Numbers 22
Lange Commentary on the Holy Scriptures




Balak and Balaam, or the Curse as a Weapon against Israel Frustrated

CHAPTERS 22:2–24:25

SURVEY: a. Balak’s resort to Balaam, Num 22:2–7. b. Balaam’s formal, but heartless opposition, Num 22:8–14. c. Balak’s’s second attempt, Balaam’s irresolution, and the beginning of God’s judgment upon him in the permission of the journey, Num 22:15–21. d. Balaam’s journey and his speaking ass, Num 22:22–40. e. The first blessing by Balaam, Num 22:41–23:10. f. The second blessing by Balaam, Num 23:11–26. g. Balaam’s apparent victory over temptation. His third and greater blessing. And as an appendix his angry announcement of judgment upon Moab and other enemies of Israel, at last upon all heathen, Num 23:26–24:25.

And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.

CHAPTER 22:2–8

2And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. 3And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel. 4And 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. 5He 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 1 of the earth, and they abide over against me: 6Come 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. 7And 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. 8And 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.


[Num 22:4. Assembly, this congregation, חַקָּהָל, not a multitude, but an organized whole.—A. G.].

[Num 22:5. River is emphatic; by the river, to the land.—A. G.]

[Num 22:6. Wot, know.]


General preliminary remarks. We shall only reach a full view of the history of Balaam when we consider the section upon his prophecies in connection with the record of his end (chap. 31). Balaam the prophet, the utterer of blessings upon the people of God, the so-to-speak dogmatic Balaam, stands in striking contrast to the Balaam, the wily worldly politician, or the moral tempter of the same chosen people. The hidden, hardly discovered reconciliation of the two apparently contradictory representations of his character has led KNOBEL and others to suppose that there was a real contradiction in the history; while, on the other hand, HENGSTENBERG and others have clearly detected the features of the second Balaam in the character of the first, and have recognized also the first in the later counsels of the second, in his wily suggestions as to the celebrations of the religious feasts. We have here the living, vivid image of a remarkable character, thoroughly unstable, vacillating in obedience to predominant motives, two-sided; but a character whose two-sidedness does not show itself in distinct, stereotyped qualities, ever ready for action, but is wrought out in the progress of a spiritual conflict, in which avarice and ambition gradually work his ruin. Below the summit of sacred zeal or inspiration which Balaam seemed to have reached begins the hidden process of his ruin. If it is asked how the Jews came to possess this information, we may hazard the conjecture, that Balaam’s fall began with double-dealing; that he had first made disclosures and offers to the Israelites, by whose camp he must pass on his way home, and then because he did not meet with the expected favorable reception, returned secretly and by the aid of a Midianitish nomad chief, who was probably camping on the skirts of the Moabite territory, to Balak, in order still to secure from him the “reward of iniquity,” seeking all the time to hide from himself the baseness of his conduct under the pretence of a desire to lay upon the broadest basis a sure alliance between Moab and Israel. If he thought of the real approaching downfall of Moab and the glory of Israel, he may have cherished the idea of such an intermediation, as even Judas seems to have been impelled for some time by a similar motive. His fear of the power of Israel may have determined him to greater secresy in the pursuit of his crafty aim. Thus Balaam in this second form in which his character appears stands, in the New Testament, as the prototype of a subtle tempter and destroyer of God’s people, through his teaching a false religious freedom. The remarkable portraiture of Balaam’s character makes the deeper impression of historical truthfulness, since we find the contradictions appearing here, reflected in a thousand instances in the history of religion, in ecclesiastical and profane history, as features of an unstable double-hearted nature.

We note first the contradiction between an ostentatious and vaunted faith in Jehovah, and the ever re-appearing and strong lusting after the rewards of unrighteousness, after the glory and the gold which ultimately leads him to ruin. The seeming piety, aliquid nimis, at once excites suspicion; the frequent use of the name Jehovah, the constant parade of his dependence upon Jehovah’s directions, the multiplication of the offerings in which he compels Balak to take part, the greatness of the sacrifices, as if he might thereby control Jehovah (take providence by storm, as modern hypocrites phrase it) are all suspicious. How much the orthodox and pietistic extravagances of to-day remind us of the methods of Balaam! Then again, as to the form of his faith, we must notice the broad contrast between his fervent language of rapturous inspiration, his soul borne away as it were in inspired vision, and his ordinary states of consciousness, his efforts to tempt God, to carry out his evil selfish plans by means of superstitious practices, and his aiding the heathen king and his subjects in their destructive hostility to the people of God. Even the formal, oratorical exaggeration is a characteristic feature of the superficial nature of his feelings. How often religious, poetical, æsthetic emotion proves itself more or less Balaam-like through its contrast with the real state of the feelings!

The psychological problem of the prophetic enthusiast becomes more difficult through the psychological sympathy of his ass. This contrast and the change in the parts of the performance between the rider and the animal on which he rides, is much greater than the contrast between Don Quixote and his Sancho-Panza.

Still another contrast, and one which we must not overlook, appears in the great flourish and display with which Balaam takes his leave of Balak, and the secrecy in his later operations, after which he is first found among the slain in Midian, and recognized as the instigator of the great calamity.

More conspicuous is the distinction in Balaam, as he speaks, proclaims, sings the blessing, and as he plots the curse. Still while be changes his blessing into a curse, Jehovah transforms the curse into a blessing.

This very remarkable episode in the Mosaic history could not fail to occasion many dissertations. For the literature see KEIL, p. 158, note (consult especially BAUR, History of the Old Testament Prophecy, p. 329), KNOBEL, p. 127; also articles in WINER, Worterbuch, HEBZOG’s Encyclopædia, HENGSTENBERG’s Geschichte des Bileams, BAUMGARTEN, Commentar.; THIS COMMEN., Introduction to Genesis. [Also KURTZ, Gesh., Vol. II., p. 451 et seq., BIBLE COM., SMITH’s Bible Dic., WORDSWORTH, Holy Bible with notes, STANLEY, History of the Jewish Church, Vol. I., p. 209–218.—A. G.]

