1 Israel in the Plains of Moab
1 Then the sons of Israel journeyed, and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan [opposite] Jericho.
After the Israelites have conquered the whole area of the Amorites, they move to the plains of Moab to prepare for the conquest of Canaan. From here, after the death of Moses, they will, under the leadership of Joshua, cross the Jordan to enter the land of Canaan.
2 - 7 Balak Sends Messengers to Balaam
2 Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. 3 So Moab was in great fear because of the people, for they were numerous; and Moab was in dread of the sons of Israel. 4 Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time. 5 So he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, at Pethor, which is near the River, [in] the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people came out of Egypt; behold, they cover the surface of the land, and they are living opposite me. 6 Now, therefore, please come, curse this people for me since they are too mighty for me; perhaps I may be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” 7 So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the [fees for] divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam and repeated Balak’s words to him.
Before the people enter Canaan, God shows in the dialogue between Balak and Balaam something of which Israel is unaware at that moment. It is an attack on God’s people in a form we have not seen before. We are made partakers of it, just like of God’s conversation with Satan about Job (Job 1:6-12). And as in the case of Job, Satan’s attack on God’s people is used by God to bless His people.
If we allow the events of the next three chapters to be deeply engraved upon us, we will conclude with Paul shouting: “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?” (Rom 8:33-34a).
Moab is also one of Israel’s inveterate enemies. The hallmark of Moab is his pride (Isa 16:6; Jer 48:29). The pride will always try to dominate God’s people. This nation is a great danger to the people of God. Conversely, Balak sees in God’s people an enormous danger to his own existence. He feels threatened in his honor. Yet there is no reason for that fear, because God has forbidden His people to drive Moab out of his territory (Deu 2:9). But wicked people always see dangers where they are not, because they have a bad conscience.
Warned by the defeat of Sihon and Og he doesn’t see any good in a military confrontation. He understands that such a confrontation means a certain defeat for him. He also knows that the people owe their victories to their God, as all the peoples around Israel know (Jos 2:10). He seeks salvation in a completely different direction. He seeks the weakness of the people and finds it in the unfaithfulness of the people against their God.
What he wants to try and do, is to drive a wedge between God and His people. He does so at an extremely tactical moment, at the end of the wilderness journey, when all the unfaithfulness of the people has become public. But then Balak shows that he does not understand anything of the God of Israel. He sees the God of Israel as a national idol, just as every nation has its god or gods. For example, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, sees the God of Israel like that (2Chr 32:10-19).
Balak sends messengers to Balaam, because he sees a prophet of the LORD in Balaam. But Balaam is not a prophet of the LORD. A true prophet of the LORD speaks to the people about their unfaithfulness. He also points to the blessings which are connected to conversion. Neither of these aspects we see with Balaam. Balak and Balaam together form a devilish span that we recognize in the devilish span of the future: the beast and the false prophet (Rev 13:1,11-12), who, under Satan’s guidance, turn against Christ and His people.
Scripture makes it perfectly clear that Balaam is a false prophet, a servant of Satan, who pretends to be a prophet of the God of Israel. That is why Balak wants to hire him. When Balaam pronounces blessing on God’s people, it says nothing about Balaam and everything about God. God forces Balaam to bless his people.
His name appears in eight Bible books and always in a negative sense (Numbers 22-24 [many times]; Num 31:8,16; Deu 23:3-5; Jos 13:22; 24:9-10; Neh 13:1-2; Mic 6:5; 2Pet 2:15-16; Jude 1:11; Rev 2:14). At the end of Israel’s history, the prophet Micah cites once more what Balak and Balaam want to do here, to use their example to remind Israel of the right of God (Mic 6:5a).
The three quotations of Balaam in the New Testament are significant. We read about “the way of Balaam” (2Pet 2:15), about “the error of Balaam” (Jude 1:11) and about “the teaching of Balaam” (Rev 2:14). From these quotations and their context, we see that his history teaches us as a church important lessons.
Will Satan, after his failures to kill the people in battle, this time succeed in his efforts to destroy the people? The attempts of the enemy make it clear that God maintains His relationship with His people against the enemy and does not allow His people to be cursed. Balak thinks only of God as a holy God. He knows nothing of the grace of God. As an enemy of God, God does not give him the right to set Him up against His people. The unfaithfulness of the people is always only a matter between God and His people.
Balak is not only looking for support from Balaam. He has also consulted with the elders of Midian. But his hope is mainly in Balaam.
8 - 14 Conversation Between God and Balaam
8 He said to them, “Spend the night here, and I will bring word back to you as the LORD may speak to me.” And the leaders of Moab stayed with Balaam. 9 Then God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” 10 Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent [word] to me, 11 ‘Behold, there is a people who came out of Egypt and they cover the surface of the land; now come, curse them for me; perhaps I may be able to fight against them and drive them out.’” 12 God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” 13 So Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak’s leaders, “Go back to your land, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you.” 14 The leaders of Moab arose and went to Balak and said, “Balaam refused to come with us.”
