Numbers 22
Pulpit Commentary
And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.
PRELIMINARY NOTE TO CHAPTER 22-24. That this section of the Book of Numbers has a character to a great extent peculiar and isolated is evident upon the face of it. The arguments indeed derived from its language and style to prove that it is by a different hand from the rest of the Book are obviously too slight and doubtful to be of any weight; there does not seem to be any more diversity in this respect than the difference of subject matter would lead us to expect. The peculiarity, however, of this section is evident from the fact that these three chapters, confessedly so important and interesting in themselves, might be taken away without leaving any perceptible void. From Numbers 22:1 the narrative is continued in chapter 25, apparently without a break, and in that chapter there is no mention of Balaam. It is only in chapter 31. (verses 8, 16) that two passing allusions are made to him: in the one his death is noted without comment; in the other we are made acquainted for the first time with a fact which throws a most important light upon his character and career, of which no hint is given in the section before us. Thus it is evident that the story of Balaam's coming and prophecies, although imbedded in the narrative (and that in the fight place as to order of time), is not structurally connected with it, but forms an episode by itself. If we now take this section, which is thus isolated and self-contained, we shall not fail to see at once that its literary character is strikingly peculiar. It is to all intents and purposes a sacred drama wherein characters and events of the highest interest are handled with consummate art. No one can be insensible to this, whatever construction he may or may not put upon it. Probably the story of Balaam was never made the subject of a miracle play, because the character of the chief actor is too subtle for the crude intelligence of the age of miracle plays. But if the sacred drama were ever reintroduced, it is certain that no more effective play could be found than that of Balaam and Balak. The extraordinary skill with which the strangely complex character of the wizard prophet is drawn out; the felicity with which it is contrasted with the rude simplicity of Balak; the picturesque grandeur of the scenery and incident; and the art with which the story leads up by successive stages to the final and complete triumph of God and of Israel, are worthy, from a merely artistic point of view, of the greatest of dramatic poets. There is no such minute drawing out of an isolated character by means of speech and incident to be found in the Old Testament, unless it be in the Book of Job, the dramatic form of which serves to give point to the comparison; but few would fail to see that the much more subtle character of Balaam is far more distinctly indicated than that of Job. Balaam is emphatically a "study," and must have been intended to he so. Yet it must be remembered that it is only to modern eyes that this part of the varied truth and wisdom of Holy Scripture has become manifest. To the Jew Balaam was interesting only as a great foe, greatly baffled; as a sorcerer whose ghostly power and craft was broken and turned backward by the God of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:5; Joshua 13:22; Joshua 24:10; Micah 6:5). To the Christian of the first age he was only interesting as the Scriptural type of the subtlest and most dangerous kind of enemy whom the Church of God had to dread - the enemy who united spiritual pretensions with persuasions to vice (Revelation 2:14). To the more critical intellects of later ages, such even as Augustine and Jerome, he was altogether a puzzle; the one regarding him as prophetam diaboli, whose religion was a mere cloak for covetousness; the other as prophetam Dei, whose fall was like unto the fall of the old prophet of Bethel. The two parallel allusions to his character in 2 Peter 2:15, 16; Jude 1:11 do not take us any further, merely turning upon the covetousness which was his most obvious fault. Unquestionably, however, Balaam is most interesting to us, not from any of these points of view, but as a study drawn by an inspired hand of a strangely but most naturally mixed character, the broad features of which are constantly being reproduced, in the same unhallowed union, in men of all ]ands and ages. This is undeniably one of the instances (not perhaps very numerous) in which the more trained and educated intelligence of modern days has a distinct advantage over the simpler faith and intenser piety of the first ages. The conflict, or rather the compromise, in Balaam between true religion and superstitious imposture, between an actual Divine inspiration and the practice of heathen sorceries, between devotion to God and devotion to money, was an unintelligible puzzle to men of old. To those who have grasped the character of a Louis XI, of a Luther, or of an Oliver Cromwell, or have gauged the mixture of highest and lowest in the religious movements of modern history, the wonder is, not that such an one should have been, but that such an one should have been so simply and yet so skillfully depicted. Two questions arise pre-eminently out of the story of Balaam which our want of knowledge forbids us to answer otherwise than doubtfully.

