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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). Finally, Balak becomes outraged at Balaam and tells him to just go home (Numbers 24:11). 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). The One out of Jacob, the Messiah, will be victor over all His foes (see Ps. 2; 110; Rev. 19:11-21)" (note on Numbers 24:15-19).
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; Revelation 22:16). The scepter, the symbol of kingship, which would abide in Judah (Genesis 49:10), 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, "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), just across the Jordan River from the city of Jericho (Numbers 26:63). 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). 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).
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), they may have been participating in this ghastly practice. Psalm 106:28 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). God was infuriated, ordering Moses to execute every offender by hanging them in the sun till sunset (verse 4; Deuteronomy 21:23).
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; Psalm 106:30) 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.