Bible Commentary: Numbers 23:27-25:18

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Numbers 23:27-25:18

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A Star out of Jacob 

Balak is determined to have Israel cursed. He brings Balaam to a third mountaintop, Peor, to go through the seven-altar, seven-bull, seven-ram ritual again. And from Mount Peor, Balaam, intending curses, again issues beautiful blessings on the children of Israel (verses 1-9). It was, of course, God who turned the curses to blessings (Deuteronomy 23:5 Deuteronomy 23:5Nevertheless 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×
). Finally, Balak becomes outraged at Balaam and tells him to just go home (Numbers 24:11 Numbers 24:11Therefore now flee you to your place: I thought to promote you to great honor; but, see, the LORD has kept you back from honor.
American King James Version×
). Yet Balaam has more to say.

Notice the prophecy in which he states: "I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and batter the brow of Moab, and destroy all the sons of tumult. And Edom shall be a possession" (verses 17-18). As The Nelson Study Bible notes: "This poetic language clearly refers to the Messiah. The pagan Balaam had a vision of the coming of the Hebrew Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ! He was visible from afar. He was like a Star, radiant and beautiful. He was like a Scepter, majestic and powerful. And He is the victor over His enemies, including Moab—the nation that hired Balaam to curse Israel! All nations who resisted Israel and God's work would come under the curse they unwittingly embraced. Among them was Edom, which rejected the request of Moses for safe passage (Numbers 20:14-21 Numbers 20:14-21 [14] And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, Thus said your brother Israel, You know all the travail that has befallen us: [15] How our fathers went down into Egypt, and we have dwelled in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians vexed us, and our fathers: [16] And when we cried to the LORD, he heard our voice, and sent an angel, and has brought us forth out of Egypt: and, behold, we are in Kadesh, a city in the uttermost of your border: [17] Let us pass, I pray you, through your country: we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, neither will we drink of the water of the wells: we will go by the king's high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed your borders. [18] And Edom said to him, You shall not pass by me, lest I come out against you with the sword. [19] And the children of Israel said to him, We will go by the high way: and if I and my cattle drink of your water, then I will pay for it: I will only, without doing anything else, go through on my feet. [20] And he said, You shall not go through. And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand. [21] Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border: why Israel turned away from him.
American King James Version×
). The One out of Jacob, the Messiah, will be victor over all His foes (see Ps. 2; 110; Revelation 19:11-21 Revelation 19:11-21 [11] And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he does judge and make war. [12] His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. [13] And he was clothed with a clothing dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. [14] And the armies which were in heaven followed him on white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. [15] And out of his mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treads the wine press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. [16] And he has on his clothing and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS. [17] And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the middle of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together to the supper of the great God; [18] That you may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great. [19] And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. [20] And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that worked miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. [21] And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat on the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh.
American King James Version×
)" (note on Numbers 24:15-19 Numbers 24:15-19 [15] And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor has said, and the man whose eyes are open has said: [16] He has said, which heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the most High, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open: [17] I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. [18] And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly. [19] Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remains of the city.
American King James Version×
).

The legitimacy of Balaam's prophecy may be found in the fact that it is confirmed elsewhere in the Bible. Jesus Christ is represented as a "Star" (2 Peter 1:19 2 Peter 1:19We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto you do well that you take heed, as to a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:
American King James Version×
; Revelation 22:16 Revelation 22:16I Jesus have sent my angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.
American King James Version×
). The scepter, the symbol of kingship, which would abide in Judah (Genesis 49:10 Genesis 49:10The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and to him shall the gathering of the people be.
American King James Version×
), was to go to the Messiah, Himself of the tribe of Judah, at His coming in power. Then there's the prophecy about battering the brow of Moab and destroying the sons of tumult. The original King James leaves the word "tumult" untranslated as "Sheth." Though some have seen here a reference to Adam's son Seth, this would mean the Messiah would destroy all people living at His return (as everyone alive since Noah's Flood is descended from Seth), and the Bible clearly explains that He will not do this. The word "tumult," then, is correct—and a similar prophecy may be found in Jeremiah 48:45-46 Jeremiah 48:45-46 [45] They that fled stood under the shadow of Heshbon because of the force: but a fire shall come forth out of Heshbon, and a flame from the middle of Sihon, and shall devour the corner of Moab, and the crown of the head of the tumultuous ones. [46] Woe be to you, O Moab! the people of Chemosh perishes: for your sons are taken captives, and your daughters captives.
American King James Version×
, "But a fire shall come out of Heshbon, a flame from the midst of Sihon, and shall devour the brow of Moab, the crown of the head of the sons of tumult. Woe to you, O Moab!". Indeed, numerous passages warn of destruction to befall Moab and Edom at the time of Christ's return.

