Chapter 23

NUMBERS CHAPTER 23

Balaam’s Prophecies

    • There atop Bamoth-baal, Balaam instructed Balak to build him seven altars and to prepare seven bulls and seven rams for him to sacrifice. Balak did as he was told and together they offered a bull and a ram on each of the altars. Balaam then said to Balak, “Stay here by your offering and I will go over to that bare hilltop to see if the Lord will meet with me. I’ll tell you what He reveals to me.”

      • Notice immediately that this sacrificial ritual Balaam is performing is not according to any instruction God has given here, or prior to this, in Scripture. This is yet another indicator that Balaam was not a follower of God. In fact, the way in which he is attempting to communicate with God appears to align with pagan practices instead, which these three sources attest:

        • HCSB writes, “Elaborate ritual precedes the first oracle. The preference for performing seven rituals was widespread in the ancient Near East. The sacrificing of seven bulls and seven rams on seven altars parallels a well-known Babylonian text in which Ea, Shamash, and Marduk are worshiped with the ritual libation of the blood of seven sheep poured out on seven altars which are accompanied by seven incense censors containing cypress wood. Hoping for a favorable location for carrying out his hired duty, Balaam and Balak enacted the ritual on Bamoth-baal, a worship center dedicated to the patron deity of several northwest Semitic peoples, such as those of Ugarit and Canaan.”

        • NLT Illustrated Study Bible includes yet more information about the form of divination Balaam was likely attempting using the sacrifices noted above, “As a diviner, Balaam performed rituals to interpret omens and ascertain Israel’s future (Numbers 23:23; 24:1)…It is possible that these sacrifices were connected with the practice of extispicy– the examination of animal livers or other organs for an omen concerning the future…this form of fortune- telling was a widely practiced and highly developed art. Such practices were banned from Israel (Deuteronomy 18:9-14; Ezekiel 21:21). “

        • The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible adds the following, “In ancient Near Eastern culture, the bull and ram were the most prized of animals and the obligatory sacrifices for persons from the upper echelon of society. These animals are also a regular part of special offerings in the Canaanite-type culture at Ugarit in the mid-second millenium BC. For a divination context, this is a large offering reflecting the importance of the situation- a king acting on behalf of his people in an international crisis. Usually a sacrifice performed in connection with divination required just one animal whose entrails were then examined for an answer. Here Balaam offers the sacrifices in order to try to induce Yahweh to deliver prophecy through him.”

    • God met with Balaam (*note* the Samaritan Pentateuch reads that “the Angel of God” met with Balaam) and Balaam told Him, “I have set up these seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each.” The Lord gave Balaam a message to relay to Balak. He said: “Go back to Balak and give him My message.” Balaam returned to Balak who was waiting by his burnt offering along with all the Moabite officials.

      • On why God would choose to speak through someone like Balaam, Guzik writes the following, “…this shows us that spiritual giftedness does not equal spiritual maturity or holiness of life. God spoke through a donkey in the previous chapter and now He spoke through a bigger donkey.”

Balaam’s First Prophecy

    • Balaam relayed the following message:

      • Balak, the king of Moab, called me from Aram in the eastern hills saying, ‘Come, curse Jacob for me! Condemn Israel.’ But, how can I curse someone that God hasn’t cursed or condemn someone God hasn’t condemned? I can see them from atop these cliffs and I watch them. I see a group of people who live alone, separating themselves from other nations. Who can count Jacob’s descendants who are as numerous as dust? Who can count even a fourth of them? Let me die like the righteous; let my life end like theirs.”

        • Deffinbaugh summarizes Balaam’s first prophecy nicely in his article Balaam Part II (Numbers 22:36-24:25), “This first prophecy is short and to the point. Balak has brought Balaam from Aram, instructing him to curse Israel (Numbers 23:7). It is impossible for Balaam to grant his request because, as a prophet, he can only echo what God has declared. God has not denounced Israel, so neither can Balaam denounce them (verse 8). This is a nation that stands apart from all other nations (verse 9), and they will become even greater in number and strength (verse 10a). Balaam cannot curse them; he even indicates that he wishes he could enter into their blessings, which include a hope that extends beyond the grave (10b).”