“From the very earliest time opinions have been divided as to the character of Balaam. Some (e.g. PHILO, AMBROSE. AUGUSTINE) have regarded him as a wizard and false prophet devoted to the worship of idols, who was destitute of any susceptibility for the true religion, and was compelled by God, against his will, to give utterance to blessings upon Israel instead of curses. Others (e.g. TERTULLIAN, JEROME) have supposed him to be a genuine and true prophet, who simply fell through covetousness and ambition. But these views are both of them untenable in this exclusive form. WITSIUS (Miscell. ss. 1, lib. 1, c. 16, § 33), HENGSTENBERG, KURTZ.” KEIL. The declaration of HENGSTENBERG, however, that Balaam was not entirely without the fear of God, nor yet a really pious man and true prophet of God, leaves us without any very definite idea. It is most important here to bear in mind that we are not considering a fixed character, but one passing through a change, and engaged in a serious conflict. The record speaks clearly of a communication between Balaam and God, although not of an intimate and confidential relation with Him. He is at least a monotheist; he clings as a Mesopotamian, perhaps as a descendant of Abraham, to the name of Jehovah in its more general significance, which it had before acquiring its specific meaning, Ex. 3. and 4: and hence the writer uses in connection with him the name Elohim, not recognizing him as strictly a worshipper of Jehovah. He thus lies within the primitive, monotheistic traditions, the religious twilight which Melchizedek also represents (see Gen. 14:18). But he had derived from his father Beor, i.e. “consumer,” “destroyer,” as it appears from his own name Balaam, “subverter,” “devourer of the people,” a stronger inclination to curse than to bless. HENGSTENBERG lays great, stress upon the fact that he is never called nabi, “prophet,” but kosem, “soothsayer.” But we may well suppose that the obscure word kosem originally bore a better sense than that which was attached to it later. It may be true that this word, and those who bore it, as with the worship of high-places, which was originally patriarchal, but afterwards degenerated into idolatry. We distinguish between the primeval religion which runs from Melchizedek down through the Old Testament history, and was never entirely extinguished, and the religion of the Abrahamic promise or covenant, by the inverted order of signs or symbols, and the word. In the primitive religion God is known through the signs, and these are rendered into the word by the interpreting mind, in the covenant religion the word precedes and is afterward confirmed and enforced by sacramental signs. Thus Joseph wears the aspect of a descendant of the primitive religion, and might even appear as a Kosem when he claims that he prophesied out of his cup. Thus Balaam also proceeds to seek for signs, Num 23:3, 15. But then there is an evident approach to the Abrahamic form of religion, when he no longer seeks for signs, whose interpretation Jehovah puts into his mouth, but by virtue of the free direct inspiration, as he looks upon Israel, utters his prophetic words, (24:1). After this we can no longer class the Kosem Balaam with the later degenerated soothsayers. But surely he does approach that lowered type, when he suffers himself, avowedly at least, to recognize the superstitious notion, that by arbitrary curses he could magically produce calamitous results, even upon a whole people, even against the blessing of Jehovah; and because he was eager and prepared to receive the reward of such enchantments. It may be that it was from the pay which he took, that the prophet, originally, came to wear the altered and less honored name of Kosem. But the possibility of such a designed intermingling of the holy with the unholy, lies in the great divergency between emotional capacity when excited, in highly gifted natures, and the normal condition of the mind. Universally there is a contrast between the man in the ordinary state of his mind, or his habitual tendency, and the same man in his quickened state, in his strivings after ideal heights; between the man in his everyday and in his Sunday life. In the lives of noble men, this divergency sometimes ripens into opposition, as with Peter, Matt. 16; and indeed in the very best men there is always the blossom of impulse before the fruit of a new soul-life. But if a fissure opens between these two spiritual states of the soul, which widens at last into a broad chasm, a permanent contradiction, then the Balaam nature is complete, and in the end the evil tendency and nature triumphs over the ideal. Thus it happens that false prophets have been formed out of gifted prophetic natures, in ancient and modern times.

We pass now naturally to the consideration of another erroneous contrast, which supposes that Balaam intended to curse at the very moment of his speaking, but that the Spirit of God compelled him to utter blessings. HENGSTENBERG says of this view: “Ambrose held a crude notion of the effect of the divine power upon Balaam, as if God put the words in his mouth, quasi cymbalum tinniens sonum reddo.” CALVIN held nearly the same view. [HENGSTENBERG says of CALVIN “that in general he clearly recognized and sharply expressed the dependence of prophecy upon the subjective condition of the prophet, while he regards Balaam as an exception to this rule.”—A. G.]. But one could scarcely call this power which thus constrains the soul, inspiration, not even infusion. Here again we must bear in mind that the divine irresistible influence is moral, and is carefully to be distinguished from any physical or magical compulsion, from which it is free. It is a strange coincidence that this assumption has been applied not only to Balaam, but even to the ass on which he rode, although it lacked entirely the organic capacity for human speech. In this respect HENGSTENBERG has admirably presented the distinction between the ideas of externality and reality; asserting the reality of inward occurrences, as well as the distinction between real visions and bare imaginations, although the two things are held to be one and the same by many thinkers who assume great superiority. But no one can make any great progress in the Holy Scripture, without a sense or capacity for perceiving the reality of genuine visions. But we shall return to this theme in the sequel.

This narrative, moreover, is very important with respect to the doctrines of the divine permission. God forbids Balaam to go. He then permits him to go under certain conditions, while He appears to be offended because he went. To a superficial view the passage seems full of inconsistencies, whereas in truth the apparent change in the divine decisions is determined by the changes in Balaam, is adapted to them, and is thus the result and fruit of the strictest and most sacred consistency.

As some have held that the words of the third and last prophecy point clearly to a later origin, is, according to the fiction of the critics, a vaticinia post eventum, it is necessary that we should examine the passage more closely. In this third prophecy Balaam stands at the very highest point in his inspired intuition. It is no longer (as in Num 22:5 and 16): “Jehovah put a word into his mouth,” but: “The Spirit of God came upon him.” Before he spake under restraint of fear, now freed from any such limitations, and in the full freedom of revelation (Num 24:4–9). The anger of the king at his third utterance of words of blessing seems to have unfettered his own indignation (Num 22:12–24).

The passage in which we have the beautiful prediction of the “Star out of Jacob,” does not belong to the line of clear, direct, conscious Messianic prophecy, although Rabbi Akiba held that it did, but refers to the Bar-Cochab: Son of the Star. [There was a pretender who bore this name, with express reference to the prophecy of Balaam: and led the Jews into rebellion against the Roman power in the reign of Hadrian, A. D., 136.—A. G.]. The exclusive references of the Star to the Messiah, have been numerous in Christian authors from CALVIN to BAUMGARTEN, see KNOBEL, p. 146. But since the conception of an ideal, personal Messiah had not reached its full development even at the time of David, 2 Sam. 7, it would have been a strange anomaly if it had found expression so much earlier by the heathen Balaam. For other interpretations, as e.g. that which refers the prophecy to David, to David and the Messiah, to the Jewish kingdom and the Messiah, see KNOBEL, p. 146 [and notes in loc.—A. G.]. As to the appearance of new stars in connection with the birth of great kings, see KEIL, p. 192 [who, however, refers to HENGSTENBERG, who cites JUSTINI, Hist. 37:2; PLINII, H. N. 2:23; SUETON., Jul. Cæs. 100:78; and Dio Cass. xlv., p. 273.—A. G.]. We must bear in mind here first of all, that we are not dealing with an Old Testament prophet. Balaam and his prophecies appear throughout under an historical point of view. But what he meant by a star was a sceptre, a royal ruler, who should arise in Israel, and crush all its enemies. We do not need to be familiar with Jewish history to understand what follows, although Balaam, in a typical, but not in a verbal sense, uttered far more than he was conscious of, even with respect to the star out of Jacob. What could be of greater moment than the crushing of the power of the Moabite princes, since they were even now plotting the destruction of Israel? The Edomites, in a spirit of enmity, bad just before restrained the onward march of the people of God. The Amalekites were old traditional foes of Israel. When now he proceeds further and predicts the victory over the Assyrians, his own countrymen, over the Kenites (in the north), and then the conquest of Assyria and Mesopotamia (EBER) by some western power, he passes from the particular into the universal. At length his prophetic vision reaches its utmost bounds. Chittim shall be overthrown at last. His talent for cursing now comes into full play, and the proud seer in wrath takes leave of the angry king who had thought only that by some superstitious magic spell, he would be able to win back his lost domain, or at least to protect that which was Still left him; takes leave ostensibly never to see him again, but only ostensibly. A Midianitish nomad tribe, coming perhaps from his own home in Mesopotamia, roamed at this time along the extended kingdom. Here among these Midianites Balaam seems to have rested (after having sought in vain a market for his talents among the Israelites) in order to renew his relation with Balak. For various conjectures as to who Balaam was, see KNOBEL. It was formerly conjectured that he was Elihu or Laban, or one of the magicians of Egypt. Modern guesses are that he was the Arabic sage Lokman. Thus KNOBEL. For conjecture as to Pethor, see KNOBEL, 128. [KNOBEL identifies Pethor with Φαθοῦσαι (ZOSIAN 3:14) and with the Βέθαυνα of Ptolemy v. 18, 6. He regards both these names as corruptions of Pethor, and thinks the place is found in the present Anah. KEIL regards this as very uncertain, while BIBLE Com. is inclined to favor it. Very little is certainly known.—A. G.] For the faith of antiquity in the efficacy of curses, see KNOBEL, p. 129. [Also KURTZ, Geschichte des Allen Bundes, and BAUMGARTEN, Com., who holds that the efficacy attributed to them was not merely a superstition or imagination, but had a real ground, and that the narrative here can only be correctly understood on the supposition that it recognizes the actual power of Balaam to bless and to curse. He finds the turning point in the whole narrative, the thought around which it clusters, in the words Deut. 23:6. “The Lord thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the Lord thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee.” KURTZ adopts substantially the same view. For the opposite view see HENGSTENBERG, History of Balaam.—A. G.]

