Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
After the defeat of the two Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, and the conquest of their kingdoms in Gilead and Bashan, the Israelites removed from the height of Pisgah, on the mountains of Abarim before Nebo (see at Num 21:20), and encamped in the "Arboth Moab (the steppes of Moab), on the other side of the Jordan of Jericho," i.e., that part of the Jordan which skirted the province of Jericho. Arboth Moab was the name given to that portion of the Arabah, or large plain of the Jordan, the present Ghor (see at Deu 1:1), which belonged to the territory of the Moabites previous to the spread of the Amorites under Sihon in the land to the east of the Jordan, and which probably reached from the Dead Sea to the mouth of the Jabbok. The site of the Israelitish camp is therefore defined with greater minuteness by the clause "beyond the Jordan of Jericho." This place of encampment, which is frequently alluded to (Num 26:3, Num 26:63; Num 31:12; Num 33:48, Num 33:50; Num 35:1; Num 36:13; Jos 13:32), extended, according to Num 33:49, from Beth-jeshimoth to Abel-shittim. Beth-jeshimoth (i.e., house of wastes), on the north-eastern desert border (Jeishimon, Num 21:20) of the Dead Sea, a town allotted to the tribe of Reuben (Jos 12:3; Jos 13:20), was situated, according to the Onom. (s. v.Beethasimou'th, Bethsimuth), ten Roman miles, or four hours, to the south (S.E.) of Jericho, on the Dead Sea; according to Josephus (bell. jud. iv. 7, 6), it was to the south of Julias (Livias), i.e., Beth-haram, or Rameh, on the northern edge of the Wady Hesban (see at Num 32:36), or in the Ghor el Seisabn, on the northern coast of the Dead Sea, and the southern end of the plain of the Jordan. Abel Shittim (השּׁטּים אבל), i.e., the acacia-meadow, or, in its briefer form, Shittim (Num 35:1), was situated, according to Josephus (Ant. iv. 8, 1), on the same spot as the later town of Abila, in a locality rich in date-palms, sixty stadia from the Jordan, probably by the Wady Eshtah to the north of the Wady Hesban; even if Knobel's supposition that the name is connected with אשׁטה = שׁטּה with א prost. should not be a tenable one. From Shittim or Sittim the Israelites advanced, under Joshua, to the Jordan, to effect the conquest of Canaan (Jos 3:1).
In the steppes of Moab the Israelites encamped upon the border of the promised land, from which they were only separated by the Jordan. But before this boundary line could be passed, there were many preparations that had to be made. In the first place, the whole congregation was to pass through a trial of great importance to all future generations, as bearing upon the relation in which it stood to the heathen world; and in the second place, it was here that Moses, who was not to enter Canaan because of his sin at the water of strife, was to bring the work of legislation to a close before his death, and not only to issue the requisite instructions concerning the conquest of the promised inheritance, and the division of it among the tribes of Israel, but to impress once more upon the hearts of the whole congregation the essential contents of the whole law, with all that the Lord had done for Israel, that they might be confirmed in their fidelity to the Lord, and preserved from the danger of apostasy. This last work of the faithful servant of God, with which he brought his mediatorial work to a close, is described in the book of Deuteronomy; whilst the laws relating to the conquest and partition of Canaan, with the experience of Israel in the steppes of Moab, fill up the latter portion of the present book.
The rapid defeat of the two mighty kings of the Amorites filled the Moabites with such alarm at the irresistible might of Israel, that Balak their king, with the princes of Midian, sought to bring the powers of heathen magic to bear against the nation of God; and to this end he sent messengers with presents to Balaam, the celebrated soothsayer, in Mesopotamia, who had the reputation of being able both to bless and curse with great success, to entreat him to come, and so to weaken the Israelites with his magical curses, that he might be able to smite them, and drive them out of his land (Num 22:1-7). At first Balaam declined this invitation, in consequence of divine instructions (Num 22:8-14); but when a second and still more imposing embassy of Moabite princes appeared before him, God gave him permission to go with them, but on this condition, that he should do nothing but what Jehovah should tell him (Num 22:15-21). When on the way, he was warned again by the miraculous opposition of the angel of the Lord, to say nothing but what God should say to him (Num 22:22-35). When Balak, therefore, came to meet him, on his arrival at the border of his kingdom, to give him a grand reception, Balaam explained to him, that he could only speak the word which Jehovah would put into his mouth (Num 22:36-40), and then proclaimed, in four different utterances, what God inspired him to declare. First of all, as he stood upon the height of Bamoth-baal, from which he could see the end of the Israelitish camp, he declared that it was impossible for him to curse this matchless, numerous, and righteous people, because they had not been cursed by their God (Num 22:41-23:10). He then went to the head of Pisgah, where he could see all Israel, and announced that Jehovah would bless this people, because He saw no unrighteousness in them, and that He would dwell among them as their King, making known His word to them, and endowing them with activity and lion-like power (Num 23:11-24). And lastly, upon the top of Peor, where he could see Israel encamped according to its tribes, he predicted, in two more utterances, the spread and powerful development of Israel in its inheritance, under the blessing of God (Num 23:25-24:9), the rise of a star out of Jacob in the far distant future, and the appearance of a ruler in Israel, who would break to pieces all its foes (Num 24:10-24); and upon this Balak sent him away (Num 24:25).
From the very earliest times opinions have been divided as to the character of Balaam.
(Note: On Balaam and his prophecies see G. Moebius Prophetae Bileami historia, Lips. 1676; Lderwald, die Geschichte Bileams deutlich u. begreiflich erklrt (Helmst. 1787); B. R. de Geer, Diss. de Bileamo, ejus historia et vaticiniis; Tholuck's vermischte Schriften (i. pp. 406ff.); Hengstenberg, History of Balaam, etc. (Berlin, 1842, and English translation by Ryland: Clark, 1847); Kurtz, History of the Old Covenant (English translation: Clark, 1859); and Gust. Baur, Gesch. der alttestl. Weissagung, Giessen, 1861, where the literature is given more fully still.)