    • Balak responded to Balaam, “What have you done? I asked you to curse my enemies, but instead you have blessed them!” But Balaam said, “Should I not say precisely what God tells me to say?”

Balaam’s Second Prophecy

    • Then Balak told Balaam, “Follow me to another place where you will still be able to see the people, but not all of them- you’ll only see the outskirts of their camp. Curse them from there.” So, Balak took Balaam to the plateau of Zophim atop Pisgah and they built another seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each. Again, Balaam told Balak to stay there by his offering while he went to a remote area to meet with God.

    • The Lord met with Balaam again and gave him another message to give Balak saying, “Go back to Balak and tell give him this message.” Balaam returned to Balak and the Moabite officials and delivered the following message:

      • Balak, son of Zippor, get up and listen to what I am saying to you! God is not a human so He does not lie or change His mind. Does He speak and then not act or make a promise and then not fulfill it? God has commanded me to give a blessing because He has already blessed, and I can’t change that. No misfortune is in His plan for Jacob- no trouble for Israel. The Lord their God is with them and they are rejoicing over their King. God brought them out of Egypt; they are as strong as a rhinoceros. No curse can affect Jacob and no divination has any power against Israel. Now people will say this about Jacob, ‘God has done amazing wonders for Israel.’ These people rise like a lioness. They rouse themselves like a majestic lion that doesn’t rest until it has devoured its prey, drinking the blood of those it has killed.”

    • Balak yelled, “Don’t bless or curse them!” But Balaam said, “Did I not tell you that I can only do what God tells me to do?”

      • As an interesting side note, what exactly are the Israelites as strong as in verse 22? Depending on what translation you are reading, the comparison may be rendered “unicorn” (KJV) or “wild ox” (ESV, NASB, NIV, etc). The Douay- Rheims Catholic Bible reads “rhinoceros.” Finally, Young’s Literal Translation leaves the Hebrew untranslated and reads “Reem.” Why did I decide to go with rhinoceros? You can read all about it in my blog article, Fantastical Beasts of the Bible Part 1: What in the World are Unicorns Doing in the Bible?

      • HCSB provides an excellent summary of this prophecy, “From another outpost overlooking the northeast corner of the Dead Sea and the plains of Moab where Israel is encamped, Balaam and Balak repeat the ritual sacrifices of the first encounter. In the oracle Balaam reminds Balak that God is unchangeable; if His intent is to bless Israel, His word will be accomplished without fail and without deviation. Nothing Balaam could muster via sorcery or incantation could bring violence or destruction upon God’s people.”

      • Deffinbaugh adds the following, “Balak may be used to giving orders to men, and even to his ‘gods,’ but the God of Israel is different. He is not a man. He does not lie, and He certainly does not break His promises. He does not take orders from men.”

      • Deffinbaugh also includes this important insight into verses 21 and 24, “Behind this verse (21), there appears to be the assumption on Balak’s part that God’s blessings are based upon the merits of those who are blessed. Balak thus appears to be attempting to outdo Israel, by his sacrifices and by hiring Balaam. Balaam pulls the rug out from under Balak once again by informing this heathen king that God’s blessings are based upon the principle of grace. God has not made His covenant with Israel, based upon Israel’s righteousness. Indeed, God does not look upon the (many) sins of Jacob. God’s kindness to Israel is rooted in His grace. This was the basis for His leading Israel out of Egypt… The final verse, Numbers 23:24, concludes with a powerful word of promise and warning. What God has done for Israel shows His faithfulness and power. But God is yet to do great things for His people in the future. He will cause Israel to rise up like a lion. Like a lion, Israel will not rest until it has destroyed and consumed its prey—and we all know who that will include (see Numbers 31:1-12)! This final verse of Balaam’s second prophecy is a very powerful word of warning that Israel will destroy their enemies. The point of all this is quite clear—no nation ought to become the enemy of Israel. This is precisely what Balak is doing.”

Balaam’s Third Prophecy

    • Again, Balak said to Balaam, “Follow me to a different place, maybe it will please God and He will allow you to curse the people from there.” So he led him to the top of Mount Peor which overlooks the wasteland. Again, per Balaam’s instruction, Balak built seven altars and he and Balaam sacrificed a bull and a ram on each.

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