IMPURE MOTIVES LEAD TO COMPROMISING SITUATIONS
Chapters 22-24 cover the story of Balaam and Balak as the Lord assures Israel of His covenant promise to bless the chosen nation. In this introductory portion, Balaam demonstrates the tension between his commitment to remain loyal to the Lord’s command and revelation, and yet push for his own greedy agenda as well. As Israel has left Egypt and now wandered for 40 years in the desert, the nation has been transformed from an oppressed, fearful people to a strong fighting force that now strikes terror in the hearts of the Moabites and Midianites after a victorious military showing against the Amorites. Israel is poised to enter the promised land, but there are hidden attacks behind the scenes that still threaten to undermine God’s prophecied promise of future blessing. There is no prophet that more symbolizes impure motives and a double-minded heart than the intriguing character of Balaam.
Constable: Balaam’s importance in Numbers should be obvious in view of the amount of text Moses devoted to his activities (chs 22-24). His oracles are the centerpiece of this revelation. God announced through these revelations that He would bless Israel and that He would fulfill His promises to the patriarchs. The restatement of these promises was especially appropriate at this moment in Israel’s experience. The nation received a reminder that God would give them the land of Canaan west of the Jordan, not just the territories of Sihon and Og. That these messages had come through a man who was not an Israelite, but received pay to curse Israel from her enemies, would have given the Israelites even greater confidence. The oracles, therefore, not only weakened the will of Israel’s enemies in Moab, Midian, and the other Canaanite nations, but they encouraged the Israelites.
Gordon Wenham: In Genesis 12:1–3, and subsequent passages, Abraham was promised three things: land, descendants and a covenant relationship. Balaam’s first oracle mentions Israel’s special relationship with God and her great population (23:8; cf. Gen. 12:3. Num. 22:17; cf. Gen. 13:16; 12:2–3). The second oracle concentrates on Israel’s covenant relationship (cf. Gen. 12:2–3). The third vision describes how Israel will shortly enjoy peace and prosperity in the promised land. The fourth vision describes an Israelite king, a much rarer element in the patriarchal promises (cf. Gen. 17:6, 16; 35:11). The eloquent restatement of the old promises is most appropriate at this juncture. Israel, camping beside the Jordan, the eastern border of Canaan, is reminded that her promised home is not the territory of Sihon and Og which they have just conquered, but lies to the west. The extraordinary means through which the heathen prophet is led to make these predictions is a sign of their divine origin and a guarantee of their ultimate fulfilment. The people should, therefore, take courage despite the daunting prospect of the struggles ahead of them.
Roy Gane: According to Deuteronomy 2:9, the Lord has already commanded Moses not to disturb the Moabites or take any of their land, but poor Balak does not know this. So, ruling out a preemptive military strike, even with the help of his Midianite allies (Num. 22:4), he comes up with an alternative proactive strategy to utilize a secret weapon: a curse by Balaam. Balak does not expect Balaam to destroy the Israelites but only to soften them up and thereby even the odds to manageable proportions so that his ground troops will have a fighting chance (22:5–6). Balaam, a diviner (Josh. 13:22) who originated from the northeast by the Euphrates River, has an international reputation for pronouncing effective blessings, and when it comes to curses, you could say that he is the maledictorian in his class (Num. 22:6b).
J. Ligon Duncan: Conspiracy to Curse
What is the message of this passage? When God has set His blessing upon you, nothing can thwart it; no power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck you from His hand.
(:1) PROLOGUE – TRANSITION – ISRAEL IN POSITION
“Then the sons of Israel journeyed, and camped in the plains of Moab
beyond the Jordan opposite Jericho.”
Harrison: The Israelites had been careful not to provoke the Moabites to battle, journeying well to the east of their territory as they moved north to the Arnon gorge. Now Balak feared for the safety of his own kingdom, and his trepidation was shared by his subjects, who must have heard reports about the fate of Sihon and Og.
I. (:2-6) KING BALAK OF MOAB SOLICITS HELP FROM BALAAM (IN CONCERT WITH MIDIAN) —
IMPURE MOTIVES MAKE US GOOD CANDIDATES FOR COMPROMISING PROPOSALS
A. (:2-3) Terrified by the Threat of Israel — Sensing a Slaughter
1. (:2) Terrified Because of the Slaughter of the Amorites
“Now Balak the son of Zippor
saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.”
Raymond Brown: News of Israel’s conquests spread quickly throughout Moabite territory. Balak, its ruler, was distraught at the prospect of an invasion, particularly as the travelers had just conquered the Amorites, a people who had earlier subdued Moab. His disturbed mind hit on a bright idea: he would seek supernatural help rather than rely solely on military strength. Why not call in a widely acclaimed soothsayer, Balaam from Mesopotamia, and pay him handsomely to put an inhibiting curse on the Israelites? Balak’s soldiers could then engage in battle with a people whose prospect of military success was blighted from the start.