I. Whence did Balaam derive his knowledge of the true God, and how far did it extend? Was he, as some have argued, a heathen sorcerer who took to invoking Jehovah because circumstances led him to believe that the cause of Jehovah was likely to be the winning cause? and did the God whom he invoked in this mercenary spirit (after the fashion of the sons of Sceva) take advantage of the fact to obtain an ascendancy over his mind, and to compel his unwilling obedience? Such an assumption seems at once unnatural and unnecessary. It is hardly conceivable that God should have bestowed a true prophetic gift upon one who stood in such a relation to him. Moreover, the kind of ascendancy which the word of God had over the mind of Balaam is not one which springs from calculation, or from a mere intellectual persuasion. The man who lives before us in these chapters has not only a considerable knowledge of, but a very large amount of faith in, the one true God; he walks with God; he sees him that is invisible; the presence of Gods and God's direct concern about his doings are as familiar and unquestioned elements of his everyday life as they were of Abraham's. In a word (whatever difficulties a shallow theology may find in the fact), he has religious faith in God, a faith which is naturally strong, and has been further intensified by special revelations of the unseen; and this faith is the basis and condition of his prophetic gift. Balaam's religion, therefore, on this side was neither an hypocrisy nor an assumption; it was a real conviction which had grown up with him and formed part of his inner self. It is true that in Joshua 13:22 he is called a soothsayer (kosem), a name of reproach and infamy among the Jews (cf. 1 Samuel 15:23, "witchcraft;" Jeremiah 14:14, "divination"); but no one doubts that he played for gain the part of a soothsayer, employing with more or less of inward unbelief and contempt the arts of heathen sorcery; and it was quite natural that Joshua should recognize only the lower and more obvious side of his enemy's character. It remains then to consider how Balaam, living in Mesopotamia, could have had so considerable a knowledge of the true God; and the only satisfactory answer is this, that such knowledge had never disappeared from that region. Every glimpse which is afforded us of the descendants of Nahor in their Mesopotamian home confirms the belief that they were substantially at one with the chosen family in religious feeling and religious speech. Bethuel and Laban acknowledged the same God, and called him by the same name as Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 24:50; Genesis 31:49). No doubt idolatrous practices prevailed in their household (Genesis 31:19; Genesis 35:2; Joshua 24:2), but that, however dangerous, was not fatal to the existence of the true faith amongst them, any more than is the existence of a similar cultus amongst Christians. Centuries had indeed passed away since the days of Laban, and during those centuries we may well conclude that the common people had developed the idolatrous practices of their fathers, until they wholly obscured the worship of the one true God. But the lapse of years and the change of popular belief make little difference to the secret and higher teaching of countries like the Mesopotamia of that age, which is intensely conservative both for good and evil. Men like Balaam, who probably had an hereditary claim to his position as a seer, remained purely monotheistic in creed, and in their hearts called only upon the God of all the earth, the God of Abraham and of Nahor, of Melchizedec and of Job, of Laban and of Jacob. If we knew enough of the religious history of that land, it is possible that we might be able to point to a tolerably complete succession of gifted (in many cases Divinely-gifted) men, servants and worshippers of the one true God, down to the Magi who first hailed the rising of the bright and morning Star. There is connected with this question another of much narrower interest which causes great perplexity. Balaam (and indeed Balak too) freely uses the sacred name by which God had revealed himself as the God of Israel (see on Exodus 6:2, 3). There are two views of this matter, one or other of which is tolerably certain, and for both of which much may be said: either the sacred name was widely known and used beyond the limits of Israel, or else the sacred historian must have freely put it into the mouths of people who actually used some other name. There are also two views both of which may be summarily rejected, because their own advocates have reduced them to absolute absurdity: the one is, that the use of the two names Elohim and Jehovah shows a difference of authorship; the other, that they are employed by the same author with variety of sense - Elohim (God) being the God of nature, Jehovah (the Lord) the God of grace. It is no doubt true that there are passages where the sole use, or the pointed use, of one or other of these names does really point to a diversity either of authorship or of meaning; but it is abundantly clear that in the general narrative of Scripture, including these chapters, not the least distinction whatever can be drawn between the use of Elohim and Jehovah which will stand the simplest test of common sense; the same ingenuity which explains the occurrence of Elohim instead of Jehovah in any particular sentence would find an explanation quite as satisfactory if it were Jehovah instead of Elohim.

