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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Numbers Chapter 23

Numbers 23:1

num 23:1

Balaam's First Words. - Num 23:1-3. Preparations for the first act, which was performed at Bamoth-baal. At Balaam's command Balak built seven altars, and then selected seven bullocks and seven rams, which they immediately sacrificed, namely, one bullock and one ram upon each altar. The nations of antiquity generally accompanied all their more important undertakings with sacrifices, to make sure of the protection and help of the gods; but this was especially the case with their ceremonies of adjuration. According to Diod. Sic. ii. 29, the Chaldeans sought to avert calamity and secure prosperity by sacrifices and adjurations. The same thing is also related of other nations (see Hengstenberg, Balaam, p. 392). Accordingly, Balaam also did everything that appeared necessary, according to his own religious notions, to ensure the success of Balak's undertaking, and bring about the desired result. The erection of seven altars, and the sacrifice of seven animals of each kind, are to be explained from the sacredness acquired by this number, through the creation of the world in seven days, as being the stamp of work that was well-pleasing to God. The sacrifices were burnt-offerings, and were offered by themselves to Jehovah, whom Balaam acknowledged as his God.

Numbers 23:3

num 23:3

After the offering of the sacrifices, Balaam directed the king to stand by his burnt-offering, i.e., by the sacrifices that had been offered for him upon the seven altars, that he might go out for auguries. The meaning of the words, "I will go, peradventure Jehovah will come to meet me," is apparent from Num 24:1 : and "he went no more to meet with the auguries" (נחשׁים, see at Lev 19:26). Balaam went out to look for a manifestation of Jehovah in the significant phenomena of nature. The word which Jehovah should show to him, he would report to Balak. We have here what is just as characteristic in relation to Balaam's religious stand-point, as it is significant in its bearing upon the genuine historical character of the narrative, namely, an admixture of the religious ideas of both the Israelites and the heathen, inasmuch as Balaam hoped to receive or discover, in the phenomena of nature, a revelation from Jehovah. Because heathenism had no "sure word of prophecy," it sought to discover the will and counsel of God, which are displayed in the events of human history, through various signs that were discernible in natural phenomena, or, as Chryssipus the Stoic expresses it in Cicero de divin. ii. 63, "Signa quae a Diis hominibus portendantur."

(Note: See the remarks of Ngelsbach and Hartung on the nature of the heathen auspices, in Hengstenberg's Balaam and his Prophecies (pp. 396-7). Hartung observes, for example: "As the gods did not live outside the world, or separated from it, but the things of time and space were filled with their essence, it followed, as a matter of course, that the signs of their presence were sought and seen in all the visible and audible occurrences of nature, whether animate or inanimate. Hence all the phenomena which affected the senses, either in the elements or in the various creatures, whether sounds or movements, natural productions or events, of a mechanical or physical, or voluntary or involuntary kind, might serve as the media of revelation." And again (p. 397): "The sign in itself is useless, if it be not observed. It was therefore necessary that man and God should come to meet one another, and that the sign should not merely be given, but should also be received.")

To look for a word of Jehovah in this way, Balaam betook himself to a "bald height." This is the only meaning of שׁפי, from שׁפה, to rub, to scrape, to make bare, which is supported by the usage of the language; it is also in perfect harmony with the context, as the heathen augurs were always accustomed to select elevated places for their auspices, with an extensive prospect, especially the towering and barren summits of mountains that were rarely visited by men (see Hengstenberg, ut sup.). Ewald, however, proposes the meaning "alone," or "to spy," for which there is not the slightest grammatical foundation.

Numbers 23:4

num 23:4

"And God came to meet Balaam," who thought it necessary, as a true hariolus, to call the attention of God to the altars which had been built for Him, and the sacrifices that had been offered upon them. And God made known His will to him, though not in a natural sign of doubtful signification. He put a very distinct and unmistakeable word into his mouth, and commanded him to make it known to the king.

