Numbers 22 – Balak and Balaam
A. Balak’s evil desire.
1. (1-4) Balak, king of Moab, fears an advancing Israel.
Then the children of Israel moved, and camped in the plains of Moab on the side of the Jordan across from Jericho.
Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was exceedingly afraid of the people because they were many, and Moab was sick with dread because of the children of Israel. So Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this company will lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time.
a. Then the children of Israel moved: Israel was, at this point, on the move. They had basically finished their 38-year exile in the wilderness, and then progressed towards Canaan, coming closer than the previous generation of unbelief. They would remain in this general area (the plains of Moab…across from Jericho) for about a year, when the book of Joshua describes their crossing the Jordan and attack on Jericho.
i. The present generation also had the blessing of victory, God preparing them to fight the mighty Canaanites by a series of battles against the southern Canaanites (Numbers 21:1-3), the Amorites (Numbers 21:23-24), and the Bashanites (Numbers 21:33-35).
ii. “The geographical setting of ‘the plains of Moab along the Jordan across from Jericho’ would be that of the remainder of the Book of Numbers, as well as that of Deuteronomy.” (Cole)
b. Moab was sick with dread because of the children of Israel: As Israel advanced towards Moab, Balak, the king of Moab was exceedingly afraid. This was because of the size of Israel and because of their victories over neighboring nations.
i. Sick with dread: “Rabbi Hirsch explains that this verb is a word that causes such violent emotion within that it may provoke one to vomit.” (Allen)
c. Now this company will lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field: In one sense, Balak’s fear made sense. On the other hand, if he had only known and believed God’s word, he would have had nothing to fear. God commanded Israel to not harass Moab because He did not intend to give Israel the land of the Moabites (Deuteronomy 2:9).
i. It was significant that Balak met with the elders of Midian. Balak’s later strategy against Israel would involve some Midianite women (Numbers 25:6-9).
ii. “The proverbial figure of an ox licking the grass is particularly fitting for a pastoral people…. The image of Israel as an ox is an emphatic symbol of her strength and power.” (Allen)
2. (5-6) Balak’s invitation to Balaam.
Then 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: “Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”
a. He sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor: A man named Balaam suddenly appears in Numbers. We do not know how he came to be regarded as a prophet or a man with spiritual powers, but King Balak certainly knew Balaam’s reputation.
i. Balaam was definitely not an Israelite; he came from Pethor which was near the River. Earlier commentators took the River as a reference to the Euphrates, placing Pethor (ancient Pitru) in modern Syria (near Kobani). This was more than 400 miles (640 km) from Moab. However, since the 1967 discovery of the Deir Alla Inscription – which may mention Balaam by name – the case has been made for Pethor to be modern Deir Alla in Jordan, and the River to be the Jordan River. This was close to Moab.
ii. “The recovery of prophetic texts of Balaam in Aramaic from the sixth century at Deir-Allah in Jordan shows how very famous this man was in the ancient Near East, even centuries after his death.” (Allen)
iii. As the account continues, it will be clear that Balaam had some knowledge of the true God, the God of Israel, that went beyond a vague spiritual connection (such as the specific mention of the LORD in Numbers 22:8). How Balaam came to know the true God is unclear; he was (in this regard) like Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18) and Jethro (Exodus 18), men who were not Israelites, but they came to some knowledge of the true God.
iv. “Balaam is not a good prophet who went bad or a bad prophet trying to be good. He is altogether outside Israel’s prophetic tradition. He is a pagan, foreign national whose mantic acts center on animal divination, including the dissection of animal livers, the movement of animals, and the flight of birds. He believed that he had a way with the gods, a hold on them. To him Yahweh was not the Lord of heaven but just another deity whom he might manipulate. He was in for the surprise of his life.” (Allen)
b. Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me: King Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel, to cripple them spiritually so they could be defeated in battle. Balak seemed to know the strength of Israel was spiritually rooted, and they had to be cut off from their source of power if they were to be conquered.
i. Balaam was known as a mighty man in spiritual things. As far as Balak was concerned, when Balaam cursed or blessed a man or a people, it came to pass.
ii. “He wants Balaam to invoke a divine curse upon Israel that would weaken both them and their God enough to allow him to gain victory and drive them from his territory.” (Cole)
B. Balaam’s two meetings with Balak’s representatives.
1. (7-8) Balak sends men to hire Balaam’s services as a prophet.
