Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Balaam’s prophetic messages (J )
And when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness.1. he went not, as at the other times, to meet with omens] The Heb. has a curious idiom which may be rendered either as in R.V. , or ‘as at other times’ (omitting ‘the’), i.e. as was his usual practice on similar occasions. In either case the verse cannot be from the same writer as that of ch. 23, for on the one hand ch. 23 does not relate that Balaam sought for omens, and on the other (if the present words refer to his usual practice) the remark that he did not seek for omens would more naturally have been placed at the beginning of ch. 23 and not after two of his utterances.
Numbers 24:1-2. Balaam knew that Jehovah wished Israel to be blessed; he did not therefore seek an omen to guide him, but began his declaration at once.
And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him.
And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said:3, 4. The opening triplet is as follows:
The oracle of Balaam son of Beor.
The oracle of the man whose eye is (?) closed.
The oracle of one that heareth the words of God.
The form of it should be compared with 2 Samuel 23:1, where the same word ‘oracle’ is used. The text appears to be corrupt. The word rendered ‘closed’ is very doubtful; and ‘opened’ (R.V. marg.) is no less questionable. With the former rendering the reference is to the eyes closed in a trance; with the latter, to the eyes of the mind opened to receive the vision.
3–9. Balaam’s first prophetic message. In its present form this consists of nine couplets and two triplets. But the text has undergone corruption, and perhaps there were originally eleven couplets.
He hath said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open:4. The parallelism of these opening words with those in Numbers 24:15-16 suggests that the line ‘And knoweth the knowledge of the Most High’ has fallen out of the present passage.
the Almighty] Heb. Shaddai. Numbers 24:16 and Genesis 49:25 are probably the only pre-exilic occurrences of the word. In the latter passage the divine title should probably be read ’El Shaddai, which occurs in Exodus 6:3, Ezekiel 10:5 and five times in Genesis. Shaddai alone occurs, besides here and Numbers 24:16, thirty-eight times, of which thirty-one are in Job, and it also forms a part of two or three proper names.
Its original meaning is much disputed; ‘the Almighty’ has become a conventional equivalent, but is in no sense a rendering of the word. It is possible that its true spelling is Shadai. See the writer’s note in Exodus, pp. 40 f.
Falling down, and having his eyes uncovered] This is generally understood to mean ‘falling asleep, or into a prophetic trance (A.V. [Note: .V. The Authorised Version.] ), but having the eyes of the mind open to receive God’s revelation.’ Balaam, however, is not represented as receiving his messages in a state of unconsciousness. But there is nothing in the narrative which actually forbids this explanation.
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!
As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes which the LORD hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters.6. As valleys are they spread forth] As wadies that stretch themselves out; beautifully watered glens stretching away into the distance. Like the three following, it is a simile of luxuriant prosperity.
As lign-aloes &c.] Heb. ’ahâlîm. But this word elsewhere denotes a fragrant perfume brought from the far east (Psalm 45:8, Proverbs 7:17); the tree or plant which yielded it was not indigenous in Palestine or the neighbourhood. See next note.
As cedar trees beside the waters] But cedars do not grow beside water; see art. ‘Cedars’ in Hastings’ DB. i. On the other hand cedars (not aloes) are spoken of as planted by Jehovah (Psalm 104:16). It is therefore possible that the words ‘which Jehovah hath planted’ and ‘beside the waters’ have been accidentally transposed. If so, Dillmann’s conjecture ’êlîm ‘palms’ for ’ahâlîm would be very suitable, since palms grow beside water (cf. Exodus 15:27).
He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.7. The first two lines are difficult and perhaps corrupt. Some explain them as a description of the luxuriance of Israel’s future home. Israel is pictured as a man carrying buckets to water his crop; and his seed, i.e. his corn, will be grown in well-watered ground. Cf. Psalm 65:9 f.
And may his king be higher than Agag] Numbers 24:20 seems to shew that in Heb. tradition the Amalekites were once a mighty nation of the first rank, though there is no historical evidence that they ever were so. Agag their king would thus be a symbol of might. If Agag is the man who was captured by Saul, the present poem must be at least as late as the monarchy. Some indeed have supposed, from the present passage, that Agag was a title applied to all Amalekite kings, like the title Pharaoh in Egypt. But the text may be corrupt. LXX. and Samar. read ‘Gog,’ which is found only in Ezekiel 38 f., as a name belonging to the region north of Assyria. Cheyne suggests Og. The passage is at present an unsolved problem.