[The question as to the moral character of Balaam is distinct from that as to the nature of his prophetic gift and position. They are not entirely disconnected questions; but the one is much more easily settled than the other. He could not of course be a good man and a false prophet; but he may have been a bad man and a true prophet. Such in fact he was. Morally Balaam comes before us as a man of keen insight and of wide culture, having broad glimpses of the truth, which seem to have grown clearer with his investigations, a heart susceptible to noble impulses, a conscience awakened, but not authoritative, with strong convictions of right and duty, which are yet sacrificed to the cravings of avarice and ambition; ever practically selling all his better impulses, his convictions and his conscience, for the sake of gain, and yet never doing it without a conscious and serious struggle. As to his prophetic position, he is not to be viewed, as HENGSTENBERG has fully shown, as a false prophet, a mere heathen seer, who was constrained by God against his own will to bless and not to curse Israel, nor, on the other hand, as a true and genuine prophet, who was only swept away by his avarice and ambition. There are elements of truth in both views; but neither of them is tenable in its exclusive form. “The truth lies,” to use the words of KURTZ, “in the midst. Balaam was in his present position both a heathen magician and a Jehovistic seer. He stood upon the border line between regions, which indeed lie contiguous, but in their nature and character are radically opposed to each other, and exclusive of each other. With one foot still upon the ground of heathen magic and soothsaying, he planted the other within the limits of the Jehovistic religion and prophecy.” The name he bears, קוֹסֵם, a soothsayer, which is never used to designate a true prophet of God; his parleying with the messengers, his seeking permission to go the second time; the eager pursuit of his covetous hopes, and especially his use of signs as the fit-ting and customary means to ascertain the will of God, which were never resorted to by the true prophet, are proofs that he still stood upon the old and lower ground; while his avowed claim to act as a prophet of Jehovah, his delay in going at Balak’s request, his answer to the second and more attractive embassy, and his reply to Balak’s indignant remonstrance because he had not cursed, but blessed Israel, Num 23:12, show that be had indeed in part crossed the border and stood within the region of the true prophets of Jehovah. The tidings of the great things which God had done for His people in Egypt, at the Red Sea, in the wilderness, which had been borne to him as the report spread through the nations, had doubtless led him to take a more decided stand. He probably hoped too to make greater gains if he appeared as a prophet of Jehovah.

Why he remained in this position; why he did not advance still more decidedly and completely into the new region which opened before him; or rather why attempting to stand upon the border-line, to unite and hold fast in himself that which differed so widely and irreconcilably, he ultimately went back to his old service, sank completely down to the lower level upon which he stood before, and into all the deeper darkness because he had turned away from the light, the progress of the history makes perfectly clear. It is just here that his moral character bears upon his prophetic position. He was not willing to part with his lusts. “He loved the wages of unrighteousness.” He could not bring himself to serve God with an undivided heart. It was no intellectual defect, nor any want of fitness for a higher calling, for the position of a true and genuine prophet, but his clinging to his lusts, his attempt to carry them over with him into the service of Jehovah, which restrained his progress. Through the call of Balak he was brought into a position at which he must decide “whether,” as KURTZ says, “the old heathen, or the new Jehovistic principle of life should rule within him, whether he should go on to the full, genuine, prophetic condition, or fall back upon the old stand-point, and in so doing fall of course into a more decided hostility towards Jehovah, towards the theocracy and the people of His choice. This development of circumstances, which serves for the glorifying of Jehovah, for the encouragement of Israel, for the discouragement of the enemies of Israel, has also for Balaam most momentous, indeed decisive importance. He fell. Covetousness and ambition were stronger in him than the desire for salvation.”—A. G.]

Sec. A. Num 22:1–8.

The Moabites, like the Edomites, had sold the Israelites bread and water while they were passing along their eastern border. But now when they saw them settling down in the dominion of Sihon, upon their northern border, the wounds of which were not yet healed, terror seized upon them. They excited the Midianites by appealing to their fears, lest the Israelites should lay waste all their green meadow-lands, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. They could not hope to conquer those who were victorious over the Amorites, against whom they had been unable to stand. Then Balak (whose name seems to be without significance) in consultation with the elders of Midian, strikes upon the diabolical thought, that he might perhaps secure the destruction of this mighty people through fanatical curses, through magical incantations; a thought suggested perhaps by Midianitish traders, to whom the reputation of Balaam, as a great magician and imprecatory prophet, was familiar. However confused may have been the prevalent conceptions in these regions as to supernatural agencies, so much is clear, that the reputation was in accordance with them. His father “called Beor (from בָּעַר) on account of the destructive power attributed to his curses.” The son of this fanatical destroyer (for the form Bosor, 2 Peter 2:15, see KEIL, who holds that it probably arose from the peculiar mode of pronouncing the guttural ע) is called Balaam, ensnarer or destroyer of the people. [HENGSTENBERG: “He bore the name as a dreaded wizard and conjurer, whether he received it at his birth as a member of a family in which this occupation was hereditary, or whether the name was given to him at a later period, when the fact indicated by the name had actually made its appearance.”—A. G.] Balaam understood well how to destroy the people not only with burning curses, but by the wily use of worldly and fleshly allurements. It must have been already known, too, that his powers and gifts were in the market, and could be purchased for gold or renown. Moses indeed may have despised the superstition of heathen antiquity that curses could actually work injurious results—a superstition which in some of its forms, reaches even to the present time, and therefore may have regarded the curses of Balaam as having no importance in themselves; but still as mere fanatical delusions they might produce injurious results, as they might inflame the Moabites, and dishearten and weaken the Israelites. [Balak who was king of the Moabites at that time. The words seem to intimate that he was not the hereditary king of Moab. If, as BIBLE COM. regards as probable, “the Midianitish chieftains had taken advantage of the weakness of the Moabites after the Amoritish victories to establish themselves as princes in the land, as the Hyksos had done in Egypt,” we see at once why Balak should have turned for counsel to the elders of Midian, and why he should have had such confidence in the power of Balaam—A. G.] Accordingly he sends messengers to Balaam with the rewards of soothsaying (Kosem the soothsayer), to Pethor, an unknown city, probably, according to KEIL, a seat of Babylonian sages, if it was not rather the seat of monotheistic hermits, among whom the Semitico Abrahamic tradition was still preserved. Balak did not think that the curses of Balaam in themselves could destroy the Israelites; but he firmly believed that with the aid of this superstitious delusion he could so work upon the temper of both peoples, so animate his own people and the Midianites, and so discourage the people of God, as to secure the victory. [It is far more probable that Balak shared the belief, which, strange as it may seem to us, was common among the heathen, that persons like Balaam could by their sacrifices work upon the gods they served, and so determine and control their purposes and power. As Balaam was avowedly now the servant of Jehovah, the God of Israel, Balak doubtless hoped that if he could secure his influence, he would work upon Jehovah, and so change the current of events.—A. G.] Come curse me this people, for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall smite them and drive them out of the land.—As thou art the great curser, the highest adept in that great art, so thou canst with thy curses infuriate the Moabites and dispirit and confound the Israelites; then I can smite them. This people is come out of Egypt, he said, as if he knew nothing more of them. They cover the eye of the earth is his scornful expression. They abide over against me, as if he did not know that they did not wish any conflict with him. He will have revenge because the Israelites have conquered the Amorites his own enemies. KNOBEL, speaking of the belief in incantations, loses sight of the distinction between prophetic announcement of curses, and the mere incantation of common superstition and witchcraft. [KEIL: “The fact that the LORD did not hearken to Balaam, but turned the curse into a blessing, is celebrated as a great favor to Israel. Deut. 23:5; Josh. 24:10; Micah 6:3, assumes that Balaam had power to bless and to curse. This power is not traced, it is true, to the might of heathen deities, but to the might of Jehovah, whose name Balaam confessed; but yet the possibility is assumed of his curse doing actual, and not merely imaginary harm to the Israelites.”—A. G.].

