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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 24

Peake's Commentary on the BiblePeake's Commentary


Numbers 22-24. ( JE) . The Episode of Balak and Balaam.— It may reasonably be assumed that the Moabites at first regarded with some satisfaction the defeat of their former conquerors, the Amorites, by their own kinsmen the Israelites. But the latter’ s occupation of the Amorites’ land aroused their jealousy and their fears, and accordingly Balak the king of Moab sent for Balaam, a foreigner, whose blessings and curses were believed to be exceptionally effectual for good and for ill, to curse Israel. Balaam so far acceded to Balak’ s appeal as to come to him, but refused to utter anything but what Yahweh inspired him to say; and by Yahweh the Moabite king’ s wish to injure Israel was made conducive to his own undoing, Balaam being inspired to bless Israel. The narrative is designed to display the providential care for Israel manifested by Yahweh, who overruled to their advantage the devices of their enemies; and illustrates alike ( a) the belief that the God of Israel did not entirely confine His revelations to His own people, ( b) the belief in the potency of the spoken word, and ( c) the belief that the lower animals have occasionally been endowed with the gift of speech. The story is derived from JE; and the composite character of this source is disclosed by the presence of certain repetitions and discrepancies which are pointed out below. A reference to Balaam also occurs in P, which connects him with Midian ( Numbers 31:8; Numbers 31:16); and by a combination of the passages taken from all three sources Balaam has been regarded in the sinister light in which he appears in 2 Peter 2:15 f., Jude 1:1, Revelation 2:14. But the worst feature of the conduct attributed to him— his advice to Israel’ s enemies to seduce them by means of their women— is found only in P, the latest and least trustworthy of the Pentateuchal sources. In J, though he is represented as going to Balak without the Divine permission, yet he is depicted as steadfast in communicating faithfully Yahweh’ s revelation; whilst in E there is nothing at all in his behaviour to afford a handle to censure.

Verses 1-2

Numbers 23:25 to Numbers 24:2 . Balak’ s Sacrifices preliminary to Balaam’ s third Oracle.— The scene of these was Peor, some mountain overlooking the desert bordering the Dead Sea on the W. The inconsistency between Balak’ s indignant dismissal of Balaam in Numbers 23:25 and his renewed attempt in Numbers 23:27 f. to gain what he wanted has suggested that with Numbers 23:25 one account of the episode ends, and that what follows comes from another, with editorial links. The allusion in Numbers 24:1 to the use of enchantments (better, “ divinations” or “ omens” ) on previous occasions certainly does not correspond to the accounts in Numbers 23:3 f., or Numbers 23:15 f., so that the conclusion that here the editor has used another source of which a portion has been omitted, seems justified. Probably E has been mainly employed in Numbers 23, and J in Numbers 24.

Verses 3-9

Numbers 24:3-9 . Balaam’ s Third Oracle.— This varies the tenor of the two previous utterances by dwelling upon the fertility of Israel’ s soil, and the eminence of its ruler. It was probably constructed, like the preceding oracle, in distichs, but in two places this arrangement has been disturbed. The reference to a king in Israel points to the poem having been written in the time of the monarchy.

Numbers 24:3 f. The seer is represented as receiving the Divine revelations in a trance or dream, the “ closed eye” of Numbers 24:3 being the eye of the body, and the “ open eyes” of Numbers 24:4 being the eyes of the mind. But the rendering “ was closed” in Numbers 24:3 is doubtful.— Balaam . . . saith: better, “ Utterance of Balaam,” etc. (and so in the next two lines). The word rendered “ utterance” is almost exclusively used of communications from Yahweh through His prophets, and has an impressiveness which the RV inadequately expresses.— Falling down: i.e. (seemingly) in sleep: cf. Numbers 22:19. In Numbers 24:4 one line of a distich is lacking; comparison with the similar Numbers 24:16 suggests that after the first line there should be inserted, “ And knoweth the knowledge of the Most High.”

Numbers 24:6 . Render, “ As valleys which spread themselves out.” The rows of Israel’ s tents appear like diverging valleys. The third and fourth lines should probably be rearranged and emended thus, “ As cedar trees which Yahweh hath planted ( cf. Psalms 104:16), As terebinths beside the waters.” Cedars do not grow near water, and lign aloes were to the Hebrews foreign trees, coming from Arabia, India, or China, the wood of which was imported for its fragrant odour ( Psalms 45:8, Proverbs 7:17, Ca. Numbers 4:14).

Numbers 24:7. Israel’ s water-supply is abundant, and his soil well irrigated ( Genesis 49:25): with the second line cf. Ecclesiastes 11:1.— The comparison with Agag (a king of Amalek) suggests that the poem was composed in the time of Saul or David ( cf. 1 Samuel 15:8); but the fact that the Amalekites were never so powerful a nation as to make their ruler an appropriate standard of comparison (though cf. Numbers 24:20) throws doubt upon the correctness of the text.