II. Whence did Moses obtain his knowledge of the incidents here recorded, many of which must have been known to Balaam alone? Was it directly, by revelation; or from some memorials left by Balaam himself? The former supposition, once generally held, is as generally abandoned now, because it is perceived that inspiration over-ruled and utilized for Divine purposes, but did not supersede, natural sources of information. The latter supposition is rendered more probable by these considerations: -

1. That a man of Balaam's character and training would be very likely to put on record the remarkable things which had happened to himself. Such men who habitually lead a double life are often keenly. alive to their own errors, and are singularly frank in writing themselves down for the benefit of posterity.

2. That Balaam was slain among the Midianites, and that his effects must have fallen into the hands of the victors. On the other hand, it is inconceivable that Balaam, being what he was, should have written these chapters at all as they stand; the moral and religious intent of the story is too evident in itself, and is too evidently governed by Jewish faith and feeling. It may be allowable to put it before the reader as an opinion which may or may not be true, but which is quite compatible with profound belief in the inspired truth of this part of God's word, that Moses, having obtained the facts in the way above indicated, was moved to work them up into the dramatic form in which they now appear - a form which undoubtedly brings out the character of the actors, the struggle between light and darkness, and the final triumph of light, with much more force (and therefore much more truth) than anything else could. If it be objected that this gives a fictitious character to the narrative, it may be replied that when the imagination is called into exercise to present actual facts, existing characters, and prophecies really uttered in a striking light, - and that under the over-ruling guidance of the Divine Spirit, - the result cannot be called fictitious in any bad or unworthy sense. If it be added that such a theory attributes to this section a character different from the rest of the Book, it may be allowed at once. The episode of Balaam and Balak is obviously, as to literary form, distinct from and strongly contrasted with the narrative which precedes and follows. It has been made a question as to the language in which Balaam and his companions spoke and wrote. The discovery of the Moabite stone has made it certain that the language of the Moabites, and in all probability of the other races descended from Abraham and Lot, was practically the same as the language of the Jews. Balaam's own tongue may have been Aramaic, but amongst his western friends and patrons he would no doubt he perfectly ready to speak as they spoke.

CHAPTER 22:1-40. THE COMING OF BALAAM (verses 2-40).
And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.
Verse 2. - Balak the son of Zippor. The name Balak is connected with a word "to make waste," and "Zippor" is a small bird. Balak was, as is presently explained, the king of Moab at this time, but not the king from whom Sihon had wrested so much of his territory (Numbers 21:26). He seems to be mentioned by name on a papyrus in the British Museum (see Brugseh, 'Geogr. Inschr.,' 2, page 32). The later Jews made him out to have been a Midianite, but this is nothing but the merest conjecture.
And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.
Verse 3. - Moab was sore afraid of the people. While the Israelites had moved along their eastern and north-eastern border, the Moabites supplied them with provisions (Deuteronomy 2:29), desiring, no doubt, to be rid of them, but not disdaining to make some profit by their presence. But after the sudden defeat and overthrow of their own Amorite conquerors, their terror and uneasiness forced them to take some action, although they dared not commence open hostilities.
And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time.