Wiersbe: He had a reputation for success in divination (receiving hidden knowledge, especially about the future) and incantation (the use of occult power to grant blessing or cursing), and he was willing to sell his services to all who could pay his fee.
2. (:3) Terrified Because of the Large Numbers of Israelites
“So Moab was in great fear because of the people,
for they were numerous;
and Moab was in dread of the sons of Israel.”
Raymond Brown: Balak was filled with dread (22:3); literally, ‘a sickening dread came over him’ whenever he thought about the approaching multitude, and he told his senior counsellors of his anxiety (4). Many of our contemporaries can sympathize with him. Fear is one of the recurrent hazards of our time. Like so much anxiety, his worst fears were groundless. God had told Moses not to ‘harass the Moabites … you are to pass by the region of Moab’. The great Victorian preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon used to say that ‘anxiety does nothing to rob tomorrow of its sorrows; it only robs today of its strength’. We have something to learn from Balak—so much anxiety is wasted emotional energy and unnecessary mental torture.
B. (:4) Aligning with Adjacent Midian
“And Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘Now this horde will lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.’
And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time.”
Ronald Allen: The proverbial figure of an ox licking the grass is particularly fitting for a pastoral people. Balak knew how quickly the fragile grasses of the lands of Moab could be eaten by large beasts. The image of Israel as an ox is an emphatic symbol of her strength and power. The association of Moab to the Midianites in this verse is more significant than we might first think. It will be another plot developed by Midianite collusion with Moab that will finally bring great disaster on Israel (ch. 5, the apostasy of Israel at Baal Peor.)
C. (:5-6) Calling for a Curse
1. (:5a) Dispatching Delegation to Seek Assistance
“So he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the River, in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying,”
Timothy Asher: The term the River (hannāhār), without any accompanying designation, usually denotes the Euphrates (e.g., Gen. 31:21; Exod. 23:31; Josh. 24:2–3, 14–15). The only exception seems to be Isa. 19:2, which refers to the Nile. Such an exception, however, is not enough to overturn the rule. Pethor is almost universally agreed to be ancient Pitru (modern Tell el-Aḥmar), a site on the Sajur, a tributary of the Euphrates, about two miles from its confluence with the Euphrates, and about 12 mi. south of Carchemish. Pitru is mentioned in a report of Shalmaneser II’s (ca. 859–824) first campaign against Damascus, and even earlier by the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III (15th cent.). The distance between Pethor (Pitru) and the plains of Moab would be over 370 miles. The journey would take an estimated 20–25 days, hence the four journeys in the story about 90 days. The biblical narrative ignores the length of the journeys, choosing rather to structure the narrative on three pairs of days (days 1–2: 22:2–14; days 3–4: 22:15–35; days 5–6: 22:36–24:35).
Constable: Balaam’s name probably came from a Hebrew root meaning “destroyer” or “devourer.” His father’s name, Beor, apparently came from another word meaning “to burn,” “eat off,” or “destroy.” The name of Balaam’s father suggests that he may have been a sorcerer and may have given Balaam his power as well as his name at birth. However, Balaam may have received his name later in life when his powers with the spirit world became known. In either case Balaam’s name suggests that he was a veteran conjurer of curses.
2. (:5b-6) Making the Case for Cursing Israel
a. Vision Casting — Behold — Imminent Serious Danger
“Behold, a people came out of Egypt;
behold, they cover the surface of the land,
and they are living opposite me.”
b. Action Proposal — Come and Curse
“Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me
since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land.”
Harrison: Balak wished Balaam to exercise his training in cursing and proclaim maledictions upon Moab’s unexpected and unwelcome neighbors so that, having this advantage over them, he could exterminate them. Balak’s invitation ended with an ingratiating comment that reflected his knowledge of Balaam’s expertise.
c. Guaranteed Results – You Hold the Key to Blessing or Cursing
“For I know that he whom you bless is blessed,
and he whom you curse is cursed.”
II. (:7-14) PAGAN PROPHET BALAAM FORBIDDEN BY THE LORD TO GO AND CURSE ISRAEL —
IMPURE MOTIVES REBUKED BY DIVINE REVELATION
A. (:7-8) Initial Interaction
1. (:7) Delegation Makes Their Pitch
“So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam and repeated Balak’s words to him.”
2. (:8) Divine Guidance Sought by Balaam
“And he said to them, ‘Spend the night here, and I will bring word back
to you as the LORD may speak to me.’ And the leaders of Moab stayed with Balaam.”
