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Deeper Commentary


Num 23:1 Balaam said to Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven bulls and seven rams-
The number seven may have been a reference to the seven planets which were then known. This was a mixture of Yahweh worship and paganism, performed at the site of a Baal sanctuary (Num. 22:41).

Num 23:2 Balak did as Balaam had spoken; and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bull and a ram-
We note the eager obedience of Balak to Balaam, recorded several times. There is an earnest desire to perform religious ritual, give money or whatever the modern equivalents are- and we see the power of religiosity so strongly in Balak.

Num 23:3 Balaam said to Balak, Stand by your burnt offering, and I will go. Perhaps Yahweh will come to meet me; and whatever He shows me I will tell you. He went to a bare height-
They were on the heights or high places of Baal (Num. 22:41), and Balaam tells Balak that he must remain by the altars, whilst Balaam goes off for a walk on his own to meet Yahweh. Surely he was intending to pretend he had met Yahweh and then return to Balak by the altars and then to utter some words of cursing, supposedly from Yahweh.

"He went to a bare height" is only one of many possible translations of a difficult Hebrew expression. Some Rabbis offer "He limped". Presumably from the incident of the donkey crushing his leg against the wall. He was following the path of Jacob returning to Canaan from the east, who likewise met an Angel and became lame. But Balaam failed to learn from this precedent and refused to humble himself and resign his hope for material blessings as Jacob had done.

Num 23:4 God met Balaam, and he said to Him, I have prepared the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on every altar-
I suggest on 1 Sam. 28 that the witch of Endor was intending to give Saul some general message supposedly from Samuel, but of her own device. But then she screams in genuine fright when Samuel himself is actually resurrected. And so it was here. Balaam walks off further up the mountain, intending to return pretending he had met God and received a message from Him. But he does actually meet God, just as he had run into "God" in the Angel on his way to Balak. Rather flustered, Balaam claims he has just offered sacrifice to Yahweh, even though he was there standing at the high places of Baal (Num. 22:41) intending to curse Israel. And it is stressed that Balak had offered some of the sacrifices (:2,6).

Num 23:5 Yahweh put a word in Balaam’s mouth, and said, Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak-
As discussed on 3,4, Balaam indeed returns to Balak having had a meeting with Yahweh and having received a message.

To have spiritual gifts doesn't mean that a person is spiritual or Godly. Men and women will claim to have prophesied and done great works in the Lord's Name- but in fact they never knew Him (Mt. 7:22,23). Caiaphas and Balaam uttered prophecies but that doesn't mean they were spiritual people. Balaam did actually curse Israel, but what came out of his mouth was blessing of them (Dt. 23:5; Josh. 24:10; Neh. 13:2). This is so emphasized. We see here the real nature of Divine inspiration. Balaam was forced to speak a message, including statements about himself, that he of himself didn't want to.

Num 23:6 He returned to him, and behold, he was standing by his burnt offering, he, and all the princes of Moab-
The cameraman is zoomed close in. We see Balak standing obediently by the altar where he had offered his offering, with the princes of Moab having now appeared. And they await with eagerness Balaam's return. As he walks toward them, they are all set up to hear the expected words of curse upon Israel.

Num 23:7 He took up his parable, and said, From Aram has Balak brought me, the king of Moab from the mountains of the East. Come, curse Jacob for me, come, defy Israel-
As discussed on :3,4,6, Balak had gone away from the group further up the mountain, planning on returning claiming he had met Yahweh and then uttering curses upon Israel. But instead, he does actually meet Yahweh, and a word from Him is put in his mouth which he inevitably had to speak to the eager group of leaders... who were awaiting the pronouncement of a curse upon Israel.

Very often, the name Jacob is associated with the way that God sees His people of Jacob / Israel as righteous when in fact they are not (Num. 23:7,10,21; 24:5; Ps. 47:4; 105:6; 135:4; Is. 41:8). The names “Jacob” and “Israel” are often used together (e.g. Hos. 12:12) to show how God saw the Jacob as Israel, without forgetting he was still Jacob. That is especially true with Balaam; he is inspired to use the names in parallel on many occasions (Num. 23:7,10,21,23 [twice]; 24:5,17,18,19). The idea is that God sees Jacob as Israel, just as He so loved and counted righteous the historical Jacob.