Verse 4. - Moab said unto the elders of Midian. The Midianites were descended from Abraham and Keturah (Genesis 25:2, 4), and were thus more nearly of kin to Israel than to Moab. They lived a semi-nomadic life on the steppes to the east of Moab and Ammon (cf. Genesis 36:35), supporting themselves partly by grazing, and partly by the caravan trade (Genesis 37:28). Their institutions were no doubt patriarchal, like those of the modern Bedawin, and the "elders" were the sheiks of their tribes. As the ox licketh up the grass of the field. The strong, scythe-like sweep of the ox's tongue was a simile admirable in itself, and most suitable to pastoral Moab and Midian.
He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, 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:
Verse 5. - He sent messengers therefore. It appears from verse 7 that Balak acted for Midian as well as for Moab; as the Midianites were but a weak people, they may have placed themselves more or less under the protection of Balak. Unto Balaam the son of Beer. בִּלְעָם (Bileam: our common form is from the Septuagint and New Testament, Βαλαάμ) is derived either from בָּלַע, to destroy or devour, and עָם, the people; or simply from בָּלַע, with the terminal syllable אָּם, "the destroyer." The former derivation receives some support from Revelation 2:14, 15, where "Nicolaitans" are thought by many to be only a Greek form of" Balaamites" Νικόλαος, from νικάω and λαός). Beor (בְּעוּר) has a similar signification, from בָּעָר, to burn, or consume. Both names have probable reference to the supposed effect of their maledictions, for successful cursing was an hereditary profession in many. lands, as it still is in some. Beer appears in 2 Peter 2:15 as Bosor, which is called a Chaldeeism, but the origin of the change is really unknown. A "Bela son of Beer" is named in Genesis 36:32 as reigning in Edom, but the coincidence is of no importance: kings and magicians have always loved to give themselves names of fear, and their vocabulary was not extensive. To Pother, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people. Rather, "which is on the river," i.e., the great river Euphrates, "in the land of the children of his people," i.e., in his native land. The situation of Pethor (Septuagint, Φαθουρά) is unknown. Here is a people come out of Egypt. Forty years had passed since their fathers had left Egypt. Yet Balak's words expressed a great truth, for this people was no wandering desert tribe, but for all intents the same great organized nation which had spoiled Egypt, and left Pharaoh's host dead behind them. They abide over against me מִמֻּלִי. Septuagint, ἐχόμενός μου. This would hardly have been said when Israel was encamped thirty miles north of Arnon, opposite to Jericho. The two embassies to Balaam must have occupied some time, and in the mean while Israel would have gone further on his way. We may naturally conclude that the first message was sent immediately after the defeat of Sihon, at a time when Israel was encamped very near the border of Moab.
Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; 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 that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed.
Verse 6. - I wot that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed. This was the language of flattery intended to secure the prophet's services. No doubt, however, Balak, like other heathens, had a profound though capricious belief in the real effect of curses and anathemas pronounced by men who had private intercourse and influence with the unseen powers. That error, like most superstitions, was the perversion of a truth; there are both benedictions and censures which, uttered by human lips, carry with them the sanction and enforcement of Heaven. The error of antiquity lay in ignorance or forgetfulness that, as water cannot rise higher than its source, so neither blessing nor cursing can possibly take any effect beyond the will and purpose of the Father of our souls. Balaam knew this, but it was perhaps his misfortune to have been trained from childhood to maintain his position and his wealth by trading upon the superstitions of his neighbours.
And the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand; and they came unto Balaam, and spake unto him the words of Balak.
Verse 7. - With the rewards of divination. קְסָמִים, "soothsayings." Septuagint, τὰ μαντεῖα. Here the soothsayer's wages, which St. Peter aptly calls the wages of unrighteousness. The ease with which, among ignorant and superstitious people, a prophet might become a hired soothsayer is apparent even from the case of Samuel (1 Samuel 9:6-8). That it should be thought proper to resort to the man of God for information about some lost property, and much more that it should be thought necessary to pay him a fee for the exercise of his supernatural powers, shows, not indeed that Samuel was a soothsayer, for he was a man of rare integrity and independence, but, that Samuel was but little distinguished from a soothsayer in the popular estimation. If Samuel had learnt to care more for money than for righteousness, he might very easily have become just what Balaam became.