So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the diviner’s fee in their hand, and they came to Balaam and spoke to him the words of Balak. And he said to them, “Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the LORD speaks to me.” So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam.
a. The diviner’s fee: This suggests a standard fee for the work of a prophet. They took this standard fee in hand and approached Balaam.
i. “Whoever went to consult a prophet took with him a present, as it was on such gratuitous offerings the prophets lived; but here more than a mere present is intended, perhaps every thing necessary to provide materials for the incantation. The drugs, &c., used on such occasions were often very expensive. It appears that Balaam was very covetous, and that he loved the wages of unrighteousness, and probably lived by it; see 2 Peter 2:15.” (Clarke)
b. Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you: Either out of customary hospitality or in hope of the diviner’s fee, Balaam invited the men to lodge here tonight, so he could hear from God regarding their offer.
i. It was clearly wrong – then and now – to be a prophet for hire. Balaam said, “Let me seek God about this” regarding a matter that was clearly a sin and God’s will was clear. He cared far more about the diviner’s fee than about God’s will.
ii. Immediately, the heart of Balaam was revealed. Though he was obviously a man with significant spiritual gifts, he was not a man with a genuine heart after God. He was “seeking God’s will” regarding something that was plainly not His will.
iii. Balaam began on a dangerous course – entertaining, planning, setting his heart on something he knew to be sin, and looking for a spiritual excuse to pursue the sin. Because of his love for money, Balaam tried to manipulate God into granting him a special exception.
2. (9-12) God’s response to Balaam.
Then God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?”
So Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, ‘Look, a people has come out of Egypt, and they cover the face of the earth. Come now, curse them for me; perhaps I shall be able to overpower them and drive them out.’”
And God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.”
a. Then God came to Balaam: God had no obligation to respond to a greedy, self-seeking heart like Balaam’s. But in mercy God did respond, warning Balaam to have nothing to do with these men.
b. Who are these men with you? God knew the answer to this question, and He asked it because Balaam did not know. Balaam did know these were evil men who had come for an evil purpose – to hire a prophet – but Balaam did not act accordingly.
c. You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed: God’s word to Balaam was clear. He said, “Balaam, do not go, and do not curse.”
i. “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.” (Wenham)
ii. You shall not curse the people: “He would not curse in words, but he did it in another way—by means of Baal-peor.” (Maclaren)
3. (13-15) Balaam’s reply to the elders of Moab and Midian.
So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, “Go back to your land, for the LORD has refused to give me permission to go with you.”
And the princes of Moab rose and went to Balak, and said, “Balaam refuses to come with us.”
Then Balak again sent princes, more numerous and more honorable than they.
a. Go back to your land: Balaam said the right words. He told his guests, the elders from Moab and Midian (Numbers 22:7) to return without him.
b. The LORD has refused to give me permission to go with you: Though Balaam told his guests to go, he said it in a way that told them that Balaam wanted to go, but God wouldn’t let him. The message from Balaam was, “Go back to your land. I would really like to go with you, but God won’t allow me.”
i. It was as if Balaam told them, “God doesn’t want me to do this, but I can be persuaded.” The message would be clear to King Balak.
c. Then Balak again sent princes, more numerous and more honorable than they: The response of Balak shows that Balaam effectively communicated the message, “God told me no, but perhaps you can persuade me.” King Balak sent messengers more numerous and more honorable, with the promise of greater reward.
4. (16-17) Balak’s messengers increase the offer to Balaam.
And they came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor: ‘Please let nothing hinder you from coming to me; for I will certainly honor you greatly, and I will do whatever you say to me. Therefore please come, curse this people for me.’”
a. I will certainly honor you greatly: No longer did they merely carry with them the diviner’s fee of Numbers 22:7; now they also brought a promise of great riches.
b. Therefore please come, curse this people for me: Balaam refused to decisively put away a temptation the first time it came to him. Now the temptation came back to him stronger than it was before.
5. (18-19) Balaam entertains the offer from Balak’s messengers.
