Numbers 23
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Numbers 23:1-26 (E ). Balaam’s two prophetic messages

And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams.
1–6. Balaam demanded a seven-fold sacrifice, in order to propitiate God, that He might be willing to give His prophet a message. Balak complied with the request, hoping that the message might be a curse.

And Balak did as Balaam had spoken; and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bullock and a ram.
And 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 place.
3. Balaam went some distance away, in the hope that Jehovah would meet him. It is not necessary to suppose that he went to practise enchantments like a soothsayer, e.g. to watch the clouds or the flight of birds. Jehovah had already spoken to him when he was in his own home, and he might expect Him to do so again. In the following verse, indeed, Balaam claims that in the seven-fold sacrifice he has already taken the necessary means to obtain a message.

he went to a bare height] It is not clear why he should choose a bare height. The word is perhaps corrupt. A.V. ‘a high place,’ and marg. ‘solitary’ are wrong.

And 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.
And the LORD put a word in Balaam's mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak.
And he returned unto him, and, lo, he stood by his burnt sacrifice, he, and all the princes of Moab.
And 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.
7. he took up his parable] i.e. he took up upon his lips, he uttered; Numbers 23:18, Numbers 24:3; Numbers 24:15; Numbers 24:20 f., Num 24:23. Cf. Job 27:1; Job 29:1, Amos 5:1 and frequently. On the Heb. mâshâl (‘parable’), a didactic or artistic utterance, see Numbers 21:27.

Aram] i.e. Aram-naharaim. See on Numbers 22:5. The short form Aram (cf. Hosea 12:12, where the meaning is the same as here) usually denotes the more westerly regions of which Damascus was the capital.

the mountains of the East] The high ranges of the Syrian desert, the country of the nomad ‘children of the east’ (Jeremiah 49:28, Ezekiel 25:4; Ezekiel 25:10), who wandered E . of Ammon, Moab, and Edom.

7–10. Balaam’s first prophetic message. This consists of seven short couplets. Balaam declares the uselessness of Balak’s action in fetching him for the purpose of cursing (Numbers 23:7 f.); the security of Israel, their separateness from other nations, and their great numbers (Numbers 23:9-10 a); and he prays that his end may be like theirs (Numbers 23:10 b).

How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the LORD hath not defied?
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.
9. And reckoneth not itself among the nations] Israel felt themselves to be completely separate from, and superior to, other nations because they possessed Jehovah’s love and protection.

Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!
10. Or number the fourth part of Israel] involves a necessary emendation, the Heb. text (represented in R.V. marg.) being scarcely translateable.

For ‘the fourth part’ (רֹבַע) some would read ‘the myriads’ (רִבְבֹת), or perhaps, as LXX. suggests, ‘the multitude of the people of Israel’ (רֹב עַם י״).

Let me die] lit. may my soul, or my life, die.

the death of the upright ones] The plural adjective refers to Israel who are ideally considered as a nation of upright men. The singular pronoun at the end of the verse refers to the nation as a single whole.

There is no reference in the final words to a future life; it is a poetical parallel to the preceding clause. Balaam prays that the close of his life may be the peaceful end enjoyed by good men.

And Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast blessed them altogether.
11–17. Balak was angry that Jehovah did not put a curse into Balaam’s mouth, and begged him to try again on another spot. The seven-fold sacrifice was again offered.

And he answered and said, Must I not take heed to speak that which the LORD hath put in my mouth?
And 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.
13. unto another place] It was a not infrequent practice with soothsayers, if they were unable to obtain an omen according to their wishes, to try several times in hopes of better success. Balak thought that if Balaam went to a more favourable spot, Jehovah might be persuaded to change His mind!

thou shalt see but the extremity of them … not see them all] The words are difficult, because Balaam has already seen only the end of the Israelite host; see Numbers 22:41. If the words are genuine, they may perhaps mean that Balaam would be taken to a spot whence he would still be able to see only a small part of them, but if that failed, he could finally go to a place whence he could see them all. But many writers assign the words to an editor.

And he brought him into the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars, and offered a bullock and a ram on every altar.
14. to the field of Zophim] The site is unknown. Ẓôphim means ‘watchers,’ and it was evidently high ground which afforded an extensive outlook.

the top of the Pisgah] See on Numbers 21:20. There were probably many places in the mountains of Moab which would be useful as posts for sentinels. This one is defined as lying somewhere among the western headlands.