Balaam receives the messengers of Balak. As he acknowledges the name of Jehovah, he must have known at once that he could not curse the people of Jehovah. He invites them, however, to remain over night, assuring them that he will in the night receive instructions from Jehovah. He thus intimates that he expects his instructions in the form of nocturnal dream-visions, although this is not the only thing, upon which he relied as an interpreter of signs. He regards or presents as in doubt what he should have known at once. He tempts Jehovah; and thus he enters the path of perdition.


1Heb. eye.

And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee?

CHAPTER 22:9–14

9AND God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee? 10And Balaam said unto God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent 11unto me, saying, Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt, which covereth the face of the earth: come now, curse me them; peradventure 2I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out. 12And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed. 13And 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. 14And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us.


[Num 22:11. קָכָהּ from a root which signifies to hollow out; to pierce, perforate, and so curse from the penetrating power of the curse. HIRSCH regards it as an anomalous form used in the sense of curse only in this narrative, and signifying to hollow, make empty, to take away the whole contents of its object—to make it as chaff—or a shadow.—A. G.].


God (Elohim) the writer tells us comes to Balaam in the night. Balaam speaks of Jehovah as if he knew the God of Salvation. [He had this knowledge partly from the primeval traditions which were probably preserved more fully and clearly in his native region than elsewhere, but mainly from the report of the great things which God had done in the deliverance and leading of His people, which had spread far and wide and produced a deep impression on all the neighboring tribes. Balaam was prepared to welcome the report and turn it to his own selfish ends, if possible. See KURTZ’S History.—A. G.]. What men are these with thee? asks Jehovah, so that his vague, uneasy suspicion that these guests might bring him to ruin, might work itself out clearly. [HENGSTENBERG: The question was intended to awaken the slumbering conscience of Balaam, to lead him to reflect upon the proposal which they had made, and to break the force of his sinful inclination.—A. G.]. Balak had said He whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed. But God speaks otherwise. Thou shalt not curse the people, for they are blessed, i.e., thy curses would have no effect. The cunning seer, however, tells them nothing of this; he simply says: The LORD refuseth to give me leave to go with you.—The answer was intelligible to the Moabitish courtiers. [Their report to Balak shows clearly that they understood the position and inclination of Balaam. They saw that he wished to come, and that a larger bribe would probably bring him. Balaam does not appear to have sought the counsel of God. When asked, Who are those men with thee? the question was a surprise to him. And he fails intentionally to give to the messengers the very gist and kernel of the announcement God made to him. That would have defeated his secret plan and hopes. It would have convinced Balak and Midian that their effort was useless.—A. G.].


2Marg. I shall prevail in fighting against them.

And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honourable than they.

CHAPTER 22:15–21

15AND Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honourable than they. 16And they came to Balaam, and said to him, Thus saith Balak the son of Zippor, Let 3 nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me: 17For 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. 18And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I can not go beyond the word of the LORD my God, to do less or more. 19Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the LORD will say unto me more. 20And 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 21shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do. And Baalam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.


The politic Balak saw clearly through the answer of Balaam, and knew how to approach him. A more stately embassy, flattering his love of distinction, a confidential alluring prayer of the king (אַל־נָא), the prospect of high honor or rich rewards suited to his strong desire would prevail. Balaam understands the courtly message well, when he say: If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, etc.—[HIRSCH: “Balaam’s answer betrays his real character. However much he seeks honor, he seeks wealth still more. Balak had not intimated in his message anything about gold. He has spoken only of great distinction, and said that every wish should be gratified. But Balaam immediately translates honor into gold. This is the supreme good with him.”—A. G.]. The real thought of his heart shines out clearly through this seemingly strong resolution. Still more when he asks them to tarry another night, as if to ascertain in a second nightly vision what more Jehovah would say to him, he intimates that he deemed it possible that He would decide differently this time. KNOBEL says, “there are other instances in the Old Testament in which God changes His mind when besought to do so (Num 16:21 sqq.; Ex. 32:14; Jonah 3:10).” KNOBEL ignores entirely the distinction between the merely seeming “changes of mind” in the way of mercy, and the still more apparent “change of mind” in judgment. He regards Balaam in a very favorable light. But one has examined the passage very superficially if he regards the second command of God as a concession. Now indeed the consequences of his character and conduct begin to gather around him, so that he goes on involved in inconsistencies, until the final disruption and ruin takes place. It had been easier for him to refuse Balak positively, than to make use of the permission to go, coupled with a condition which must entirely defeat his object. But yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do. The deceitful heart allowed him to hope that Jehovah would at last grant him his wish, while the grand irony of the divine providence went on, giving him over to the judgment of his own double-heartedness. He might have been saved if now, when God tried or tested him, because he had sought to tempt God, he had sought permission to remain. [Upon the apparent contradiction between the prohibition, Num 22:12, and the permission, Num 22:20, and the anger of God at his going, Num 22:22, See HENGSTENBERG, Beiträge 3, 469; History of Balaam, p. 44, Note. The whole difficulty vanishes at once when we consider that the prohibition was to go and curse Israel, and in the permission to go he is still forbidden to curse. The curse was that for which Balak sent for him. That is forbidden throughout. The permission, or rather the command to go, for as HENGSTENBERG well says, “that which he sought to do in the service of his own sinful lusts, he must now do after any such hope has vanished, in the service of God,” was in fulfilment of the divine purpose and given partly with reference to Balaam himself, and partly through Balaam’s blessings to bless His own people, and to glorify His name among the heathen and in Israel. Balaam now became the unwilling instrument in the execution of the divine purpose. The anger of God was kindled against him, not because he went merely, but because he was going with a blind and persistent adherence to his own plan, under the control of his own lusts, and probably in the hope that in some way he would secure his own distinction and wealth. God holds His instruments in His own hands.—A. G.].


3Marg. Be not thou letted from.

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.

CHAPTER 22:22–40

22AND 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. 23And 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. 24But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. 25And 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. 26And 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. 27And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s 28anger 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? 29And 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. 30And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass 4upon which thou hast ridden ever since 5I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto 31thee? And he said, Nay. 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. 632And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? Behold, I went out to withstand thee, 7because thy way is perverse before me: 33And 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. 34And 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, 8if it displease thee, I will get me back again. 35And 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.

36And 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. 37And 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? 38And 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. 39And Balaam went with Balak, and they came unto 9Kirjath-huzoth.40And Balak offered oxen and sheep, and sent to Balaam, and to the princes that were with him.


[Num 22:22. הוֹלֵךְ the participle “was going” denoting here not only a continuous journey, but a tendency and striving to the end.—A. G.]

[Num 22:24. מִשְׁעוֹל a narrow or hollow way, 1 Kings 20:10; Isa. 40:12, handfuls. Perhaps a path so narrow that one could only pass along step by step.—A. G.]

[Num 22:19. Lit. I had killed thee—it had already been done.—A. G.]

[Num 22:32. לְשָׂטַּן to be an adversary. יָרַט to precipitate, to be headlong.—A. G.]

[Num 22:33. אוּלַי, perhaps. There is no sufficient authority for the rendering unless, surely.—A. G.]

[Num 22:39. הֻצוֹת, streets of the city, in which markets were held or trade carried on.—A. G.]