And he said unto them, Lodge here this night, and I will bring you word again, as the LORD shall speak unto me: and the princes of Moab abode with Balaam.
Verse 8. - Lodge here this night. It was therefore in the night, in a dream or in a vision (cf. Genesis 20:3; Numbers 12:6; Job 4:15, 16), that Balaam expected to receive some communication from God. If he had received none he would no doubt have felt himself free to go.
And God came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee?
And Balaam said unto God, Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent unto me, saying,
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.
And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.
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.
And the princes of Moab rose up, and they went unto Balak, and said, Balaam refuseth to come with us.
And Balak sent yet again princes, more, and more honourable than they.
Verse 15. - More, and more honourable than they. Balak rightly judged that Balaam was not really unwilling to come, and that it was only needful to ply him with more flattery and larger promises. The heathens united a firm belief in the powers of the seer with a very shrewd appreciation of the motives and character of the seer. Compare the saying of Sophocles ('Antig.,' 1055), τὸ μαντικὸν γὰρ πᾶν φιλάργυρον γένος.
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:
For I will promote thee unto very great honour, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me: come therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people.
And Balaam answered and said unto the servants of Balak, 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.
Verse 18. - I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God. Balaam's faith was paramount within its own sphere of operation. It did not control his wishes; it did not secure the heart obedience which God loves; but it did secure, and that absolutely, outward obedience to every positive command of God, however irksome; and Balaam never made any secret of this.
Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what the LORD will say unto me more.
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.
And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.
And God's anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.
Verse 22. - And God's anger was kindled because he went, or, "that he was going." כִּי־הולֵך הוּא. Septuagint, ὅτι ἐπορεύθη αὐτός. There can be no question that the ordinary translation is fight, and that God was angry with Balaam for going at all on such an errand. It is true that God had given him permission to go, but that very permission was a judicial act whereby God punished the covetous and disobedient longings of Balaam in allowing him to have his own way. God's anger is kindled by sin, and it was not less truly sin which prompted Balaam to go because he had succeeded in obtaining formal leave to go. The angel of the Lord stood in the way. The same angel of the covenant apparently of whom Moses had spoken to the Edomites (see on Numbers 20:16). For an adversary against him. לְשָׂטָן לו. Septuagint, διαβαλεῖν αὐτόν, Not so much because Balaam was rushing upon his own destruction as because he was going to fight with curses, if possible, against the Israel of God (cf. 2 Kings 6:17; Psalm 34:7).
And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.
Verse 23. - And the ass saw the angel of the Lord. This was clearly part of the miracle, the σήμειον which was to exhibit in such a striking manner the stupidity and blindness of the most brilliant and gifted intellect when clouded by greed and selfishness. It is nothing to the point that the lower animals have a quicker perception of some natural phenomena than men, for this was not a natural phenomenon; it is nothing to the point that the lower animals are credited by some with possessing "the second sight," for all that belongs to the fantastic and legendary. If the ass saw the angel, it was because the Lord opened her eyes then, as he did her mouth afterwards.
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.
And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam's foot against the wall: and he smote her again.
Verse 25. - She thrust herself unto the wall. Apparently in order to pass the angel beyond the reach of his sword; when this was clearly impossible she fell down.
And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?