God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.8. The first two lines are identical (with the exception of ‘him’ for ‘them’) with Numbers 23:22 (E ); and in both traditions the words follow a reference to Israel’s king, and precede the metaphor of the lion and lioness.
And smite them through with his arrows] lit. ‘and (as for) his arrows he shall smite.’ ‘His arrows’ (חִצָּיו) should perhaps be either ‘his oppressors’ (להֲצָיו) or ‘his loins’ (חֲלָצָיו). For the latter cf. Deuteronomy 33:11.
He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee.9. Blessed be every one &c.] The clauses occur inverted in Genesis 27:29.
And Balak's anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together: and Balak said unto Balaam, I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times.10. these three times] If the utterances in chs. 23 and 24 have been rightly assigned to E and J respectively, these words must have been added by the editor who combined the two accounts.
10–14. Balak, in anger, bade Balaam flee back to his land. Balaam replied, as before, that he was bound to utter the message which Jehovah gave him, and, instead of departing at once, uttered four further declarations.
Therefore now flee thou to thy place: I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but, lo, the LORD hath kept thee back from honour.
And Balaam said unto Balak, Spake I not also to thy messengers which thou sentest unto me, saying,
If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the LORD, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; but what the LORD saith, that will I speak?
And now, behold, I go unto my people: come therefore, and I will advertise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days.14. I will advertise thee] I will counsel thee. ‘Advertise’ is an archaism, meaning ‘inform’; cf. Ruth 4:4 (A.V. [Note: .V. The Authorised Version.] ).
And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said:15, 16. See Numbers 24:3-4.
15–19. Balaam’s second prophetic message. This consists of seven couplets and a triplet.
He hath said, which heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the most High, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open:
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.17. In accordance with Numbers 24:14 Balaam treats of the future of Israel. ‘I see him (Israel), but not (as he is) now; I behold him, but not (encamped as he is) nigh.’
There shall come forth] lit. ‘there hath trodden’ (דָּרַךְ). Read probably יִזְרַח there shall rise.
a star] A metaphor for a glorious king; cf. Isaiah 14:12, Revelation 22:16. According to an early Jewish interpretation, found in the Targum, this verse was a prediction of the Messiah. The famous pretender in the reign of Hadrian was called Barcochba (‘son of the star’).
the corners] better ‘the two sides [of the head],’ the ‘temples.’ In Jeremiah 48:45, where the passage is quoted, the word ‘corner’ is in the singular, and is in parallelism with ‘the crown of the head.’
And break down all the sons of tumult] In accordance with Jeremiah 48:45 קַרְקַר (‘break down’) must be read קָדְקֹד (‘crown of the head’); cf. Psalm 7:16; Psalm 68:21.
sons of tumult] Heb. ‘sons of shçth.’ R.V. (‘tumult’) adopts a necessary emendation (שְׁאֵת for שֵׁת) suggested by Jeremiah 48:45.
The two lines will therefore run:
And shall smite the temples [of the head] of Moab,
And the crown [of the head] of all the sons of tumult1 [Note: Others would read ‘sons of lifting up,’ i.e. pride (שְׂאֵת)] .
And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly.18. which were his enemies] Heb. has simply ‘his enemies,’ attached very awkwardly to the preceding words. Perhaps a word has been lost, and we should read ‘His enemies ——’ in contrast with the next clause: And Israel doeth valiantly.
Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.19. An obscure verse, which is perhaps a later addition to the song. It appears to look forward to a Messianic prospect of universal dominion. Some think that Numbers 24:18-19 are both entirely corrupt beyond restoration.
shall one have dominion] This and the following verb are impersonal. ‘And dominion will be exercised out of Jacob, and the remnant (of Israel’s enemies) will be destroyed out of the city.’ If the text is right, ‘out of the city’ is parallel with ‘out of Jacob.’ It is therefore the city of the conquerors, i.e. Zion.