He saddled his ass and departed with the princely envoys and his own servants. But the anger of God was aroused, because he went—that is, went cherishing the hope that he would still win Jehovah to his own wish and plan. Since he now goes out with hostile intent toward God’s people, he encounters the divine opposition in the definite form of the Angel of Jehovah. The seer himself is indeed blinded through his insincerity and falsehood; but his ass, on the contrary, has become clear-sighted. It undertakes his part as a sign that he has taken upon himself the part of the brute. He does not see the angel because his thoughts brood upon the brilliant future which presents itself to his view. Still in the back-ground of his being, stirred by his evil conscience, the visionary power partly freed from restraint, the terror of his spirit passed into the fear of spirits, which at first quickens the vision of the ass, and then indirectly, through its strange acts, works upon himself. Three times the ass starts back affrighted at the sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way with a drawn sword threatening death, in his hand. It is not strange that the animal in sympathy with its master should think that it might pass by the angel. Thus at first it starts aside into the field; then when the angel bars the path between the vineyard walls, it presses closely against the wall, thereby crushing the foot of the prophet; and then at last when it must pass through a narrow path, in which there was no room to turn either to the right hand or the left, with the dread form right before it, the ass falls upon its knees. It has no power to proceed. But now Balaam, in the heat of passion, beats it the third time. Here Jehovah opens the mouth of the ass, and a conversation takes place between the rider and his beast. The visionary condition of the prophet had been already awakened and developed since he heard the ass speak; but it comes out decidedly when reminded that the faithful animal had never behaved in this strange way before, and that therefore some very unusual surroundings must be at work. Now Jehovah can open the eyes of Balaam, that he also may see the angel. KNOBEL here relates various similar instances of speaking animals, horses, cattle, sheep, and even generally of cases of brute speech (p. 184 and 185). The negative criticism is interested in asserting that according to the writer, the ass has actually (i.e. externally) spoken, and that Balaam heard its utterances with his ears. He enumerates a list of authors from JOSEPHUS to BAUMGARTEN and KURTZ, who hold this positive view. When he cites the passage in 2 Pet. 2:16 in corroboration of this view, he allows to the New Testament as little as to the Old a symbolical method of expression, or one which recognizes the reality of the inner world. The other interpretation advocated by Maimonides, HERDER, JAHN, MICHAELIS, DATHE, STEUDEL, THOLUCK, HENGSTENBERG, that it was only in a vision or dream that Balaam heard the ass speak, and that the hearing of the words was barely (barely an inward!) an inward occurrence, he thinks may easily be disproved. “The author says nothing of a vision or dream,” etc.HENGSTENBERG has justly vindicated the reality of visionary states, and has adduced many arguments to prove that the narrative here treats of inner visions and voices in the form of external and bodily seeing and hearing. HENGSTENBERG’S merit is all the greater because he did not have a clear hermeneutical understanding of the biblical, historico-ideal or symbolical style, on which to rest. His explanation of the offering of Isaac, of Jephthah’s daughter, and of the Egyptian miracles, is entitled to a like praise, and one may well conjecture that his contempt for the superficial character of many of the negative critics, may have betrayed him later into extreme utterances. KEIL seeks to establish an intermediate view. “The angel did really appear upon the road, and in the outward world of the senses; but the form was not a grossly sensuous or material form, like the bodily frame of an ordinary being, for then Balaam would inevitably have seen him.” This conception is perfectly justified, but then when he treats of the speaking of the ass, he falls back into a vacillating state between KURTZ and HENGSTENBERG. Expositors who regard the letter more than the spirit, sensuous more than inner experiences, have been led here to various and specious shifts and subterfuges. Against the supposition of a spectral angelic appearance, which might alarm an animal of any species akin to that here, we have nothing to mention; but the examples cited by HENGSTENBERG (after PASSAVANT, pp. 54–61) according to which the terrors of a visionary man, may prove the cause and occasion of the fright of an animal standing in sympathetic relations with him deserve consideration.

Balaam prostrates himself before the angel of the LORD. For the first time the terror of Jehovah overcomes him. Had it come upon him immediately he would have died. The angel tells him that his ass had saved his life. He had withstood him in the way, because his way was headlong, one which would plunge him into destruction. [The rendering in our version unless she had turned from me, surely now, etc., is not in accordance with the usage of the language. The word rendered unless occurs nowhere else in that sense. It is perhaps. Perhaps she turned out before me. Why is not expressed. The result is that he was saved from death. But whether it was the instinctive affection of the animal for its master, as KEIL supposes, or more probably the dread and terror which overwhelmed it, as the narrative seems to imply, which led it to turn, is not said.—A. G.]. Balaam confesses that he has sinned—but how? For I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me.—He does not search deeply into the nature of his sin. His obedience, too, springs only from fear, when he says, if it displease thee I will get me back again. In the if his after fate is again foreshadowed. The same angel who withstood him in the way, now bids him to go on, but reminds him anew that he must speak only what he—now the angel of Jehovah—should say to him. [It was not the journey which was displeasing to God, but the spirit and intent with which it was pursued. The angelic appearance was for this purpose: to make a sharp and deep impression upon the mind of Balaam, to rouse his slumbering conscience, and to make him quick to hear and attentive to what Jehovah should speak. That was attained, although the moral condition of Balaam was not changed, and hence he is bidden to proceed.—A. G.]. This is now his purpose. He has made progress in the knowledge of God, has come nearer his salvation, because he proceeds with the determination to obey the word of Jehovah, but still because his insincerity continues he is still nearer destruction.

His reception by Balak is ceremonious and splendid, although accompanied by mild rebukes. The location of the city at which Balak met him corresponds entirely with the circumstances of the times. It lay upon the Arnon, formerly in a central position, now upon the borders, since the Amorites had formed out of the other half, the kingdom of Heshbon, within which the Israelites now lay encamped. Balaam declares at once that he had come indeed, but only to speak what God (Elohim) should put into his mouth. [He practices the same concealment here as with the messengers of Moab at first. He does not tell Balak that Jehovah had forbidden him to come and curse the people, and that only on the ground that it was blessed. ORIGEN holds the notion, BIBLE COM., that as Balaam’s heart was filled with the lust of gain, God did not put the word into his heart, but only into his mouth.—A. G.]. Thus they enter in company the new capital—city of streets—perhaps as a new city still incomplete. The great project was inaugurated with solemn sacrifices. KEIL thinks the city at which they met was Areopolis. KNOBEL prefers Ir Moab, since Areopolis lies too far to the south. Thence they went (KNOBEL, p. 137) northward, or northwestward along the Arnon to Kirjath-Huzoth (Jer. 48:24, 41, Keriot). The offerings which were brought immediately were, in the custom of antiquity, a prayer for success in their undertaking. [Kirjath-Huzoth lay not far from the Arnon, and near Bamoth-Baal. Its situation is now known as the ruins of Shihan, “which lie on a slight eminence about four miles west by south of the site assigned to Ar. or Ir.” BIBLE COM.—A.G.].

[It is scarcely a fair representation which Dr. LANGE makes above, when he says, “It is in the interest of the negative criticism to insist upon the actual and external occurrences of the events here recorded,” as if the narrative was thereby involved in hopeless difficulty. The question is one merely of interpretation, dividing those who are firm believers both in the narrative as inspired, and in the miraculous nature of the events recorded. As stated by HENGSTENBERG, it is whether the speaking of the ass is to be regarded as an outward or inward occurrence, whether the words attributed to it, actually went from it to the external ear of Balaam, or were words only for his inward ear or sense, a perception by him in an ecstatic or visionary condition. He advocates adroitly and earnestly the latter view, (Geschichte Bileams, pp. 48–63) while KURTZ (Geschich. des Alten Bundes, Vol. 2, pp. 468–478) argues strenuously for the former. Both hold to the supernatural character of the event.

