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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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NUMBERS 23

The preparations having been completed, this chapter gives the first two of some seven of the prophecies of Balaam. These are called parables in our version, but these utterances of Balaam bear no resemblance whatever to N.T. parables of Jesus. Whitelaw explained that this type of utterance resembled the "burden" of the later prophets, "in that it was not a discourse uttered to men, but a thing revealed in a man, of which he had to deliver himself as best he might in such words as came to him. His inward eye was fixed on this revelation, and he gave utterance to it without consideration of those who heard."F1 It appears that such communications came when the prophet was in an unusual type of trance, in which his eyes remained open. Today, we would refer to these pronouncements simply as "prophecies."

These various oracles or prophecies of Balaam are given in a highly dramatic and powerful style of poetry in the most ancient Hebrew manner with many parallel or contrasting lines. It is agreed among the most dependable scholars that, "These are authentic utterances from about 1500 B.C.";F2 and that there is nothing at all in these chapters that requires the postulation of any date later than the times of Moses.F3

The great mystery of this entire episode continues to be connected with God's manifest use of a wicked and corrupt man, such as Balaam proved to be, as the heavenly spokesman for some of the grandest prophecies to be found in the entire word of God. Balaam's roots were pagan, he had the confidence of pagan rulers, and was in their employ, seeking their favor, when these prophecies were uttered, making his acceptability to the pagan world as a competent witness almost perfect, despite his acquaintance with and knowledge of the true God. What a devastating effect the prophecies of such a prophet must have had upon the entire pagan world of that era. This, of course, would have been an enormous help for the Israelites in the conquest they were about to begin, and it could have been that such a benefit to the conquering hosts of Israel was exactly the kind of thing God planned in his use of such a messenger to the pagan populations of that day.

Num. 23:1-7

And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven bullocks and seven rams. And Balak did as Balaam had spoken; and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bullock and a ram. And Balaam said unto Balak, Stand by thy burnt-offering, and I will go: peradventure Jehovah will come to meet me; and whatsoever he showeth me I will tell thee. And he went to a bare height. And God met Balaam: and he said unto him, I have prepared the seven altars, and I have offered up a bullock and a ram on every altar. And Jehovah put a word in Balaam's mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak. And he returned unto him, and, lo, he was standing by his burnt-offering, he, and all the princes of Moab. And he took up his parable, and said:

It is obvious from Balaam's mention of his having prepared "the seven altars, etc.," that he was acting upon God's specific instructions regarding his procedure upon that occasion. That all of this is unusual in a most extraordinary sense is obvious, but it was the will of God thus to communicate with Balak, and through him, with all the pagan rulers of that day."


 
Verses 1-6
And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven bullocks and seven rams. And Balak did as Balaam had spoken; and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bullock and a ram. And Balaam said unto Balak, Stand by thy burnt-offering, and I will go: peradventure Jehovah will come to meet me; and whatsoever he showeth me I will tell thee. And he went to a bare height. And God met Balaam: and he said unto him, I have prepared the seven altars, and I have offered up a bullock and a ram on every altar. And Jehovah put a word in Balaam's mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak. And he returned unto him, and, lo, he was standing by his burnt-offering, he, and all the princes of Moab.
(Numbers 23:3). Balaam's procedure here was that of following the usual customs of paganism. Balaam here was going out to look for a manifestation of Jehovah in the significant phenomena of nature.F4 The pagan world had no sure word of Prophecy, and, therefore, they sought to know the mind of God by looking for clues in the sky, in nature, or in natural phenomena. Any such thing as an eclipse of the sun, for example, would have been hailed as an omen of disaster.