Numbers 23:7

num 23:7

Balaam's first saying. - Having come back to the burnt-offering, Balaam commenced his utterance before the king and the assembled princes. משׁל, lit., a simile, then a proverb, because the latter consists of comparisons and figures, and lastly a sentence or saying. The application of this term to the announcements made by Balaam (Num 23:7, Num 23:18, Num 24:3, Num 24:15, Num 24:20), whereas it is never used of the prophecies of the true prophets of Jehovah, but only of certain songs and similes inserted in them (cf. Isa 14:4; Eze 17:2; Eze 24:3; Mic 2:4), is to be accounted for not merely from the poetic form of Balaam's utterances, the predominance of poetical imagery, the sustained parallelism, the construction of the whole discourse in brief pointed sentences, and other peculiarities of poetic language (e.g., בּנו, Num 24:3, Num 24:15), but it points at the same time to the difference which actually exists between these utterances and the predictions of the true prophets. The latter are orations addressed to the congregation, which deduce from the general and peculiar relation of Israel to the Lord and to His law, the conduct of the Lord towards His people either in their own or in future times, proclaiming judgment upon the ungodly and salvation to the righteous. "Balaam's mental eye," on the contrary, as Hengstenberg correctly observes, "was simply fixed upon what he saw; and this he reproduced without any regard to the impression that it was intended to make upon those who heard it." But the very first utterance was of such a character as to deprive Balak of all hope that his wishes would be fulfilled.

Num 23:7

"Balak, the king of Moab, fetches me from Aram, from the mountains of the East," i.e., of Mesopotamia, which was described, as far back as Gen 29:1, as the land of the sons of the East (cf. Num 22:5). Balaam mentions the mountains of his home in contradistinction to the mountains of the land of the Moabites upon which he was then standing. "Come, curse me Jacob, and come threaten Israel." Balak had sent for him for this purpose (see Num 22:11, Num 22:17). זעמה, for זעמה, imperative (see Ewald, 228, b.). זעם, to be angry, here to give utterance to the wrath of God, synonymous with נקב or קבב, to curse. Jacob: a poetical name for the nation, equivalent to Israel.

Num 23:8-10

"How shall I curse whom God does not curse, and how threaten whom Jehovah does not threaten?" Balak imagined, like all the heathen, that Balaam, as a goetes and magician, could distribute blessings and curses according to his own will, and put such constraint upon his God as to make Him subservient to his own will (see at Num 22:6). The seer opposes this delusion: The God of Israel does not curse His people, and therefore His servant cannot curse them. The following verses (Num 23:9 and Num 23:10) give the reason why: "For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him. Lo, it is a people that dwelleth apart, and is not numbered among the heathen. Who determines the dust of Jacob, and in number the fourth part of Israel? Let my soul die the death of the righteous, and my end be like his?" There were two reasons which rendered it impossible for Balaam to curse Israel: (1) Because they were a people both outwardly and inwardly different from other nations, and (2) because they were a people richly blessed and highly favoured by God. From the top of the mountains Balaam looked down upon the people of Israel. The outward and earthly height upon which he stood was the substratum of the spiritual height upon which the Spirit of God had placed him, and had so enlightened his mental sight, that he was able to discern all the peculiarities and the true nature of Israel. In this respect the first thing that met his view was the fact that this people dwelt alone. Dwelling alone does not denote a quiet and safe retirement, as many commentators have inferred from Deu 33:28; Jer 49:31, and Mic 7:14; but, according to the parallel clause, "it is not reckoned among the nations," it expresses the separation of Israel from the rest of the nations. This separation was manifested outwardly to the seer's eye in the fact that "the host of Israel dwelt by itself in a separate encampment upon the plain. In this his spirit discerned the inward and essential separation of Israel from all the heathen" (Baumgarten). This outward "dwelling alone" was a symbol of their inward separation from the heathen world, by virtue of which Israel was not only saved from the fate of the heathen world, but could not be overcome by the heathen; of course only so long as they themselves should inwardly maintain this separation from the heathen, and faithfully continue in covenant with the Lord their God, who had separated them from among the nations to be His own possession. As soon as Israel lost itself in heathen ways, it also lost its own external independence. This rule applies to the Israel of the New Testament as well as the Israel of the Old, to the congregation or Church of God of all ages. יתחשּׁב לע, "it does not reckon itself among the heathen nations," i.e., it does not share the lot of the other nations, because it has a different God and protector from the heathen (cf. Deu 4:8; Deu 33:29). The truth of this has been so marvellously realized in the history of the Israelites, notwithstanding their falling short of the idea of their divine calling, "that whereas all the mightier kingdoms of the ancient world, Egypt, Assyria, Babel, etc., have perished without a trace, Israel, after being rescued from so many dangers which threatened utter destruction under the Old Testament, still flourishes in the Church of the New Testament, and continues also to exist in that part which, though rejected now, is destined one day to be restored" (Hengstenberg).

