Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.Numbers 22:1. The verse appears to be the continuation of P’s itinerary in Numbers 21:10-11; cf. Numbers 33:48.
the steppes of Moab] A term, peculiar to P , which denotes the open plain, immediately to the north of the Dead Sea, about 9 miles from north to south and from 5 to 7 miles broad. The similar plain on the west of Jordan is named ‘the steppes of Jericho’ (Joshua 4:13; Joshua 5:10).
on the other side of the Jordan] i.e. on the east. The expression is from the point of view of a writer in Palestine.
the Jordan at Jericho] lit. ‘the Jordan of Jericho,’ i.e. that portion of the river which flows by the town. Cf. ‘the waters of Megiddo’ (Jdg 5:19).
Numbers 22:2-24. The story of Balaam (J E ).
The narratives of J and E are, to a large extent, so closely interwoven that it is difficult to separate them. But in certain portions the differences between them stand out clearly, and will be indicated in the notes.
An approximate analysis is as follows:—
E . Numbers 22:2-3 a, Numbers 22:5 a (to ‘River’), Numbers 22:8-10; Num 22:12-16; Num 22:19-21; Num 22:35-41.
J . Numbers 22:3 b, Numbers 22:4, Numbers 22:5 b – Numbers 22:7; Num 22:11; Num 22:17-18; Num 22:22-34.
The object of this well-known narrative is to illustrate the all-important thought ‘if God be for us who can be against us?’ Jehovah holds Israel under His protection, and therefore provides that they shall receive a blessing and not a curse. Pharaoh’s obstinacy in opposing Jehovah in Egypt is paralleled, at the end of the journeyings, by the obstinacy of Balak, and the result is that the divine curse falls upon Moab (Numbers 24:17) among other foes of Israel. A further interest in the story is the character of Balaam, which, however, has sometimes been allowed such undue prominence as to throw into the shade the real religious import of the narrative. His character has been very variously estimated according as one or another feature in the narrative is emphasized; see e.g. Stanley, Jewish Church, and Lock in J.Th.S. ii. 161–3. This variety of estimate results from the fact that the narrative is not homogeneous. In E , so far as it has been preserved, no blame attaches to his character. It is true that in J (Numbers 22:5 b – Numbers 22:7; Num 22:11; Num 22:17-18) Balak expects him to do the work of a prophet for money, but this did not necessarily imply avarice; it was a not uncommon feature of early Israelite life; Samuel (1 Samuel 9:8), Ahijah (1 Kings 14:3), Elisha (2 Kings 8:8 f.) and Amos (Amos 7:12) were expected to do the same. [Note: Amos’ reply to Amaziah (Amos 7:14) shews that the great prophets of Israel rose superior to the practice of the earlier ‘sons of the prophets’; he had never been one who would ‘eat bread’ by prophesying. And from that time onwards it is probable that prophesying for payment was condemned by the better minds in the nation.] And when it came to the point, Balaam declared that no amount of gold or silver would persuade him to oppose the will of Jehovah his God by cursing Israel. The idea that he was forced to utter blessings mechanically though he wanted to curse is quite absent from the story, and ought not to be read into it. In J we only learn that Jehovah was angry with him because he went (see on Numbers 22:22), no reason being assigned, or perhaps rather the reason assigned having dropped out of the narrative when it was combined with E . In D (Deuteronomy 23:4 f., Joshua 24:9 f.) we meet for the first time with the thought that Balaam wanted to curse for hire, but was prevented by God, cf. Nehemiah 13:2. Lastly in P (Numbers 31:16) a different, and terrible, sin is related of him. He persuaded the Israelites to commit sin with the Midianite women at Peor, and thus brought calamity upon God’s people after all (Numbers 31:16). The dark estimate of his character is adopted in the N.T.: avarice (Judges 11, 2 Peter 2:15-16), and the teaching of idolatry and fornication (Revelation 2:14).
And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.2–19. Balak king of Moab being frightened by the near proximity of the Israelites sent for Balaam a famous soothsayer to curse them, offering him liberal payment. Balaam came but refused to utter any oracle but that which Jehovah revealed to him.
Zippor] The word denotes ‘a little bird,’ the fem. of which is seen in Ẓippôrah, Moses’ wife. The name may point to early totemistic beliefs (see Frazer, Totemism2, W. R. Smith, Rel. Sem. 2 124 ff.).
the Amorites] Og, the king of Bashan, is not mentioned; see on Numbers 21:33-35.
And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.3. The two halves of the verse appear to be doublets, from E and J respectively.
And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time.4. And Moab said] The people are represented in the person of their king.
the elders of Midian] They are mentioned, in this story, only here and in Numbers 22:7. The Midianites may be supposed to have made common cause with the Moabites in fear of the formidable enemy. But if so, it is surprising that they are not named in Balaam’s utterances in ch. 24. Behind the present narrative there may lie some unknown tradition in J which formed the basis of P’s narrative in 31:161 [Note: Notice that Midian is geographically connected with the territory of Moab in Genesis 36:35 (J).] . Or perhaps, as some think, a late compiler has here introduced the Midianites in view of Numbers 31:16.