Then 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 go beyond the word of the LORD my God, to do less or more. Now therefore, please, you also stay here tonight, that I may know what more the LORD will say to me.”
a. Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold: We can imagine Balaam’s tone of voice and expression when he said this. With a sense of longing, Balaam found a way to suggest a big offer from these richer messengers of Balak.
b. I could not go beyond the word of the LORD my God, to do less or more: Even so, Balaam knew the character of true prophecy. It did not come from his own initiative but from the LORD. Even though he wanted to do what they asked, he could not.
i. “Balaam’s words echo the reality that he had indeed had an encounter with the God of Israel, through which the true Elohim had confronted and revealed himself to the pagan diviner. Yahweh God of Israel will use whatever means he desires to reveal himself to humanity.” (Cole)
c. Stay here tonight: This was proof that Balaam continued to entertain this sin. There was no need to seek God again when the will of God was clear both from his moral conscience (which troubled him from the beginning) and from the clear revelation of God (spoken in Numbers 22:12).
d. That I may know what more the LORD will say to me: These words sound spiritual but were not at all. It sounded godly to say, “Let me seek the LORD about this one,” but God had clearly spoken. Balaam was like a child who, having once heard the father’s answer, will ask again, hoping the father’s will might change.
6. (20-21) God allows Balaam to go with Balak’s messengers.
And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men come to call you, rise and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you; that you shall do.” So Balaam rose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab.
a. Rise and go with them: God did not change His mind. Balaam would not now be in the will of God if he went with Balak’s messengers.
i. We can say that God did not change His will. God had clearly spoken His will, and Balaam had decisively rejected it. Now God prepared Balaam for judgment, to both test and reveal the wickedness of Balaam’s heart.
ii. We know that sometimes, God says “no” to the prayers of His people, because He loves them. But sometimes God also says “yes” to the desires of the wicked because He will judge them.
iii. “He was first forbidden, and afterwards commanded to go. The only explanation that is satisfactory is that, while attempting to maintain an external obedience to this supreme will of God, his heart was lusting after the riches offered to him by Balak.” (Morgan)
iv. God’s word to Balaam, rise and go with them was no more evidence of God’s approval of Balaam’s greed than the words of Jesus to Judas in John 13:27 (What you do, do quickly) were an approval of the actions of Judas.
b. Balaam rose in the morning: No doubt, he woke up at the break of dawn. He could not wait to do the wrong his heart desired, and he was so happy God was “blessing” him by allowing him to go.
i. Perhaps Balaam became all gloomy and sad when God said “no” by speaking to his conscience and giving a clear word. Yet as he rose in the morning, he was happy and excited, believing he had convinced God to say “yes” – with no idea what God was really doing.
C. Balaam, the donkey, and the Angel.
1. (22-27) God’s message to Balaam through the Angel of the LORD.
Then God’s anger was aroused because he went, and the Angel of the LORD took His stand in the way as an adversary against him. And he was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. Now the donkey saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand, and the donkey turned aside out of the way and went into the field. So Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back onto the road. Then the Angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on this side and a wall on that side. And when the donkey saw the Angel of the LORD, she pushed herself against the wall and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck her again. Then the Angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place where there was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when the donkey saw the Angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam’s anger was aroused, and he struck the donkey with his staff.
a. God’s anger was aroused because he went: Some people think this was unfair because God told Balaam to go (Numbers 22:20) and then was angry because he went. But Balaam only went because he had first rejected God’s voice, spoken to his conscience and clearly commanded, and God should be angry about that.
i. “God does not make the wrong way smooth for one who has extorted permission to follow it.” (Watson)
b. The Angel of the LORD took His stand in the way as an adversary against him: To give an additional warning to stubborn Balaam, the Angel of the LORD blocked the path of Balaam as he rode on his donkey.
i. Yet, at this point, Balaam did not see the Angel of the LORD. “Which Balaam saw not; his eyes were put out with the dust of covetousness, or dazzled at least with the glittering of the promised promotions.” (Trapp)
c. The donkey saw the Angel of the LORD: The donkey was more spiritually perceptive than the prophet. The donkey had no spiritual gifts, but at least acknowledged his Creator. The prophet had wonderful spiritual gifts but also had a disobedient heart and life.
