Chapter 22

NUMBERS CHAPTER 22

Balak Hires Balaam

    • The Israelites continued traveling and came to camp in the plains of Moab, near the Jordan River, across from the city of Jericho.

      • Guzik notes, “Israel was, at this point, on the move. They had essentially finished their 38 year exile in the wilderness, and then progressed towards the Promised Land. They continued further towards the Promised Land than the previous generation of unbelief had…They also had the blessing of victory, God preparing them to fight the mighty Canaanites by a series of battles against lesser peoples: the southern Canaanites (Numbers 21:1-3), the Amorites (Numbers 21:23-24), and the Bashanites (Numbers 21:33-35).”

    • Balak, Zippor’s son, was king of Moab at this time. He had seen what Israel had done to the Amorites and the Moabites were terrified of the Israelites because there were so many of them. Therefore the Moabites told the Midianite elders, “This horde of people will eat up everything around us just like an ox devours grass in a field.”

      • Unlike some of the kings that have been mentioned up to this point, whose existence we have archaeological proof of, Balak is unknown outside of Scripture. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible says, “Unknown outside of the Bible, he is called a ‘king of Moab’ (verse 4), meaning he was the titular head of an emerging tribal confederation (one of several groups in the Transjordan, such as the Edomites and Ammonites). Territorial borders of these clans were not well defined until the Iron Age (beginning around 1200 BC)…”

      • An integral point to note at this juncture is what exactly the Moabites were afraid of. We might first assume (and it does seem logical) that they are afraid of being killed. However, this assumption is not likely as Bob Deffinbaugh points out in his article Balaam, Part I (Numbers 22:1-35):

        • They should not have feared for their lives. The Ammonites and the Moabites were the offspring of Lot, and thus related to the Israelites (Genesis 19:30-38). Because of their kinship with the Moabites, God commanded the Israelites not to harm them (Deuteronomy 2:9, 17-18)…to be fearful of the approach of the Israelites as life-threatening, the Moabites would have to be ignorant of the special privileges God had established for them as the descendants of Lot.”

        • On what exactly the Moabites were fearful of, Deffinbaugh continues, “From the Moabites’ own words, we would have to conclude that their fears were economic. They call attention to the large number of Israelites who are approaching. They do not mention war, nor slaughter. They speak of the Israelites coming near to them and settling down alongside them. They are concerned that the Israelites will consume all the natural resources of the land, leaving less for themselves: ‘Now this mass of people will lick up everything around us, as the bull devours the grass of the field’ (verse 4). This sounds a great deal like the basis for the conflict between the herdsmen of their ancient ancestors, Abraham and Lot (Genesis 13:5-7).”

    • Balak sent a group of Moabite and Midianite elders as messengers, with money in hand, to Balaam the diviner. Balaam was the son of Beor, who lived in Pethor (the land of his native people the Amawites), which is by the Euphrates River.

      • HCSB notes, “Pethor is identified with Pitru, known from Assyrian records to be about 12 miles south of Carchemish. Scholars identify the land of Ammaw with a region mentioned in a fifteenth century BC inscription from Alalakh in northern Syria.”

      • Deffinbaugh provides some clarity regarding Balak’s plan to drive the Israelites from his land and how the Midianites fit in:

        • To accomplish this, the Moabites formed an alliance with the Midianites…(who) were also somewhat related to the Israelites in a back-handed fashion. Midian was one of the sons of Abraham, through Keturah (Genesis 25:1-5). Also, when Moses fled from Egypt, he settled down in the land of Midian, where he married the daughter of a Midianite priest and had two sons (see Exodus 2:15ff.; Acts 7:29). Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, is the Midianite who gave Moses some very helpful administrative advice (Exodus 18)…(They) conspired together to recruit a man who had connections with the spiritual underworld, and who could therefore arrange to have a curse put on the Israelites. No doubt diviners were plentiful in those days, but there seemed to be one man who was ‘tops in his field’ (Balaam).”

