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The First Invitation Refused
v. 1. And the children of Israel set forward and pitched in the Plains of Moab on this side Jordan, on the eastern side, by Jericho, for these rich bottom-lands had formerly been a part of Moabitis and were still called by the name of their former owners.
v. 2. And Balak, the son of Zippor, saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. The Moabites had not interfered with the children of Israel while the latter journeyed along their eastern border, but had even sold them bread and water, Deuteronomy 2:29. At the same time, they seem to have entertained the hope that the mighty nation of the Amorites would easily overcome the invaders. This expectation was now rudely shattered.
v. 3. And Moab was sore afraid of the people because they were many; and Moab was distressed, filled with a sickening terror even to the point of nausea, because of the children of Israel.
v. 4. And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, the two nations evidently being allies, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us as the ox licketh up the grass of the field, for that is the impression which one receives, since cattle will sometimes crop off the grass to its very roots. The word carries with it the idea of complete destruction. And Balak, the son of Zippor, was king of the Moabites at that time, as Moses notes for the sake of historic accuracy and completeness.
v. 5. He sent messengers, therefore, as the sequel shows, at the suggestion of his Midianitish allies, who may have learned of Balaam's reputation on their journeys, unto Balaam, the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, probably near the Euphrates, in Mesopotamia, 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 (note the variation of the same thought for the sake of emphasis);
v. 6. come now, therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people, afflict them with an evil which will render them powerless; 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 (know) that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed. This was the reputation which Balaam had in all the surrounding countries, and this fact is noted in the message, in order to make Balaam willing to grant the request.
v. 7. And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand, for the rich presents were to induce Balaam to come all the more readily. And they came unto Balaam and spake unto him the words of Balak. Balaam was not a common wizard, indulging in cheap tricks and sleight-of-hand performances for the purpose of awing the multitude. He was, indeed, engaged in the business of divination, of soothsaying, but he knew also of the true God, for the tradition of the God of Abraham, of the true, living God, had been handed down in many branches of the family of Shem. That Balaam was well known among the Midianites of this section of Arabia (to be distinguished from the Midianites of the Sinaitic Peninsula) appears from the fact that he afterward gave the heathen the advice which plunged Israel into idolatry and immorality, and almost brought about their ruin, Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14.
v. 8. And he said unto them, Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the Lord shall speak unto me, for he knew that the God of Israel was the true God and feared to do anything contrary to His will. And the princes of Moab abode with Balaam. The false prophet was merely trying to put off the time when he must refuse, since he knew that the Lord would never consent to a curse upon His people, but also since the reward in the hands of the messengers was a powerful argument to his avaricious soul.
v. 9. And God came unto Balaam, He manifested Himself to him in some form, probably in a dream during the night, and said, What men are these with thee? The purpose of the searching question was to make Balaam realize the peril of his position in dealing with the messengers at all.
v. 10. And Balaam said unto God, Balak, the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent unto me, saying,
v. 11. 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. Balaam was careful to tell the Lord the whole truth, since he feared His almighty power.
v. 12. And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them'; thou shalt not curse the people, for they are blessed, and therefore all statements which were intended for curses would have no effect.
v. 13. And Balaam rose up in the morning and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land; for the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you. This was a cunning way of putting it, for it withheld that part of God's message which might have broken off the negotiations definitely, and at the same time conveyed to the messengers of Balak the feeling of Balaam that personally he was not at all disinclined to come. The men undoubtedly understood the position and the inclination of Balaam, as the sequel shows.
v. 14. And the princes of Moab rose up; and they went unto Balak and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us, thus intimating that it was merely a greater reward which was needed to produce the desired effect. Note that the power of soothsaying and of its curses is not denied in this story, just as it is elsewhere recorded with gratitude that the Lord turned the curse into a blessing, Deuteronomy 23:5; Joshua 24:10; Micah 6:5; Nehemiah 13:2. With God's permission the power of witchcraft is very great and should not be made a subject of foolish jesting. Satan is a powerful spirit, and his tools in this world often do great damage.
The Second Invitation Accepted
v. 15. And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honorable than they. So he had taken the hint which was conveyed to him by his messengers; he felt that it was merely a matter of coaxing the reluctant wizard by means of greater presents.
v. 16. And they came to Balaam and said to him, Thus saith Balak, the son of Zippor, Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me;
v. 17. for I will promote thee unto very great honor, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me, thus practically giving Balaam leave to mention his own reward. Come, therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people. As a true heathen Balak apparently believed himself able to influence not only Balaam, but also that mysterious god that was directing Balaam's affairs.
v. 18. And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot g-o beyond the word of the Lord, my God, to do less or more. These words sound very pious, but they merely reveal Balaam's real character. Much as he desired distinction before men, he coveted wealth still more, and his answer was merely intended as a feeler, in order to find out just how far the messengers were permitted to go.
v. 19. Now, therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night that I may know what the Lord will say unto me more.
v. 20. 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. This was not a concession due to a change of mind, for God expressly stipulates that only that saying dared to be pronounced over Israel which He would give to Balaam. It was God's way of dealing with Balaam's defiant mood. Jehovah's purpose may have been, as one commentator has it, to reveal Himself in such a mighty manner before the eyes of Balaam as to cause him to turn to the true God in real change of heart. But one fact is clear, namely, that through the disobedience of Balaam the Lord brought a blessing upon His people and caused one of the most beautiful Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament to be spoken.
v. 21. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with. the princes of Moab. Balaam is an example of warning, both in his attitude toward God, from whom he obtained permission to go with the Moabitish princes only by his defiant persistence, and in his love of filthy lucre. Truly, the love of money is a root of all evil and has caused many men to err from the faith and to be drowned in destruction and perdition, 1 Timothy 6:9-10.
