The chapter opens with the children of Israel pitched in the plains of Moab, east of the River Jordan, over against Jericho. The wilderness journey is concluded, the next movement is to cross the Jordan and enter the land of Canaan. It is at this point that we are introduced to Balaam, hired by King Balak to curse the people of God.
How did Moses come to know about the evil intentions of Balaam and Balak, for these events took place outside the range of the people’s knowledge? None of the children of Israel could have known about the alliance between Moab and Midian, or the negotiations that took place in Balaam’s house in Mesopotamia. None of the people could have known about the journey when the ass rebuked Balaam. None heard Balaam’s parables, spoken from heights looking down upon Israel’s camp. Moses and the people were unaware of what was taking place, but God knew and revealed it to Moses and that in the latter days of Moses’ life. Although evil men might plot in secret, all is known by God. In Psalm 10 verse 14, in a context concerning the ‘devices’ the wicked imagine, the writer says, ‘Thou hast seen it; for thou beholdest mischief and spite’, and that is no less true today.
Is Balaam to be viewed as a man of faith or as an apostate? If the narrative concerning him embraced only the opening thirteen verses of Numbers chapter 22, his refusal to go with the messengers of Balak and his clear assertion in verse 13, ‘the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you’, he might well have claimed a noble place in the biblical record, but the narrative does not conclude there and, reading on, a very different picture is presented to us. Because of Balaam’s prophetic utterances, Peter calls him a ‘prophet’, but he is never so called in the Old Testament. Instead, we read of ‘Balaam … the soothsayer’.1 In his second parable, as he acknowledges his inability to curse the people, Balaam says ‘there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel’; the three words, ‘soothsaying’, ‘enchantment’ and ‘divination’ identify his usual means of operation, all things the children of Israel were forbidden to resort to.2 Other verses could be mentioned3 but sufficient has been said to identify where Balaam stood spiritually: no man of faith, no man of God, a man who stands as a solemn warning that a person can hear the word of God, have knowledge about God, and yet be eternally lost.
Numbers chapter 21 records three victories of the children of Israel, vv. 3, 24, 34. It was, however, the victory over the Amorites that particularly unsettled Balak, king of Moab. Somewhat earlier, Sihon, king of the Amorites, had successfully waged war with the Moabites and annexed some of their land. Balak reasoned that if the children of Israel had defeated Moab’s powerful neighbour, what prospect did he have of defeating them? Rallying what help he could, Balak consulted with the elders of Midian and, feeling the need for supernatural intervention, he sent messengers to Balaam, Num. 22. 3-6. Balak says, ‘Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me’. He traces the history of the children of Israel back to the Exodus which took place some thirty-eight years earlier. That he does so indicates their divine deliverance was not only widely known but remained fresh in the memory of the heathen nations.4 Balak wanted Balaam to ‘curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them … for I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed’. The details are instructive, embracing a coalition of the ‘political’, represented by Balak, and the ‘religious’, represented by Balaam, united in their opposition to the children of Israel and just as the Israelites were about to enter their appointed inheritance. Behind these movements, surely we can see the hand of a third person, Satan, making a trinity of evil that will be replicated in the last days, prior to the introduction of the millennial age; a trinity comprising that ‘old serpent the devil’, a political leader ‘the beast’ and a spiritual leader ‘the false prophet’, Revelation chapter 13.
Balak sent the elders of Moab and Midian ‘with the rewards of divination in their hand’, Num. 22. 7. Having been informed of the purpose of their mission, Balaam says, ‘Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the Lord [Heb. Jehovah] shall speak unto me’, v. 8. Although Balaam uses the title Jehovah, we shouldn’t read too much into that; as a soothsayer of no mean reputation we can imagine that he made it his business to be familiar with the various gods that were acknowledged by the different nations. Since he had been called to curse the children of Israel, then he would seek the God of that people. No doubt it was simply said to give the impression he was a man of spiritual stature who could contact the God of Israel whenever he chose. But, that night, ‘God [Heb Elohim] came’ and ‘God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed’, vv. 9, 12. Why did God come to him? The proposal to curse the people was a direct challenge to God’s purpose and so He was pleased to intervene on His people’s behalf. Do notice the Lord says, ‘thou shalt not curse the people for they are blessed’. This is said towards the end of the wilderness journey, after all the years of rebellion, but there was no change to God’s purpose.