      • Here we come to a highly debated and somewhat enigmatic topic: Who was this famed prophet Balaam?

        • The traditional evangelical view seems to be that Balaam was truly a prophet of God and a follower of the true God. While Balaam was clearly not an Israelite, this view holds that he is similar in this regard to both Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18) and Jethro (Exodus 18). It appears that this belief is rooted in the fact that God spoke to him, Balaam obeyed (at least superficially), and God blessed Israel through him.

          • Primary Scriptural support cited for this view includes the passages detailing Balaam instructing the messengers to spend the night on two occasions while he communicates with the Lord (Numbers 22:8, 19). Balaam’s reference to the Lord in verse 18 as “the Lord my God” is also commonly provided.

          • However, in my opinion, subsequent details provided in Scripture make this a difficult view to reconcile.

      • Multiple passages and, interestingly, a couple of archaeological finds seem to lend weight to an alternative view- that Balaam was not a follower of the one true God, but a pagan prophet instead.

        • First, comparisons to Melchizedek and Jethro seem somewhat tenuous since both Melchizedek and Jethro are exclusively represented Scripturally as followers of God only. Particularly in the case of Melchizedek since the New Testament explains that, under the New Covenant, the authority of the very priesthood of Jesus comes from the order of Melchizedek rather than the Aaronic authority dictated under the Old (or Mosaic) Covenant. Contrary to these examples, Scripture makes clear that Balaam apparently kept attempting (eventually successfully) to come up with a way to ultimately earn his reward from Balak by cursing Israel:

          • 2 Peter 2:15 compares false teachers to Balaam “who loved gain from wrongdoing…”

        •      Jude 1:11, another reference to false teachers who “abandon     themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error…”

        •      Revelation 2:14 is a warning to the church in Pergamum: “you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.” This is a reference to Numbers 25:1-9 and Deuteronomy 23:3-6 which shed more light on Balaam’s “stumbling block”- encouraging the Israelites to intermarry with the pagan nations thus opening the door to idolatry.

      • More passages supporting this view will be discussed as they arise below.

          • Surprisingly, two secular archaeological discoveries also lend corroboration this view:

      • (1) The 1933 discovery of the Mari tablets:

        • In Walvoord’s and Zuck’s The Bible Knowledge Commentary, they note the 1933 archaeological discovery of “a vast number of cuneiform tablets at Mari..” which “…revealed among other things the existence of a complex cult of prophets and seers whose activities precisely resemble those of Balaam. The fact that he undoubtedly represented the prophetic customs and practices of Mari and vicinity makes possible a better understanding of Balaam’s narrative in Numbers.”

        • Referencing the discovery above, the HC Apologetics Study Bible notes that Balaam fits the description of one of these “prophets for hire,” “…textual evidence of prophetic activity in such cites as Mari and Babylon during the Late Bronze Age coincides with that is predicated of Balaam in these chapters. Placing or removing curses, pronouncing blessings, and providing council to individuals were services they customarily offered. Their techniques included divination, incantation, animal sacrifice, and reading of natural omens. These prophets were known as ‘seers of the gods’ and were said to be skilled at manipulating deities to bring about the results desired by the person who hired them.”

      • (2) The 1967 Deir ‘Alla Inscription

        • The NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “In 1967 an inscription was found that mentions Balaam son of Beor, a diviner who had visions at night (cp Numbers 22:9-12, 20). The inscription was written on a plaster wall at Deir ‘Alla, eight miles east of the Jordan River, and not far north of where the Hebrews were camped at the time of the Balaam incident. This nonbiblical text, dated c. 800-750 BC, identifies Balaam as a ‘seer of the gods’ and reports that the gods, whose names in the inscription are similar to Shaddai (‘Almighty’; cp 24:3, 16), delivered a message to Balaam and announced judgment upon the world (cp 24:15-25). The inscription provides rare extrabiblical evidence about a Bible character.”