Numbers 24:3. In this verse, which should seemingly consist of three distichs, one distich is incomplete. The last line (with its mention of arrows) is out of harmony with the adjoining comparison to a fierce animal, and should be corrected to “ And smite their loins ( Deuteronomy 33:11) in sunder,” or “ And smite their oppressors in sunder.”

Numbers 24:9. Cf. Genesis 49:9.

Verses 10-14

Numbers 24:10-14 . Balak’ s Dismissal of Balaam.— Balak shows his contempt for the seer, who had failed to earn the promised reward, by clapping his hands together (a mark of scorn, Job 27:23); whilst Balaam, before departing, utters unasked another oracle concerning the future relations of Israel with Moab.

Verses 15-19

Numbers 24:15-19 . Balaam’ s Fourth Oracle.— In this it is predicted that Israel, previously declared to be formidable to its foes in general, will bring destruction upon Moab and Edom in particular.

Numbers 24:17 . not now . . . not nigh: i.e. the prediction relates to the distant future.— a star: a figure for an illustrious king ( cf. Isaiah 14:12, Revelation 22:16). The passage possibly influenced the belief that the birth of the Messiah would be heralded by a star ( Matthew 2:2); and the name of Bar-cochba, “ son of a star,” was assumed by a pretended Messiah in A.D. 120.— In the last two lines read, “ And shall smite through the temples of Moab, And the crown of the head of the sons of tumult” (i.e. the people of Moab). But some, instead of the last four words, would read “ the sons of pride,” the pride of Moab being notorious ( Isaiah 16:6, Jeremiah 48:29, Zephaniah 2:10).

Numbers 24:18 f. The repetitions and ellipses make it probable that the text is very corrupt. It has been proposed to read, “ And Edom shall be a possession, And the remnant shall perish from Seir; While Israel doeth valiantly, And Judah shall have dominion over his enemies.” The subjugation by Israel of Moab and Edom, which is here contemplated, took place in the reign of David ( 2 Samuel 8:2; 2 Samuel 8:13 mg., 2 Samuel 8:14). The predicted overthrow of Edom (or Seir, cf. Genesis 36:8) is irrelevant to Balaam’ s purpose as stated in Numbers 24:14; and some have thought that these verses are a later addition.

Verses 20-24

Numbers 24:20-24 . Three Appended Oracles.— These additional oracles, relating to other peoples than the Moabites, are probably derived from neither E nor J, but have been inserted by an editor from other sources.

Numbers 24:20 . On Amalek.— This prophecy, predicting the destruction of Amalek, received a fulfilment in the time of Saul, who put them under the ban ( 1 Samuel 15:7 f.); but some of the Amalekites survived to be slaughtered by David ( 1 Samuel 30:1-17), and a remnant existed even in the time of Hezekiah ( 1 Chronicles 4:43).

Numbers 24:21 f. On the Kenite.— These were a wandering people connected by name with Cain or Kain ( Genesis 4:1; Genesis 4:22), who generally had their home to the S. of Palestine, mixing with the Amalekites ( 1 Samuel 15:6) or with Judah ( Judges 1:16 *, 1 Samuel 27:10). The oracle predicts their deportation by Asshur, which is the usual designation of the Assyrians, though there was also an Arabian tribe called the Asshurim ( Genesis 25:3). When or how the prediction was thought to be fulfilled cannot be determined.

Numbers 24:21 . nest: the word in Heb. involves a play upon the name Kain or Kenite.

Numbers 24:22 . Render as in the mg., “ How long (will the Kenites’ fancied security last)?”

Numbers 24:23 f. On Asshur.— The victorious career of the Kenites’ captors threatened the extermination of all; but the oracle predicts destruction for the conquering power at the hands of the people of Kittim. Kittim properly means Cyprus (from its capital, Kition), which was subject to Assyria in the seventh century B.C.; and it is possible that the writer anticipates that the Cypriots will rebel against, and subdue, Assyria. But the name is also used to denote alike the Mediterranean countries in general ( Jeremiah 2:10), and Greece or Rome in particular ( 1Ma_1:1 , Daniel 11:30). If it here stands for either of the two latter peoples, the name Asshur probably means not Assyria (which was brought to an end long before Greece and Rome became world-powers) but Persia (as in Ezra 6:22 and perhaps Isaiah 27:13; cf. Isaiah 11:11 *); and the prophecy may have in view the overthrow of the Persian Empire by the Greeks under Alexander the Great.

Numbers 24:23 . Render, “ Alas, who shall live after God’ s appointing him (to be an agent of destruction; cf. Isaiah 10:5 f; Isaiah 37:26)?”

Numbers 24:24 . Eber: (p. 34) lit. the country or people “ across” (the Euphrates), and probably here a synonym for Asshur, whether this means Assyria (on the Tigris) or Persia (still further east).

Bibliographical Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on Numbers 24". "Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pfc/numbers-24.html. 1919.
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