|Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary|
22:1-14 The king of Moab formed a plan to get the people of Israel cursed; that is, to set God against them, who had hitherto fought for them. He had a false notion, that if he could get some prophet to pray for evil upon them, and to pronounce a blessing upon himself and his forces, that then he should be able to deal with them. None had so great a reputation as Balaam; and Balak will employ him, though he send a great way for him. It is not known whether the Lord had ever spoken to Balaam, or by him, before this; though it is probable he had, and it is certain he did afterwards. Yet we have abundant proof that he lived and died a wicked man, an enemy to God and his people. And the curse shall not come upon us if there is not a cause, even though men utter it. To prevail with Balaam, they took the wages of unrighteousness, but God laid restraint upon Balaam, forbidding him to curse Israel. Balaam was no stranger to Israel's cause; so that he ought to have answered the messengers at once, that he would never curse a people whom God had blessed; but he takes a night's time to consider what he should do. When we parley with temptations, we are in great danger of being overcome. Balaam was not faithful in returning God's answer to the messengers. Those are a fair mark for Satan's temptation, who lessen Divine restraints; as if to go against God's law were only to go without his leave. The messengers also are not faithful in returning Balaam's answer to Balak. Thus many are abused by the flatteries of those about them, and are prevented from seeing their own faults and follies.
PRELIMINARY NOTE TO CHAPTER 22-24. That this section of the Book of Numbers has a character to a great extent peculiar and isolated is evident upon the face of it. The arguments indeed derived from its language and style to prove that it is by a different hand from the rest of the Book are obviously too slight and doubtful to be of any weight; there does not seem to be any more diversity in this respect than the difference of subject matter would lead us to expect. The peculiarity, however, of this section is evident from the fact that these three chapters, confessedly so important and interesting in themselves, might be taken away without leaving any perceptible void. From Numbers 22:1 the narrative is continued in chapter 25, apparently without a break, and in that chapter there is no mention of Balaam. It is only in chapter 31. (verses 8, 16) that two passing allusions are made to him: in the one his death is noted without comment; in the other we are made acquainted for the first time with a fact which throws a most important light upon his character and career, of which no hint is given in the section before us. Thus it is evident that the story of Balaam's coming and prophecies, although imbedded in the narrative (and that in the fight place as to order of time), is not structurally connected with it, but forms an episode by itself. If we now take this section, which is thus isolated and self-contained, we shall not fail to see at once that its literary character is strikingly peculiar. It is to all intents and purposes a sacred drama wherein characters and events of the highest interest are handled with consummate art. No one can be insensible to this, whatever construction he may or may not put upon it. Probably the story of Balaam was never made the subject of a miracle play, because the character of the chief actor is too subtle for the crude intelligence of the age of miracle plays. But if the sacred drama were ever reintroduced, it is certain that no more effective play could be found than that of Balaam and Balak. The extraordinary skill with which the strangely complex character of the wizard prophet is drawn out; the felicity with which it is contrasted with the rude simplicity of Balak; the picturesque grandeur of the scenery and incident; and the art with which the story leads up by successive stages to the final and complete triumph of God and of Israel, are worthy, from a merely artistic point of view, of the greatest of dramatic poets. There is no such minute drawing out of an isolated character by means of speech and incident to be found in the Old Testament, unless it be in the Book of Job, the dramatic form of which serves to give point to the comparison; but few would fail to see that the much more subtle character of Balaam is far more distinctly indicated than that of Job. Balaam is emphatically a "study," and must have been intended to he so. Yet it must be remembered that it is only to modern eyes that this part of the varied truth and wisdom of Holy Scripture has become manifest. To the Jew Balaam was interesting only as a great foe, greatly baffled; as a sorcerer whose ghostly power and craft was broken and turned backward by the God of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:5; Joshua 13:22; Joshua 24:10; Micah 6:5). To the Christian of the first age he was only interesting as the Scriptural type of the subtlest and most dangerous kind of enemy whom the Church of God had to dread - the enemy who united spiritual pretensions with persuasions to vice (Revelation 2:14). To the more critical intellects of later ages, such even as Augustine and Jerome, he was altogether a puzzle; the one regarding him as prophetam diaboli, whose religion was a mere cloak for covetousness; the other as prophetam Dei, whose fall was like unto the fall of the old prophet of Bethel. The two parallel allusions to his character in 2 Peter 2:15, 16; Jude 1:11 do not take us any further, merely turning upon the covetousness which was his most obvious fault. Unquestionably, however, Balaam is most interesting to us, not from any of these points of view, but as a study drawn by an inspired hand of a strangely but most naturally mixed character, the broad features of which are constantly being reproduced, in the same unhallowed union, in men of all ]ands and ages. This is undeniably one of the instances (not perhaps very numerous) in which the more trained and educated intelligence of modern days has a distinct advantage over the simpler faith and intenser piety of the first ages. The conflict, or rather the compromise, in Balaam between true religion and superstitious imposture, between an actual Divine inspiration and the practice of heathen sorceries, between devotion to God and devotion to money, was an unintelligible puzzle to men of old. To those who have grasped the character of a Louis XI, of a Luther, or of an Oliver Cromwell, or have gauged the mixture of highest and lowest in the religious movements of modern history, the wonder is, not that such an one should have been, but that such an one should have been so simply and yet so skillfully depicted. Two questions arise pre-eminently out of the story of Balaam which our want of knowledge forbids us to answer otherwise than doubtfully.
