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 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.
i. 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).
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 they had defeated neighbor nations.
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 was completely logical. 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).
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 the Book of Numbers. We do not know how he came to be estimated as a prophet or a man with spiritual powers, but Balak certainly knew his reputation.
i. As the account continues, it will be clear that Balaam has a knowledge of the true God, the God of Israel, not of some vague, demonic spiritual connection (such as the specific mention of the Lord in Numbers 22:8). How he came to know the true God is unclear; he is (in this regard) like Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18) and Jethro (Exodus 18), men who were not Israelites, but came to some knowledge of the true God.
b. Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me: 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 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.
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.
b. Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you: Balaam’s first compromise was evident when he 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 essentially said, “Let me seek God about this” regarding a matter that was clearly 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 looked for a spiritual excuse to pursue the sin. Because of his love for money, Balaam essentially 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 an obviously self-seeking heart like Balaam’s. But in mercy He 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. Yet, Balaam did know these were evil men come for an evil purpose, but Balaam did not act accordingly.
c. You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed: This specific word from God to Balaam is crystal clear. He said, “Balaam, do not go, and do not curse.”
3. (13-15) Balaam’s reply to Balak’s messengers and the counter-offer.
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. The Lord has refused to give me permission to go with you: This carries the sense that Balaam wanted to go, but God wouldn’t let him. We can easily picture Balaam saying it just this way to the messengers from Balak. “I would really like to go with you, but God won’t let me.”
i. It was as if Balaam is saying, “God doesn’t want me to do this, but I can be persuaded.” Balak would exploit this invitation.
b. Then Balak again sent princes, more numerous and more honorable than they: It is clear this is the understanding Balak’s messengers took back to their king, because he sent more honorable (and wealthier, no doubt) men to persuade Balaam.
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. 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 only imagine Balaam’s tone of voice and expression when he said this. He probably wistfully suggested 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: Yet, 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.
c. Please stay here tonight: This is 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: This sounds so spiritual. “Let me seek the Lord about this one” – but it was completely carnal. 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. He had clearly declared His will, and Balaam had decisively rejected it. Now God prepared Balaam up 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 also, sometimes God says “yes” to the desires of the wicked because He will judge them.
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 is so happy God is “blessing” by allowing him to go!
i. We can imagine Balaam all sullen and depressed when God said “no” through both conscience and clear word. Then 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 might think this was unfair, seeing that God told Balaam to go and then was angry because he went. But Balaam only went because he had first rejected God voice, both in conscience and clear command, and God should be angry about that.
b. 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 a disobedient heart and walk.
c. 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 disobedient prophet suffered along the way, and also made the donkey suffer.
i. The donkey is a perfect picture of a simple, unspectacular, yet obedient follower of God – sensitive to God’s direction, a thorn to the disobedient, and a victim of the wrath of the disobedient.
d. 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 attack from the enemy 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. Many circumstances can be interpreted two ways – if not more.
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 ungodly punishment of her (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 it was certainly within the capability of the Creator.
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 carries on an intelligent conversation with him.
i. For now I would kill you: These were cruel words from a wicked prophet. They are a chilling reminder of what the wicked have often done to true prophets who might hinder their evil ways.
c. And he said, “No”: Balaam admitted that the donkey got the best of him in this conversation. Balaam had to humble himself before the donkey, admitting that she hadn’t been this way before, so perhaps there was good reason for her to be this way now.
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: This made the will of God pretty clear in this matter. God told Balaam, about as loud and clear as it could be said, “Don’t go, turn back now.” But Balaam would not listen.
b. Your way is perverse before Me: The Angel of the Lord rebuked Balaam for his mistreatment 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 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.
4. (34-35) Balaam’s meager “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.
b. If it displeases You I will turn back: Balaam seemed undecided as to if he really was displeasing God. He asked, “If it displeases You.” God made His will clear to Balaam many times, yet Balaam still fished for the answer he wanted from God, and Balaam made it evident he did not want what God had already clearly revealed.
i. 2 Peter 2:15-16 shows exactly where Balaam’s heart was at: They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; but he was rebuked for his iniquity: a dumb donkey speaking with a man’s voice restrained the madness of the prophet.
ii. The root of Balaam’s sin was a love for money. Jude 1:11 calls it the error of Balaam for profit. It is sobering to understand there is no sin that men will not commit just for the sake of money.
iii. A distinguished man was speaking to a distinguished woman, and asked her: “Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?” The woman carefully thought it over and said that she would. Then he asked, “Would you sleep with me for fifty dollars?” The woman took great offense, and said “Do you think I am some kind of whore?” The man answered, “Ma’am, we’ve already established you are a harlot. Now we are only bargaining over price.” The same attitude has led many away from Jesus, selling Him for the sake of more money or more things.
c. Go with the men: In response to Balaam’s hard heart, God gave Balaam over to his sinful desire. Again, God did not change His mind. Because of Balaam’s hard heart, God sent Balaam on a path of judgment.
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. Am I not able to honor you: Here, two kindred hearts met. Balak’s warm promise of reward sounded like music in Balaam’s ears.
b. Balak took Balaam and brought him up to the high places of Baal: After a bit of sacrifice, 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.
c. The word that God puts in my mouth, that I must speak: Balaam again protested that this was not in his hands. 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.