i. “When God granted visions, those alone who were particularly interested saw them, while others in the same company saw nothing; see Daniel 10:7; Acts 9:7.” (Clarke)
ii. “We see the prophet Balaam as a blind seer, seeing less than the dumb animal.” (Allen)
iii. “Up to this point Balaam has been portrayed as a man of great spiritual stature, who can meet with God when he wants and whose words have tremendous effects on the fate of nations. Here his spiritual blindness and powerlessness are disclosed. He cannot see the angel of the LORD standing in his path, though his donkey can.” (Wenham)
d. The donkey turned aside out of the way: The donkey, responding to the Angel of the LORD, turned one way, then another, then finally sat down to avoid judgment. The turns of the donkey crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so as the disobedient prophet suffered, he made the donkey suffer as he struck the donkey several times.
i. The donkey is a perfect picture of a simple, unspectacular, yet obedient servant of God. The donkey was sensitive to God’s direction, a thorn to the disobedient, and a victim of the wrath of the ungodly.
e. When the donkey saw the Angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam: The unusually difficult circumstances of this journey might have suggested to Balaam that his trip was not of God. Yet Balaam probably took it all as being an attack by a spiritual adversary and used the circumstances to strengthen his hope that God wanted him to work as a prophet for hire.
i. This shows the great difficulty of judging God’s will by circumstances. Most circumstances can be interpreted two ways – if not more.
ii. F.B. Meyer reflected on the gracious ways God may hinder our path: “You were intent on pursuing your own way, and obtaining the rewards of unrighteousness, when suddenly you were stayed in your course. Another step would have brought you to the edge of the precipice; but you were suddenly arrested by that which forbade advance. Do not curse the hindering obstacle. Beneath it is God’s gentlest angel, endeavoring to turn you from your evil purpose.”
2. (28-30) God’s message to Balaam through the donkey.
Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”
And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have abused me. I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!”
So the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?” And he said, “No.”
a. Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey: God miraculously gave the donkey the ability to speak, and she did; and she rebuked the prophet for his cruelty (What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?).
i. We don’t know the actual mechanism by which God gave the donkey the apparent mind and voice to speak, but the doing of it was certainly within the capability of the Creator.
ii. “And where is the wonder of all this? If the ass had opened her own mouth, and reproved the rash prophet, we might well be astonished; but when God opens the mouth, an ass can speak as well as a man.” (Clarke)
b. And Balaam said to the donkey: Balaam was so irrational and angry that he answered back without hesitation. He seemed to be unimpressed by a donkey that carried on an intelligent conversation with him.
c. For now I would kill you: These were cruel words from a wicked prophet. Before and after the time of Balaam, the ungodly have threatened to kill God’s messengers for telling the truth and seeking to hinder the evil of the ungodly.
i. I wish there were a sword in my hand: Balaam complained because he didn’t have a sword close at hand. There was a sword very close to him, but he couldn’t see it or the Angel of the LORD holding it.
d. And he said, “No”: Balaam admitted that the donkey got the better of him in this conversation. Balaam had to humble himself before the donkey, admitting that she had not acted this way before, so perhaps there was good reason for her to act the way she did.
3. (31-33) God’s message to Balaam through seeing the Angel of the LORD.
Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand; and he bowed his head and fell flat on his face. And the Angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to stand against you, because your way is perverse before Me. The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times. If she had not turned aside from Me, surely I would also have killed you by now, and let her live.”
a. The Angel of the LORD standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand: The stance and the sword made the will of God clear. In this action of the Angel of the LORD, God told Balaam, “Don’t go to Balak, turn back now.” But Balaam would not listen.
b. Why have you struck your donkey these three times? God noticed Balaam’s cruel treatment of his animal and demanded an accounting for it. God cares about how we treat animals.
i. A righteous man regards the life of his animal, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. (Proverbs 12:10)
c. Your way is perverse before Me: The Angel of the LORD rebuked Balaam for the cruel treatment of his donkey, but especially because Balaam’s way was perverse. The word perverse carries the idea of “going the wrong way in a rash manner.” This was exactly Balaam’s problem.
i. Since this was the Angel of the LORD, and the Angel of the LORD told Balaam that his sin was against Him personally (your way is perverse before Me), this indicates that this was an Old Testament appearance of God the Son – the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus, before His incarnation as a baby in Bethlehem. For a specific Divine purpose, Jesus was temporarily present in the appearance of a human or an angel.
d. Surely I would also have killed you by now, and let her live: The Angel of the LORD had the ability and the authority to bring God’s judgment against Balaam, and almost did. In a sense, the donkey rescued the prophet from judgment.