Balaam Inscription
    • The message the delegation gave to Balaam was as follows: “A huge horde of people coming out of Egypt are living right across from me. Please come and put a curse on these people because they are too powerful for me to defeat. If you curse them, maybe I will be able to overcome them and drive them away. I know that blessings come upon the people you bless and curses fall upon those you curse.”

      • Clearly, Balak truly believed that Balaam had the ability to curse a group of people, yet he was a pagan diviner. Does this mean he was a fraud? Deffinbaugh argues this isn’t likely the case, “His reputation seems to indicate otherwise. If his ‘cursing’ was in vain, then why did God forbid him to do so? I believe that his powers did not come ‘from above,’ but ‘from below,’ that he was ‘connected,’ but not to the God of Israel.”

    • The messengers delivered Balak’s message and Balaam responded, “Spend the night here and in the morning I will report what the Lord has told me.” God came to Balaam and asked him, “Who are these men who have come to visit you?” Balaam replied, “These men are relaying a message sent to me by Balak, king of Moab. He has asked me to curse a large group of people who have come out of Egypt and settled across from him so that he can defeat them and drive them away.” God told Balaam, “Do not go with these men. You are not to curse this group of people because they are blessed.”

      • This passage lends itself to another question: Did Balaam know the one true God- the God of Israel? Deffinbaugh offers the following insight:

        • Balaam comes from Mesopotamia, not far from where Abraham once lived. Balaam certainly knows something of the religion of the Israelites because he frequently refers to their God as ‘Yahweh.’ Nevertheless, it seems obvious that he is not well-informed about the nation Israel, since he has to be told that Israel has been blessed by ‘Yahweh’ (22:12).”

      • Deffinbaugh points out that while Balak seemed to be intentionally vague in his description of the people group he wanted cursed, Balaam’s response seems to indicate that he may have in fact known more than he revealed, “In the first place, Balaam must have known more than he lets on. If not, more information was given him than what we are told. In our text…the name of that nation, and the name of their God is not to be found…Balaam’s words to his visitors betray the fact that he knew who this people was, because he knew the name of their God was ‘Yahweh.’ If Balaam knew this much, then surely he knew about Israel’s exodus from Egypt, and he probably knew something of the covenant God had made with this nation (e.g., Genesis 12:1-3).”

      • This fact makes Balaam’s response to the messengers all the more audacious. Deffinbaugh explains, “How could Balaam dare to ask Yahweh if it would be all right for him to accompany these men to meet Balak, so that he could curse Israel?”

      • Another question that arises is: why would God answer the call of a pagan prophet? Deffinbaugh offers the following:

        • The expression used here, “God came to…,” is not one which would suggest that God has come in response to Balaam’s efforts to communicate with Him. Indeed, its other occurrences would strongly imply that God came unexpectedly. God unexpectedly “came to” Abimelech in a dream, warning him that he was a dead man if he so much as touched Abraham’s wife, Sarah (Genesis 20:3). In a similar fashion, God “came to” Laban, who was in hot pursuit of Jacob, for fleeing from him without any farewells (and also because Rachel stole his household gods). In a dream, God warned Laban not to so much as speak harshly to Jacob (Genesis 31:24). These previous uses suggest to me that God spoke to Balaam in a dream, in a way that He done before with other pagans like Abimelech and Laban.”

    • The next morning Balaam got up and told Balak’s messengers to go back home, the Lord would not allow him to go with them.

      • Again, Deffinbaugh acknowledges a point regarding Balaam’s response that is easy to miss- Balaam purposefully withholds important information, “Balaam does not tell his guests the whole story. He does not tell them that God forbade him to do what they were attempting to hire him to do; he tells them rather that God refused to give him permission to go with them…To be refused permission to go with these men is quite different from being forbidden to do what they have asked Balaam to do. In other words, God’s will was not only crystal clear; it was emphatically stated. The most important truth of all was never conveyed to this dignified delegation: The Israelites could not be cursed because God had blessed them.”