And he said unto Balak, 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.
And 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?
And he took up his parable, and said, Rise up, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor:
18–24. Balaam’s second prophetic message. This consists of eleven, or (see on Numbers 23:23) more probably ten, couplets. Balaam declares that God will never change His mind (as Balak had thought, Numbers 23:13), and that He had bidden him to bless and not curse (Numbers 23:18 b–20). Israel is without calamity, and is victorious (Numbers 23:21). God brings him triumphantly from Egypt, and all men must tell of His doings (Numbers 23:22 a, Num 23:23b). Israel is as strong as the wild ox, and as fierce as a lion (Numbers 23:22 b, Num 23:24).

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?
19. Neither a Song of Solomon of man] a mere mortal, with human caprices. It is the only occurrence of the expression that is certainly earlier than Ezekiel.

Behold, I have received commandment to bless: and he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it.
20. And if he blesseth, then I cannot reverse it] It is not necessary to read, with LXX. , ‘and I will bless.’

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.
21. He hath not beheld … Neither hath he seen &c.] The verbs are impersonal: ‘one hath not [i.e. no one hath] beheld …’ But in accordance with Numbers 23:9, it is better to read (with Pesh.) ‘I behold not … neither do I see.

calamity in Jacobtrouble in Israel] This rendering is much more in harmony with the spirit of Balaam’s utterances than R.V. [Note: .V. Redactor.] ‘iniquity’ and ‘perverseness.’ See further in note on Numbers 23:23.

God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.
22. He hath as it were the horns of the wild-ox] ‘He’ means Israel, not God. The word for ‘horns’ is rare; but Deuteronomy 33:17 helps to decide the meaning. In Psalm 95:4 it denotes mountain peaks. The wild-ox (re’çm) ‘is the rîmu of the Assyrian inscriptions. It is represented on the Assyrian sculptures as a huge species (now extinct) of the bovine kind.’ See art. ‘Unicorn’ in Hastings’ DB. iv.

23a. For divination is not in Jacob, and soothsaying is not in Israel] This appears to explain Israel’s victorious strength by the fact that they were free from these heathen practices. But the words are strange in the midst of a passage describing the fierce and irresistible advance of an army with a divine King and Captain at their head. In Numbers 23:21 the words for ‘calamity’ and ‘trouble’ can also be rendered, as in R.V. , ‘iniquity’ and ‘perverseness.’ And it is very probable that a scribe, who understood the two words in the latter sense, inserted the present clause as a marginal comment on Numbers 23:21, thus endorsing the principle contained in 1 Samuel 15:23, that soothsaying and divination by means of teraphim are sins no less than rebellion against God’s commands. It is further noteworthy that in the same chapter (1 Samuel 15:29) are quoted Balaam’s words in Numbers 23:19 a.

23b. Now shall it be said &c.] If the former half of the verse was not originally part of the poem, these words refer suitably to God’s action in bringing Israel out of Egypt (Numbers 23:22 a).

Surely there is no enchantment against 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!
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.
24. Cf. Micah 5:8.

And Balak said unto Balaam, Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all.
25, 26. Balak in his anger refuses to allow Balaam to make any further utterances about Israel, either to curse or to bless. Balaam reminds him of his reiterated statement that he could only say what Jehovah commanded him (Numbers 22:38, Numbers 23:3; Numbers 23:12). Balaam’s relations with Balak, therefore, as recorded in E , are now at an end. The sequel (Numbers 23:27-30; Numbers 23:24) is not really a sequel, but a parallel account from J .

But Balaam answered and said unto Balak, Told not I thee, saying, All that the LORD speaketh, that I must do?
And Balak said unto Balaam, Come, I pray thee, I will bring thee unto another place; peradventure it will please God that thou mayest curse me them from thence.
27. This verse is a connecting link, added by the compiler, between the E and the J narrative. The words ‘I will take thee unto another place’ cannot be from J , for he has not yet related that Balaam was taken to any place; but the whole of ch. 24 is from J .

And Balak brought Balaam unto the top of Peor, that looketh toward Jeshimon.
28. the top of the Peor &c.] An expression exactly parallel to that in Numbers 21:20 (see note). The site of ‘the Peor’ is unknown, but it was evidently in the neighbourhood of the Pisgah. And Beth-peor (Deuteronomy 3:29; Deuteronomy 4:46; Deuteronomy 34:6, Joshua 13:20) cannot have been far distant, since it was evidently a sanctuary where the Baal or Lord of Peor (Numbers 25:3; Numbers 25:5) was worshipped. The LXX. equivalent for Peor is Phogôr; and Eusebius speaks of a mountain of that name opposite Jericho, and says that part of it was 7 miles from Heshbon. It should probably, therefore, be placed quite close to the Wady Ḥeshbân (see art. ‘Beth-Peor’ in Enc. Bibl. [Note: nc. Bibl. Encyclopaedia Biblica.] ).

And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven bullocks and seven rams.
And Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered a bullock and a ram on every altar.
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