In this state of separation from the other nations, Israel rejoiced in the blessing of its God, which was already visible in the innumerable multitude into which it had grown. "Who has ever determined the dust of Jacob?" As the dust cannot be numbered, so is the multitude of Israel innumerable. These words point back to the promise in Gen 13:16, and applied quite as much to the existing state as to the future of Israel. The beginning of the miraculous fulfilment of the promise given to the patriarchs of an innumerable posterity, was already before their eyes (cf. Deu 10:22). Even now the fourth part of Israel is not to be reckoned. Balaam speaks of the fourth part with reference to the division of the nation into four camps (ch. 2), of which he could see only one from his point of view (Num 22:41), and therefore only the fourth part of the nation. מספּר is an accusative of definition, and the subject and verb are to be repeated from the first clause; so that there is no necessity to alter מספּר into ספר מי. - But Israel was not only visibly blessed by God with an innumerable increase; it was also inwardly exalted into a people of ישׁרים, righteous or honourable men. The predicate ישׁרים is applied to Israel on account of its divine calling, because it had a God who was just and right, a God of truth and without iniquity (Deu 32:4), or because the God of Israel was holy, and sanctified His people (Lev 20:7-8; Exo 31:13) and made them into a Jeshurun (Deu 32:15; Deu 33:5, Deu 33:26). Righteousness, probity, is the idea and destination of this people, which has never entirely lost it, though it has never fully realized it. Even in times of general apostasy from the Lord, there was always an ἐκλογή in the nation, of which probity and righteousness could truly be predicated (cf. Kg1 19:18). The righteousness of the Israelites was "a product of the institutions which God had established among them, of the revelation of His holy will which He had given them in His law, of the forgiveness of sins which He had linked on to the offering of sacrifices, and of the communication of His Spirit, which was ever living and at work in His Church, and in it alone" (Hengstenberg). Such a people Balaam could not curse; he could only wish that the end of his own life might resemble the end of these righteous men. Death is introduced here as the end and completion of life. "Balaam desires for himself the entire, full, indestructible, and inalienable blessedness of the Israelite, of which death is both the close and completion, and also the seal and attestation" (Kurtz). This desire did not involve the certain hope of a blessed life beyond the grave, which the Israelites themselves did not then possess; it simply expressed the thought that the death of a pious Israelite was a desirable good. And this it was, whether viewed in the light of the past, the present, or the future. In the hour of death the pious Israelite could look back with blessed satisfaction to a long life, rich "in traces of the beneficent, forgiving, delivering, and saving grace of God;" he could comfort himself with the delightful hope of living on in his children and his children's children, and in them of participating in the future fulfilment of the divine promises of grace; and lastly, when dying in possession of the love and grace of God, he could depart hence with the joyful confidence of being gathered to his fathers in Sheol (Gen 25:8).