God opens the conversation with Balaam. It does not seem to scare him, as he is used to dealing with the spirit world, where until now he has only had to deal with evil spirits. He doesn’t know better but this is a divining spirit. Thus God captures the sly prophet in his own net (1Cor 3:19).
God never asks questions that He Himself does not know the answer to, but to force man to think about what is in his heart. In this case, it must confront Balaam to the fact that they have come to ask him to curse God’s people. Balaam explains to God what it is all about. From what he says, it appears that he has no idea that it is the people of the God with Whom he speaks.
God ends the matter by ordering Balaam not to go along to curse the people because they are blessed. The fact that Balaam tries again later shows that he is led by greed and not by what God says. God has spoken to other ungodly people, such as Abimelech and Laban, with the command not to offend His elect (Gen 20:3; 31:24).
In his answer to the messengers of Balak, Balaam only speaks about the LORD’s refusal to let him go with them. It echoes the disappointment of a man who has no fellowship with God. He wants to go, but unfortunately he is not allowed. He does not say a word about them being a blessed people. Neither do the messengers give a true and fair account of what Balaam said. They refer only to the refusal by Balaam.
15 - 19 Balak Sends Messengers Again to Balaam
15 Then Balak again sent leaders, more numerous and more distinguished than the former. 16 They came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor, ‘Let nothing, I beg you, hinder you from coming to me; 17 for I will indeed honor you richly, and I will do whatever you say to me. Please come then, curse this people for me.’” 18 Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the LORD my God. 19 Now please, you also stay here tonight, and I will find out what else the LORD will speak to me.”
Balak again sends messengers to Balaam. He now appeals not only to the greed of Balaam, but also to his ambition. A distinguished envoy with a lot of money is something else than an insignificant messenger with a lot of money. He also gives the promise that Balaam only has to ask what he wants, and Balak will comply. People of the world give everything to obtain the favor of a medium. They are empowered by the possession of the medium to assure themselves of the future, without realizing that this will bring them into the power of the medium.
Balaam speaks of “the LORD my God”. Bad people can use very pious language. But God knows the heart of man. Balaam uses these words as a formula. There is no question of a relationship. The One Whom he calls “the LORD my God” is for him nothing more than a divine spirit, to whom he has submitted himself, and to whom he cannot escape.
The fact that he is not aware of God’s authority and that he owes Him full obedience is once again evident from his further actions. God clearly has said that he should not go with them. So why should he try again? He believes he is dealing with a spirit that is easily willing to adapt.
20 God Again Speaks to Balaam
20 God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise up [and] go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do.”
God speaks again to Balaam. God knows his heart and instructs him to go with the men. God often gives assignments that fit the desires of people. Thus he gives Israel a king like Saul. He is going to use Balaam to give a great testimony about His people.
21 - 35 Balaam Meets God as an Adversary
21 So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey and went with the leaders of Moab. 22 But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding on his donkey and his two servants were with him. 23 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand, the donkey turned off from the way and went into the field; but Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back into the way. 24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path of the vineyards, [with] a wall on this side and a wall on that side. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pressed herself to the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he struck her again. 26 The angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place where there was no way to turn to the right hand or the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam was angry and struck the donkey with his stick. 28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” 29 Then Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a mockery of me! If there had been a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.” 30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.” 31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed all the way to the ground. 32 The angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to me. 33 But the donkey saw me and turned aside from me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, I would surely have killed you just now, and let her live.” 34 Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the way against me. Now then, if it is displeasing to you, I will turn back.” 35 But the angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but you shall speak only the word which I tell you.” So Balaam went along with the leaders of Balak.
Balaam meets God as his adversary. Balaam goes because God has said it, and because he goes, God is angry. That seems to be a contradiction. Balaam knows it is against the will of God, but he goes, driven by love for money.
In the history with the donkey God shows that Balaam is even more stupid than a donkey. Blinded as he is by the greed of money, he does not know what danger he is in. The donkey has an eye for that. Animals often have more eye for their Owner than humans (Isa 1:3). An animal sees more here than someone created in God’s image. What foolishness to persevere on an evil way on which the sword of the LORD is stretched out against the evil one. The donkey saves him from that folly (2Pet 2:15-16).
Balaam doesn’t seem to notice the unusualness of the donkey’s speaking. He talks to her. It has been suggested that perhaps through his contacts with the demons he is used to talking to animals. Perhaps his anger also makes him so excited that the strangeness of it doesn’t strike him.
That the LORD let the donkey speak shows how exceptional this event with Balaam is. What is at stake is much indeed. It is about blessing or cursing for the people of God and all related promises. God can use everything and give a voice to give a testimony of His omnipotence and thereby warn (Lk 19:40; Hab 2:11). He can also, if this fits into the execution of His plan, intervene in a law established by Himself (2Kgs 6:6; 20:11; Jos 10:13).
Unbelief speaks mockingly of three “saving animals”: the speaking serpent (Gen 3:1), the speaking donkey (here) and the fish in which Jonah was (Jona 1:17; 2:1,10). Yet it is true that those who do not believe that this really happened cannot be saved, for such a person makes God a liar. The events in which animals are used by God for a special purpose above their nature have to do with the Fall (the serpent), the connection between God and His people with the associated promises (the donkey) and the Lord Jesus (the fish). All three are quoted in the New Testament (2Cor 11:3; 2Pet 2:16; Mt 12:40).