Num 23:8 How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? How shall I defy whom Yahweh has not defied?-
"Defy" is LXX "devote", the idea being that Israel was to be devoted to destruction, just as Yahweh Himself had several times stated He wished to do. The same Hebrew word is used of God's anger with His people in the wilderness (Ps. 78:49 "He threw on them the fierceness of His anger, wrath, indignation, trouble"). Perhaps Balak and Balaam had used this in the complex self justification of how they could try to curse Israel, when God had said that whoever cursed Israel would be cursed. But now God says that He has not defied / devoted His people to destruction. But He had done. The contradiction is intentional; for what comes out of Balaam's prophecies is the theme of imputed righteousness. God passionately loved Israel, and counted them as spotless, especially in defending them to the world. Just as the Lord Jesus was very positive about His disciples to the world, although very critical of them when they were with Him.

The Abrahamic blessing is in a sense irrevocable. It is in this sense that God's salvation was declared to be "for ever", despite the apostacy of the exiles at the time of Is. 51:6-8. Recall Isaac's comment about Jacob "yes, he shall be blessed" (Gen. 27:33). Nothing at all, not the will of Isaac nor Esau, could change it. And we have received that blessing. Thus :19 says that God will never change His intention to bless Israel. This is the idea in Mic. 6:8 where the incident is cited as evidence of God’s absolute grace to Israel.  

Num 23:9 For from the top of the rocks I see him, from the hills I see him-
The significance of "I see him" is that his intention to 'see' Israel with the supposed 'evil eye' was being turned right around. See on Num. 22:41 He was instead 'seeing' blessing for them, from "the top of the rocks", the promontory to which he had climbed up in :3.

Behold, it is a people that dwells alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations-
We could translate Num. 22:35 "But only whatever I shall speak, that you will speak", as if God is not commanding him anything but rather warning him that he is going to be overtaken by His Spirit to utter blessings and not curses upon Israel- which is exactly what happened. But Balaam was to seek to work against this statement that Israel "shall not be reckoned among the nations" by encouraging Israel to unite with Moab in the adultery of Beth Peor, so that they would be united with the nations and so God's words would become untrue- and curse rather than blessing would come. For Balaam perceived that these words speak of God's intentions from His side; Israel themselves still had to choose not to be reckoned amongst the nations.

These words are so true of all God's true Israel, no matter how surrounded they are by family and society. "The people shall dwell alone". It is our lead characteristic. Balaam tried to undo this by getting the men of Israel to join with Moab in sex and idolatry. Yet still God saw them as separate. The people dwelling alone could possibly mean that Israel alone would inherit the eternal Kingdom, when God has made an end of all nations apart from them (Jer. 30:11; 46:28; Dt. 32:12). This is why Balaam says in :10 that he wants to die the death of Israel, counted righteous and assured of future salvation. 

The very phrase about dwelling alone is that used in Lev. 13:46 of how the leper shall dwell alone outside the camp. Israel's unique specialness was perhaps in that they as sinners had such unique love lavished upon them. And that is the theme of these oracles; that God so loves sinful, weak Israel that He will not allow any curse to harm them because He counts them as righteous. Israel was thus unique amongst the nations, as is the new Israel, because of her experience of Divine grace.

Num 23:10 Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous! Let my last end be like his!-
The multiplication of Abraham's seed was promised in the same breath as the warning that whoever cursed Israel would be cursed. Here, Balaam is being made to say that the Abrahamic promises were all still valid, the covenant was in force. And likewise the curses upon those who cursed Israel. This was surely a sign to Balaam to retreat, to go back, to give up. But his headlong rush to try to attain wealth, and also his pride, would not be arrested. He was made to express his wish that he might die "righteous" or upright [Heb.], to die as a true Israelite- who were counted righteous by grace, to be part of that "dust cloud of Jacob", the innumerable seed like the dust of Gen. 13:16.

Num 23:11 Balak said to Balaam, What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have blessed them altogether-
Dt. 23:5 LXX speaks of Balaam's plural curses being turned into plural blessings, because God refused to listen to Balaam. We learn from this that Balaam wanted to curse Israel [for he so loved the money being offered for doing so], indeed be perhaps began to utter curses, but the Spirit of God overpowered him and made him utter blessings instead. We learn from this that the Spirit of God working upon a person is no guarantee of their personal acceptance with Him. And we marvel at how the love of money drove Balaam to attempt to do what he was clearly not intended to, i.e. to curse Israel. Maybe his unexpressed desires were read by God as a prayer, and to that prayer "Yahweh your God wouldn't listen" (Dt. 23:5). Prayer is therefore not just in the form of spoken words; for then the more verbally articulate would be, as it were, better at prayer. God reads situations and unspoken desires as prayers. For this is what prayer "in the spirit" is all about.  