I. Whence did Balaam derive his knowledge of the true God, and how far did it extend? Was he, as some have argued, a heathen sorcerer who took to invoking Jehovah because circumstances led him to believe that the cause of Jehovah was likely to be the winning cause? and did the God whom he invoked in this mercenary spirit (after the fashion of the sons of Sceva) take advantage of the fact to obtain an ascendancy over his mind, and to compel his unwilling obedience? Such an assumption seems at once unnatural and unnecessary. It is hardly conceivable that God should have bestowed a true prophetic gift upon one who stood in such a relation to him. Moreover, the kind of ascendancy which the word of God had over the mind of Balaam is not one which springs from calculation, or from a mere intellectual persuasion. The man who lives before us in these chapters has not only a considerable knowledge of, but a very large amount of faith in, the one true God; he walks with God; he sees him that is invisible; the presence of Gods and God's direct concern about his doings are as familiar and unquestioned elements of his everyday life as they were of Abraham's. In a word (whatever difficulties a shallow theology may find in the fact), he has religious faith in God, a faith which is naturally strong, and has been further intensified by special revelations of the unseen; and this faith is the basis and condition of his prophetic gift. Balaam's religion, therefore, on this side was neither an hypocrisy nor an assumption; it was a real conviction which had grown up with him and formed part of his inner self. It is true that in Joshua 13:22 he is called a soothsayer (kosem), a name of reproach and infamy among the Jews (cf. 1 Samuel 15:23, "witchcraft;" Jeremiah 14:14, "divination"); but no one doubts that he played for gain the part of a soothsayer, employing with more or less of inward unbelief and contempt the arts of heathen sorcery; and it was quite natural that Joshua should recognize only the lower and more obvious side of his enemy's character. It remains then to consider how Balaam, living in Mesopotamia, could have had so considerable a knowledge of the true God; and the only satisfactory answer is this, that such knowledge had never disappeared from that region. Every glimpse which is afforded us of the descendants of Nahor in their Mesopotamian home confirms the belief that they were substantially at one with the chosen family in religious feeling and religious speech. Bethuel and Laban acknowledged the same God, and called him by the same name as Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 24:50; Genesis 31:49). No doubt idolatrous practices prevailed in their household (Genesis 31:19; Genesis 35:2; Joshua 24:2), but that, however dangerous, was not fatal to the existence of the true faith amongst them, any more than is the existence of a similar cultus amongst Christians. Centuries had indeed passed away since the days of Laban, and during those centuries we may well conclude that the common people had developed the idolatrous practices of their fathers, until they wholly obscured the worship of the one true God. But the lapse of years and the change of popular belief make little difference to the secret and higher teaching of countries like the Mesopotamia of that age, which is intensely conservative both for good and evil. Men like Balaam, who probably had an hereditary claim to his position as a seer, remained purely monotheistic in creed, and in their hearts called only upon the God of all the earth, the God of Abraham and of Nahor, of Melchizedec and of Job, of Laban and of Jacob. If we knew enough of the religious history of that land, it is possible that we might be able to point to a tolerably complete succession of gifted (in many cases Divinely-gifted) men, servants and worshippers of the one true God, down to the Magi who first hailed the rising of the bright and morning Star. There is connected with this question another of much narrower interest which causes great perplexity. Balaam (and indeed Balak too) freely uses the sacred name by which God had revealed himself as the God of Israel (see on Exodus 6:2, 3). There are two views of this matter, one or other of which is tolerably certain, and for both of which much may be said: either the sacred name was widely known and used beyond the limits of Israel, or else the sacred historian must have freely put it into the mouths of people who actually used some other name. There are also two views both of which may be summarily rejected, because their own advocates have reduced them to absolute absurdity: the one is, that the use of the two names Elohim and Jehovah shows a difference of authorship; the other, that they are employed by the same author with variety of sense - Elohim (God) being the God of nature, Jehovah (the Lord) the God of grace. It is no doubt true that there are passages where the sole use, or the pointed use, of one or other of these names does really point to a diversity either of authorship or of meaning; but it is abundantly clear that in the general narrative of Scripture, including these chapters, not the least distinction whatever can be drawn between the use of Elohim and Jehovah which will stand the simplest test of common sense; the same ingenuity which explains the occurrence of Elohim instead of Jehovah in any particular sentence would find an explanation quite as satisfactory if it were Jehovah instead of Elohim.