    • The group returned home and told Balak that Balaam had refused to come back with them. So, Balak tried again. He assembled an even larger group, comprised of higher ranking individuals which returned to Balaam to deliver the following message, “Balak, son of Zippor says to you: ‘Don’t let anything prevent you from coming to me because I’ll pay you very well and do anything you ask. Please come and curse these people for me.”

    • However, Balaam told the men, “Even if Balak offered to give me all the silver and gold in his house I couldn’t do anything, large or small, that is contrary to the command of the Lord my God. Spend the night and I will see what else the Lord tells me.”

      • Balaam’s response here seems impeccable indeed. But, considering Balaam’s previous interaction with God, does his behavior align with his pious words? Deffinbaugh argues that his walk doesn’t match his talk. Instead it appears “that Balaam is attempting to use God to further his own interests.” He explains, “He seems to be saying that there is no way he can be persuaded to violate the commandment of Yahweh, his God (verse 18). And yet, if Balaam is so determined not to transgress the commandment of the Lord, then why does he invite this delegation to spend the night with him ‘also’ as though God may have some further word? What more does God need to say to him besides ‘No!’? Surely God’s words to him the first time he entertained such a delegation would have sufficiently informed him that God was not pleased with this kind of hospitality. Furthermore, if God had blessed Israel, and this blessing could not be reversed, then what profit would there be in continuing negotiations regarding his cursing the Israelites?”

      • Deffinbaugh logically reasons that Balaam’s response provides yet more indication that he is not a follower of the one true God- he doesn’t understand Him. Instead, he seems to view God in the same light as any pagan god, “Balaam had an inadequate grasp of who God was. For one thing, Balaam did not grasp the sovereignty of God. The pagan ‘gods’ were far from sovereign. We know, of course, that they did not even exist. But these ‘gods’ were thought to be open to manipulation, by means of persistence (repetition) and extreme measures. The prophets of Baal sought to gain the attention of Baal by mutilating themselves (1 Kings 18:26-27). The heathen have their prayer wheels and other means by which they seek to multiply their prayers, thinking that this will gain the attention of their gods.

    • That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come again, get up and go back with them. However, you must only do what I tell you to do.” So, the next morning Balaam saddled his donkey and left with the Moabite men.

Balaam’s Donkey and the Angel

    • God was angry that Balaam was going with the men and the Angel of the Lord stood in the middle of the road blocking his way.

      • This is a confusing passage. The ultimate question is: Did God change His mind? Why would God be angry with Balaam for going with the men when He just told him to go? To be frank, I find the traditional evangelical explanation to be insufficient even though I have a great amount of respect for most of these theologians. Their proposed solution seems to sidestep the real question (did God change His mind) and instead focuses on semantics. The traditional explanation revolves around the wording of Numbers 22:20 which is rendered in two different ways with minor variations among translations:

        • ESV: “And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.”
          (emphasis mine)

        • Other translations that use “if” include the KJV, NASB, and Young’s Literal Translation.

        • NIV: “That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” (emphasis mine)

          • Other translations that use “since” include the NLT, CSB, and HCSB.

      • This view posits that Balaam actually disobeyed God’s command because He said that Balaam could go with the men “IF” they came to ask him to follow them back that morning. However, Balaam did not wait for them to ask, he just got up and prepared to follow them back. This is the reason God is angry with Balaam.

        • In my opinion, this sounds a little too much like what we’d call in the South “six of one and half dozen of another.”

        • Therefore, there are two sources that I find to offer a more adequate explanation:

          • The HCSB commentary notes, “This story type fits into the category of faith-challenges similar to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at Peniel on his return to the promised land (Genesis 32:24-32) or Moses’ encounter with the Lord upon his return to Egypt (Exodus 4:24-26).” While it seems most probable to me (given the evidence listed above) that Balaam was a pagan diviner and not a follower of God, it still makes sense that God would use the same method to get His message across since Balaam was about to be used for His purposes. The HCSB continues, “These accounts are reminders that a holy God demands complete obedience…” As we’ll see, this is definitely the lesson Balaam is about to learn.

