Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.XXII.
(1) In the plains of Moab.—The Arboth Moab extended from Beth Jeshimoth (the house of wastes) to Abel Shittim (the meadow of acacias) (Numbers 33:49), in the upper Arabah, the present Ghor. These plains had belonged to Moab, and, since the victory over the Amorites, were possessed by the Israelites.
On this side Jordan.—Better, alongside of the Jordan. It cannot be determined, from the use of the word eher, or me-eber, to which side of the Jordan reference is made. (See Numbers 32:19, where me-eber occurs twice, and is rendered in the Authorised Version on yonder side in the first case, and on this side in the second case. See Deuteronomy 1:1, and Note, and Isaiah 9:1, where Galilee is described by Isaiah as “beyond Jordan.”)
And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.(3) And Moab was sore afraid of the people.—There was no ground for this apprehension, inasmuch as the Divine command given to Moses was “Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle” (Deuteronomy 2:9). It does not appear, however, that Balak was aware of the prohibition; and the recent conquests of the Israelites naturally filled the Moabites with alarm, especially inasmuch as when the Israelites sent to the King of Moab to ask permission to pass through his land he did not consent (Judges 11:17).
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 unto the elders of Midian.—It has been thought that Balak was a Midianite. who had been imposed upon the Moabites as their king by their Amoritish conquerors. (Comp. Numbers 21:26.) The concluding words of the verse may be understood as denoting a recent change in the dynasty.
As the ox licketh up the grass of the field.—The comparison is one which well accords with the occupation of the Moabites as a pastoral people.
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.—The name of Balaam is probably derived from bala (to devour), with the terminal syllable am, or from the two words bala (he devoured), and am (people). His father’s name (Beor), from baar (to consume), has been thought to denote that Balaam belonged to a family in which the magical art was hereditary. He is described in Joshua 13:22 as “the soothsayer” (Hebrew, kosem)—i.e., one of that class of persons who were not to be tolerated amongst the Israelites, and who are spoken of as “an abomination unto the Lord” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). The form Bosor (2Peter 2:15) probably arose from a peculiar mode of pronouncing the guttural letter Ain in baar. (See Keil, On the Pentateuch, 3 p. 159, and Note.) On the character and history of Balaam, reference may be made to Bishop Butler (Serm. vii.); Waterland (Works, 9:397); Keil, On the Pentateuch, in loc.; Hengstenberg (Dissertation on the Histories and Prophecies of Balaam, p. 747, Clark, 1848); and to the Article in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, by Professor Stanley Leathes.
To Pethor, which is by the river of the land . . . —Better, To Pethor, which is by the river, (even to) the land of the children of his people. Pethcr was in Mesopotamia (Numbers 23:7), where Lot, from whom the Moabites were descended, had dwelt (Genesis 12:5). “The river” is the Euphrates here, as elsewhere. (See, e.g., Genesis 15:18; Genesis 31:21; Exodus 23:31; 2Chronicles 9:26.)
They cover the face of the earth.—Literally, the eye of the earth (or, the land). (Comp. Exodus 10:5.)
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.(6) Curse me this people.—Balak undoubtedly believed in the efficacy of Balaam’s magical incantations. It is deserving of observation, moreover, that, as has been remarked by Keil (in loc.), “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” (Deuteronomy 23:5; Joshua 24:10; Nehemiah 13:2).
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.(7) And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian.—The close alliance which existed between the two nations appears throughout the whole of the narrative.
The rewards of divination.—Literally, the divinations. Some think the meaning to be instruments of divination; but as besorah means not only tidings, but also the reward for tidings (2Samuel 4:10), so kesamim may mean not only divinations, but also the rewards of divination.
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) Lodge here this night.—These words indicate the true character of Balaam. As a prophet of the Lord, he must have known that in seeking to curse the Israelites he was sinning against the Lord, who had chosen them for His own people.
As the Lord shall speak unto me.—It appears from this verse, as from Numbers 22:18-19, that the name of Jehovah was known to Balaam.
And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee?(9) What men are these with thee?—This inquiry, like that addressed to Elijah, “What doest thou here?” (1Kings 19:9), or that to Hezekiah, “What said these men? and from whence came they unto thee?” and “What have they seen in thine house?” (Isaiah 39:3-4) was calculated to arouse the slumbering conscience of Balaam, and to open his eyes to a perception of his sin and of his danger.
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.(11) A people come out of Egypt . . . —Better, the people which came out from Egypt, it covereth . . .
And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us.(14) Balaam refuseth to come with us.—It does not appear that Balaam had told the messengers of Balak the ground of the Divine prohibition; viz., “for they are blessed.” Balak accordingly entertained the hope that stronger inducements would prevail with Balaam.
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) I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord . . . —These words may have been nothing more than an ostentatious semblance of disinterestedness and superiority to worldly considerations; or it is possible that Balaam may have been conscious that “he spake not of himself,” and that, as regards his prophetic utterances, he was but the mouthpiece of the Lord.
Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the LORD will say unto me more.(19) Tarry ye also here this night.—Balaam knew that God was “not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent” (Numbers 23:19); and yet he indulged the vain expectation that he might be allowed to curse those whom God had declared to be blessed.
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 come to call thee.—The words may be rendered Since (or, forasmuch as) the men have come to call thee. The messengers had already come for that purpose, as it is stated in Numbers 22:16, where the same verb is used. The phrase which is here rendered to “call” occurs also in Numbers 22:5.
Rise up, and go with them.—There is no real inconsistency with Numbers 22:12. The absolute and immutable prohibition had reference to the cursing. The going with the messengers, which was forbidden in mercy at first, was enjoined in judgment at last. God often punishes disobedience to His declared will by permitting the transgressors to “eat the fruit of their own way, and to be filled with their own devices” (Proverbs 1:31). “He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul” (Psalm 106:15). Comp. Psalm 81:12; Isaiah 66:4; Jeremiah 2:19.