In the morning, refusing to accompany the messengers, Balaam said, ‘Get you into your land: for the Lord refuseth to give me leave to go with you’. The messengers made no attempt to persuade him, suggesting they understood his decision was firm. In speaking thus Balaam revealed he clearly understood God’s will. But, in answering, Balaam told the messengers only part of what the Lord said, namely that he was not to go with them; he omitted to mention the children of Israel were a people blessed of the Lord. In his use of the word ‘refuseth’ is there a hint of disappointment? He already had his eye upon the promised reward, vv. 13, 14.
Balak was not easily deterred and so another group of messengers were sent, this time a larger and more distinguished group, with the promise of promotion to ‘great honour’. Again, Balaam’s response was quite definite, ‘If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more’, v. 18. Balaam interpreted the promise of promotion to ‘great honour’ in terms of ‘silver and gold’, his covetous heart coming to the fore. He uses the title Jehovah again, but now it is ‘the Lord my God’, and, again, we should not read too much into that. It’s simply a statement he applies to himself as the one whose spokesman he professed to be. However, it is interesting that he says, ‘I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more’, for, whatever he intended by that, it is something that will mark the whole of his subsequent history, vv. 15-18. If he really believed he could not go beyond the word of the Lord, why did he then invite the messengers to stay overnight, since he already knew the Lord’s mind? The key is in the word ‘more’ at the end of verse 19, ‘that I may know what the Lord will say unto me more’, suggesting, perhaps, that he was hoping the Lord would change His mind.
Once more God came to him, saying, ‘If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them’. It seems to contradict the earlier message; had the Lord changed His mind? Some feel it was simply to test Balaam, to see if he would obey God or yield to his covetous desires. They note that in verse 20 the Lord says, ‘If the men come to call thee, rise up’, but in verse 21 there is no reference to any call but simply ‘Balaam rose up in the morning … and went with the princes of Moab’. However, perhaps there is a more significant reason. The Lord knew Balaam’s covetous heart and, in His providence, allowed Balaam to continue, to make him an example of the folly of trying to frustrate God’s purpose regarding His chosen people. But, while the Lord said, ‘rise up, and go with them’, He added, ‘but yet the word which I shall say unto thee that thou shalt do’. It echoes Balaam’s own statement in verse 18, and, whether Balaam believed it or not, the Lord asserts that it would be so. In His sovereignty, God can use whoever He will, to accomplish whatever He will.
The ass speaking is dismissed by some as impossible, but certainly the Apostle Peter took the account literally, saying, ‘the dumb ass speaking with man’s voice forbad the madness of the prophet’, 2 Pet. 2. 16. As to its significance, the ass became a living parable of Balaam’s pathway. Three times the ass, seeing the angel, halted, and this was now the third time the Lord had come to Balaam. Balaam said that if he had a sword he would have slain the ass; the angel had a sword drawn in his hand saying that but for the ass he would have slain Balaam, Num. 22. 33. Just as God put words into the mouth of the ass so He was going to put words into the mouth of Balaam.
The scene is now set for the narrative that follows. The issue at hand can be summarized in two key statements: the word of Balak to Balaam ‘Come … curse me this people’; the word of the Lord to Balaam, ‘thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed’, vv. 6, 12.
2 Pet. 2. 16; Josh. 13. 22.
Num. 23. 23; Deut. 18. 10, 11.
Compare the three New Testament references and the context in which they are found: ‘The way of Balaam’, 2 Pet. 2. 15; ‘The error of Balaam’, Jude 11, and ‘The doctrine of Balaam’, Rev. 2. 14.
Compare Exodus chapter 15 verses 14 and 15, ‘The people shall hear, and be afraid: sorrow shall take hold on the inhabitants of Palestina … the dukes of Edom shall be amazed; the mighty men of Moab, trembling shall take hold upon them; all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away’.