Numbers 23:11

num 23:11

Balak reproached Balaam for this utterance, which announced blessings to the Israelites instead of curses. But he met his reproaches with the remark, that he was bound by the command of Jehovah. The infinitive absolute, בּרך, after the finite verb, expresses the fact that Balaam had continued to give utterance to nothing but blessings. לדבּר שׁמר, to observe to speak; שׁמר, to notice carefully, as in Deu 5:1, Deu 5:29, etc. But Balak thought that the reason might be found in the unfavourable locality; he therefore led the seer to "the field of the watchers, upon the top of Pisgah," whence he could see the whole of the people of Israel. The words וגו תּראנּוּ אשׁר (Num 23:13) are to be rendered, "whence thou wilt see it (Israel); thou seest only the end of it, but not the whole of it" (sc., here upon Bamoth-baal). This is required by a comparison of the verse before us with Num 22:41, where it is most unquestionably stated, that upon the top of Bamoth-baal Balaam only saw "the end of the people." For this reason Balak regarded that place as unfavourable, and wished to lead the seer to a place from which he could see the people, without any limitation whatever. Consequently, notwithstanding the omission of כּי (for), the words קצהוּ אפס can only be intended to assign the reason why Balak supposed the first utterances of Balaam to have been unfavourable. קצהוּ = העם קצה, the end of the people (Num 22:41), cannot possibly signify the whole nation, or, as Marck, de Geer, Gesenius, and Kurtz suppose, "the people from one end to the other," in which case העם קצה (the end of the people) would signify the very opposite of קצהוּ (the end of it); for העם קצה is not interchangeable, or to be identified, with מקּצה כּל־העם (Gen 19:4), "the whole people, from the end or extremity of it," or from its last man; in other words, "to the very last man." Still less does העם קצה אפס signify "the uttermost end of the whole people, the end of the entire people," notwithstanding the fact that Kurtz regards the expression, "the end of the end of the people," as an intolerable tautology. קבנו, imperative with nun epenth., from קבב. The "field of the watchers," or "spies (zophim), upon the top of Pisgah," corresponds, no doubt, to "the field of Moab, upon the top of Pisgah," on the west of Heshbon (see at Num 21:20). Mount Nebo, from which Moses surveyed the land of Canaan in all its length and breadth, was one summit, and possibly the summit of Pisgah (see Deu 3:27; Deu 34:1). The field of the spies was very probably a tract of table-land upon Nebo; and so called either because watchers were stationed there in times of disturbance, to keep a look-out all round, or possibly because it was a place where augurs made their observations of the heavens and of birds (Knobel). The locality has not been thoroughly explored by travellers; but from the spot alluded to, it must have been possible to overlook a very large portion of the Arboth Moab. Still farther to the north, and nearer to the camp of the Israelites in these Arboth, was the summit of Peor, to which Balak afterwards conducted Balaam (Num 23:28), and where he not only saw the whole of the people, but could see distinctly the camps of the different tribes (Num 24:2).

Num 23:14-17

Upon Pisgah, Balak and Balaam made the same preparations for a fresh revelation from God as upon Bamoth-baal (Num 23:1-6). כּה in Num 23:15 does not mean "here" or "yonder," but "so" or "thus," as in every other case. The thought is this: "Do thou stay (sc., as thou art), and I will go and meet thus" (sc., in the manner required). אקּרה (I will go and meet) is a technical term here for going out for auguries (Num 24:1), or for a divine revelation.

Numbers 23:18

num 23:18

The second saying. - "Up, Balak, and hear! Hearken to me, son of Zippor!" קוּם, "stand up," is a call to mental elevation, to the perception of the word of God; for Balak was standing by his sacrifice (Num 23:17). האזין with עד, as in Job 32:11, signifies a hearing which presses forward to the speaker, i.e., in keen and minute attention (Hengstenberg). בּנו, with the antiquated union vowel for בּן; see at Gen 1:24.

Num 23:19

"God is not a man, that He should lie; nor a son of man, that He should repent: hath He said, and should He not do it? and spoken, and should not carry it out?"