        • Deffinbaugh also discusses two relevant points that may be uncomfortable but true nonetheless:

          • God does not approve of everything He allows. God was angry because Balaam went with the princes of Moab (22:22). Let there be no doubt that God is not pleased when men do the evil that He permits. God sometimes allows men to sin, even though He has condemned and forbidden it. This is a good example of what we might call ‘God’s permissive will.’ God forbade Balaam to go with the delegation that had come, and also He forbade Balaam from cursing Israel, the people He had blessed. God’s direct revelation to Balaam, forbidding him to go, was His will in precept. When He permitted Balaam to accompany these men to meet with Balak, it was His permissive will. God allows men to do those things which He has forbidden. Woe to those who persist in their path of sin, for it is surely the road to destruction. Just because God allows men to sin does not mean that He approves of sin.”

        • When God allows men to do what He has forbidden, it is because it will fulfill His purposes. When God does permit men to sin, it does not mean that His Word or His will has changed. It means that He has purposed to allow us to sin, for His glory. In some way, God will use our disobedience to instruct others and to bring about His purposes in a way men would never have imagined, or to bring about our own demise. The sin of Judas Iscariot in betraying the Savior was the instrument God used to accomplish our redemption on the cross of Calvary. The rejection of Jesus as the Messiah by the nation Israel opened the door to the evangelization of the Gentiles (Romans 11:11). The sin of Ananias and Saphira was used of God to bring fear on the church in Jerusalem (Acts 5:11). David’s sin in numbering the Israelites resulted in the purchase of the land on which the future temple would be constructed (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21; 2 Chronicles 3:1).”

    • As Balaam was riding along with two of his servants, his donkey saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the path with a drawn sword in His hand. So, she veered off the path and went into the field. Balaam beat her for this and directed her back up onto the road. Next, the Angel of the Lord positioned Himself in a place where the path became extremely narrow between two stone vineyard walls. The donkey saw Him and squeezed herself against the stone wall to avoid Him, but in the process crushed Balaam’s foot against it. Balaam beat her again. Finally, the Angel of the Lord moved further down the road to a place so narrow that the donkey didn’t have any room to go to either the right or left side to avoid Him. When the donkey saw this, she lay down in the road. Balaam was furious and he beat her with his stick.

      • Who is this “Angel of the Lord”? He is a pre-incaranate appearance of Jesus. We have discussed this topic in previous chapters. For a review, you can refer to our notes for Genesis chapter 16.

    • Then, the Lord gave the donkey the ability to speak and she asked Balaam, “What have I done to cause you to beat me three times?” Balaam answers, “You’ve made me look like a fool. If I had a sword I’d kill you! The donkey then continued, “But I am the same donkey that you have ridden your whole life. Have I ever acted this way before?” Balaam replied that she hadn’t. Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes so that he could see the Angel of the Lord standing in the path with His sword drawn.

      • Deffinbaugh notes that God is certainly putting Balaam in his place with the message He is sending via this experience, “Balaam, does not see the Angel of the LORD, but his donkey does. A prophet was known as a ‘seer,’ who spoke to men for God concerning the things he ‘saw’ (see 1 Samuel 9:9, 11, 19). Balaam cannot ‘see’ the Angel of the LORD, but the donkey can, and this donkey then speaks to Balaam, rebuking him (cf. 2 Peter 2:16) for his sin. The donkey is a better ‘prophet’ (or ‘seer’) than Balaam. Let no prophet ever attempt to take credit for what he sees and says, for God can do as much through a donkey.”

      • Deffinbaugh continues with this insightful picture, “We have seen these three incidents through the eyes of the donkey, and to some degree, through the eyes of Balaam. But what must this have looked like to one of the princes who was in the caravan, as they witnessed these events? Balaam, a man highly regarded for his ability to influence or control the ‘gods,’ cannot manage to make his donkey go where he wants. These princes watch as Balaam completely loses control of himself, cruelly beating his animal…And just when it would appear that things could not get worse, they watch in disbelief as Balaam and his donkey carry on a conversation.”