Instead of wondering why the donkey, who has never let him down, does so, he whips her off. He even wants to kill her, a folly that is prevented because he has no sword with him. What would he have gained from that? He would only have lost by it. So many people in their folly do things that do not profit them, but only make them lose.
Also by the cruel treatment of his faithful riding animal Balaam proves that he is an unrighteous person. The righteous person knows what his cattle need (Pro 12:10a). By the way, there is a sword in the neighborhood, that of the Angel of the LORD. But for that Balaam is blind. In addition, it is not directed against the donkey, but against him.
The reaction of the donkey is not only wonderful by her speaking, but also in what she says (verse 30). She speaks with more understanding than Balaam. In her words, in the form of questions, there are wise lessons for Balaam and every human being in their relationship to God. First, it recognizes Balaam’s ownership of her when she says: “Am I not your donkey?”. Secondly, she can say that she has always been there for him in faithful service: “On which you have ridden all your life to this day?” Thirdly, we see that this exceptional action is not the result of her unwillingness, “have I ever been accustomed to do so to you?”, with which she indirectly says that the unwillingness is with him.
The questions of the donkey have no prophetic content. They are not questions that come from God and have a special meaning. She also says nothing about the Angel of the LORD. It is simply the questions that every animal that is abused would ask if it had the opportunity to do so. They do not go outside the realm of an animal’s feelings, but remain within the realm of animal soul life. The only answer Balaam can and have to give to the questions asked is: “No!” But there is no question of any reaction in his conscience.
There is a practical application to be made. If we are on the road and there will be a delay that prevents us from continuing our journey, how do we react? The Lord wants such an obstacle to lead us to consider our motives for undertaking this journey, whether short or long. It doesn’t have to be wrong, but He wants us to enter His thoughts and become aware that everything can only be His honor if He goes with us. This applies even more so to the life path we follow during our life journey, the choices we make, for example, which education, which profession, which man or woman we should choose. From which motive do we choose the way we go?
Just as the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey (verse 28), so He opens the eyes of Balaam (verse 31). That brings him on his knees. The LORD speaks to him in a questioning manner about his conduct against his donkey. Then He makes it clear to Balaam that He and Balaam are diametrically opposed to each other. Balaam is not in the way of the LORD, but in a way of which the LORD says: “Because your way was contrary to me.” That means that this way was leading to destruction. The Angel emphasizes that Balaam mistreated his donkey three times to force her to go the way he wants her to go, but that the donkey saved him three times for destruction, by turning away from the Angel.
After the LORD has declared to Balaam the lesson with the donkey, Balaam pronounces: “I have sinned”. But it is in the same way as the Pharaoh, Saul, and Jude do (Exo 9:27; 10:16; 1Sam 15:24; 26:21; Mt 27:4). There is no real repentance. God does not relieve him of his duty, but obliges him to continue, saying that he will only speak what He says to him. It will be to God’s greater honor if He not only prevents Balaam from cursing the people, but also makes Balaam an instrument by whom He blesses His people.
36 - 41 Balak and Balaam to the High Places of Baal
36 When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at the city of Moab, which is on the Arnon border, at the extreme end of the border. 37 Then Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not urgently send to you to call you? Why did you not come to me? Am I really unable to honor you?” 38 So Balaam said to Balak, “Behold, I have come now to you! Am I able to speak anything at all? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I shall speak.” 39 And Balaam went with Balak, and they came to Kiriath-huzoth. 40 Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep, and sent [some] to Balaam and the leaders who were with him. 41 Then it came about in the morning that Balak took Balaam and brought him up to the high places of Baal, and he saw from there a portion of the people.
During the first contact Balak has with Balaam, he can only blame him for not having come sooner. His expectations are high. Balaam tempered these expectations by pointing out that he could only speak what God puts him in his mouth. He knows himself a prisoner of Him.
Balak takes Balaam to the high places of Baal. This is the first mention of Baal in the Bible. From this place the first attempt to curse will take place. It is a place entirely dedicated to the worship of Satan who hides here behind the name ‘Baal’.
Baal (means: lord) main head god of the Canaanites, while Astarte is the main female head god. This form of idolatry is given a permanent place in Israel in the time of the judges (see the book of Judges). In the first days of Samuel’s performance, this idol is removed from the land. But he comes back. During the reign of the wicked Ahab over the ten tribe realm, his even more wicked wife Jezebel makes the Baal service the official religion in Israel.
From the place that Balak has chosen, Balaam cannot see the whole people, but only a portion of them. It must give Balaam the impression that he is dealing with only a small people, it must lead him to depreciation of the people. But listen to what statement God brings Balaam when he is impressed by what he sees: “Let me die the death of the upright, And let my end be like his!” (Num 23:10).
Each subsequent attempt always takes place from a different location, apparently closer and closer to the people. It is Balak’s intention that Balaam sees what will give him a negative impression of that people, so that he gets ‘material’ in his hands, with which he can curse the people.