II. Whence did Moses obtain his knowledge of the incidents here recorded, many of which must have been known to Balaam alone? Was it directly, by revelation; or from some memorials left by Balaam himself? The former supposition, once generally held, is as generally abandoned now, because it is perceived that inspiration over-ruled and utilized for Divine purposes, but did not supersede, natural sources of information. The latter supposition is rendered more probable by these considerations: -
1. That a man of Balaam's character and training would be very likely to put on record the remarkable things which had happened to himself. Such men who habitually lead a double life are often keenly. alive to their own errors, and are singularly frank in writing themselves down for the benefit of posterity.
2. That Balaam was slain among the Midianites, and that his effects must have fallen into the hands of the victors. On the other hand, it is inconceivable that Balaam, being what he was, should have written these chapters at all as they stand; the moral and religious intent of the story is too evident in itself, and is too evidently governed by Jewish faith and feeling. It may be allowable to put it before the reader as an opinion which may or may not be true, but which is quite compatible with profound belief in the inspired truth of this part of God's word, that Moses, having obtained the facts in the way above indicated, was moved to work them up into the dramatic form in which they now appear - a form which undoubtedly brings out the character of the actors, the struggle between light and darkness, and the final triumph of light, with much more force (and therefore much more truth) than anything else could. If it be objected that this gives a fictitious character to the narrative, it may be replied that when the imagination is called into exercise to present actual facts, existing characters, and prophecies really uttered in a striking light, - and that under the over-ruling guidance of the Divine Spirit, - the result cannot be called fictitious in any bad or unworthy sense. If it be added that such a theory attributes to this section a character different from the rest of the Book, it may be allowed at once. The episode of Balaam and Balak is obviously, as to literary form, distinct from and strongly contrasted with the narrative which precedes and follows. It has been made a question as to the language in which Balaam and his companions spoke and wrote. The discovery of the Moabite stone has made it certain that the language of the Moabites, and in all probability of the other races descended from Abraham and Lot, was practically the same as the language of the Jews. Balaam's own tongue may have been Aramaic, but amongst his western friends and patrons he would no doubt he perfectly ready to speak as they spoke.
CHAPTER 22:1-40. THE COMING OF BALAAM (verses 2-40). Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
And the children of Israel set forward,.... From the country of Bashan, where we read of them last, after they had conquered Og the king of it, and also Sihon king of the Amorites, and settled some of their tribes in both kingdoms; the particular place from whence they came hither, according to the account of their journeys, were the mountains of Abarim, Numbers 33:48,
and pitched in the plains of Moab the part of them they encamped in reached from Bethjesimoth to Abelshittim, Numbers 33:49,
on this side Jordan by Jericho; or Jordan of Jericho, as the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan; a river that flowed near to Jericho, running between the plains of Moab and the plains of Jericho; according to Josephus (u) it was sixty furlongs, or seven miles and a half from Jericho; but, according to Jerome (w), it was but five miles: or rather, as some versions render it, "over against Jericho" (x); for Jericho was on the other side of the river Jordan, and the plains of Moab, or that part of them where Israel now pitched, were right against that city; and so Josephus says (y).
(u) Antiqu. l. 5. c. 1. sect. 4. (w) De locis Heb. fol. 87. G. (x) Sept. "ex opposito Heiricho", Tigurine version. (y) Antiqu. l. 4. c. 6. sect. 1.
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
Nu 22:1-20. Balak's First Message for Balaam Refused.
1. Israel … pitched in the plains of Moab—so called from having formerly belonged to that people, though wrested from them by Sihon. It was a dry, sunken, desert region on the east of the Jordan valley, opposite Jericho.
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