Some (e.g., Philo, Ambrose, and Augustine) have regarded him as a wizard and false prophet, devoted to the worship of idols, who was destitute of any susceptibility for the true religion, and was compelled by God, against his will, to give utterance to blessings upon Israel instead of curses. Others (e.g., Tertullian and Jerome) have supposed him to be a genuine and true prophet, who simply fell through covetousness and ambition. But these views are both of them untenable in this exclusive form. Witsius (Miscell. ss. i. lib. i. c. 16, 33ff.), Hengstenberg (Balaam and his Prophecies), and Kurtz (History of the Old Covenant), have all of them clearly demonstrated this. The name בּלעם (lxx Βαλαάμ) is not to be derived, as Gesenius suggests, from בּל and עם, non populus, not a people, but either from בּלע and עם (dropping one )ע, devourer of the people (Simonis and Hengstenberg), or more probably from בּלע, with the terminal syllable ם-, devourer, destroyer (Frst, Dietrich), which would lead to the conclusion, that "he bore the name as a dreaded wizard and conjurer; whether he received it at his birth, as a member of a family in which this occupation was hereditary, and then afterwards actually became in public opinion what the giving of the name expressed as an expectation and desire; or whether the name was given to him at a later period, according to Oriental custom, when the fact indicated by the name had actually made its appearance" (Hengstenberg). In its true meaning, the name is related to that of his father, Beor.
(Note: The form Bosor, which we find instead of Beor in Pe2 2:15, appears to have arisen from a peculiar mode of pronouncing the guttural ע (see Loescher de causis ling. ebr. p. 246); whereas Vitringa maintains (in his obss. ss. l. iv. c. 9), that Peter himself invented this form, "that by this sound of the word he might play upon the Hebrew בשׂר, which signifies flesh, and thus delicately hint that Balaam, the false prophet, deserved to be called the son of Bosor, i.e., בשׂר, or flesh, on account of his persuading to the indulgence of carnal lusts.")
בּעור, from בּער, to burn, eat off, destroy: so called on account of the destructive power attributed to his curses (Hengstenberg). It is very probable, therefore, that Balaam belonged to a family in which the mantic character, or magical art, was hereditary. These names at once warrant the conjecture that Balaam was a heathen conjurer or soothsayer. Moreover, he is never called נביא, a prophet, or חזה, a seer, but הקּסם, the soothsayer (Jos 13:22), a title which is never used in connection with the true prophets. For קסם, soothsaying, is forbidden to the Israelites in Deu 18:10., as an abomination in the sight of Jehovah, and is spoken of everywhere not only as a grievous sin (Sa1 15:23; Eze 13:23; Kg2 17:17), but as the mark of a false prophet (Eze 13:9; Eze 22:28; Jer 14:14, and even in Isa 3:2, where קסם forms the antithesis to נביא). Again, Balaam resorts to auguries, just like a heathen soothsayer (Num 24:1, compared with Num 23:3, Num 23:5), for the purpose of obtaining revelations; from which we may see that he was accustomed to adopt this as his ordinary mode of soothsaying.
(Note: "The fact that he made use of so extremely uncertain a method as augury, the insufficiency of which was admitted even by the heathen themselves (vid., Ngelsbach, homer. Theol. pp. 154ff.), and which no true prophet among the Israelites ever employed, is to be attributed to the weakness of the influence exerted upon him by the Spirit of God. When the Spirit worked with power, there was no need to look round at nature for the purpose of ascertaining the will of God" (Hengstenberg).)
On the other hand, Balaam was not without a certain measure of the true knowledge of God, and not without susceptibility for such revelations of the true God as he actually received; so that, without being really a prophet, he was able to give utterance to true prophecies from Jehovah. He not only knew Jehovah, but he confessed Jehovah, even in the presence of Balak, as well as of the Moabitish messengers. He asked His will, and followed it (Num 22:8, Num 22:13, Num 22:18-19, Num 22:28; Num 23:12), and would not go with the messengers of Balak, therefore, till God had given him permission (Num 22:20). If he had been altogether destitute of the fear of God, he would have complied at once with Balak's request. And again, although at the outset it is only Elohim who makes known His will (Num 22:9, Num 22:20), and even when he first of all goes out in search of oracles, it is Elohim who comes to him (Num 23:4); yet not only does the angel of Jehovah meet him by the way (Num 22:22.), but Jehovah also puts words into his mouth, which he announces to the king of the Moabites (Num 23:5, Num 23:12, Num 23:16), so that all his prophecies are actually uttered from a mind moved and governed by the Spirit of God, and that not from any physical constraint exerted upon him by God, but in such a manner that he enters into them with all his heart and soul, and heartily desires to die the death of these righteous, i.e., of the people of Israel (Num 23:10); and when he finds that it pleases Jehovah to bless Israel, he leaves off resorting any longer to auguries (Num 24:1), and eventually declares to the enraged monarch, that he cannot transgress the command of Jehovah, even if the king should give him his house full of silver and gold (Num 24:13).
(Note: The significant interchange in the use of the names of God, which is seen in the fact, that from the very outset Balaam always speaks of Jehovah (Num 22:8, Num 22:13, Num 22:18-19), - whereas, according to the historian, it is only Elohim who reveals Himself to him (Num 22:9-10, Num 22:12), - has been pointed out by Hengstenberg in his Dissertations; and even Baur, in his Geschichte der alttestl. Weissagung (i. p. 334), describes it as a "fine distinction;" but neither of them satisfactorily explains this diversity. For the assumption that Balaam is thereby tacitly accused of hypocrisy (Hengstenberg), or that the intention of the writer is to intimate that "the heathen seer did not stand at first in any connection whatever with the true God of Israel" (Baur), sets up a chasm between Elohim and Jehovah, with which the fact that, according to Num 22:22, the wrath of Elohim on account of Balaam's journey was manifested in the appearance of the angel of Jehovah, is irreconcilable. The manifestation of God in the form of the angel of Jehovah, was only a higher stage of the previous manifestations of Elohim. And all that follows from this is, that Balaam's original attitude towards Jehovah was a very imperfect one, and not yet in harmony with the true nature of the God of Israel. In his Jehovah Balaam worshipped only Elohim, i.e., only a divine being, but not the God of Israel, who was first of all revealed to him according to His true essence, in the appearance of the angel of Jehovah, and still more clearly in the words which He put into his mouth. This is indicated by the use of Elohim, in Num 22:9-10, Num 22:12. In the other passages, where this name of God still occurs, it is required by the thought, viz., in Num 22:22, to express the essential identity of Elohim and the Maleach Jehovah; and in Num 22:38; Num 23:27, and Num 24:2, to show that Balaam did not speak out of his own mind, but from the inspiration of the Spirit of God.)
This double-sidedness and ambiguity of the religious and prophetic character of Balaam may be explained on the supposition that, being endowed with a predisposition to divination and prophecy, he practised soothsaying and divination as a trade; and for the purpose of bringing this art to the greatest possible perfection, brought not only the traditions of the different nations, but all the phenomena of his own times, within the range of his observations. In this way he may have derived the first elements of the true knowledge of God from different echoes of the tradition of the primeval age, which was then not quite extinct, and may possibly have heard in his own native land some notes of the patriarchal revelations out of the home of the tribe-fathers of Israel. But these traditions are not sufficient of themselves to explain his attitude towards Jehovah, and his utterances concerning Israel. Balaam's peculiar knowledge of Jehovah, the God of Israel, and of all that He had done to His people, and his intimate acquaintance with the promises made to the patriarchs, which strike us in his prophecies (comp. Num 23:10 with Gen 13:16; Gen 28:14; Num 24:9 with Gen 49:9; and Num 24:17 with Gen 49:10), can only be explained from the fact that the report of the great things which God had done to and for Israel in Egypt and at the Dead Sea, had not only spread among all the neighbouring tribes, as was foretold in Exo 15:14, and is attested by Jethro, Exo 18:1., and Rahab the Canaanites, Jos 2:9., but had even penetrated into Mesopotamia, as the countries of the Euphrates had maintained a steady commercial intercourse from the very earliest times with Hither Asia and the land Egypt. Through these tidings Balaam was no doubt induced not only to procure more exact information concerning the events themselves, that he might make a profitable use of it in connection with his own occupation, but also to dedicate himself to the service of Jehovah, "in the hope of being able to participate in the new powers conferred upon the human race; so that henceforth he called Jehovah his God, and appeared as a prophet in His name" (Hengstenberg). In this respect Balaam resembles the Jewish exorcists, who cast out demons in the name of Jesus without following Christ (Mar 9:38-39; Luk 9:49), but more especially Simon Magus, his "New Testament antitype," who was also so powerfully attracted by the new divine powers of Christianity that he became a believer, and submitted to baptism, because he saw the signs and great miracles that were done (Act 8:13). And from the very time when Balaam sought Jehovah, the fame of his prophetical art appears to have spread. It was no doubt the report that he stood in close connection with the God of Israel, which induced Balak, according to Num 22:6, to hire him to oppose the Israelites; as the heathen king shared the belief, which was common to all the heathen, that Balaam was able to work upon the God he served, and to determine and regulate His will. God had probably given to the soothsayer a few isolated but memorable glimpses of the unseen, to prepare him for the service of His kingdom. But "Balaam's heart was not right with God," and "he loved the wages of unrighteousness" (Act 8:21; Pe2 2:15). His thirst for honour and wealth was not so overcome by the revelations of the true God, that he could bring himself to give up his soothsaying, and serve the living God with an undivided heart. Thus it came to pass, that through the appeal addressed to him by Balak, he was brought into a situation in which, although he did not venture to attempt anything in opposition to the will of Jehovah, his heart was never thoroughly changed; so that, whilst he refused the honours and rewards that were promised him by Balak, and pronounced blessings upon Israel in the strength of the Spirit of God that came upon him, he was overcome immediately afterwards by the might of the sin of his own unbroken heart, fell back into the old heathen spirit, and advised the Midianites to entice the Israelites to join in the licentious worship of Baal Peor (Num 31:16), and was eventually put to death by the Israelites when they conquered these their foes (Num 31:8).
(Note: When modern critics, such as Knobel, Baur, etc., affirm that the tradition in Num 31:8, Num 31:16; Jos 13:22 -viz., that Balaam was a kosem, or soothsayer, who advised the Midianites to seduce the Israelites to join in the worship of Baal-is irreconcilable with the account in Num 22-24 concerning Balaam himself, his attitude towards Jehovah, and his prophecies with regard to Israel, they simply display their own incapacity to comprehend, or form any psychological appreciation of, a religious character such as Balaam; but they by no means prove that the account in Num 22-24 is interpolated by the Jehovist into the Elohistic original. And all that they adduce as a still further confirmation of this hypothesis (namely, that the weaving of prophetic announcements into the historical narrative, the interchange of the names of God, Jehovah, and Elohim, the appearance of the angel of the Lord, the talking of the ass, etc., are foreign to the Elohistic original), are simply assertions and assumptions, which do not become any more conclusive from the fact that they are invariably adduced when no better arguments can be hunted up.)
Balaam Hired by Balak to Curse Israel. - Num 22:2-4. As the Israelites passed by the eastern border of the land of Moab, the Moabites did not venture to make any attack upon them; on the contrary, they supplied them with bread and water for money (Deu 2:29). At that time they no doubt cherished the hope that Sihon, their own terrible conqueror, would be able with perfect ease either to annihilate this new foe, or to drive them back into the desert from which they had come. But when they saw this hope frustrated, and the Israelites had overthrown the two kings of the Amorites with victorious power, and had conquered their kingdoms, and pressed forward through what was formerly Moabitish territory, even to the banks of the Jordan, the close proximity of so powerful a people filled Balak, their king, with terror and dismay, so that he began to think of the best means of destroying them. There was no ground for such alarm, as the Israelites, in consequence of divine instructions (Deu 2:9), had offered no hostilities to the Moabites, but had conscientiously spared their territory and property; and even after the defeat of the Amorites, had not turned their arms against them, but had advanced to the Jordan to take possession of the land of Canaan. But the supernatural might of the people of God was a source of such discomfort to the king of the Moabites, that a horror of the Israelites came upon him. Feeling too weak to attack them with force of arms, he took counsel with the elders of Midian. With these words, "This crowd will now lick up all our environs, as the ox licketh up the green of the field," i.e., entirely consume all our possessions, he called their attention to the danger which the proximity of Israel would bring upon him and his territory, to induce them to unite with him in some common measures against this dangerous foe. This intention is implied in his words, and clearly follows from the sequel of the history. According to Num 22:7, the elders of Midian went to Balaam with the elders of Moab; and there is no doubt that the Midiantish elders advised Balak to send for Balaam with whom they had become acquainted upon their trading journeys (cf. Gen 37), to come and curse the Israelites. Another circumstance also points to an intimate connection between Balaam and the Midianites, namely, the fact that, after he had been obliged to bless the Israelites in spite of the inclination of his own natural heart, he went to the Midianites and advised them to make the Israelites harmless, by seducing them to idolatry (Num 31:16). The Midianites, who are referred to here, must be distinguished from the branch of the same tribe which dwelt in the peninsula of Sinai (Num 10:29-30; Exo 2:15-16; Exo 3:1). They had been settled for a long time (cf. Gen 36:35) on the eastern border of the Moabitish and Amoritish territory, in a grassy but treeless steppe-land, where many ruins and wells are still to be found belonging to very ancient times (Buckingham, Syr. ii. pp. 79ff., 95ff.), and lived by grazing (Num 31:32.) and the caravan trade. They were not very warlike, and were not only defeated by the Edomites (Gen 36:35), but were also subdued and rendered tributary by Sihon, king of the Amorites (see at Num 31:8). In the time of the Judges, indeed, they once invaded the land of Israel in company with the Amalekites and the sons of the East, but they were beaten by Gideon, and entirely repulsed (Judg 6 and 7), and from that time forth they disappear entirely from history. The "elders of Midian" are heads of tribes, who administered the general affairs of the people, who, like the Israelites, lived under a patriarchal constitution. The most powerful of them bore the title of "kings" (Num 31:8) or "princes" (Jos 13:21). The clause, "and Balak, the son of Zippor, was king of the Moabites at that time," is added as a supplementary note to explain the relation of Balak to the Moabites.
Balak sent messengers to Balaam to Pethor in Mesopotamia. The town of Pethor, or Pethora (Φαθοῦρα, lxx), is unknown. There is something very uncertain in Knobel's supposition, that it is connected with Φαθοῦσαι, a place to the south of Circessium (Zozim. iii. 14), and with the Βέθαννα mentioned by Ptolemy, v. 18, 6, and that these are the same as Anah, Ἀναθώ, "Anatha (Ammian. Marcell. xxiv. 1, 6). And the conjecture that the name is derived from פּתר, to interpret dreams (Gen 41:8), and marks the place as a seat of the possessors of secret arts, is also more than doubtful, since פּשׁר corresponds to פּתר in Aramaean; although there can be no doubt that Pethor may have been a noted seat of Babylonian magi, since these wise men were accustomed to congregate in particular localities (cf. Strabo, xvi. 1, 6, and Mnter Relig. der Babyl. p. 86). Balak desired Balaam to come and curse the people of Israel, who had come out of Egypt, and were so numerous that they covered the eye of the earth (see Exo 10:5), i.e., the whole face of the land, and sat down (were encamped) opposite to him; that he might then perhaps be able to smite them and drive them out of the land. On ארה for אר, the imperative of ארר, see Ewald, 228, b. - "For I know that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed." Balak believed, in common with the whole of the ancient world, in the real power and operation of the curses, anathemas, and incantations pronounced by priests, soothsayers, and goetae. And there was a truth at the foundation of this belief, however it may have been perverted by heathenism into phantasy and superstition. When God endows a man with supernatural powers of His word and Spirit, he also confers upon him the power of working upon others in a supernatural way. Man, in fact, by virtue of the real connection between his spirit and the higher spiritual world, is able to appropriate to himself supernatural powers, and make them subservient to the purpose of sin and wickedness, so as to practise magic and witchcraft with them, arts which we cannot pronounce either mere delusion or pure superstition, since the scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments speak of witchcraft, and condemn it as a real power of evil and of the kingdom of darkness. Even in the narrative itself, the power of Balaam to bless and to curse is admitted; and, in addition to this, it is frequently celebrated as a great favour displayed towards Israel, that the Lord did not hearken to Balaam, but turned the curse into a blessing (Deu 23:5; Jos 24:10; Mic 6:3; Neh 13:2). This power of Balaam is not therefore traced, it is true, to the might of heathen deities, but to the might of Jehovah, whose name Balaam confessed; but yet the possibility is assumed of his curse doing actual, and not merely imaginary, harm to the Israelites. Moreover, the course of the history shows that in his heart Balaam was very much inclined to fulfil the desire of the king of the Moabites, and that this subjective inclination of his was overpowered by the objective might of the Spirit of Jehovah.