"Balak said to Balaam, What have you done to me?" (Num. 23:11), reflecting the words of the donkey to Balaam "What have I done to you?" (Num. 22:28). Again Balaam is being led to see himself as the donkey he had so despised.

Num 23:12 He answered and said, Must I not take heed to speak that which Yahweh puts in my mouth?-
Clearly Balaam didn’t want to say the words he did. The process of Divine inspiration means that men spoke God’s word even against their will; they were moved, carried along, by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:19-21; 2 Tim. 3:15,16). The Bible is therefore not the words of men but those of God, and the fact some of those who gave the original words did so against their own will – and Balaam would be a classic example- is proof that it is indeed the word of God and not of men.

Num 23:13 Balak said to him, Please come with me to another place, where you may see them. You shall see but the utmost part of them, and shall not see them all; and curse me them from there-
The place from where Balaam saw Israel was felt to be significant because they were intending for Balaam to use the supposed evil eye against Israel. But as he began to do this, God's Spirit took him over and made him bless them. It would be an example of where the Bible deconstructs belief in things like the evil eye and other connections with a supposed supernatural source of evil. Even if these things were true, then God's Spirit power was far greater than them. This would then be the significance of the descriptions of Balaam as "the man whose eye was closed". We note "eye" in the singular, not the plural. The idea may be that Balaam had tried to use superstitions about the 'evil eye' against Israel and had lifted up his eyes against Israel in this way (see on Num. 24:2). But his [evil] eye had been closed by God and he was now taken over by God's Spirit in order to bless Israel.  

Num 23:14 He took him into the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars, and offered up a bull and a ram on every altar-
Literally, "the Pisgah". This "seems to have been the name applied to the broken edge of the Moabite plateau where it falls steeply to the Dead Sea and the Jordan valley; and ‘the top, or head, of the Pisgah’ (Num. 23:14, Dt. 3:27; 34:1) is a collective term for the projections or promontories slightly lower than the main plateau.

Num 23:15 He said to Balak, Stand here by your burnt offering, while I meet over there-
He repeats what was tried previously, in the hope that Yahweh will not meet him as He had done before. Surely he was intending to pretend he had met Yahweh and then return to Balak by the altars and then to utter some words of cursing, supposedly from Yahweh. He omits reference to "God" ["while I meet over there"], perhaps thinking that this was what had led Yahweh to actually meet him.

Num 23:16 Yahweh met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth, and said, Return to Balak, and say this-
I suggest on 1 Sam. 28 that the witch of Endor was intending to give Saul some general message supposedly from Samuel, but of her own device. But then she screams in genuine fright when Samuel himself is actually resurrected. And so it was here. Balaam walks off further up the mountain, intending to return pretending he had met God and received a message from Him to curse Israel. But he does actually meet God, just as he had run into "God" in the Angel on his way to Balak.

Num 23:17 He came to him, and behold, he was standing by his burnt offering, and the princes of Moab with him. Balak said to him, What has Yahweh spoken?-
Balak specifically wants a message from Yahweh against Israel, rather than some general cursing of them- which any of his magicians could have arranged. This was why he was so insistent that Balaam, as a prophet of Yahweh, should come and utter this curse from Yahweh. This makes Balaam's behaviour the more culpable and awful. That he continued in it provides us with a warning as to the tremendous power of human hungering for wealth.

Num 23:18 He took up his parable, and said, Rise up, Balak, and hear! Listen to Me, you son of Zippor-
"Zippor" is the male form of Zipporah, the wife of Moses, who was also from Midian. It seems Balak was a Midianite who was asked to become king of Moab, who had been left weakened by their conflicts with the Amorites. Balak knew Balaam, and we can deduce that Balaam may have picked up his knowledge of Yahweh from Moses whilst Moses lived in Midian married to Zipporah. Who may even have been Balak's sister. Yahweh may be appealing to Balak, warning him that he had responsibility to Him because he was not ignorant of His ways.