The ordinary reader here would be in no doubt as to what the writer intended. Using language in its common acceptation we have not only a real occurrence, but one in the world of the senses. The history of the interpretation, not only among the Jews but in the Christian Church, shows that this is the obvious import of the narrative. The other view owes its origin probably, not to anything implied or suggested in the narrative but to the feeling that in some way the record here was peculiarly open to reproach, or to the hope that the miracle might be relieved of the difficulties which attend it, or at least be brought more within the reach of our comprehension and explanation. The difficulties which are found in the narrative upon the ordinary interpretation, and which form the staple of the arguments against it, are that Balaam expresses no surprise or astonishment when the ass speaks with man’s voice, but actually proceeds to hold a conversation with it, as with a fellow-man; and that to suppose the ass actually to speak involves a breach of that eternal insuperable barrier which God has placed between man and the brute creation. We pass here with a brief sentence, the circumstance upon which great stress has been laid, that the servants of Balaam and the messengers of Balak do not appear to have heard the words of the ass; for it is not certain that either one or the other were present with Balaam at the time; it is probable that the Moabitish envoys had now gone on in advance to (Num 22:36), announce the approach of Balaam; and if they were actually present the fact that they are not mentioned proves nothing. Arguments from silence are confessedly invalid. We must free our minds, too, as far as possible, from the idea that Balaam is here in his prophetic calling or work. He is here simply as a man blinded by passion and struggling against his convictions and conscience. There is no prophetic communication made to him, and he certainly utters none. And even on the supposition, which is a violent one, that the words, Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, refer to the inward eye—to his visionary condition—the speaking of the ass occurred before he was in this condition, and was indeed on this supposition the occasion for his being brought into it. The fact therefore that Balaam afterwards speaks of himself as the man whose eyes are open—open, i.e., in the visionary or ecstatic sense, his bodily eyes closed that his eyes within may be open—has no bearing upon the interpretation of this passage. Whatever may have been true then, when he fell into a prophetic ecstacy or trance, there is no such condition here—certainly there is no such condition until after the dumb ass speaks with man’s voice.

But the difficulties; are they serious? Is it incredible or even strange that Balaam in his rage and blinded by his lusts, should have heard the articulate words uttered by his ass, and yet not manifest surprise and even go on in the conversation? The hardening and blinding power of sin cannot be exaggerated, especially when the sin is persisted in against the voice of conscience. In some respects Balaam was like those who heard the words and saw the miraculous work of our LORD, and still hated and persecuted Him. They saw enough to produce the conviction—secret if not avowed—that Christ was what He claimed to be: and yet they went from the open grave of Lazarus to plot His destruction. They blinded themselves to the light which shone upon them. This is the very process through which Balaam had been passing. Then too the very reply of Balaam to the reproach of his ass shows that he was swept away with insane rage. The violence of his passion leaves little room for reflection, and prevents his surprise, or his expression of it, if it was felt. It is true, moreover, that the difficulty here lies with equal weight against the theory that the words were only heard by Balaam in his ecstacy. For if it is difficult to conceive that Balaam should have heard the dumb ass actually use articulate speech, without uttering any astonishment, it is at least equally difficult to explain how he should hear the groans and shudderings of his ass, coming to his inward sense at least as articulate words; how he could be the conscious subject of supernatural power and still persist in his brutal passion without any reverence or fear. If the ass spake to him, although she did not speak literally, how could he go on and reason with her and give no sign of dismay? In either case the answer is found only in the fearful power of sin to blind the man, and make him insensible. Pharaoh could look over his wasted land, and see the signs of sorrow and death hanging from every door, and rise up and pursue the people of God; unaware, apparently, that God had dealt with him.

But is it true that the line which separates between the intelligent and brute creation, is here broken? Has the speaking ass crossed the wide chasm? If it has passed, as KURTZ says, from the sphere of nature to that of spirit, from the impersonal to the personal creature, then indeed the line has been broken and the objection to any such assumption would be of force. But no such change is here implied. The ass is not presented as a rational creature because she speaks with man’s voice. Then every parrot and speaking animal would have crossed the line. Mere articulate sounds do not constitute human speech; but words as the vehicle of thought, expression of the spirit. When the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, He enabled it to use articulate sounds instead of inarticulate groans. The form was changed, not the nature. She makes no revelation from God, does not speak to Balaam of his headlong way, simply utters the animal feelings and experiences under the brutal treatment of her master. Balaam would not understand her shudderings and groans, the natural and ordinary method of expression. God gave her articulate utterances in her case, the supernatural, extraordinary and therefore more startling and impressive utterance. It is the mere animal soul, feeling, experience put into the form of human speech. The animal has not changed its nature, has not passed into the rank of intelligent creatures. The line fixed by God, which separates the two, has not been broken through or crossed. The objections therefore to the actual historical occurrence, in the world of the senses, have no constraining force. All miraculous events involve difficulties to our minds. We are not competent to explain them. Any attempt to modify our interpretation of the record in order to avoid them is dangerous.

On the other hand it may be said: 1. That the rule “that we are not to conceive of dreams, visions or ecstacies in the biblical history unless they are clearly and undoubtedly intimated in the record” seems a good rule and well established (KURTZ, p. 468). There is no intimation of a vision or ecstacy here. The whole drift of the narrative bears against such a supposition. The state of Balaam’s mind, the conscious conflict going on within him, between his conviction of what was right, and the power of his lusts; the eager pursuit of wealth, though he knew it was “the wages of unrighteousness,” upon which he was now apparently more intent than ever, now that he had gone so far, was standing upon the borders of Moab, and saw the coveted prize almost within his grasp, precludes the idea of a visionary condition. LANGE, and even HENGSTENBERG himself, concedes that it was not developed until the ass startled, terrorstricken at the sight of the angel, restive, unmanageable, groaning under its cruel scourgings, had awakened it. There is nothing surely in the brutal passion which Balaam manifests, which should have prepared him to interpret the inarticulate groans of the ass into human speech. The statement “that the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam” is no intimation that a change had occurred in his internal state or condition. It is the opening of the outward bodily eye, as we have already seen, which had been closed by the eager, intent pursuit of gain—his reawakening to the occurrences in the external world—so that his senses were now in full exercise.

2. The words “the LORD opened the mouth of the ass,” although KEIL in his attempt to occupy a middle ground holds that they are not decisive, “that all that they imply is that the ass spake in a way that was perceptible to Balaam,” appear to be inexplicable on the theory that the miracle was wrought in Balaam. It is not said that the LORD opened the ears of Balaam, or that at this stage of the narrative any effect had been wrought upon him. He was still under the uncontrolled sway of his lusts and passion. The power of God was upon the dumb animal, opening his mouth to speak, as the Apostle Peter says (2 Pet. 2:16) “with man’s voice.” It does not meet the force of this argument to say, that there was indeed some extraordinary divine work calling forth the words (!) of the ass, but that how the words were heard, with the outward ear or not, is not said, for the point here is, that the narrative seems to say and must be understood to say, unless the words are wrested to meet the exigencies of a theory, that the supernatural power was upon the ass. Its mouth was opened. And this interpretation—the plain, obvious one—is confirmed by the words of the Apostle, who gives us not his own construction, but that which had been common with the people of God, from the event itself down to his day, and to which he sets his seal as speaking by the Holy Ghost.

3. The speaking of the ass and the appearance of the angel are closely connected. If the one is heard only in the inward ear of Balaam, the other appears only to his inward eye. All externality is lost. The whole occurrence is subjective, and we have no criterion left by which to test its character, or distinguish it from any mere vivid imagination. Then how are we to explain the fact, admitted by all, (though attributed by HENGSTENBERG to a kind of second sight) that the ass saw the angel, not in a vague, dim, shadowy form, but distinctly and repeatedly, as a definite form, sword in hand, and in a threatening attitude. The narrative will not allow us to suppose that the angel was distinctly and visibly present to the ass, and only inwardly present to Balaam. If the one occurred in the external world—if the Angel was present to the senses—there is a strong presumption that the words were spoken to the external ear or sense of Balaam.

4. The whole object of the Angelic appearance in its humbling effect upon Balaam, and the result upon the prophetic word which he should utter, is secured more certainly upon the theory that the words were actually spoken by the ass, and actually heard by the prophet. If the whole effect was wrought in Balaam, if the ass did nothing more than to groan and cry out under the abuse it suffered, if it saw no Angel, or only sympathized with its master, who interpreted these groans and shudderings into words, then there was nothing so humbling to the pride of the Seer. He may have been ashamed upon reflection, of his blindness and passion and lust. On any theory the event was impressive. But if he who prided himself upon having eyes for divine revelation did not see in his blindness what the ass saw so clearly; if the irrational brute reproved and admonished his rational but unreasonable master; if the cowering, shrinking ass falling to the ground in terror has thus saved his owner from the doom upon which he was madly rushing; if he was thus brought to feel that his lusts had led him to take the place of the brute, it was an humbling but salutary experience. He saw clearly enough that his own desires and passions could not be followed; that he must indeed speak only the words which the Angel says: I shall speak unto thee. That was the end sought; and how effectually it was secured we learn when we hear the prophet saying at his first interview with Balak: have I now any power at all to say any thing? The word that God putteth in my mouth that shall I speak.—A. G.]