After proclaiming three more brief prophecies—dealing with the Amalekites, the Kenites (a Midianite tribe), the Assyrians, ships from the west, and the Hebrews—Balaam finally does head out for home. But, though not clear from this chapter alone, he does so only after explaining to Balak an effective way to hurt the Israelites. We will see the results of Balaam's instructions in our next reading.

Harlotry and Idolatry of the Israelites 

Israel's journey is basically over. They stand at Acacia Grove in Moab (Numbers 25:1 Numbers 25:1And Israel stayed in Shittim, and the people began to commit prostitution with the daughters of Moab.
American King James Version×
), just across the Jordan River from the city of Jericho (Numbers 26:63 Numbers 26:63These are they that were numbered by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who numbered the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho.
American King James Version×
). But what happens? Chapter 25 describes one of the most horrible episodes in the book of Numbers. How Israel here plunged headlong into such idolatry and sinfulness is almost inexplicable without looking elsewhere in the Scriptures. But when we do look elsewhere, we find that Balaam advised Balak to set a trap of sin for the Israelites so that God would curse His people: "Balaam...taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality" (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×
). And just how was this accomplished? In Numbers 31, we will see more of the advice that Balaam gave to Balak: "Look, these [Midianite] women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord" (Numbers 31:15-16 Numbers 31:15-16 [15] And Moses said to them, Have you saved all the women alive? [16] Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.
American King James Version×
).

Balaam's plan worked. The women of Moab and its Midianite allies sexually enticed many of the Israelites to join with them in their sexually immoral idolatrous practices. This was likely presented as an offer of national friendship and perhaps even a new way to worship God. Yet it was, in fact, flagrant rebellion against the true God. No doubt, temple prostitutes seduced Israelite men into sexual rites linked with their religious sacrifices to Baal or Chemosh, also known as Molech. Such worship often included human sacrifice—the word "cannibal" actually being derived from Cahna-Bal, meaning "the priest of Baal" (Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons, 1959, p. 232). Thus, when the Israelites ate of the Moabite sacrifices (Numbers 25:2 Numbers 25:2And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.
American King James Version×
), they may have been participating in this ghastly practice. Psalms 106:28 Psalms 106:28They joined themselves also to Baalpeor, and ate the sacrifices of the dead.
American King James Version×
says they ate "sacrifices offered to the dead," but the original King James is more literal in rendering this "sacrifices of the dead"—which, again, may imply human sacrifices. In any event, "this was not just another time of trouble, this was the most serious challenge yet. The people had been seduced into joining the worship of Baal. And it was Baal worship that they had been sent to Canaan to eliminate!" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Numbers 25:4-5 Numbers 25:4-5 [4] And the LORD said to Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel. [5] And Moses said to the judges of Israel, Slay you every one his men that were joined to Baalpeor.
American King James Version×
). God was infuriated, ordering Moses to execute every offender by hanging them in the sun till sunset (verse 4; Deuteronomy 21:23 Deuteronomy 21:23His body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that your land be not defiled, which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance.
American King James Version×
).

Zimri, an Israelite prince of Simeon, brazenly presented a princess of Midian, Cozbi, who was probably a temple prostitute, before Moses and the whole congregation. Although it is not entirely clear, it appears that they may have been performing their lewd rites in an open tent in full view of those at the door of the tabernacle of meeting! Aaron's grandson Phinehas, in impassioned zeal for God and righteous indignation, took a spear and drove it through the two. Shamefully, the idolatrous worship must have been rather widespread as the plague was stopped only after 24,000 people died. In terms of the death toll, this was an even worse disaster than the rebellion of Korah, wherein 14,700 died. God was pleased with the zealousness of Phinehas in executing judgment (Numbers 25:11 Numbers 25:11Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy.
American King James Version×
; Psalms 106:30 Psalms 106:30Then stood up Phinehas, and executed judgment: and so the plague was stayed.
American King James Version×
) and gave the line of the priesthood to his descendants as an everlasting covenant of peace (verses 12-13).

Following this terrible incident, God gives Moses instructions to "harass" the Midianites, that is, to engage them in battle as His vengeance on them. And this battle, which will be Moses' last, will be fought shortly—though it is not reported until chapter 31.

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