A bare height…
(Numbers 23:4). This means a bald, or barren eminence affording a wide view of surrounding terrain. That Balaam should have selected such a place is in perfect harmony with the context, as the heathen augurs were always accustomed to select elevated places for their auspices, with an extensive prospect, especially the towering and barren summits of mountains that were rarely visited by men.F5

For the Children of Israel such appeals to natural phenomena, usually called auguries, were forbidden (Leviticus 19:26). That God indeed responded to Balaam following such procedures must be credited to the unusual and extraordinary intention and purpose of God upon this occasion. "God's thus dealing with Balaam here was in an exceptional manner."F6

Despite God's permissive use of such pagan devices on this occasion, however, he made it most clear and certain that the message received by Balaam on that occasion was in no sense whatever suggested or derived from any such thing. Balaam was not left to conclude that this or that was meant, because God "put a very distinct and unmistakable word into Balaam's mouth, and commanded him to make it known to Balak."F7

The principal complaint of critics with reference to these chapters regarding Balaam is that the account has a "contradiction." This allegation is based on the fact that some passages seem to associate Balaam with Midian and most of the others associate him with Moab. Recent research, however, destroys such criticisms. "Balak was a Midianite who became the king of Moab!"F8 From this it is clear that the bringing in of the Elders of Midian was due, not to the influence of Balaam, but to that of Balak.

FIRST ORACLE

From Aram hath Balak brought me,

The king of Moab from the mountains of the East:

Come, curse me Jacob,

And come, defy Israel.

How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?

And how shall I defy, whom Jehovah hath not defied?

For from the top of the rocks I see him,

And from the hills I behold him:

Lo, it is a people that dwelleth alone,

And shall not be reckoned among the nations.

Who can count the dust of Jacob,

Or number the fourth part of Israel?

Let me die the death of the righteous,

And let my last end be like his!"


 
Verses 7-10
And he took up his parable, and said, From Aram hath Balak brought me, The king of Moab from the mountains of the East: Come, curse me Jacob, And come, defy Israel. How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? And how shall I defy, whom Jehovah hath not defied? For from the top of the rocks I see him, And from the hills I behold him: lo, it is a people that dwelleth alone, And shall not be reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, Or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, And let my last end be like his!
(Num. 23:7b). This is the ancient name of Mesopotamia.F9 It includes the northern part of Mesopotamia and Syria as far south as the borders of Palestine and the larger part of Arabia Petraea.F10 Note that mountains of the East are in apposition with Aram, and this helps to identify its location.

Who can count the dust of Jacob…
(Numbers 23:10). God had promised Abraham that his posterity should be as innumerable as the stars of the heaven or the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16); and here is a confirmation of that prophecy in the mouth of Balaam. Could this have derived in any manner from anything in Balaam's mind? No! We must reject interpretations that are based upon what scholars suppose that Balaam had in mind. Balaam was not the author of these prophecies. God gave them. Carson, for example, rejected the thought that there was any reference to the after-life in Balaam's last lines here, saying that, The thought of blessing beyond the grave could hardly have been in Balaam's mind!F11 Certainly that comment is true, but, since the words here are of God, and not of Balaam, it can hardly be denied that the request as it stands is surely big enough to include life after death.

Let me die the death of the righteous…
The word righteous here (Numbers 23:10) is plural and therefore refers to all of the nation of Israel. His in the same context also speaks of the nation as a corporate unity.F12 As far as it pertained to Balaam, such a request was futile. He died fighting on the side of the enemies of Israel (Numbers 31:8).

And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether. And he answered and said, Must I not take heed to speak that which Jehovah putteth in my mouth?

And Balak said unto him, Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place, from whence thou mayest see them; thou shalt see but the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all: and curse me them from thence. And he took him into the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars, and offered up a bullock and a ram on every altar. And he said unto Balak, Stand here by thy burnt-offering, while I meet Jehovah yonder. And Jehovah met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus shalt thou speak. And he came to him, and, lo, he was standing by his burnt-offering, and the princes of Moab with him. And Balak said unto him, What hath Jehovah spoken? And he took up his parable, and said,

SECOND ORACLE

Rise up, Balak, and hear;

Hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor:

God is not a man, that he should lie,

Neither the son of man, that he should repent:

Hath he said, and will he not do it?