4Marg. Who hast ridden upon me.

5Marg. Ever since thou wast.

6Marg. bowed himself.

7Marg. To be an adversary unto thee.

8Marg. If it be evil in thine eyes.

9Marg. a city of streets.

10Marg. on he went solitary.

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.

CHAPTER 22:41–23:10

Numbers 22:41AND 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.

NUMBERS. 23:1 AND Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams. 2And Balak did as Balaam had spoken; and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bullock and a ram. 3And Balaam said unto Balak, Stand by thy burnt offering, and I will go: peradventure the LORD will come to meet me; and whatsoever he sheweth me I will tell thee. And he went to an high place1 4And God met Balaam: and he said unto him, I have prepared seven altars, and I have offered upon every altar a bullock and a ram. 5And the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak. 6And he returned unto him, and, lo, he stood by his burnt sacrifice, he, and all the princes of Moab. 7And he took up his parable, and said,

Balak the king of Moab hath brought me from Aram,

Out of the mountains of the East, saying,

Come curse me, Jacob,

And come, defy Israel.

8     How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed?

Or how shall I defy, whom the LORD hath not defied?

9     For from the top of the rocks I see him,

And from the hills I behold him:

Lo, the people shall dwell alone,

And shall not be reckoned among the nations.

10     Who can count the dust of Jacob,

And the number of the fourth part of Israel?

Let me2 die the death of the righteous,

And let my last end be like his!


[Numbers 23:41. Heb. Bamoth-Baal—a definite locality.—A. G.]

[Num 23:3. שֵׁפִּי—a bare, bleak height—from שָׁפָּה, to scrape, to make bare, Job 33:21.—A. G.]

[Num 23:7. מָשַׁל—“a simile, then a proverb, because the proverb consists of comparisons and figures.” KEIL. HIRSCH, however, says that “the word always denotes a sentence or saying in which there is a progress from the individual and concrete to the universal or general,” and that it is so used here.—A. G.]

[Num 23:7. Defy. Better: be angry against, threaten.—A. G.]

[Num 23:10. Or: who can number the fourth part=or perhaps the progeny. BIBLE COMMENTARY, HIRSCH.—A. G.]


1. Balak is politic and cunning. He leads Balaam to a mountain summit, from whence he could see only the ends of the Israelitish camp. A small part of the camp the must see, so that from his mountain height as from heaven he might hurl down the lightnings of his curse upon the people; but only a small part, lest he should be too deeply impressed, and thus his readiness to curse might be restrained.

[A comparison, however, of Num 22:41 with Num 23:13 seem to show that in the former case the words the ends, or the utmost of the people, refer not to a small part of the camp, but to its extreme limits. He overlooked the whole people, even to its ends or utmost bounds. Balak had strong confidence that his wish would be secured. It was essential in his view that the people should be seen by the prophet, if the curse was to take effect. He led him therefore to a position so that the whole camp lay stretched out before him. But when the prophet blesses instead of curses Israel, then apparently thinking that his mind had been overawed by the prospect; that he could not so readily curse, a people so numerous and powerful, he leads him away to a point from which he says “thou shalt see only the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all.” Thus the two passages are perfectly consistent, and the order of steps as the scene unfolds is natural.—A. G.]

2. Balaam also on his part is a prudent schemer. Balak must build him seven altars, and offer upon them a grand sacrifice: seven bullocks and seven rams, the largest and most costly sacrifice, in the doubled seven. In connection with this pompous pretence of piety the sacrifice bears a most equivocal character. It is offered upon the high places of Baal, and still, as it appears, to Jehovah, from whom he inquires. But for which of the two were the bullocks intended, and for which the rams? Build me here seven altars—says Balaam—Stand by thy burnt-offering.—There is, in fact, a vile union between heathenism and monotheism—between yea and nay. Then Balaam goes up alone to a bare place, or a bald mountain peak, that he may see as much as possible of Israel, and that he may observe a sign, and thereby secure a vision. He appeals to Elohim, calling to witness his sacrifice. But it is Jehovah who puts the word in his mouth; it proceeds from God as the God of Israel. [Balaam went up to meet auguries (Num 24:1): I will go—peradventure Jehovah will meet me. “He hoped to receive or discover in the phenomena of nature a revelation from Jehovah.” KEIL. Hence he went as the heathen augurs were wont to do, to the mountain summit, where his view above and around him would be unobstructed. God met Balaam, not “through the agencies employed to seek Him, dealing in this case in an exceptional manner,” BIBLE COM., not through any appearance or sign which Balaam was to clothe in words, but put a word in his mouth: thus thou shalt speak. He had a distinct message from which he could not vary.—A. G.]

3. Balaam’s first saying is richer in its form than in its contents. He speaks at first of the great expectations with which his coming is awaited. A king has sent for him, has brought him here in honor. From a remote land, from the far distant mountains of Mesopotamia, he has come to the mountain of Moab. And for this purpose, that he should curse a people whom he knew not only as Jacob, but as Israel (his words are fitly chosen: Curse, doom to wrath). He might well have said: How shall I curse him whom Jehovah blesseth? but he says somewhat less: whom God hath not cursed, whom God hath not threatened. He intimates that he sees not only a part of Israel, as Balak wished, but sees it in its whole significance and nature, as if he looked down upon it from every rocky peak and summit. The positive blessing includes three things: the isolation of Israel from the heathen, its countless number, and his own recognition of the righteous in it, with whom he wished to die. But in all the three respects the spirit of the typical word expresses much more than was present to the consciousness of Balaam, to wit, the election of God’s people, its blessed and immeasurable extension, and the salvation in life and in death prepared for the righteous. [Shall dwell alone—not isolation, freedom from tumults, and thus security—but the inward separation in character and in their relation to God, upon which the outward isolation depended, and of which it was the symbol. They dwelt alone only while they clave to God—counted not themselves among the nations. The whole Israelitish history is a striking comment upon the text. As the description applies to the N. T. Israel, so the rule likewise.

Who can count the dust?—A reference to the promise, Gen. 13:15, which was already so largely fulfilled, that even the fourth part, alluding, as KEIL thinks, to the fourfold arrangement of the camp, could not be numbered.—יְשָׁרִים, a term applied to Israel as the called of God who is just and right, and as expressive of the end of their calling—or destination. It is not so much descriptive of their actual character as of the idea of the people, which was partly realized in the natural Israel, but is to be actually and fully realized in the spiritual. It is always the product of the gracious dealings of God with His people.

Let my last end be like his.—Balaam could not curse the righteous people. His better impulses find expression in the wish that he might share with them at least in their death. The Hebrew word refers not so much to the dying as to that which follows death, the futurity, the last estate. (See Ps. 37:37, 38.) While it is true that their ideas of a future state were as yet vague and indefinite, it is not true, as KEIL says, “that the Israelites did not then possess a certain hope of a blessed life beyond the grave.” It is difficult to fix just the amount of light they enjoyed, but it is well nigh impossible to read the utterances of the word in regard to their death without feeling that the light shone for them and upon them. And he who walked with God, and died in the consciousness of the divine grace and love, could never have supposed that the light would go out in darkness, or that there was no blessed life beyond the grave.—A. G.]

For the location of Bamoth-Baal see Num 21:19, 20. It appears here as the most remote point from which the camp of Israel could be seen. For the ancient custom of inaugurating religious questions, undertakings, execrations or blessings with sacrifices, see KNOBEL, p. 137; KEIL, Clark’s Translation, pp. 176, 177. The sign for which Balaam went out alone was the view of Israel which should form a sign and a vision for him.