When the elders of Moab and Midian came to him with wages of divination in their hand, he did not send them away, but told them to spend the night at his house, that he might bring them word what Jehovah would say to him. קסמים, from קסם, soothsaying, signifies here that which has been wrought or won by soothsaying - the soothsayer's wages; just as בּשׂרה, which signifies literally glad tidings, is used in Sa2 4:10 for the wages of glad tidings; and פּעל, פּעלּה, which signifies work, is frequently used for that which is wrought, the thing acquired, or the wages. If Balaam had been a true prophet and a faithful servant of Jehovah, he would at once have sent the messengers away and refused their request, as he must then have known that God would not curse His chosen people. But Balaam loved the wages of unrighteousness. This corruptness of his heart obscured his mind, so that he turned to God not as a mere form, but with the intention and in the hope of obtaining the consent of God to his undertaking. And God came to him in the night, and made known His will. Whether it was through the medium of a dream or of a vision, is not recorded, as this was of no moment in relation to the subject in hand. The question of God in Num 22:9, "Who are these men with thee?" not only served to introduce the conversation (Knobel), but was intended to awaken "the slumbering conscience of Balaam, to lead him to reflect upon the proposal which the men had made, and to break the force of his sinful inclination"' (Hengstenberg).
God then expressly forbade him to go with the messengers to curse the Israelites, as the people was blessed; and Balaam was compelled to send back the messengers without attaining their object, because Jehovah had refused him permission to go with them. קבה־לּי, Num 22:11, imper. of נקב = קבב (see at Lev 24:11).
The answer with which Balaam had sent the Moabitish messengers away, encouraged Balak to cherish the hope of gaining over the celebrated soothsayer to his purpose notwithstanding, and to send an embassy "of princes more numerous and more honourable than those," and to make the attempt to overcome his former resistance by more splendid promises; whether he regarded it, as is very probable, "as the remains of a weakly fear of God, or simply as a ruse adopted for the purpose of obtaining better conditions" (Hengstenberg). As a genuine heathen, who saw nothing more in the God of Israel than a national god of that people, he thought that it would be possible to render not only men, but gods also, favourable to his purpose, by means of splendid honours and rich rewards.
(Note: Compare the following remarks of Pliny (h. n. xxviii. 4) concerning this belief among the Romans: "Verrius Flaccus auctores ponit, quibus credat, in oppugnationibus ante omnia solitum a Romanis sacerdotibus evocari Deum, cujus in tutela id oppidum esset, promittique illi eundem aut ampliorem apud Romanos cultum. Et durat in Pontificum disciplina id sacrum, constatque ideo occultatum, in cujus Dei tutela Roma esset, ne qui hostium simili modo agerent;" - and the further explanations of this heathen notion in Hengstenberg's Balaam and his Prophecies.)
But Balaam replied to the proposals of these ambassadors: "If Balak gave me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the mouth (command) of Jehovah, my God, to do little or great," i.e., to attempt anything in opposition to the will of the Lord (cf. Sa1 20:2; Sa1 22:15; Sa1 25:36). The inability flowed from moral awe of God and dread of His punishment. "From beginning to end this fact was firmly established in Balaam's mind, viz., that in the work to which Balak summoned him he could do nothing at all except through Jehovah. This knowledge he had acquired by virtue of his natural gifts as seer, and his previous experience. But this clear knowledge of Jehovah was completely obscured again by the love for the wages which ruled in his heart. Because he loved Balak, the enemy of Israel, for the sake of the wages, whereas Jehovah loved Israel for His own name's sake; Balaam was opposed to Jehovah in his inmost nature and will, though he knew himself to be in unison with Him by virtue of his natural gift. Consequently he fell into the same blindness of contradiction to which Balak was in bondage" (Baumgarten). And in this blindness he hoped to be able to turn Jehovah round to oppose Israel, and favour the wishes of his own and Balak's heart. He therefore told the messengers to wait again, that he might ask Jehovah a second time (Num 22:19). And this time (Num 22:20) God allowed him to go with them, but only on the condition that he should do nothing but what He said to him. The apparent contradiction in His first of all prohibiting Balaam from going (Num 22:12), then permitting it (Num 22:20), and then again, when Balaam set out in consequence of this permission, burning with anger against him (Num 22:22), does not indicate any variableness in the counsels of God, but vanishes at once when we take into account the pedagogical purpose of the divine consent. When the first messengers came and Balaam asked God whether he might go with them and curse Israel, God forbade him to go and curse. But since Balaam obeyed this command with inward repugnance, when he asked a second time on the arrival of the second embassy, God permitted him to go, but on the condition already mentioned, namely, that he was forbidden to curse. God did this not merely because it was His own intention to put blessings instead of curses into the prophet's mouth, - and "the blessings of the celebrated prophet might serve as means of encouraging Israel and discouraging their foes, even though He did not actually stand in need of them" (Knobel), - but primarily and principally for the sake of Balaam himself, viz., to manifest to this soothsayer, who had so little susceptibility for higher influences, both His own omnipotence and true deity, and also the divine election of Israel, in a manner so powerful as to compel him to decide either for or against the God of Israel and his salvation. To this end God permitted him to go to Balak, though not without once more warning him most powerfully by the way of the danger to which his avarice and ambition would expose him. This immediate intention in the guidance of Balaam, by which God would have rescued him if possible from the way of destruction, into which he had been led by the sin which ruled in his heart, does not at all preclude the much further-reaching design of God, which was manifested in Balaam's blessings, namely, to glorify His own name among the heathen and in Israel, through the medium of this far-famed soothsayer.