Num 23:20

"Behold, I have received to bless: and He hath blessed; and I cannot turn it." Balaam meets Balak's expectation that he will take back the blessing that he has uttered, with the declaration, that God does not alter His purposes like changeable and fickle men, but keeps His word unalterably, and carries it into execution. The unchangeableness of the divine purposes is a necessary consequence of the unchangeableness of the divine nature. With regard to His own counsels, God repents of nothing; but this does not prevent the repentance of God, understood as an anthropopathic expression, denoting the pain experienced by the love of God, on account of the destruction of its creatures (see at Gen 6:6, and Exo 32:14). The ה before הוּא Num 23:19) is the interrogative ה (see Ges. 100, 4). The two clauses of Num 23:19, "Hath He spoken," etc., taken by themselves, are no doubt of universal application; but taken in connection with the context, they relate specially to what God had spoken through Balaam, in his first utterance with reference to Israel, as we may see from the more precise explanation in Num 23:20, "Behold, I have received to bless' (לקח, taken, accepted), etc. השׁיב, to lead back, to make a thing retrograde (Isa 43:13). Samuel afterwards refused Saul's request in these words of Balaam (Num 23:19), when he entreated him to revoke his rejection on the part of God (Sa1 15:29).

Num 23:21

After this decided reversal of Balak's expectations, Balaam carried out still more fully the blessing which had been only briefly indicated in his first utterance. "He beholds not wickedness in Jacob, and sees not suffering in Israel: Jehovah his God is with him, and the shout (jubilation) of a king in the midst of him." The subject in the first sentence is God (see Hab 1:3, Hab 1:13). God sees not און, worthlessness, wickedness, and עמל, tribulation, misery, as the consequence of sin, and therefore discovers no reason for cursing the nation. That this applied to the people solely by virtue of their calling as the holy nation of Jehovah, and consequently that there is no denial of the sin of individuals, is evident from the second hemistich, which expresses the thought of the first in a positive form: so that the words, "Jehovah his God is with him," correspond to the words, "He beholds not wickedness;" and "the shout of a king in the midst of it," to His not seeing suffering. Israel therefore rejoiced in the blessing of God only so long as it remained faithful to the idea of its divine calling, and continued in covenant fellowship with the Lord. So long the power of the world could do it no harm. The "shout of a king" in Israel is the rejoicing of Israel at the fact that Jehovah dwells and rules as King in the midst of it (cf. Exo 15:18; Deu 33:5). Jehovah had manifested Himself as King, by leading them out of Egypt.

Num 23:22

"God brings them out of Egypt; his strength is like that of a buffalo." אל is God as the strong, or mighty one. The participle מוציאם is not used for the preterite, but designates the leading out as still going on, and lasting till the introduction into Canaan. The plural suffix, ם-, is used ad sensum, with reference to Israel as a people. Because God leads them, they go forward with the strength of a buffalo. תּועפות, from יעף, to weary, signifies that which causes weariness, exertion, the putting forth of power; hence the fulness of strength, ability to make or bear exertions. ראם is the buffalo or wild ox, an indomitable animal, which is especially fearful on account of its horns (Job 39:9-11; Deu 33:17; Psa 22:22).

Num 23:23

The fellowship of its God, in which Israel rejoiced, and to which it owed its strength, was an actual truth. "For there is no augury in Jacob, and no divination in Israel. At the time it is spoken to Jacob, and to Israel what God doeth." כּי does not mean, "so that, as an introduction to the sequel," as Knobel supposes, but "for," as a causal particle. The fact that Israel was not directed, like other nations, to the uncertain and deceitful instrumentality of augury and divination, but enjoyed in all its concerns the immediate revelation of its God, furnished the proof that it had its God in the midst of it, and was guided and endowed with power by God Himself. נחשׁ and קסם, οἰωνισμός and μαντεία, augurium et divinatio (lxx, Vulg.), were the two means employed by the heathen for looking into futurity. The former (see at Lev 19:26) was the unfolding of the future from signs in the phenomena of nature, and inexplicable occurrences in animal and human life; the latter, prophesying from a pretended or supposed revelation of the Deity within the human mind. כּעת, "according to the time," i.e., at the right time, God revealed His acts, His counsel, and His will to Israel in His word, which He had spoken at first to the patriarchs, and afterwards through Moses and the prophets. In this He revealed to His people in truth, and in a way that could not deceive, what the heathen attempted in vain to discover through augury and divination (cf. Deu 18:14-19).