And Balak … at that time] In Numbers 22:2 E has already mentioned Balak as a well-known person.
He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me:5. Balaam the son of Beor] It is interesting that the name Bela the son of Beor occurs of a king of Edom (Genesis 36:32). Balaam (Heb. Bil‘âm) and Bela‘ are practically identical words; and some have thought that the two men are the same, and that different conceptions of them were handed down in the Israelite and Edomite traditions. But there is no other evidence for the conjecture (see art. ‘Bela’ in Enc. Bibl. [Note: nc. Bibl. Encyclopaedia Biblica.] ).
Pethor, which is by the River] i.e. by the Euphrates. Cf. Deuteronomy 23:4 ‘Pethor of Aram-naharaim (Mesopotamia).’ It is probably to be identified with Pitru (mentioned in an Assyr. and an Egypt, inscription), which was situated a few miles from the Euphrates, a little to the south of Carchemish. This sentence, which is probably from E , represents Balaam as living some 400 miles from Moab.
the land of the children of his people] This must mean ‘his native land’; but it is a very awkward periphrasis. The Sam. , Syr., Lucianic LXX. , Vulg. and some Heb. MSS. read ‘Ammon, for ‘ammô ‘his people.’ If this is correct, J and E contained different traditions as to the country from which Balaam came. This reading is supported by the narrative of J (Numbers 22:22-34) which relates that Balaam rode upon an ass, with two servants, suggesting a short journey through cultivated country rather than a long desert journey for which camels and a tent caravan would be required.
Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land: for I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.
And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand; and they came unto Balaam, and spake unto him the words of Balak.
And he said unto them, Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the LORD shall speak unto me: and the princes of Moab abode with Balaam.8. the princes of Moab] The verse appears to be from E . In Numbers 22:7 J describes them as the ‘elders of Moab.’
And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee?
And Balaam said unto God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent unto me, saying,10. hath sent unto me, saying] The word ‘saying’ is absent from the Heb. The abruptness with which the words of Balak’s message are given is perhaps due to the fusion of J and E .
Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt, which covereth the face of the earth: come now, curse me them; peradventure I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out.
And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.12. for they are blessed] It was necessary to inform Balaam of this; as a foreigner in far Mesopotamia he knew nothing of Israel and their relation to Jehovah.
And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land: for the LORD refuseth to give me leave to go with you.13. Balaam may have felt regret at being unable to win the offered rewards, but there is no hint of it in the narrative. He could not know that Balak would send again.
And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us.
And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honourable than they.15. Balak treats the prophet’s reason for not coming as a mere excuse. Balaam, being a famous diviner, required, as he thought, to be treated with greater respect.
And they came to Balaam, and said to him, Thus saith Balak the son of Zippor, Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me:
For I will promote thee unto very great honour, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me: come therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people.17. I will promote thee unto very great honour] I will surely honour thee exceedingly. The expression does not imply that Balaam would be appointed to a high office, but only that the king would shew him great respect and reward him liberally.
And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the LORD my God, to do less or more.18. Jehovah my God] It is very remarkable that the early Israelite tradition, as preserved in J , should have placed this expression in the mouth of an Ammonite (Numbers 22:7) soothsayer.
to do less or more] to do small or great. An idiomatic expression for ‘to do anything at all.’ The same is expressed in Numbers 24:13 by ‘good or bad.’
Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the LORD will say unto me more.19. Balaam had learnt (Numbers 22:12) that Israel was a people on whom God’s blessing rested. It was therefore impossible for him to go and curse them. But when Balak’s more splendid retinue of princes travelled all the way to Mesopotamia to beg him again to come, he asked God again whether he might go, not to curse but to deliver a divine message whatever it might prove to be. And on his arrival he immediately told Balak that this was the purpose for which he had come (Numbers 22:38).
And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do.20. If the men be come to call thee] i.e. since the men have come this long distance to summon thee. The A.V. ‘if the men come to call thee’ has sometimes given rise to the erroneous idea that God gave Balaam permission to go only if the messengers came to him in the morning and again asked him to accompany them, and that Balaam, in his eager desire to go, did not wait for this.
And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.
And God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.22. After God has expressly given permission for Balaam to go, His anger would be surprising, and would seem to imply a capricious change of mind, were it not for the consideration that the narrative is derived from two different sources. In Numbers 22:22-34 Balaam travels on an ass, accompanied not by the great retinue of Moabite princes but simply by two of his own servants. The verses are from J , who relates that Balaam lived in the Ammonite country, some 40 miles distant, and the journey was made through cultivated land with vineyards and walls. See note on Numbers 22:5.
an adversary] Heb. ‘a satan.’ In early days a catastrophe or trouble, no less than a favour or blessing, was understood to be due to the action of God; so that here Jehovah Himself, in the form of His angel, was Balaam’s adversary. That is to say, the divine action was personified. The result of this personification is that the Angel, for the most part, appears to be distinguished from Jehovah Himself. But see Numbers 22:35, where the Angel utters Jehovah’s own words. In later times such personifications became more definitely distinguished from God Himself, so that troubles and temptations were attributed to a malevolent spirit, who was hostile to God and men, and for whom ‘Satan’ became a recognised title. Cf. 2 Samuel 24:1 with 1 Chronicles 21:1; and see G. A. Smith, The Book of the Twelve Prophets, pp. 410–19.