And when he looked on Amalek, he took up his parable, and said, Amalek was the first of the nations; but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever.20. The utterance on Amalek.
And he saw Amalek] The country of the Amalekites and that of the Kenites (Numbers 24:21) might be just visible from the Moabite hills, lying far to the south and south-west.
the first of the nations] i.e. the choicest; Heb. rê’shîth. Cf. Numbers 18:12. There is no historical evidence that the Amalekites ever occupied a high position among the nations (see on Numbers 24:7).
And he looked on the Kenites, and took up his parable, and said, Strong is thy dwellingplace, and thou puttest thy nest in a rock.21. The utterance on the Kenites.
And he saw the Kenite] The singular adjective stands for the whole tribe; cf. 1 Samuel 15:6; 1 Samuel 30:29 (Heb.). In the next verse the tribe is called by the name of its reputed ancestor Ḳain.
Enduring is thy dwelling place] With this and the following line cf. Obad. Numbers 24:3 f.
thy nest is set in the rock] The writer here plays upon the words ḳçn (‘nest’) and Ḳayin (‘Ḳain’).
Kain] The reputed ancestor of the tribe; cf. Jdg 4:11 (R.V. marg.). The name (Heb. Ḳayin) denotes ‘a lance,’ and Kênî in Aramaic means ‘a smith.’ This has led to the conjecture that the Kenites were at one time thought of not as a tribe in the strict sense but as an hereditary guild or caste of smiths. Such castes are still found in Arabia and many parts of Africa. In this connexion it is interesting to notice that Tubal-Cain (Ḳayin) is named as ‘the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron’ (Genesis 4:22). Further, Cain (Ḳayin) the son of Adam may very possibly be identical with the Ḳayin of the present verse, and his story (Genesis 4:1-17) ‘may preserve the recollection of some old collision between the agricultural and pastoral elements in prehistoric man.’ See Driver, Genesis, pp. 70–73.
Nevertheless the Kenite shall be wasted, until Asshur shall carry thee away captive.22. Until Asshur &c.] The Heb. can only be translated as in R.V. marg., ‘How long? Asshur shall &c.’ The words for ‘how long’ (‘ad mâh) may be a corruption of the name of some place in the east; ‘unto—shall Asshur carry thee captive.’ Asshur or Ashur is the true form of the name Assyria; cf. Numbers 24:24; Genesis 10:22; Hosea 14:3; Isaiah 10:5 (R.V. marg.).
And he took up his parable, and said, Alas, who shall live when God doeth this!23. when God doeth this] The only rendering which the words will bear is ‘on account of God appointing him.’ If Numbers 24:21-24 were all one poem, as some think, ‘him’ might refer to Asshur, appointed by God as an instrument of destruction.
23, 24. Balaam’s last prophetic message. This is the most obscure of all the poems. The translation is uncertain, and no historical event is known to which the words can refer.
Kittim, derived from Kitti a town in Cyprus, was a name used for Greece; cf. Genesis 10:4 (where Kittim is reckoned as a son of Javan, i.e. Greece), 1Ma 1:1; 1Ma 8:5; it was also used sometimes for the Western maritime powers generally; cf. Jeremiah 2:10, Ezekiel 27:6. In Daniel 11:30 it is even referred to the Romans; cf. Vulg. ‘Italia’ in the present passage.
And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish for ever.24. ships shall come … Kittim] ships from the side of Kittim. The clause has no verb, and, if the text is right, it must form the subject of the following verb ‘shall afflict,’ the intervening ‘and’ being disregarded.
Asshur and Eber. The two names appear to denote the world powers of the east; but the exact meaning of the name Eber is quite unknown.
And he also shall come to destruction] ‘he’ apparently refers to Asshur and Eber considered as one nation. After carrying the Kenites captive, Asshur will itself be destroyed by invaders from the west. There is, however, no support for this in history, unless Asshur be given the unusual meaning (which it bears in Ezra 6:22) of the Persian empire, which was overthrown by Alexander.
Various emendations throughout the two verses have been proposed (see Gray, Numb. pp. 377–9), but none of them has materially lightened the difficulties.
And Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place: and Balak also went his way.