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) Because he went.—Literally, because he was going. The participle denotes the continuous act. He deliberately and resolutely proceeded on his journey with the messengers of Balak, in defiance of the warnings which he had received.
Stood in the way.—Better, placed (or, stationed) himself in the way.
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) In a path of the vineyards.—Better, in the hollow pass of the vineyards.
A wall.—Or, a fence.
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) And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass.—Many critics, who admit the miraculous character of the events recorded in this and the following verses, maintain the subjective character of some of the incidents, and they adduce arguments to show that, whilst the same results might have been brought about in either manner, it is more in accordance with the general analogy of Scripture to assign a subjective than an objective interpretation to the language which is here employed. The following remarks may be made in regard to this interpretation:—(1) Consistency requires that the whole of the narrative should be interpreted either objectively or subjectively; and hence, that if the voice of the ass be interpreted as a subjective impression made upon the mind of Balaam, the appearance of the angel must be understood in the same manner. In this case, however, a difficulty arises which is as great, or greater, than that which the subjective theory is thought to remove. If the appearance of the angel to Balaam was subjective, the appearance must have been subjective also to the ass. In this case, moreover, it may be fairly alleged that if the line which divides the intelligent from the brute creation is transgressed by ascribing articulate speech to the ass, much more is that line transgressed by the supposition that an impression was produced in a subjective manner upon the mind of the ass. But (2) the real question at issue is not whether the recorded results might have been accomplished on the supposition that the incidents are to be explained subjectively, but what is the interpretation which the narrative itself suggests, and which the words of St. Peter (2Peter 2:16) require? In regard to the narrative itself, there is no intimation given that its respective portions are to be differently interpreted; nor is it possible, without doing violence to its obvious meaning, to interpret some parts of it objectively and other parts subjectively; whilst in regard to the testimony of St. Peter, it would be impossible to conceive of a statement couched in terms more directly suggestive of a literal fact than the following—“The dumb ass, speaking with man’s voice, forbad the madness of the prophet.” In regard to the objections which have been raised to the literal interpretation, grounded on the absence of any expression of surprise on the part of Balaam, and of any allusion to the effect produced upon the Moabitish princes and Balaam’s servants, it will suffice to observe (1) that here, as elsewhere, no just inference can be drawn from the silence of Scripture; and (2) that, as in the case of those who were with St. Paul as he went to Damascus, we have no means of determining, on the assumption of the presence of witnesses throughout the miraculous occurrences described, what amount of those occurrences they may have seen and heard. The angel was visible, in the first instance, only to the ass. In like manner the angel may have been visible only to Balaam, not to those who were with him. So also in regard to the voice: it may have been audible only to him to whom it was addressed.
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) Ever since I was thine.—Literally, ever since thou livedst,—i.e., all thy life long. The Targums of Jonathan and of Jerusalem paraphrase thus—“upon which thou hast ridden from thy youth unto this day.” “An Arabic writer,” says Dr. Gill, in his Commentary, in loc., “makes mention of an ass that the owner rode on forty years.”
Unto this day.—The use of these words in this place serves to throw light upon such passages as Deuteronomy 3:14, “called them after his own name . . . unto this day,” and shows that they do not necessarily denote that the events to which reference is made were separated by any very long interval.
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) Because thy way is perverse before me.—Or, because the way leads to destruction in my sight.
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.(33) Unless she had turned from me.—There may be an aposiopesis in this verse. Perhaps she turned aside from (or, before) me . . . for (otherwise) now I had killed thee, &c. According to this view the angel does not assign a reason why the ass turned aside, but leaves this to be inferred by Balaam. (Comp. Keil, in loc.)
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) Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee . . . —The command contained in Numbers 22:20 is here repeated, and the unrighteous prophet is punished by being constrained to reap the fruit of his own perversity. It should be observed that here, as elsewhere, the angel who speaks to Balaam identifies himself with Him who sent him: “The word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.” (Comp. Numbers 22:20, where God Himself is represented as delivering to Balaam the same injunction.)
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) A city of Moab.—Better, the city of Moab. (Comp. Numbers 21:15.)
Which is in the utmost coast.—Or, which flows at the extremity of the border. Sihon, the Amorite, had taken possession of the Moabitish territory as far as the Arnon.
And Balak offered oxen and sheep, and sent to Balaam, and to the princes that were with him.(40) And Balak offered . . . —Better, and Balak slew (or, slaughtered in sacrifice), &c. The word rendered offered does not necessarily denote anything more than to slay. It is very commonly used, however, to denote slaying in sacrifice; and it is most probable that Balak made a sacrificial feast, and sent portions of the flesh to Balaam and the princes who were with him. Kings not unfrequently acted as priests of old, as, e.g., Melchizedek. (Comp. Rex Anius, rex idem hominum Phoebique sacerdos, Aen. 3:80.)
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) Into the high places of Baal.—Or, to Bamoth-Baal. Bamoth-Baal was probably the first height on the way to the steppes of Moab from which the Israelitish camp could be seen. Hengstenberg observes that “Balak started with the supposition that Balaam must necessarily have the Israelites in view if his curse was to take effect.”
That thence he might see the utmost part of the people.—Better, And he saw from thence, &c. If the Authorised Version of Numbers 23:13 is correct, it seems necessary to understand these words as denoting that Balaam had a view from Bamoth-Baal of the whole army of Israel, even to the very extremity. or utmost part of the camp. This verse, however, is more commonly interpreted as denoting that Balaam saw only the extremity of the camp. So the Targum of Palestine: “He saw from thence the camp of Dan, which went at the rear of the people.” (See Note on Numbers 23:13.)