see Joshua 13:22 Joshua 13:22Balaam also the son of Beor, the soothsayer, did the children of Israel slay with the sword among them that were slain by them.
American King James Version×
) from Pethor, a city on the Euphrates in Mesopotamia (compare Deuteronomy 23:4 Deuteronomy 23:4Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when you came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.
American King James Version×
). His name means "Destroyer of the People," and Balak hires him in an attempt to destroy the Israelites. Israel's armies had not confronted Moab as of yet, but Balak, aware of what had happened to his enemy Sihon, was terrified that he and his kingdom were next. The irony of all that follows is that Israel had no fight with Moab. They only wanted passage to the Promised Land. In fact, God had told the Israelites not to attack Moab (Deuteronomy 2:1-9 Deuteronomy 2:1-9 [1] Then we turned, and took our journey into the wilderness by the way of the Red sea, as the LORD spoke to me: and we compassed mount Seir many days. [2] And the LORD spoke to me, saying, [3] You have compassed this mountain long enough: turn you northward. [4] And command you the people, saying, You are to pass through the coast of your brothers the children of Esau, which dwell in Seir; and they shall be afraid of you: take you good heed to yourselves therefore: [5] Meddle not with them; for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as a foot breadth; because I have given mount Seir to Esau for a possession. [6] You shall buy meat of them for money, that you may eat; and you shall also buy water of them for money, that you may drink. [7] For the LORD your God has blessed you in all the works of your hand: he knows your walking through this great wilderness: these forty years the LORD your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing. [8] And when we passed by from our brothers the children of Esau, which dwelled in Seir, through the way of the plain from Elath, and from Eziongaber, we turned and passed by the way of the wilderness of Moab. [9] And the LORD said to me, Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle: for I will not give you of their land for a possession; because I have given Ar to the children of Lot for a possession.
American King James Version×
). But Balak either didn't know this or didn't believe it. So he consulted with "the elders of Midian" with whom he may have had alliances. (Though Moses did have Midianite associations through dwelling with his wife's family for 40 years, it is likely that they were far removed from the clans these leaders represented—the Midianites being a widespread, nomadic people.) Yet Balak probably realized that a military campaign alone was not going to stop the Israelites and the supernatural power behind them. Rather, he needed to employ spiritual warfare—and thus the call for Balaam. The Nelson Study Bible explains:

"The Moabites believed that blessings and cursings from the gods could be manipulated by skilled agents, who presumed to be able to traffic with the gods. At the time, the most famous of these agents was Balaam of Mesopotamia. In 1967, a discovery was made in Jordan of an eighth-century b.c. inscription of prophecies of Balaam. This discovery in what was ancient Moab is stunning evidence of the renown of this prophet even hundreds of years after his death. Yet the Balaam of Scripture is thoroughly reprehensible. In Scripture he becomes a paradigm of evil, a nearly satanic figure (see Numbers 31:8 Numbers 31:8And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.
American King James Version×
; Deuteronomy 23:4-5 Deuteronomy 23:4-5 [4] Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when you came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. [5] Nevertheless the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam; but the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing to you, because the LORD your God loved you.
American King James Version×
; Joshua 13:22 Joshua 13:22Balaam also the son of Beor, the soothsayer, did the children of Israel slay with the sword among them that were slain by them.
American King James Version×
; Joshua 24:9-10 Joshua 24:9-10 [9] Then Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, arose and warred against Israel, and sent and called Balaam the son of Beor to curse you: [10] But I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you still: so I delivered you out of his hand.
American King James Version×
; Nehemiah 13:2 Nehemiah 13:2Because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, that he should curse them: however, our God turned the curse into a blessing.
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; Micah 6:5 Micah 6:5O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim to Gilgal; that you may know the righteousness of the LORD.
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; 2 Peter 2:15 2 Peter 2:15Which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness;
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; Jude 1:11 Jude 1:11Woe to them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core.
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; Revelation 2:14 Revelation 2:14But I have a few things against you, because you have there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication.
American King James Version×
). Balaam was a prophet who specialized in animal divination. He would inspect the liver of a ritually slain animal to ascertain from its shapes and markings the will of the gods. Such prophets also observed the movements of animals and birds in order to ascertain certain signs from the gods. It was thought that such prophets could in some mysterious manner influence the gods by various rites. If Balaam could influence the 'god' of Israel (as Balak supposed), then he might reverse their blessing, bring them under a curse, and destroy them.... In v. 8, Balaam speaks of the Lord as though he were intimate with him. Because he was an internationally known soothsayer, it's likely that he had heard enough about Israel from emissaries of Moab and Midian to have learned the name of the God of Israel. Indeed, the story of God's deliverance of Israel from Egypt would have been widely known throughout the Middle East (see Deuteronomy 2:25)" (notes on Numbers 22:5-8 Numbers 22:5-8 [5] He sent messengers therefore to Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of 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: [6] Come now therefore, I pray you, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure 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. [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. [8] And he said to them, Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the LORD shall speak to me: and the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam.
American King James Version×
).

When the Moabite and Midianite leaders arrive with payment for Balaam, God informs Balaam, evidently in a night vision, that the Israelites are protected and that he is not to go with these men (Numbers 22:12 Numbers 22:12And God said to Balaam, You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people: for they are blessed.
American King James Version×
). It is not that Balaam doesn't want to go beyond what God says—he does. But he knows that he can't. When a larger entourage appears with a "blank check" from Balak, we learn a little about Balaam's sincerity in following God. Motivated by greed, rather than accepting the pronouncement God has already made, he goes to get a "new" word from Him. And God does give Balaam permission to go, with the restriction that he wait to be called upon by the princes and that he do only what God says.

Yet Balaam apparently doesn't wait on the princes, but heads out on his own to join them, contrary to God's specific instructions, thus angering God. Then we have the colorful reversal of roles in Balaam's arguing with the dumb donkey and the donkey using logic with him! (verses 22-31). Moreover, the donkey could see the angel with the drawn sword while Balaam could not. This was all rather ironic. "Balaam was supposed to have been able to communicate with the gods through animals. However, in this situation, the 'seer' was blind to the presence of the true God. It was the animal who was the seer, perceiving the true will of God in the Angel that blocked the path" (note on Numbers 22:22-30 Numbers 22:22-30 [22] And God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding on his ass, and his two servants were with him. [23] And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and 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. [24] But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. [25] And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself to the wall, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall: and he smote her again. [26] And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. [27] And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff. [28] And the LORD 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? [29] And Balaam said to the ass, Because you have mocked me: I would there were a sword in my hand, for now would I kill you. [30] And the ass said to Balaam, Am not I your ass, on which you have ridden ever since I was your to this day? was I ever wont to do so to you? And he said, No.
American King James Version×
). Balaam's insincere conversation with the angel shows the desires of his heart are not to please God.

When Balaam comes to Balak, he explains that he can only say what God will allow, though with all his heart he would love to get around God and curse Israel.


Supplementary Reading: "Archaeology and the Book of Exodus: Exit From Egypt," The Good News, May-June 1997, pp. 22-24.