Following Balaam’s third attempt to curse the children of Israel, Balak, in his frustration and anger, dismissed him saying, ‘flee thou to thy place’, Num. 24. 11. Although Balak wanted to hear no more, Balaam said, ‘Come, I will admonish thee what this people will do to thy people at the end of days’, v. 14 JND.
Commentators frequently attribute four parables to Balaam, but a careful reading of Numbers chapters 23 and 24 indicates that he spoke seven parables, each being introduced by the phrase he ‘took up his parable’.1 Perhaps the number seven serves to emphasize the fullness and finality of the message made known through Balaam. Although there were seven parables, the last four are clustered together, for they all relate to one theme, Israel’s supremacy over the Gentiles, and the latter’s fall under the judgement of God.
In the first parable, Israel were a chosen people, in the second, cleansed, in the third, a comely people and in the final four parables a conquering people.
Verses 15 and 16 are virtually a repetition of Balaam’s words at the commencement of the third parable, but with one addition. Balaam is not only the man who has heard the words of God; this is added, ‘and knew the knowledge of the most High’. As the ‘most High’, God divided to the nations their inheritance, setting the bounds of the people ‘according to the number of the children of Israel’. He is the One who rules in the kingdom of men and ‘giveth it to whomsoever he will’. Asaph, describing the destruction of Israel’s enemies at the end times, says, ‘Let them be confounded and troubled for ever; yea, let them be put to shame, and perish: that men may know that thou, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, art the most high over all the earth’.2
The fourth parable primarily concerns two nations that were related by natural ties to Israel, Moab, in verse 17, descended from Lot, Edom, verse 18, descended from Esau. Though no longer recognized as nations today, the territory they occupied is still inhabited by people hostile toward Israel, and the two are mentioned again in Daniel chapter 11 verse 41 relative to prophetic events. Alongside those two nations Balaam also mentions ‘the children of Sheth’. We are not directly told who they were, but the name means ‘tumult’ or ‘confusion’. Some feel it is a reference to the wild, warlike character of the ‘Moabites’, others that it embraces all peoples rebellious and hostile towards the Jewish nation.
Moab comes first, the very nation whose king now sought to curse the people of God. Balak is informed that, far from being cursed, from them would come forth One who will ‘smite the corners of Moab’. Balaam says, ‘I shall see him, but not now [he has not yet come]: I shall behold him, but not nigh [it is not imminent but lies in the future, the latter end of verse 14]: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel’. While some commentators suggest the reference is initially to David, the language is unmistakably Messianic, looking forward to Christ’s coming glory and sovereignty.
He ‘shall smite [dash asunder] the corners of Moab [i.e., from one end of the land to the other] and destroy [dash asunder] all the children of Sheth. And Edom [i.e., the people of Edom] shall be a possession, Seir [i.e., the country of Edom] also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly [mighty things]’. Not Moab destroying Israel, this is Israel destroying Moab. Edom, who once refused Israel passage through their land, will become Israel’s possession.3
The parable concludes, as it commenced, with the coming of the promised Messiah. ‘Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city’, v. 19. The idea seems to be that every city in which a remnant of Edom is found shall be destroyed. Their enmity against Israel was persistent but in a coming day the very nation they sought to withstand will be used by God to inflict His judgement upon them.4
While the previous parable concluded with the dominion of Israel’s coming King, it seems the remaining parables trace the movements amongst the nations, that culminate in Christ having dominion and in Israel’s deliverance.
Amalek was the first of the nations to withstand Israel following the Exodus from Egypt. In the third of Balaam’s parables, reference was made to ‘Agag’, which we suggested was a general title of the kings of Amalek, and representative of all Gentile nations opposed to the people of Israel. The Amalekites were descendants of a grandson of Esau and were inveterate enemies of the children of Israel.
Despite their long history, their resistance to all former attempts to destroy them, and their ability to recover after defeat, in their ‘latter end’ they ‘shall … perish for ever’. Balaam’s words stand as a warning to all Gentile nations who seek to lift their hand against God’s chosen people.
It seems the Kenites were a Midianite tribe who became allied to Israel when Moses married ‘Zipporah’, her father ‘Jethro’ being a Kenite, Judg. 1. 16. It is interesting that the mention of the Kenites follows the mention of Amalek, for while the latter sought to withstand Israel, the Kenites, commencing with Moses’ father-inlaw, are favourably associated with them, Exod. 18. 1-27.
The parable is not without its difficulties. It seems the generally favourable attitude they adopted towards God’s people is likened in the parable to the figure of a bird building its nest in the security of a rock, their attitude being rewarded with divine blessing. In consequence of which, instead of destruction they are promised continued existence until such a time as ‘Asshur’, Assyria, rising to prominence amongst the nations, would carry the Kenites into captivity. Understood thus, it corresponds to the time when the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom were carried off into captivity. Because the Kenites attached themselves to the children of Israel, they are promised preservation with the children of Israel until the rise of the Assyrian Empire.
But why, though friendly towards Israel, would they ultimately be destroyed? The answer seems to be that although outwardly associated with the children of Israel they never entered, personally, into covenant relationship with Israel’s God. What was purposed to be disciplinary for God’s people, that is, the carrying off into captivity of the ten tribes, would prove to be catastrophic and destructive to those who simply attached themselves to God’s people and not to the God to whom that people belonged. Keil and Delitzsch comment that Israel itself is not mentioned in this section of the parable for the simple reason that the rise of Assyria to be a world power was, for Israel, a transitory stage in their history, not to destroy the nation but to refine it. But, for the Kenites, the rise of the Assyrian Empire was not a transitory stage in their history but would mark their end.6 Balaam’s words stand as a warning to the Gentiles, that to be safe they need to know God for themselves, and not merely be favourably disposed towards His people.
The final parable appears to be a bare statement of facts regarding Gentile supremacy in the world, truth that is later expanded in detail in the writings of Israel’s prophets. It begins with a question, ‘who shall live when God doeth this!’ The opening question suggests that ultimately the parable looks on to concluding events, the end of Gentile dominion in the earth. Two Gentile powers are prominent in the parable, ‘Chittim’ and ‘Asshur’.
As indicated, this is but a seed-plot of future events. Considering later passages of scripture, we might tentatively suggest the ships from ‘Chittim’ are representative of the coming confederacy of ten kings under the leadership of the Man of Sin, Rev. 13. 1-8. ‘Asshur’ can be understood as representative of a confederacy of eastern powers, relating to the ‘Assyrian’ spoken of by Isaiah and Micah, who many identify with the ‘king of the north’ (i.e., north of Israel) spoken of by Daniel.8 The parable describes conflict between these powers in the latter half of Daniel’s seventieth week, while he that ‘shall perish for ever’ may be viewed as the Man of Sin, the head of the ten-kingdom confederacy.
Understood thus, this cluster of four parables commences with the manifestation of Christ and concludes with the destruction of the Man of Sin. ‘There shall come a Star out of Jacob … he that shall have dominion’.
Num. 23. 7, 18; 24. 3, 15, 20, 21, 23.
Deut. 32. 8; Dan. 4. 17; Ps. 83. 17, 18.
Cp. Isa. 25. 10; Num. 20. 18; Isa. 11. 14.
Ezek. 25. 12-14.
See J. J. Stubbs What the Bible Teaches, Numbers, John Ritchie, pg. 332.
C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament- The Pentateuch, Vol. 3, Eerdmans, pg. 197.
Cp. Jer. 2. 10; Dan. 11. 30.
Isa. 10. 5, 24; 14. 25; Mic. 5. 5; Dan. 11. 40.
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