(Note: "What is here affirmed of Israel, applies to the Church of all ages, and also to every individual believer. The Church of God knows from His word what God does, and what it has to do in consequence. The wisdom of this world resembles augury and divination. The Church of God, which is in possession of His word, has no need of it, and it only leads its followers to destruction, from inability to discern the will of God. To discover this with certainty, is the great privilege of the Church of God" (Hengstenberg).)

Num 23:24

Through the power of its God, Israel was invincible, and would crush all its foes. "Behold, it rises up, a people like the lioness, and lifts itself up like the lion. It lies not down till it eats dust, and drinks the blood of the slain." What the patriarch Jacob prophesied of Judah, the ruler among his brethren, in Gen 49:9, Balaam here transfers to the whole nation, to put to shame all the hopes indulged by the Moabitish king of the conquest and destruction of Israel.

Numbers 23:25

num 23:25

Balaam's Last Words. - Num 23:25-30. Balak was not deterred, however, from making another attempt. At first, indeed, he exclaimed in indignation at these second sayings of Balaam: "Thou shalt neither curse it, nor even bless." The double גּם with לא signifies "neither - nor;" and the rendering, "if thou do not curse it, thou shalt not bless it," must be rejected as untenable. In his vexation at the second failure, he did not want to hear anything more from Balaam. But when he replied again, that he had told him at the very outset that he could do nothing but what God should say to him (cf. Num 22:38), he altered his mind, and resolved to conduct Balaam to another place with this hope: "peradventure it will please God that thou mayest curse me them from thence." Clericus observes upon this passage, "It was the opinion of the heathen, that what was not obtained through the first, second, or third victim, might nevertheless be secured through a fourth;" and he adduces proofs from Suetonius, Curtius, Gellius, and others.

Numbers 23:29

num 23:29

He takes the seer "to the top of Peor, which looks over the face of the desert" (Jeshimon: see at Num 21:20), and therefore was nearer to the camp of the Israelites. Mount Peor was one peak of the northern part of the mountains of Abarim by the town of Beth-peor, which afterwards belonged to the Reubenites (Jos 13:20), and opposite to which the Israelites were encamped in the steppes of Moab (Deu 3:29; Deu 4:46). According to Eusebius (Onom. s. v. Φογώρ), Peor was above Libias (i.e., Bethharam),

(Note: Ὑυπέρκειται δὲ τῆς νῦν Λιβαίδος καλουμένης. Jerome has "in supercilio Libiados.")

which was situated in the valley of the Jordan; and according to the account given under Araboth Moab,

(Note: Καὶ ἔστι τόπος εἰς δεῦρο δεικνύμενος παρὰ τῷ ὄρει Φογώρ ὁ παράκειται ἀνιόντων ἀπὸ Λιβίαδος ἐπὶ Ἐσσεβοὺς (i.e., Heshbon) τῆς Ἀραβίας ἀντικρὺ Ἰεριχώ.)

it was close by the Arboth Moab, opposite to Jericho, on the way from Libias to Heshbon. Peor was about seven Roman miles from Heshbon, according to the account given s. v. Danaba; and Beth-peor (s. v. Bethphozor) was near Mount Peor, opposite to Jericho, six Roman miles higher than Libias, i.e., to the east of it (see Hengstenberg, Balaam, p. 538).

Num 23:29-30

The sacrifices offered in preparation for this fresh transaction were the same as in the former cases (Num 23:14, and Num 23:1, Num 23:2).

Next: Numbers Chapter 24