Verse 28. - And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass. On the face of it this expression would seem decisive that an audible human voice proceeded from the ass's mouth, as St. Peter beyond doubt believed: ὑποζύγιον ἀφωνον ἐν ἀνθρώτου φωνῇ φθεγξάμενον. It is truly said, however, that a passing illusion of this kind, while it testifies that the Apostle understood the words, like all his contemporaries, in their most natural and simple sense, does not oblige us to hold the same view; if he was mistaken in this matter, it does not at all affect the inspired truth of his teaching. Two theories, therefore, have been proposed in order to avoid the difficulties of the ordinary belief, while vindicating the reality of the occurrence. It has been held by some that the whole affair took place in a trance, and resembled St. Peter's vision of the sheet let down from heaven (Acts 10:10), which we rightly conceive to have been purely subjective. This is open to the obvious and apparently fatal objection that no hint is given of any state of trance or ecstasy, and that, on the contrary, the wording of the narrative as given to us is inconsistent with such a thing. In verse 31 Balaam's eyes are said to have been opened so that he saw the angel; but to have the eyes open so that the (ordinarily) invisible became visible, and the (otherwise) inaudible became audible, was precisely the condition of which Balaam speaks (Numbers 24:3, 4) as that of trance. According to the narrative, therefore, Balaam was in an ecstasy, if at all, after the speaking of the ass, and not before. By others it has been put forward, somewhat confusedly, that although Balaam was in his ordinary senses, he did not really hear a human voice, but that the "cries" of the ass became intelligible to his mind; and it is noted that as an augur he had been accustomed to assign meanings to the cries of animals. If instead of "cries" we read "brayings," for the ass is endowed by nature with no other capacity of voice, being indeed one of the dumbest of "dumb" animals, we have the matter more fairly before us. To most people it would appear more incredible that the brayings of an ass should convey these rational questions to the mind of its rider than that the beast should have spoken outright with a man's voice. It would indeed seem much more satisfactory to regard the story, if we cannot accept it as literally true, as a parable which Balaam wrote against himself, and which Moses simply incorporated in the narrative; we should at least preserve in this way the immense moral and spiritual value of the story, without the necessity of placing non-natural constructions upon its simple statements. Supposing the miracle to have really occurred, it must always be observed that the words put into the ass's mouth do nothing more than express such feeling's as a docile and intelligent animal of her kind would have actually felt. That domestic animals, and especially such as have been long in the service of man, feel surprise, indignation, and grief in the presence of injustice and ill-treatment is abundantly certain. In many well-authenticated cases they have done things in order to express these feelings which seemed as much beyond their "irrational" nature as if they had spoken. We constantly say of a dog or a horse that he can do everything but speak, and why should it seem incredible that God, who has given the dumb beast so close an approximation to human feeling and reason, should for once have given it human voice? With respect to Balaam's companions, their presence need not cause any difficulty. The princes of Midian and Moab had probably gone on to announce the coming of Beldam; his servants would naturally follow him at some little distance, unless he summoned them to his side. It is very likely too that Balaam was wont to carry on conversations with himself, or with imaginary beings, as he rode along, and this circumstance would account for any sound of voices which reached the ears of others.
And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.
Verse 29. - And Balaam said unto the ass. That Beldam should answer the ass without expressing any astonishment is certainly more marvelous than that the ass should speak to him. It must, however, in fairness be considered -

1. That Balaam was a prophet. He was accustomed to hear Divine voices speaking to him when no man was near. He had a large and unquestioning faith, and a peculiar familiarity with the unseen.

2. Balaam was a sorcerer. It was part of his profession to show signs and wonders such as even now in those countries confound the most experienced and skeptical beholders. It is likely that he had often made dumb animals speak in order to bewilder others. He must indeed have been conscious to some extent of imposture, but he would not draw any sharp line in his own mind between the marvels which really happened to him and the marvels he displayed to others. Both as prophet and as sorcerer, he must have lived, more than any other even of that age, in an atmosphere of the supernatural. If, therefore, this portent was really given, it was certainly given to the very man of all that ever lived to whom it was most suitable. Just as one cannot imagine the miracle of the stater (Matthew 17:27) happening to any one of less simple and childlike faith than St. Peter, so one could not think of the ass as speaking to any one in the Bible but the wizard prophet, for whom - both on his good and on his bad side - the boundary lines between the natural and supernatural were almost obliterated.

3. Balaam was at this moment intensely angry., and nothing blunts the edge of natural surprise so much as rage. Things which afterwards, when calmly recollected, cause the utmost astonishment, notoriously produce no effect at the moment upon a mind which is thoroughly exasperated.
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 said, Nay.
Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.
Verse 31. - The Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel. As on other occasions, the angel was not perceptible to ordinary sight, but only to eyes in some way quickened and purged by the Divine operation. This explains the fact that Balaam's companions would appear to have seen nothing (cf. Acts 9:7).