Or hath he spoken, and will he not make it good?

Behold, I have received commandment to bless:

And he hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it.

He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob;

Neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel:

Jehovah his God is with him,

And the shout of a king is among them.

God bringeth them forth out of Egypt;

He hath as it were the strength of the wild-ox.

Surely there is no enchantment with Jacob;

Neither is there any divination with Israel:

Now shall it be said of Jacob and of Israel,

What hath God wrought!

Behold, the people riseth up as a lioness,

And as a lion doth he lift himself up:

He shall not lie down until he eat of the prey,

And drink the blood of the slain.

And Balak said unto Balaam, Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all. But Balaam answered and said unto Balak, Told not I thee, saying, All that Jehovah speaketh, that I must do?"

The first eight lines of this second oracle have the impact upon Balak, saying, in effect, "Look, Balak, what a fool you are to think that Almighty God, having blessed his people already, will now withhold that blessing, or curse Israel!" The rest of this second oracle reaffirms in stronger tones than ever the blessing of Jacob by Jehovah, promising, among other blessings, that he shall destroy his enemies as a lion slays and devours the prey.


 
Verses 11-26
And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether. And he answered and said, Must I not take heed to speak that which Jehovah putteth in my mouth? And Balak said unto him, Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place, from whence thou mayest see them; thou shalt see but the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all: and curse me them from thence. And he took him into the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars, and offered up a bullock and a ram on every altar. And he said unto Balak, Stand here by thy burnt-offering, while I meet [Jehovah] yonder. And Jehovah met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus shalt thou speak. And he came to him, and, lo, he was standing by his burnt-offering, and the princes of Moab with him. And Balak said unto him, What hath Jehovah spoken? And he took up his parable, and said, Rise up, Balak, and hear; Hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor: God is not a man, that he should lie, Neither the son of man, that he should repent: Hath he said, and will he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and will he not make it good? Behold, I have received [commandment] to bless: And he hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it. He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob; Neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: Jehovah his God is with him, And the shout of a king is among them. God bringeth them forth out of Egypt; He hath as it were the strength of the wild-ox. Surely there is no enchantment with Jacob; Neither is there any divination with Israel: Now shalt it be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought! Behold, the people riseth up as a lioness, And as a lion doth he lift himself up: He shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, And drink the blood of the slain. And Balak said unto Balaam, Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all. But Balaam answered and said unto Balak, Told not I thee, saying, All that Jehovah speaketh, that I must do?
(Numbers 23:21). Does this verse say that Israel, at the time this was written, was under the monarchy? Indeed, it says no such thing; but this very mention of such a word sets off a whole truck load of allegations to the effect that this episode was not written until long after Moses in the days following the Judges after which the monarch was set up in Israel. As a matter of truth, the word king does not even belong in the rendition here. The Septuagint (LXX) and the Samaritan versions of the Pentateuch both render the passage: The Lord his God is with him (with Jacob), and royal majesty accompanies him.F13 This gives the true meaning of the passage. The king in view here was in no sense an earthly ruler of the Jews, but God Himself. This is clear, even as it stands in the common versions:

Jehovah his God is with him,

And the shout of a king is among them.

The parallelism, which is the basic pattern of all these poems demands that the second line repeat the thought of the first. It is therefore God who is referred to in the second line. Was God Israel's king? Of course; and, therefore, it is not technically wrong to render "king" in the second line, provided that it is not misunderstood as to just WHO is the king spoken of. It was precisely to avoid any misunderstanding on this point that led the Septuagint (LXX) and the Samaritan versions to avoid the word "king." Dummelow properly discerned the true meaning of this place, as in his comment: "The shout of a king is not the shout raised by a king, but the shout raised at the presence of a king. Israel rejoices at having God as their king."F14