22–34. Jehovah was angry with Balaam for going, and His ‘Angel’ hindered him on the way.
And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.23. with his sword drawn in his hand] Numbers 22:31. Joshua 5:13.
and went into the field] The road would run through the open country (‘the field’), without walls or fences. These would only be employed between vineyards, to keep out animals.
But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side.24. The ‘Angel’ retreated and stopped the ass in an enclosed spot between two walls or, perhaps, fences, where it could not turn aside into open country. But by pressing close to the wall the ass is pictured as contriving to pass the Angel. He therefore retreated once more, and stood in a narrow place where there was no possibility of avoiding Him. The naïve anthropomorphic conception of Jehovah involved in this narrative belongs to a very early age of folklore.
And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall: and he smote her again.
And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?28. The miracle here recorded finds no parallel in the O.T. except that of the serpent who spoke to Eve (Genesis 3:1; Genesis 3:4 f.). But similar instances are to be found in the folklore of many nations (see Gray, p. 334). The speaking ass is to be considered not as a fable—in the sense in which the word is applied, for example, to Aesop’s Fables—but as a detail of a fabulous nature which attached itself, during the course of Israel’s early traditions, to a narrative which may have had a historical basis. With the modern knowledge, to which God has led us, of the gradual nature of His self-revelation to Israel, and of the many different stages of literary development which are represented in the O.T., we are not under the necessity either of believing that the ass actually spoke, or of explaining away the miracle in some rationalising manner, e.g. by supposing that Balaam had a vision. The permanent spiritual value of the story lies in its representation of the strivings of conscience.
And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.29. thou hast mocked me] thou hast made sport of me; i.e. purposely caused me annoyance for your own pleasure.
And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.30. The ass is not represented as uttering any deep teaching or giving him a message from God. She merely defends herself against the charge of making sport of him; had he ever known her do such a thing during all the years he had owned her?
Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.
And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:32. thy [lit. the] way is headlong] The word, however, is doubtful. Perhaps we should read יָרַטְתָּ for יָרַט, ‘thou hast precipitated [undertaken precipitately] the journey.’
And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.
And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.
And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.35–41. At this point the narrative of E , interrupted after Numbers 22:21, is resumed. Balak went to the border of his territory to meet Balaam. A sacrificial feast was held, and on the next day Balaam was conducted to a point of vantage from which he could see Israel. These verses, however, are not without difficulties; and it is probable that with E have been fused those portions of J which related that Balaam was allowed to proceed to Moab, and that Balak received him on his arrival.
And when Balak heard that Balaam was come, he went out to meet him unto a city of Moab, which is in the border of Arnon, which is in the utmost coast.36. unto the City of Moab] unto Ir of Moab. The Heb. form of the name Ar of Moab (Numbers 21:28).
which is on the border of Arnon] i.e. the border or boundary formed by the Arnon. Moab at this time possessed no land north of the Arnon; Ir (Ar) of Moab thus lay on their northern border. The following clause defines the locality further.
which is at the end of the border] Since Balaam was coming from the east, ‘the end’ must be the eastern end; that is to say Ir (Ar) of Moab lay somewhere on the upper, eastern, course of the Arnon.
And Balak said unto Balaam, Did I not earnestly send unto thee to call thee? wherefore camest thou not unto me? am I not able indeed to promote thee to honour?37. to promote thee to honour] to honour thee; see on Numbers 22:17.
And Balaam said unto Balak, Lo, I am come unto thee: have I now any power at all to say any thing? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak.
And Balaam went with Balak, and they came unto Kirjathhuzoth.39. Kiriath-huzoth] ‘The town of streets.’ The site is unknown.
And Balak offered oxen and sheep, and sent to Balaam, and to the princes that were with him.40. and sent to Balaam &c.] When the animals had been slaughtered for sacrifice, Balak caused portions of the flesh to be brought to Balaam and the Moabite princes who had accompanied him. Cf. 1 Samuel 9:23 f.
And it came to pass on the morrow, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal, that thence he might see the utmost part of the people.41. and brought him up to Bamoth-Baal] See on Numbers 21:19. The name indicates that it was a sanctuary.
the end of the people] Not the whole body of Israelites to their furthest extremity but only the nearest end or fringe in the valley immediately below him, the bulk of them being hidden by the hills.
It seems clear that Bamoth-Baal was north and not south of the Arnon, otherwise the Israelites would be many miles away. But the country north of the Arnon was then in possession not of the Moabites but of the Amorites. If we knew more of the facts the difficulty might be explained; but it is not impossible that the narrative is to be considered in the light of a popular tradition which was poetical, and that the details must not be rigidly pressed.