Num 23:19 God is not a man, that He should lie, nor the son of man, that He should change His mind-
God does change His mind about some things due to His great sensitivity to His people; but He will not change His basic love for them (Mal. 3:6). He will not arbitrarily decide now to curse His beloved people. Balak specifically wanted a word from Yahweh to the effect that Israel were now cursed; see on :17. But Yahweh tells him that He will not change from blessing to cursing His people just like that, because Balak has paid Balaam money to do so. By baptism, the same blessings are made to us. They cannot be revoked by man; and whilst this doesn't mean 'once saved always saved', if we abide in the seed, the Lord Jesus, the assured blessing cannot be changed. Hence in :20 Balaam laments that the blessing simply cannot be revoked by him, try as he may.

“God is not a man” (Num. 23:19; Hos. 11:9); yet the Lord Jesus Christ was clearly “the Son of man” or, as He is called in the New Testament, “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). The Trinity is a very wrong understanding of the Father and Son. For clearly enough, the Lord Jesus is not therefore God. The Greek text calls Him “son of anthropos”, i.e. of mankind, rather than “son of aner” [husband, man]. In Hebrew thought, “the Son of man” meant an ordinary, mortal man (Is. 51:12). “For since by man [Adam] came death, by man [Jesus] came also the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:21).

Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?-
God had promised to give His people the promised land, as He has promised to give us the Kingdom, and there is no way He will renege on that promise.

Num 23:20 Behold, I have received a command to bless. He has blessed, and I can’t reverse it-
Balaam may mean that he had tried to "reverse it", knowing that God is indeed open to persuasion and willing to change, as the record of Moses demonstrates. But, Balaam laments that he had been unable to "reverse it".

Num 23:21 He has not seen iniquity in Jacob, neither has He seen perverseness in Israel. Yahweh his God is with him, the shout of a king is among them-
This statement comes sandwiched between the apostasy of Num. 21 and that of Num. 25. But God was intent on bringing His people in to Canaan it seems regardless of their desire to return to Egypt. Imputed righteousness is they key to our salvation by grace. When Balaam tried to curse Israel, it was impossible because God saw them as righteous, even though they were not: "He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has He seen perverseness (Jacob-ness) in Israel". God overlooked Jacob’s natural characteristics. It is no accident that God repeatedly described His people at this time with the title of 'Jacob' (Num. 23:7,10,21,23; 24:5,17,19).

There was indeed much iniquity in Jacob- notice how Jacob’s old name is used rather than the new name, Israel. They took with them the gods of Egypt (Ez. 20:7,8), and the tabernacle of another god as well as that of Yahweh (Acts 7:43). But God did not ‘see’ that sin; this is an Old Testament presentiment of the ‘imputed righteousness’ of which Paul speaks in the New Testament. God doesn’t count sin, doesn’t ‘see’ it, in His people; for this really is what love is about, seeing someone in a positive light and not imputing their weakness to them.

God saw no iniquity in Israel (Num. 23:21). He fulfilled His promise at Sinai that if they were obedient, He would make them His people; and He did, counting them as obedient. Yet the events of the intervening forty years hardly sound like Israel being obedient; He "suffered their manners" forty years (Ps. 95:10; Acts 13:18). Yet this is how they were counted (Ex. 19:5 cp. Dt. 27:9). He saw them as a young woman 'going after' Him in the wilderness years, attracted to Him (Jer. 2:2). Even when we do read of the sin of Israel at this time, God grieved over the carcasses of those He slew (Heb. 3:17).

Balaam's response to this truth which he was made to utter was to make Israel fall into sin. For he correctly figured that God's imputation of righteousness cannot mean that He makes willfully wicked and sinful people somehow whitewashed so that they can continue in sin and unfaithfulness to Him.

The reason Yahweh did not see iniquity or deceit, Jacob, in Israel was that Yahweh his God is with him. This is Emmanuel, God with us, a prediction of the Lord Jesus. We could translate "He does not see the iniquity that is in Jacob ". 