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:
Verse 32. - Because thy way is perverse. יָרָט, an uncommon word, which seems to mean "leading headlong," 1.e. to destruction.
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.
Verse 33. - Unless ... surely. אוּלַיאּאּ־כִּי. It is somewhat doubtful whether this phrase can be translated as in the Septuagint (εἰ μὴ.. νῦν οῦν)and in all the versions; but even if the construction of the sentence be broken, this is no doubt the meaning of it. And saved her alive. Compare the case of the ass of the disobedient prophet in 1 Kings 13:24. It is plainly a righteous thing with God that obedience and faithfulness should be respected, and in some sense rewarded, even in an ass.
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.
And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak. So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
Verse 35. - Go with the men. It may be asked to what purpose the angel appeared, if Balaam was to proceed just the same. The answer is that the angel was not a warning, but a destroying, angel, a visible embodiment of the anger of God which burnt against Beldam for his perversity. The angel would have slain Balaam, as the lion slew the disobedient prophet, but that God in his mercy permitted the fidelity and wisdom of the ass to save her master from the immediate consequences of his folly. If Balaam had had a mind capable of instruction, he would indeed have gone on as he was bidden, but in a very different spirit and with very different designs.
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.
Verse 36. - Unto a city of Moab, or, "unto Ir-Moab" (אֶל־עִיר מואָב), probably the same as the Ar mentioned in chapter Numbers 21:15 as the boundary town of Moab at that time.
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 honour?
And Balaam said unto Balak, Lo, I am come unto thee: have I now any power at all to say any thing? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak.
And Balaam went with Balak, and they came unto Kirjathhuzoth.
Verse 39. - Kirjath-huzoth. "City of streets." Identified by some with the ruins of Shian, not far from the supposed site of Ai.
And Balak offered oxen and sheep, and sent to Balaam, and to the princes that were with him.
Verse 40. - Balak offered oxen and sheep. Probably these sacrifices were offered not to Chemosh, but to the Lord, in whose name Balaam always spoke. Indeed the known fact that Beldam was a prophet of the Lord was no doubt one of Balak's chief reasons for wishing to obtain his services. Balak shared the common opinion of antiquity, that the various national deities were enabled by circumstances past human understanding to do sometimes more, sometimes less, for their special votaries. He perceived that the God of Israel was likely, as things stood, to carry all before him; but he thought that he might by judicious management be won over, at least to some extent, to desert the cause of Israel and to favour that of Moab. To this end he "retained" at great cost the services of Balaam, the prophet of the Lord, and to this end he was willing to offer any number of sacrifices. Even the resolute and self-reliant Romans believed in the wisdom of such a policy. Thus Pliny quotes ancient authors as affirming "in oppugnationibus ante omnia solitum a Romanis sacrdotibus evocari Deum, cujus in tutela id oppidum esset, promittique illi eundem aut ampliorem apud Romanos cultum," and he adds, "durat in Pontificum disciplina id sacrum, constatque ideo occultatum, in cujus Dei tutela Roma esset, ne qui hostium simili modo agerent." And sent, i.e., portions of the sacrificial meats.

CHAPTER 22:41; 23, 24
And it came to pass on the morrow, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal, that thence he might see the utmost part of the people.
Chapter 22:41. - The high places of Baal, or "Bamoth-Baal." Perhaps the Bamoth mentioned in Numbers 21:19, 20. This is, however, by no means certain, because high places were no doubt numerous, and that Bamoth would seem to have been too far from the present camp of Israel. In any case they crossed the Arnon, and ran some risk by adventuring themselves on hostile territory. That thence he might see the utmost part of the people. According to the quasi-sacramental character attributed to the cursing of a seer, it was held necessary that the subject of the curse should be in view. Balak desired to attain this object with as little risk as possible, and therefore he took Balaam first of all to these heights, whence a distant and partial view of Israel might be had.
The Pulpit Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2010 by BibleSoft, inc., Used by permission

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