Balaam's Speaking Ass. - Num 22:22. "And the anger of God burned, that he was going (הוּא הולך): and the angel of Jehovah placed himself in the way, as an adversary to him." From the use of the participle הולך instead of the imperfect, with which it is not interchangeable, it is evident, on the one hand, that the anger of God was not excited by the fact that Balaam went with the elders of Moab, but by his behaviour wither on setting out or upon the journey;
(Note: From a failure to observe the use of the participle in distinction from the preterite, and from a misinterpretation of the words of the angel of the Lord (Num 22:32), "I have come out as an adversary, for the way leads headlong to destruction," which have been understood as implying that the angel meant to prohibit the seer from going, whereas he only intended to warn him of the destruction towards which he was going, the critics have invented a contradiction between the account of the speaking ass (Num 22:22-35) and the preceding part of the history. And in consequence of this, A. G. Hoffmann and others have pronounced the section from Num 22:22 to Num 22:35 to be a later interpolation; whilst Baur, on the other hand (in his Geschichte d. alttestl. Weissagung), regards the account of the ass as the original form of the narrative, and the preceding portion as a composition of the Jehovist. But there is no "contradiction" or "evident incongruity," unless we suppose that the only reason for the appearance of the angel of the Lord was, that he might once more forbid the seer to go, and then give him permission, with a certain limitation. The other difference, which E. v. Ortenberg adduces, are involved in the very nature of the case. The manifestation of God, in the form of the Angel of Jehovah, was necessarily different in its character from a direct spiritual revelation of the divine will. And lastly, the difference in the expressions used to signify "three times," in Num 22:28, Num 22:32-33, and Num 24:10, etc., prove nothing more than that king Balak did not mould his style of speaking according to that of the ass.)
and, on the other hand, that the occurrence which followed did not take place at the commencement, but rather towards the close of, the journey. As it was a longing for wages and honour that had induced the soothsayer to undertake the journey, the nearer he came to his destination, under the guidance of the distinguished Moabitish ambassadors, the more was his mind occupied with the honours and riches in prospect; and so completely did they take possession of his heart, that he was in danger of casting to the winds the condition which had been imposed upon him by God. The wrath of God was kindled against this dangerous enemy of his soul; and as he was riding upon his ass with two attendants, the angel of the Lord stood in his way לו לשׂטן, "as an adversary to him," i.e., to restrain him from advancing farther on a road that would inevitably lead him headlong into destruction (cf. Num 22:32). This visible manifestation of God was seen by the ass; but Balaam the seer was so blinded, that it was entirely hidden from his eye, darkened as it was by sinful lust; and this happened three times before Jehovah brought him to his senses by the speaking of the dumb animal, and thus opened his eyes.
(Note: "To the great disgrace of the prophet, the glory of the angel was first of all apparent to the ass... He had been boasting before this of extraordinary visions, and now what was visible to the eyes of a beast was invisible to him. Whence came this blindness, but from the avarice by which he had been so stupefied, that he preferred filthy lucre to the holy calling of God?" (Calvin.))
The "drawn sword" in the angel's hand was a manifestation of the wrath of God. The ass turned from the road into the field before the threatening sight, and was smitten by Balaam in consequence to turn her or guide her back into the road.
The angel then stationed himself in a pass of the vineyards where walls (גּדר, vineyard walls, Isa 5:5) were on both sides, so that the animal, terrified by the angel, pressed against the wall, and squeezed Balaam's foot against the wall, for which Balaam smote her again.
The angel moved still farther, and stationed himself in front of him, in so narrow a pass, that there was no room to move either to the right or to the left. As the ass could neither turn aside nor go past this time, she threw herself. down. Balaam was still more enraged at this, and smote her with the stick (בּמקּל, which he carried; see Gen 38:18).
"Then Jehovah opened the mouth of the ass, and she said to Balaam, What have I done to thee, that thou hast smitten me now three times?" But Balaam, enraged at the refractoriness of his ass, replied, "Because thou hast played me ill (התעלּל, see Exo 10:2): if there were only a sword in my hand, verily I should now have killed thee." But the ass replied, that she had been ridden by him from a long time back, and had never been accustomed to act in this way towards him. These words of the irrational beast, the truth of which Balaam was obliged to admit, made an impression upon him, and awakened him out of his blindness, so that God could now open his eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord.
In this miraculous occurrence, which scoffers at the Bible constantly bring forward as a weapon of attack upon the truth of the word of God, the circumstance that the ass perceived the appearance of the angel of the Lord sooner than Balaam did, does not present the slightest difficulty; for it is a well-known fact, that irrational animals have a much keener instinctive presentiment of many natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, storms, etc., than man has with the five senses of his mind. And the fact is equally undeniable, that many animals, e.g., horses and cows, see the so-called second sight, and are terrified in consequence.
(Note: In support of this we will simply cite the following from the remarks made by Martin upon this subject, and quoted by Hengstenberg in his Balaam (p. 385), from Passavant's work on animal magnetism and clairvoyance: "That horses see it (the second sight), is also evident from their violent and rapid snorting, when their rider has had a vision of any kind either by day or night. And in the case of the horse it may also be observed, that it will refuse to go any farther in the same road until a circuitous course has been taken, and even then it is quite in a sweat.")