      • Could everyone present hear the donkey speak or just Balaam? Many believe, based on other Scriptural examples, that it is likely that only Balaam could hear the donkey. HCSB writes, “Similarly, in John 12:28-30, what some thought was thunder or the voice of an angel was God speaking. When Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, only Saul could understand his words, while those around him ‘stood speechless’ (Acts 9:7), ie unable to make out the meaning of what they heard.”

      • Deffinbaugh aptly notes how the donkey’s very words put Balaam to shame, “Balaam was a man who was supposed to be ‘in touch’ with the spiritual forces (especially those on the dark side). He was a man who was consulted for guidance regarding the future. Very often, then as now, the diviner would predict the future based upon the arrangement or relationships of physical elements…It shouldn’t have taken a rocket scientist to discern that there was some kind of significance to the three-fold refusal of the donkey to stay on the path. There was a lesson to be learned here, but Balaam completely missed it.”

    • Balaam knelt to the ground and bowed. The Angel of the Lord then asked him, “Why did you beat your donkey three times? I have come to oppose you because what you are doing is evil in My sight. The donkey could see Me and turned away from Me these three times. If she had not done so I would have killed you and let her live.”

      • Guzik notes that the wording in this passage is another confirmation that the Angel of the Lord is, in fact, a Christophany. “Since this is the Angel of the Lord, and that the Angel of the Lord tells Balaam that his sin is against Him personally (your way is perverse before Me), it indicates this is an Old Testament appearance of God the Son – the Second Member of the Trinity, Jesus, before His incarnation as a baby in Bethlehem. Jesus temporarily appeared in some sort of human form, for a specific Divine purpose.”

      • Deffinbaugh writes, “Is the connection between this incident and what Balaam is seeking to do to Israel not clear? God had promised to bless Israel and also to make Israel a source of blessing to all who treated His people with favor. Balaam was seeking to turn God’s blessing into a curse, and by so doing, he was bringing a curse upon himself.”

    • Balaam responds to the Angel of the Lord, “I have sinned! I didn’t know that You were standing in my path. If you consider what I am doing to be evil I will turn around and go back.” The Angel of the Lord replied, “Go with the men, but say only what I tell you to say.” So, Balaam continued on with Balak’s messengers.

      • The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible accurately sums up the clear lesson that the Lord has taught Balaam through this experience, “The scene is replete with irony in that the donkey is more perceptive of God and is able to speak God’s word in a manner far superior to the internationally renowned expert. Balaam is reminded that he will only be allowed to speak what Yahweh, God of Israel, permits him to speak.”

    • When Balak heard that Balaam was on his way, he went out to meet him at a Moabite town at the edge of his territory by the Arnon River. When Balaam arrived Balak asked, “Didn’t I make it clear that your presence was needed urgently? Why has it taken so long for you to arrive? Do you doubt that I will pay you well? Balaam replied, “I have come, but I don’t have the power to say whatever I want to say. I can only relay the message that God gives me.”

      • As Deffinbaugh writes, it appears that Balaam received the Lord’s message loud and clear, “If Balaam has learned but one lesson, it is this: one who speaks for God must do so precisely, just as God has spoken—no additions or omissions, no embellishments or watering down of the truth.”

    • Balaam went with Balak to Kiriath-huzoth (“The City of the Streets”) and Balack sacrificed cattle and sheep and gave portions of the sacrifice to Balaam and the officials who were with him. The next morning, Balak took Balaam up to Bamoth-baal (“The High Places of Baal”) where he was able to see the outskirts of the Israelites’ camp.

      • What exactly is Bamoth-baal and why would they go there? The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes that Bamoth- baal was “a cultural center dedicated to a primary deity of the region (Baal, the champion of creation in the mythology of Ugarit). Balak apparently thinks that Yahweh, the God of Israel, might be more apt to be manipulated from there. Bamoth (‘high places’) is found in several compound names in the OT, but does not occur as a topographic name anywhere but in Moab.”

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