4. (34-35) Balaam’s small repentance and sinful course.
And Balaam said to the Angel of the LORD, “I have sinned, for I did not know You stood in the way against me. Now therefore, if it displeases You, I will turn back.”
Then the Angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but only the word that I speak to you, that you shall speak.” So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
a. I have sinned: This sounds humble enough, but it was obvious and easy to say when the Angel of the LORD stood before Balaam with a drawn sword in hand. The threat of immediate judgment humbles most people.
i. Watson on Balaam’s confession of sin: “It is the sullen acquiescence of a foiled adventurer, who at the very outset is made to understand the terms and narrow limits of his power.”
b. If it displeases You I will turn back: Balaam seemed undecided as to if he was displeasing God. God made His will clear to Balaam many times, yet Balaam still sought for the answer he wanted from God. Through this, Balaam made it plain that he did not want what God had already clearly revealed.
i. 2 Peter 2:15-16 speaks of Balaam’s attitude, telling us he had gone astray, he loved the wages of unrighteousness, was full of iniquity, and was not in his right mind.
ii. The root of Balaam’s sin was a love for money. Jude 1:11 calls it the error of Balaam for profit. He was willing to disobey God and curse God’s people if he could do it for money.
c. Go with the men: In response to Balaam’s hard heart, God gave Balaam over to his sinful desire. God did not change His mind. Because of Balaam’s hard heart, God allowed Balaam to continue on a path of judgment.
i. Romans 1:24, 26, 28 explains how sometimes God’s judgment is expressed in giving people over to the sin they desire. Since sin is destructive, when God gives a person over to their sin, it is a way that they end up destroying themselves. This would eventually be Balaam’s fate.
5. (36-41) Balaam meets with Balak, king of Moab.
Now when Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at the city of Moab, which is on the border at the Arnon, the boundary of the territory. Then Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not earnestly send to you, calling for you? Why did you not come to me? Am I not able to honor you?”
And Balaam said to Balak, “Look, I have come to you! Now, have I any power at all to say anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I must speak.” So Balaam went with Balak, and they came to Kirjath Huzoth. Then Balak offered oxen and sheep, and he sent some to Balaam and to the princes who were with him.
So it was, the next day, that Balak took Balaam and brought him up to the high places of Baal, that from there he might observe the extent of the people.
a. He went out to meet him: This showed how happy Balak was to have Balaam visit, so that this so-called prophet could curse Israel. Normally, rulers have people come to them. This time, Balak took the trouble to meet Balaam and pointed this out to him (Look, I have come to you!).
i. He went out to meet him: “Balak’s pleasure at Balaam’s arrival is demonstrated by his journey to meet him at the Moabite border.” (Wenham)
b. Am I not able to honor you? The honor Balak had in mind was money. With almost his first words, Balak told Balaam what he wanted to hear – that he would be paid a lot of money to curse Israel.
c. The word that God puts in my mouth, that I must speak: Balaam again warned Balak that the ability to curse Israel was not in his control. Perhaps he really believed and understood this, or perhaps this was his way of protecting himself in case he failed. Then he could say that it was God’s fault, and not his.
d. Balak took Balaam and brought him up to the high places of Baal: After a bit of sacrifice (oxen and sheep), Balak then called upon Balaam to do what he hired him to do – to curse Israel, to rob them of their spiritual strength, so they could be defeated in battle.
i. The high places of Baal: “Bamoth-baal, literally ‘the high places of Baal’, is presumably identical with Bamoth (Numbers 21:19-20) and was in the vicinity of Heshbon and Dibon, according to Joshua 13:17 (cf. Numbers 21:25-26).” (Wenham)
ii. “He hoped that the sight of such a numerous host ready to break in upon his country would stir up his passion and further his charms.” (Poole)