The words rendered "lioness" and "lion" in Num. 23:24 are found in some translations as "old lion," "strong lion," and "great lion." Orlinsky denied that "lioness" is ever a justifiable rendition here.F15 The imagery here is taken almost verbatim from Jacob's blessing of Judah in Gen. 49. We agree with Whitelaw that, "it is altogether fantastic to suppose that Balaam had just seen a lion come up" out of the valley of the Jordan, and that "this inspired" his parable.F16

What hath God wrought.!
(Numbers 23:23). This verse has always been a source of wonder and challenge. When S. F. B. Morse, having duly prepared for it, sent the first message by wireless telegraph from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, MD, on May 24, 1844, these four words constituted the message. In context, the words are an affirmation that men shall never cease to wonder and to praise God for what he did on behalf of Israel. A whole mighty nation delivered from slavery in a single night, armed for their journey and launched upon a course of conquest that would make them, for a while, the greatest nation in antiquity! Who could have imagined such a thing? Yet God did it!

Thou shalt see but the utmost part of them.
(Numbers 23:13). The strategy of Balak here was that Balaam should see only the outposts of Israel, the stragglers, the fringes as it were of the mighty hosts of Israel, and with such a limited view before him, perhaps Balaam could come up with a curse. This is still the strategy of the Devil. He challenges his Satanic followers not to look at the mighty hosts of true believers who receive and obey the truth, seeking to focus attention upon the fringes of God's kingdom, the weak, the failing, the backsliders, and the quitters. It has been said that Satan has not designed a new strategy in 10,000 years. We are aware of efforts to reverse the meaning of Num. 23:13, but in light of the fundamental truth underlying what it says as is, we shall leave the passage as it is.


 
Verses 27-30
And Balak said unto Balaam, Come now, I will take thee unto another place; peradventure it will please God that thou mayest curse me them from thence. And Balak took Balaam unto the top of Peor, that looketh down upon the desert. And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven bullocks and seven rams. And Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered up a bullock and a ram on every altar.

Another place…
(Numbers 23:27). Balak again and again sought another place for the attempted cursing of Israel, as if one place could have been more or less desirable than another for such a purpose. He had to learn the hard way that God is everywhere! Jonah could not actually lose God by fleeing to Tarshish; and neither could Balak have found any place on earth from which God would have cursed Israel. Nevertheless, Balak, at once set the stage for the third oracle on top of Peor.

The first two oracles came from the top of Pisgah, but the stage is now changed to the top of Peor. Although the precise location of this peak is not surely known,F17 its general locality is, "somewhere to the North of the Dead Sea, and opposite Jericho, described as looking toward the desert."F18 This location was extremely important to Israel. It was at Baal-Peor, somewhere in the vicinity of this mountain, that the Wilderness Generation of Israel engaged in a crucial rebellion against God, a tragedy that would later divide and destroy both the kingdoms of Israel. Balaam himself is revealed to have been a vital part of that tragic failure of Israel, hence, the appropriateness of this full account of Balaam's devices against Israel.


Footnotes for Numbers 23
1: Thomas Whitelaw, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 2, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 313.
2: Elmer Smick, Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), p. 142.
3: W. F. Albright, The Journal of Biblical Literature, an article: "The Oracles of Balaam" (Vol. 63), p. 227.
4: C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), p. 177.
5: Ibid.
6: F. C. Cook, Barnes' Notes, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983. Reprint of the John Murray publication in London, 1879), p. 235.
7: C. F. Keil, op. cit., p. 179.
8: W. Gunther Plaut, Torah, a Modern Commentary (Philadelphia: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1979), pp. 217, 221.
9: J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 114.
10: T. Carson, New Layman's Bible Commentary, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 270.
11: Ibid.
12: Ibid.
13: Elmer Smick, op. cit., p. 143.
14: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 115.
15: Harry M. Orlinsky, Notes on the New Translation of the Torah (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969), p. 237.
16: Thomas Whitelaw, op. cit., p. 315.
17: W. Gunther Plaut, op. cit., p. 231.
18: T. Carson, op. cit., p. 271.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 23". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=nu&chapter=023>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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