Bible Commentary: Numbers 22:41-23:26

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Numbers 22:41-23:26

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Balaam’s Prophecies 

Balak and Balaam look down on the children of Israel from a high vantage point, a “high place” for the worship of Baal (verses 38-41), a location supposedly imbued with spiritual power. At Balaam’s request, Balak builds seven new altars in this high place just for Balaam to sacrifice upon. Balaam sacrifices seven bulls and seven rams. False religion often counterfeits elements of true worship but in a superstitious way, its practitioners wrongly believing that God is primarily interested in rituals. Yet God is preparing a people who will one day be His children ruling in His Kingdom. Rituals such as animal sacrifices are not what He is really after—rather, the purpose behind them is what is important. For instance, animal sacrifices teach obedience and look to the need for the sacrifice of Christ. In many places in the Scriptures, we see this plainly stated: “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (Hebrews 10:8 Hebrews 10:8Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin you would not, neither had pleasure therein; which are offered by the law;
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; compare Matthew 12:17 Matthew 12:17That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying,
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; Hosea 6:6 Hosea 6:6For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.
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; Psalms 40:6 Psalms 40:6Sacrifice and offering you did not desire; my ears have you opened: burnt offering and sin offering have you not required.
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; Psalms 51:16 Psalms 51:16For you desire not sacrifice; else would I give it: you delight not in burnt offering.
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). There is, of course, no power in rituals or locations themselves—a fact that was lost on the ancient Baal worshipers.

Balaam, supposedly the greatest prophet of the time drawing from the “power” of Baal’s high place, is still unable to curse Israel (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 4, chap. 6, sec. 2). Balaam cannot curse the children of Israel because the true God will not allow it. In fact, whenever Balaam prophesies, God has him pronounce blessing after blessing on Israel. Incidentally, seven prophecies of Balaam are recorded in all, each introduced with the words “he took up his oracle and said” (Numbers 23:7 Numbers 23:7And he took up his parable, and said, Balak the king of Moab has brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying, Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel.
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, Numbers 23:18 Numbers 23:18And he took up his parable, and said, Rise up, Balak, and hear; listen to me, you son of Zippor:
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; Numbers 24:3 Numbers 24:3And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor has said, and the man whose eyes are open has said:
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, Numbers 23:15 Numbers 23:15And he said to Balak, Stand here by your burnt offering, while I meet the LORD yonder.
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, Numbers 23:20-21 Numbers 23:20-21 [20] Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and he has blessed; and I cannot reverse it. [21] He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.
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, Numbers 23:23 Numbers 23:23Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What has God worked!
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). The blessings for Israel are so sublime that Balaam ends up uttering a prayer after the first one: “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his!” (23:10). Balak is flabbergasted: “You didn’t curse them, you blessed them!” (compare verse 11). The petition of Balaam, however, who is still bent on Israel’s destruction, will not be granted.

Balak, undeterred, tries again. He takes Balaam to the top of Pisgah in the field of Zophim, as if going to another place will have some influence on God. They go through the seven-altar ritual again, and the result is the same (verses 14-16). This time Balaam explains to Balak that God is not like a human being who changes his mind in a fickle manner and whose word is not good (verse 19; compare Malachi 3:6 Malachi 3:6For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore you sons of Jacob are not consumed.
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). He goes on to proclaim how God viewed His people: “He has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has He seen wickedness in Israel” (Numbers 23:21 Numbers 23:21He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.
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). Yet with all that the children of Israel have done, how can this be true? It may be that God was comparing Israel to the pagan nations around them, since Israel was not yet involved in human sacrifice and the like. But perhaps more likely is the fact that God’s forgiveness and His plan are perfect. God prophesies of Israel, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:34 Jeremiah 31:34And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, said the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
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). And “God calls those things which be not as though they were” (Romans 4:17 Romans 4:17(As it is written, I have made you a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who vivifies the dead, and calls those things which be not as though they were.
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, King James Version)—which in this case would mean He sees Israel’s redemption as essentially a “done deal” because He is able to bring it to pass.

Balaam is forced to admit that none of their “hocus-pocus” can work against the children of Israel (Numbers 23:23 Numbers 23:23Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What has God worked!
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). And Balak realizes he has gotten in deeper than he wanted: “If you can’t curse them, at least don’t bless them,” he pleads (compare verse 25). By this, he might even have been saying, “I’ll pay you to just keep your mouth shut!” Nevertheless, he is prepared to simply try a better location.

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