The rock of offence in this narrative is to be found in the rational words of an irrational and speechless ass. It is true, that in the actual meaning of the words there is nothing beyond the sensations and feelings to which animals constantly give utterance in gestures and inarticulate sounds, when subjected to cruel treatment. But in this instance the feelings were expressed in the rational words of human language, which an animal does not possess; and hence the question arises. Are we to understand this miracle as being a purely internal fact of an ecstatic nature, or a fact that actually came under the cognizance of the senses? If we examine the arguments which Hengstenberg has adduced in favour of the former, and Kurtz in support of the latter, there is nothing at all in the circumstance, that the narrative itself says nothing about Balaam being in an ecstasy, nor in the statement that "Jehovah opened the mouth of the ass," nor lastly, in the words of Pe2 2:16, "The dumb ass, speaking with man's voice, forbade the madness of the prophet," to furnish conclusive, not to say irresistible, proofs of the assertion, that "as the ass was corporeally and externally visible, its speaking must have been externally and corporeally audible" (Kurtz). All that is contained in the two scriptural testimonies is, that the ass spoke in a way that was perceptible to Balaam, and that this speaking was effected by Jehovah as something altogether extraordinary. But whether Balaam heard the words of the animal with the outward, i.e., the bodily ear, or with an inward spiritual ear, is not decided by them. On the other hand, neither the fact that Balaam expressed no astonishment at the ass speaking, nor the circumstance that Balaam's companions - viz., his two servants (Num 22:22) and the Moabitish messengers, who were also present, according to Num 22:35 - did not see the angel or hear the ass speaking, leads with certainty to the conclusion, that the whole affair must have been a purely internal one, which Balaam alone experienced in a state of ecstasy, since argumenta e silentio confessedly prove but very little. With regard to Balaam, we may say with Augustine (quaest. 50 in Num.), "he was so carried away by his cupidity, that he was not terrified by this marvellous miracle, and replied just as if he had been speaking to a man, when God, although He did not change the nature of the ass into that of a rational being, made it give utterance to whatever He pleased, for the purpose of restraining his madness." But with regard to the Moabitish messengers, it is very doubtful whether they were eye-witnesses and auditors of the affair. It is quite possible that they had gone some distance in advance, or were some distance behind, when Balaam had the vision. On the other hand, there was no necessity to mention particularly that they saw the appearance of the angel, and heard the speaking of the animal, as this circumstance was not of the least importance in connection with the main purpose of the narrative. And still less can it be said that "the ass's speaking, if transferred to the sphere of outward reality, would obviously break through the eternal boundary-line which has been drawn in Gen 1 between the human and the animal world." The only thing that would have broken through this boundary, would have been for the words of the ass to have surpassed the feelings and sensations of an animal; that is to say, for the ass to have given utterance to truths that were essentially human, and only comprehensible by human reason. Now that was not the case. All that the ass said was quite within the sphere of the psychical life of an animal.
The true explanation lies between the notion that the whole occurrence was purely internal, and consisted exclusively in ecstasy brought by God upon Balaam, and the grossly realistic reduction of the whole affair into the sphere of the senses and the outward material world. The angel who met the soothsayer in the road, as he was riding upon his ass, and who was seen at once by the ass, though he was not seen by Balaam till Jehovah had opened his eyes, did really appear upon the road, in the outward world of the senses. But the form in which he appeared was not a grossly sensuous or material form, like the bodily frame of an ordinary visible being; for in that case Balaam would inevitably have seen him, when his beast became alarmed and restive again and again and refused to go forward, since it is not stated anywhere that God had smitten him with blindness, like the men of Sodom (Gen 19:11), or the people in Kg2 6:18. It rather resembled the appearance of a spirit, which cannot be seen by every one who has healthy bodily eyes, but only by those who have their senses awakened for visions from the spirit-world. Thus, for example, the men who went to Damascus with Paul, saw no one, when the Lord appeared to him in a miraculous light from heaven, and spoke to him, although they also heard the voice (Act 9:7).
(Note: Or, strictly speaking, they saw the light (Act 22:9), but saw no man (Act 9:7); and they heard the sound (τῆς φωνῆς, the voice or noise generally, Act 9:7), but not the words (τὴν φωνὴν τοῦ λαλοῦντός μοι, the voice or articulate words of the person speaking, Act 22:9). The construction of ἀκούω, with the genitive in the one case and the accusative in the other, is evidently intended to convey this distinct and distinctive meaning. - Tr.)
Balaam wanted the spiritual sense to discern the angel of the Lord, because his spirit's eye was blinded by his thirst for wealth and honour. This blindness increased to such an extent, with the inward excitement caused by the repeated insubordination of his beast, that he lost all self-control. As the ass had never been so restive before, if he had only been calm and thoughtful himself, he would have looked about to discover the cause of this remarkable change, and would then, no doubt, have discovered the presence of the angel. But as he lost all his thoughtfulness, God was obliged to open the mouth of the dumb and irrational animal, to show a seer by profession his own blindness. "He might have reproved him by the words of the angel; but because the rebuke would not have been sufficiently severe without some deep humiliation, He made the beast his teacher" (Calvin). The ass's speaking was produced by the omnipotence of God; but it is impossible to decide whether the modulation was miraculously communicated to the animal's voice, so that it actually gave utterance to the human words which fell upon Balaam's ears (Kurtz), or whether the cries of the animal were formed into rational discourse in Balaam's soul, by the direct operation of God, so that he alone heard and understood the speech of the animal, whereas the servants who were present heard nothing more than unintelligible cries.
(Note: See the analogous case mentioned in Joh 12:28-29, of the voice which came to Jesus from the skies, when some of the people who were standing by said that it only thundered, whilst others said an angel spoke to Him.)