Gordon Keddie: Balaam’s use of the word YHWH for “Lord” would seem to indicate that he specifically sought the God of Israel for guidance in the matter. This does not indicate any faith in the living God, beyond a general acknowledgement of his existence, or the possibility of his existence. The world of pagans is populated with gods of all sorts and a diviner like Balaam, far from disbelieving in the gods of other nations, would accept their reality as a matter of course. His job, as he saw it, was to find out the will of the god, or gods, directly relevant to the case.
B. (:9-12) Resounding Rejection
1. (:9) Examining the Source
“Then God came to Balaam and said, ‘Who are these men with you?’”
Iain Duguid: Sure enough, the Lord appeared to Balaam in the night and asked him, “Who are these men with you?” (v. 9). On the face of it, that is a simple question, but why did God ask it? He certainly didn’t need the information from Balaam since he already knows all things. In the Bible God typically asks questions not for his own benefit but for the benefit of his hearers. When God said to Adam, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Genesis 3:11), he was giving Adam an opportunity to confess his sins. When the Lord asked Isaiah, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8), he wasn’t expressing personal uncertainty; he was giving Isaiah the opportunity to volunteer for the mission. So too when the Lord said to Balaam, “Who are these men?” he wanted Balaam to reflect on who would be giving him his orders if he accepted their commission. What authority did they have to summon him, and what power did they have to reward him? These were not gods who had come to him—they were mere men.
Bob Deffinbaugh: t was a good question. Who were these men? They were the emissaries of Balak, the king of Moab. These were men who represented nations and governments that were opposed to the nation Israel. These were men who were seeking to persuade Balaam to curse the very people God had blessed. In the light of this, what were these men doing in Balaam’s house, as his guests? To invite one to be a guest in your home was to grant them the highest level of intimacy and fellowship. . . Inviting them to stay the night was the first of a sequence of mistakes Balaam made with regard to Balak and his requests.
2. (:10-11) Explaining the Situation
a. (:10) The Players
“And Balaam said to God,
‘Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent word to me,’”
b. (:11) The Proposition
“Behold, there is a people who came out of Egypt and they cover the surface of the land; now come, curse them for me; perhaps I may be able to fight against them, and drive them out.”
3. (:12) Excluding the Options
“And God said to Balaam, ‘Do not go with them;
you shall not curse the people; for they are blessed.’”
Gordon Wenham: In traditional manner Balaam seeks God’s will at night. Quite unequivocally he is told You shall not go with them; You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed (12). Balaam is thus trapped between the demands of Balak and the commands of God. It is this conflict that sustains the whole drama that follows.
C. (:13-14) Communicating the Counsel of the Lord
1. (:13) Balaam Communicates to the Delegation
“So Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak’s leaders, ‘Go back to your land, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you.’”
Timothy Ashley: Yahweh forbids Balaam to do two things: to go with Balak’s messengers, and to curse Israel. In the morning Balaam reports to the messengers only that Yahweh will not let him go with them. The messengers then return to inform Balak of Balaam’s rejection of his offer.
2. (:14) Delegation Communicates to Balak
“And the leaders of Moab arose and went to Balak, and said, ‘Balaam refused to come with us.’”
III. (:15-20) BALAAM SOLICITED AGAIN WITH A BLANK CHECK —
IMPURE MOTIVES ALWAYS OPEN TO NEW POSSIBILITIES
A. (:15-17) Improving the Offer
1. (:15) Better Delegation
“Then Balak again sent leaders,
more numerous and more distinguished than the former.”
2. (:16) Better Overcoming of Obstacles
“And they came to Balaam and said to him, ‘Thus says Balak the son of Zippor, ‘Let nothing, I beg you, hinder you from coming to me;’”
3. (:17) Better Compensation
“for I will indeed honor you richly,
and I will do whatever you say to me.”
4. (:17b) Same Solicitation to Curse Israel
“Please come then, curse this people for me.”
B. (:18) Professing Unwavering Loyalty to the Word of God
“And Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, ‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the LORD my God.’”
Wiersbe: Knowing God’s will in the matter, Balaam should have refused even to consider the second offer, but the hireling soothsayer was still hoping to find some way to circumvent God’s will. In light of the fact that Balaam even considered the new offer, his speech in verse 18 is just so much pious talk. With his lips, he professed to obey the Lord, but in his heart he coveted the money and hoped God would change His mind.
C. (:19-20) Opening the Door to a Possible Change of Plans
1. (:19) Revisiting Divine Guidance
“And now please, you also stay here tonight,
and I will find out what else the LORD will speak to me.”
2. (:20) Revised Divine Instructions
“And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, ‘If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do.’”
(:21) EPILOGUE – BALAAM GOES TO BALAK
“So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey,
and went with the leaders of Moab.”
Iain Duguid: Balaam went with them in haste and without any explicit clarification of what had transpired overnight, presumably giving the envoys the impression that he had straightened out the difficulties with the Lord and was now all set to earn his substantial fees by cursing Israel.