Num 23:22 God brings them out of Egypt, he has as it were the strength of the wild ox-
But Israel had felt so weak before the apparent strength of the Canaanites. They believed the faithless words of the ten spies. They failed to appreciate their potential strength. In Num. 22:4 we learn that the Moabites feared that "Now this multitude will lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field". God had specifically told Moses not to fight with Moab (Dt. 2:9), and I suggested on Num. 22:2 that there was some contact between Balak and Moses. When Israel passed along the highways, they had been careful not stray from the route and had not drunk from the wells of those whom they passed through. Moab need have had no fear that Israel would lick up all around. It was only those who came out against Israel in battle who had been defeated, and Balak would have been wiser to learn from this. But God gave them according to their fears by saying He would make Israel like a powerful ox (Num. 23:22). 

Here and in Num. 24:8 we read that God is bringing Israel out of Egypt. And yet even the generation of under 20s at the time of the Exodus apparently didn't want to enter Canaan, but liked the idea of returning to Egypt. We see again here God's grace in almost forcing through His plan to save His people.

Or we may translate "He [God] is for them like the horns of the wild ox", repeated in Num. 24:8. Balak's fears that Israel would act like an ox were groundless if he had accepted God's word for Israel to ignore Moab. But seeing Moab wanted conflict, then his fears would come true- and Yahweh would empower Israel to act as an angry ox.

Num 23:23 Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob; neither is there any divination possible against Israel-
All attempts to use divination were vain. There was no power in these practices; and even if people insisted that there were supernatural cosmic powers of evil, they were irrelevant to the people of God.

Now it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What has God done!-
The salvation of Israel was indeed by grace, given their great spiritual weakness. It was the doing of God by grace and not the work of man, and indeed was to be praised as such. Or we could translate "It shall be told to Jacob and to Israel what God works", i.e. His plans would be revealed to His people by the prophets.

Num 23:24 Behold, the people rises up as a lioness, as a lion he lifts himself up. He shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain-
As noted on :22, this all refers to their potential strength. They were in God's eyes potentially as strong as a lion against all the others 'beasts of the land', the other tribes there. But Israel feared the Canaanites and submitted to them, just as they had believed the faithless words of the ten spies. They failed to appreciate their potential strength.

Num 23:25 Balak said to Balaam, Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all-
Balak clearly had the idea that Balaam was still somehow in control of what he was saying. He had never seen true Divine inspiration at work before. For a person was totally taken over by the Spirit in order to speak forth the inspired word.

Num 23:26 But Balaam answered Balak, Didn’t I tell you, saying, ‘All that Yahweh speaks, that I must do?’-
Again there is a resentment in Balaam, repeating God’s word to others but not personally identifying with it, bemoaning the limitations of it.  Balaam was aware that he could only do according to what God said (Num. 23:26). Balak says that whatever Balaam says, he will do (Num. 22:17). He is therefore inviting Balaam to play God, to give words of command to be obeyed, to receive the greatest honour / glory, and to be the ultimate source of blessing and cursing for Israel and the nations. This temptation to play God was at the root of the situation in the garden of Eden, and it continues to be at the root of all temptation. 

Num 23:27 Balak said to Balaam, Come now, I will take you to another place; perhaps it will please God that you may curse me them from there-
Balaam ought to have recognized that the geographical location of a prophet was not going to affect whether or not a curse was successful.  But they were both clinging on to the hope that from some location, Balaam might be able to use the supposed power of the 'evil eye'; see on :13.

Num 23:28 Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, that looks down on the desert-
LXX Phogor; which Eusebius says was a mountain opposite Jericho. They were literally on the borders of entry into Canaan. Peor was associated with Baal worship (Num. 25:3,5). It was whilst here that Balaam formed his plan- to use the sexual rites associated with the Baal or Peor to seduce the Israelites to sin, and thereby bring curses upon themselves rather than blessings. We noted on :17 that Balak wants blessing from Yahweh; but he takes Balaam to sites of idol worship in order to get it. This mixture of true and false worship was the abiding characteristic of Israel, and it remains in essence are major temptation. 

Num 23:29 Balaam said to Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven bulls and seven rams-
We are given the impression that Balak [or his men] now did all this somewhat wearily.

Num 23:30 Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered up a bull and a ram on every altar-
Balak and Balaam have just heard God's warning that no form of enchantment will work against Israel (:23). And that Yahweh is not going to change His mind about blessing them. Despite all that, they still go ahead with their attempt at Yahweh worship. What emerges from the record is the way that despite every evidence, men choose to disregard God's clearest statements in His inspired word. Because they are obsessed by their own fears (in Balak's case, even irrational ones), and addictions to wealth and power, as in Balaam's case.