Numbers 23:11–24

11AND Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether. 12And he answered and said, Must I not take heed to speak that which the LORD hath put in my mouth? 13And Balak said unto him, Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place, from whence thou mayest see them: thou shalt see but the utmost part of them, and shalt not see them all: and curse me them from thence.

14And he brought him into the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah,3 and built seven altars, and offered a bullock and a ram on every altar. 15And he said unto 16Balak, Stand here by thy burnt offering, while I meet the LORD yonder. And the LORD met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth, and said, Go again unto Balak, and say thus. 17And when he came to him, behold, he stood by his burnt offering, and the princes of Moab with him. And Balak said unto him, What hath the LORD spoken?

18And he took up his parable, and said,

Rise up, Balak, and hear;

Hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor;

19     God is not a man that he should lie;

Neither the son of man that he should repent;

Hath he said—and shall he not do it?

Or hath he spoken—and shall he not make it good?

20     Behold, I have received commandment to bless.

And he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it.

21     He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob,

Neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel;

The Lord his God is with him,

And the shout of a king is among them.

22     God brought them out of Egypt;

He hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

23     Surely there is no enchantment against4 Jacob,

Neither is there any divination against Israel:

According to this time it shall be said of Jacob

And of Israel, What hath God wrought!

24     Behold, the people shall rise Up as a great lion,

And lift up himself as a young lion:

He shall not lie down until he eat of the prey

And drink the blood of the slain.


[Num 23:11. בֵּרַכתָּ בָרֵךְ Thou hast blessed to bless. Thou hast blessed only and continually.—A. G.]

[Num 23:13. אֶפֶם קָצֵתוּ—correctly rendered the utmost part—not as Including the whole, but, as the following clause shows, a small part, the mere stragglers of the camp, as it were.—A. G.]

[Num 23:14. Zophim, or watchers, or spies.—A. G.]

[Num 23:15. Here—yonder. כּהֹ, so—thus. The sense is not local. It is the manner.—A. G.]

[Num 23:19. Heb. cause it to stand.—A. G.]

[Num 23:20. Literally: I have taken, received to bless. How he had received it, the word does not explain. The word, however, was put in his mouth, and hence our version correctly supplies commandment.—A. G.]

[Num 23:21. Heb. trouble, sorrow, suffering, generally as the result of sin.—A. G.]

[Num 23:22. The participle מוֹצִיאָם designates the bringing out as still incomplete and going forward.—A. G.]

[Num 23:23. In both cases it is in, not against. Auguries and divinations are not practised in Israel. They had the immediate revelation.—A. G.]


1. Balak’s dissatisfaction and his renewed attempt. He thinks already that in the words of Balaam he hears the utterance of the most definite and positive blessing. Balaam appeals to his absolute dependence. Jehovah put the words in his mouth. But now the blinded and superstitious king conceives the idea that he has made a mistake in the position to which he had led the prophet. He had placed him at first where he could see only a part of the camp. It now appears to him that even this was too much. Come thou with me to another place, the end of the end of them (only the extreme, meagre part of them) thou shalt see, and shalt not see them all. KEIL takes just the opposite view. Balak, he says, “led the seer to the field of the watchers that he might now see the entire people.” He explains the words “thou shalt not see them all,” as referring to the view from Bamoth-Baal. But the changed position for the third saying, where he first overlooked the whole camp of Israel, lies against this view. The full description of the second position leads also to the rejection of KEIL’S view. KURTZ’S theory also, that the utmost part denotes the whole, is to be rejected. The phrase “end of the end” is by no means an “intolerable tautology,” but a very expressive description. The field of the watchers is clearly an elevated plateau upon Pisgah from which watchers made their observations; but that does not determine whether the watchers were soldiers, bird-augurs, or astrologers; nor does it inform us whether this place was the peak Nebo upon Pisgah, or a field of Moab upon the heights of Pisgah. The near lying valley regions are often invisible from lofty summits concealed by wooded ridges and the lower peaks. In any case the design of Balak is clear, that Balaam should see as little as possible of the camp of Israel. Balak must bring again his great sacrifice. I will go to meet yonder, viz., the manifestation of God. [I will go and meet “is a technical term here for going out for auguries or for a divine revelation,” KEIL. The term is not local, but expresses the purpose for which he went.—A. G.]. [HIRSCH has an ingenious and striking explanation of the places chosen by Balak—Baal, Zophim, Peor—as indicating in his mind the three great potencies which decide the weal or woe of nations, through each of which he hopes to secure the curse of Balaam and the ruin of his foes. First Baal, the physical or material, then the field of seers and watchers, the intellectual, and then Peor, the moral. He would see how richly they were endowed, or through what avenues in these respects their ruin could be accomplished.—A. G.]

2. The blessing. Now he begins his blessing with an address to Balak. He must rise up as if to receive the command of a king; nor is it a mark of distinction directly, a term of majesty and glory when he addresses him as the Son of Zippor. With his first word he reproves the thought of Balak that God might perhaps take back His word. This lies entirely beyond the power of Balaam. So also with the declaration I have received to bless; he (God) hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it.—Now also he speaks positively of blessing, and of the entire failure of the purpose to curse. The blessing branches into the following parts: 1. Israel’s blessed condition spiritually. No iniquity is discovered in Jacob, and (therefore) no trouble or affliction in Israel.—Hence there are no points to which the curse can attach itself. [This applies not to individuals in their moral character, as if they were faultless in the sight of God, but to the people in their calling and in their covenant relation to God.—A. G.]. 2. Israel is the people of God. Jehovah is with him as his God. He Himself is the King, whose trumpet note sounds among them. 3. Hence his way is one in which God leads him. God has brought him out of Egypt, and thus he goes forward rapidly and with the irresistible power of the buffalo. [The Reem was probably some species of the wild ox, of great fierceness and of indomitable strength. See Art. Unicorn, SMITH’S Bib. Dict.—A. G.]. 4. Therefore also Israel is secure against the unclean spirits of soothsaying and divination. On the contrary it was guided by the pure spirit of prophecy. The words sound as if Balaam uttered judgment upon his own equivocal position. [“The augury and the divination were the two means employed by the heathen for looking into futurity.” There was no call or place for them in Israel. It was not only secure against their arts, but they had no basis, no legitimate existence. According to the time, i.e., at the right time, in due time, it shall be said, God will reveal His will and purposes.—A. G.]. 5. Hence the lion-like character of the people; its mighty, terrible, irresistible power; its certain triumph over its foes. [BIBLE COM. “Beyond the camp Balaam’s eye would pass on to the bed of the Jordan. It was perhaps a lion coming up in his strength from the swelling of that stream (Jer. 49:19) that indicated to him this similitude.”—A. G.].

Num 23:19. We have already spoken of the apparent repenting of God as a confirmation of His unchangeableness.

Num 23:21. We prefer not to regard God as the subject of הִבִּיט and רָאָה, but to take them as an indefinite form of the third person. [But see HENGST., p. 112, and comp. Hab. 1:3, 13.—A. G.] The cause of this glory of Israel is found in the fact that God is their King. As the mighty God (El) He leads them (continuously) out of Egypt. Ought any one to make the sinlessness of Israel the cause? תֹּועֶפֹת may express the rhythmic motion in the alternate leaps and pauses of the buffalo in its progress. [It denotes rather the stirring, restless, unwearied efforts with which the animal forces his way upwards.—A. G.].

Num 23:23. Their progress will be sure and constant, because they do not waver here and there under the delusions of magic arts, but march forward with confidence, instructed by the word of God, which shall be given them from time to time. They shall then know what great things the mighty God will do for them.

Num 23:24. The words of Judah’s blessing (Gen. 49:9) transferred to the whole people.


1Marg. on he went solitary.

2Marg. my soul or my life.

3Marg. the hill.

4Marg. or in.

Lange, John Peter - Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical

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