In either case Balaam received a deeply humiliating admonition from the mouth of the irrational beast, and that not only to put him to shame, but also to call him to his senses, and render him capable of hearing the voice of God. The seer, who prided himself upon having eyes for divine revelations, was so blind, that he could not discern the appearance of the angel, which even the irrational beast had been able to see.
(Note: God made use of the voice of an ass, both because it was fitting that a brutish mind should be taught by a brute, and also, as Nyssenus says, to instruct and chastise the vanity of the augur (Balaam), who was accustomed to observe the meaning of the braying of the ass and the chirping of birds (C. a. Lap.).)
By this he was taught, that even a beast is more capable of discerning things from the higher world, than a man blinded by sinful desires. It was not till after this humiliation that God opened his eyes, so that he saw the angel of the Lord with a drawn sword standing in his road, and fell upon his face before this fearful sight.
To humble him deeply and inwardly, the Lord help up before him the injustice of his cruel treatment of the ass, and told him at the same time that it had saved his life by turning out of the way. "I have come out," said the angel of the Lord, "as an adversary; for the way leads headlong into destruction before me;" i.e., the way which thou art going is leading thee, in my eyes, in my view, into destruction. ירט, to plunge, sc., into destruction, both here, and also in Job 16:11, the only other passage in which it occurs.
The angel of the Lord sought to preserve Balaam from the destruction which threatened him, by standing in his way; but he did not see him, though his ass did. וגו נטתה אוּלי, "perhaps it turned out before me; for otherwise I should surely have killed thee, and let her live." The first clause is to be regarded, as Hengstenberg supposes, as an aposiopesis. The angel does not state positively what was the reason why perhaps the ass had turned out of the way: he merely hints at it lightly, and leaves it to Balaam to gather from the hint, that the faithful animal had turned away from affection to its master, with a dim foreboding of the danger which threatened him, and yet for that very reason, as it were as a reward for its service of love, had been ill-treated by him. The traditional rendering, "if the ass had not turned aside, surely," etc., cannot be defended according to the rules of the language; and there is not sufficient ground for any such alteration of the text as Knobel suggests, viz., into לוּלי. These words made an impression, and Balaam made this acknowledgment (Num 22:34): "I have sinned, for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me; and now, if it displease thee, I will get me back again." The angel of the Lord replied, however (Num 22:35): "Go with the men; but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that shalt you speak." This was sufficient to show him, that it was not the journey in itself that was displeasing to God, but the feelings and intentions with which he had entered upon it. The whole procedure was intended to sharpen his conscience and sober his mind, that he might pay attention to the word which the Lord would speak to him. At the same time the impression which the appearance and words of the angel of the Lord made upon his heart, enveloped in mist as it was by the thirst for gold and honour, was not a deep one, nor one that led him to a thorough knowledge of his own heart; otherwise, after such a warning, he would never have continued his journey.
Reception of Balaam by the King of the Moabites. - Num 22:36, Num 22:37. As soon as Balak heard of Balaam's coming, he went to meet him at a city on the border of the Arnon, which flowed at the extreme (north) boundary (of the Moabitish territory), viz., at Areopolis (see at Num 21:15), probably the capital of the kingdom at one time, but now reduced to a frontier town, since Sihon the Amorite had taken all the land as far as the Arnon; whilst Rabbah, which was farther south, had been selected as the residence of the king. By coming as far as the frontier of his kingdom to meet the celebrated soothsayer, Balak intended to do him special honour. But he would not help receiving him with a gentle reproof for not having come at his first invitation, as if he, the king, had not been in a condition to honour him according to his merits.
But Balaam, being still mindful of the warning which he had just received from God, replied, "Lo, I am come unto thee now: have I then any power to speak anything (sc., of my own accord)? "The word which God puts into my mouth, that will I speak." With this reply he sought, at the very outset, to soften down the expectations of Balak, inasmuch as he concluded at once that his coming was a proof of his willingness to curse (Hengstenberg). As a matter of fact, Balaam did not say anything different to the king form what he had explained to his messengers at the very first (cf. Num 22:18). But just as he had not told them the whole truth, but had concealed the fact that Jehovah, his God, had forbidden the journey at first, on the ground that he was not to curse the nation that was blessed (Num 22:12), so he could not address the king in open, unambiguous words.
He then went with Balak to Kirjath-Chuzoth, where the king had oxen and sheep slaughtered in sacrifice, and sent flesh to Balaam as well as to the princes that were with him for a sacrificial meal, to do honour to the soothsayer thereby. The sacrifices were not so much thank-offerings for Balaam's happy arrival, as supplicatory offerings for the success of the undertaking before them. "This is evident," as Hengstenberg correctly observes, "from the place and time of their presentation; for the place was not that where Balak first met with Balaam, and they were only presented on the eve of the great event." Moreover, they were offered unquestionably not to the Moabitish idols, from which Balak expected no help, but to Jehovah, whom Balak wished to draw away, in connection with Balaam, from His own people (Israel), that he might secure His favour to the Moabites. The situation of Kirjath-Chuzoth, which is only mentioned here, cannot be determined with absolute certainty. As Balak went with Balaam to Bamoth-baal on the morning following the sacrificial meal, which was celebrated there, Kirjath-Chuzoth cannot have been very far distant. Knobel conjectures, with some probability, that it may have been the same as Kerioth (Jer 48:24), i.e., Kereijat or Krriat, at the foot of Jebel Attarus, at the top of which Bamoth-baal was situated (see at Num 21:19).
But Balak conducted the soothsayer to Bamoth-baal, not because it was consecrated to Baal, but because it was the first height on the way to the steppes of Moab, from which they could see the camp of Israel, or at all events, "the end of the people," i.e., the outermost portion of the camp. For "Balak started with the supposition, that Balaam must necessarily have the Israelites in view if his curse was to take effect" (Hengstenberg).