Balaam's Ass Speaks
v. 22. And God's anger was kindled because he (Balaam) went, because he was going with a blind and dogged determination to carry out his own plan and to obtain the promised reward. And the Angel of the Lord, the Son of God, who, as so often in the Old Testament, assumed this form, v. 35, stood in the way, in the road on which he journeyed to the country of the Midianites and the Moabites, for an adversary against him, to cause him to come to his senses even at this stage. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.
v. 23. And the ass saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way, and His sword drawn in His hand. In the same measure that Balaam allowed his insincerity and covetousness to blind him, the dumb and irrational brute, by a miracle of God, became clear-sighted. And the ass turned aside out of the way and went into the field, to escape the threatening sword, the instrument of God's wrath. And Balaam smote the ass to turn her into the way, to make her go back on the road.
v. 24. 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, thus making it impossible for the beast to turn aside very far.
v. 25. And when the ass saw the Angel of the Lord, she thrust herself unto the wall, to crowd past the fearsome apparition, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall; and he smote her again, angry over this behavior, for which he was not able to account except on the basis of meanness.
v. 26. And the Angel of the Lord went further and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left, since His person filled the entire space.
v. 27. And when the ass saw the Angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam, for it was impossible for her to proceed. And Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff, such as travelers commonly carried with them.
v. 28. And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, giving her power to speak articulately and distinctly in the speech of human beings, 2 Peter 2:16 ; and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee that thou hast smitten me these three times?
v. 29. And Balaam, in his excitement apparently not at all taken aback by the strange phenomenon of the dumb brute's speaking, said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me, made a fool of him; I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would-1 kill thee.
v. 30. 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 answered, Nay. If the beast had shown a mean disposition before, then the attitude of Balaam and the treatment which he accorded her might have been justified to some extent; but as it was, he had to admit the justice of her plea.
v. 31. Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way, He made the form of the Angel visible to the eyes of Balaam, as He had done before in the case of his ass, and His sword drawn in His hand, ready for sudden slaughter and destruction. And he bowed down his head and fell flat on his face, overcome, at last, by the terror of Jehovah.
v. 32. 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; the way which Balaam had chosen was a steep and slippery one, and not at all in agreement with the will of God, whence there was danger that it would land him in destruction.
v. 33. 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. So the brute had actually saved Balaam's life by her strange behavior.
v. 34. And Balaam said unto the Angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that Thou stoodest in the way against me. Now, therefore, if it displease Thee, I will get me back again. This addition spoiled the confession of sins with which Balaam had begun to address the Angel; they show that there had been no change of heart; he was still longing for the reward of unrighteousness and intended to yield only to force.
v. 35. And the Angel of the Lord said unto Balaam, Go with the men; since there was no trace of real repentance in his heart, he should continue in his undertaking; but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. This was to be distinctly understood and obediently followed by Balaam. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak, believing that he would still find ways and means to circumvent the will of the Lord and get the coveted money. He is a type of a blind and hardened sinner.
Balak's charge to Balaam
v. 36. 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, in the extreme northeastern section of the country, where the sources of the Arnon are found in the hills of the desert. This showed the eagerness of Balak and the confidence which he placed in the soothsayer's power.
v. 37. And Balak said unto Balaam, Did I not earnestly send unto thee to call thee? Wherefore camest thou not unto me? Am I not able indeed to promote thee to honor? Balak felt that he must reprove Balaam at least to that extent, since the wizard's behavior at the first invitation was such as to imply doubt in the king's ability or willingness to bestow his bounty.
v. 38. And Balaam said unto Balak, Lo, I have come unto thee, a statement which implied that his coming had been connected with some difficulties; have I now any power at all to say anything? The word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak. This was not a statement of humble submission to the will of God, but one by which Balaam intended to clear his skirts in advance. The terror of the Lord was still upon him, and he felt that he would finally be obliged to submit to the will of God. At the same time, he indicated that, so far as he was concerned, he would gladly accede to the king's wishes.
v. 39. And Balaam went with Balak, ready, if possible, to do his bidding; and they came unto Kir-jath-huzoth, a city or town near the hills which run parallel to the Jordan.
v. 40. And Balak offered oxen and sheep, sacrifices of prayer which he apparently intended for the true God, whose favor he hoped to gain in this manner, and sent to Balaam, and to the princes that were with him. To share in the sacrificial feast of the king was considered a great honor.
v. 41. And it came to pass on the morrow that Balak took Balaam and brought him up into the high places of Baal, to Bamot-Baal, the first height from which a person could get a glimpse of Israel's camp, that thence he might see the utmost part of the people. Balak acted upon the idea that Balaam must have at least a part of the children of Israel before his eyes if his curse was to be effective. As the Son of God withstood Balaam in his evil intention of bringing a curse upon God's people, so He now strengthens and upholds His Church in all its trials and keeps its enemies from doing it lasting harm.
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Kretzmann, Paul E. Ph. D., D. D. "Commentary on Numbers 22". "Kretzmann's Popular Commentary". https://studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent