Book of Numbers Chapter Twenty-Two Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
Balak And Balaam
In this chapter we meet two very interesting non-Israelite characters: Balak, the secular leader of Moab, and Balaam, a religious man considered to be a prophet. Was Balaam a prophet of God? Was he a prophet at all?
Verses 1-4 "Then the sons of Israel journeyed, and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan opposite Jericho. 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." As you read not only Scripture, but also other records of the time, you can see the incredible SPEED in which information traveled through the ancient world. Balak knew much of what was going on. We saw what happened to the Amorites in Chapter 21—Sihon, the Amorite king, suddenly attacked Israel and lost his country as a result, which we know from reading the history within Scripture. For Balak it was a contemporary event, learned by him through gossip, passed to him by soldiers, caravans, and spies, who equipped him with information that was surprisingly fresh and accurate. The Amorites were defeated. He knew it and thought—"we're next!" These Moabites were descendants of Lot's incestuous relationship with his daughter (Genesis 19:37-38), and were essentially relatives of the Israelites. But right now they were asking the Midianites, a group located to the south and east, for a mutual-defense pact against Israel, inciting them to become allies in a dangerous war he felt was inevitable.
Verses 5-7: "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." King Balak was also seeking "spiritual" help, contacting this Balaam, a man in northern Moab who was reputed to have some kind of "supernatural" ability. Balak didn't go himself, instead sending important messengers to Balaam, informing him that the nation Israel had come out of Egypt and was now right outside of Moab's "front door." Balaam's reputation was that he could, after payment of money, curse or bless someone as he chose, and it was time for him to prove this ability because Moab's king, the man with the money—was afraid and wanted help!
Verses 8-12: "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.'" Balaam was unsure about all this, telling Balak's messengers to stay overnight while he sought the Lord. Balaam sounds good at this point because he spoke to God and God spoke to him. But a problem had arisen for Balaam—he had been paid out of the king's treasury to do something (curse Israel), and God told him—don't do it. It was dangerous for him because Israel was and is blessed by Almighty God, and he now knew it! Balaam's next act seems right because in Verse 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.'"
Verses 14-18: "The leaders of Moab arose and went to Balak and said, 'Balaam refused to come with us.' 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.'" Again, Balaam sounds like a responsive servant of God at this point, expressing a disinterest in further payment and he would not go. Except, in Verse 19, we begin to see the basic flaw in the man: "'Now please, you also stay here tonight, and I will find out what else the Lord will speak to me.'" Balaam said he wasn't interested in money, but he was certainly tempted by it. He also was flattered by the importance of the men sent to him. In Verse 12, God was absolutely clear to Balaam: 'Do not go with them!" and yet here he was, considering what he should do as though he did not know. The situation felt like negotiations he had been part of in the past and he was becoming unable to resist doing something wrong that he really wanted to do.
In Verse 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.'" When God tells us "no"—it should not be a surprise that serious problems will result from our decision to do it anyway. And sometimes God will open the way for the one who acts in unbelief, as it was for Balaam at the moment. And don't be surprised if you get what you want and then discover new problems.
Verses 21-27 are especially interesting: "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." God told Balaam to not go, Balaam wanted the money Balak was offering, along with the prestige of doing a favor for the king of Moab, and we can see that his love of this world had become greater than any belief in the Lord he might have had. Note with great interest that Balaam's donkey SAW the angel of the Lord who was blocking their path, but Balaam didn't. The donkey responded in a reasonable manner, finally lying down in protest, as Balaam became angrier by the minute, hitting her with his staff while his foot was pressed firmly against a wall. What do others see that you don't? Are you listening to them, or are you angry at them for their opposition to your will?
Verses 28-30: "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.'" Balaam was so angry that he seems unaware of the absurd conversation he was having with his donkey. He was embarrassed and afraid. He had taken money from a dangerous king, and was willing to take more money, agreeing to do something that was against the will of God. He was enraged, which reflected the unbelief within the center of his being. He believed that the Lord exists but did not have the faith to trust in His Word. Faithlessness will eventually produce rage that overcomes reason, but it was beginning to occur to Balaam that he was having an argument with a donkey. This animal's words in that argument says something about Balaam's age, by the way. Donkeys can live for fifty years, but when they are forced to work, as this one was, the age at death will drop to about 30 years. Since, as the animal observed, Balaam had ridden her all his life, it is likely he was still a young man at the time.
Verses 31-33: "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.'" All of a sudden, Balaam SAW the angel of the Lord, in front of him, someone much more dangerous than the king of Moab. Balaam essentially fell on his face before God's holy angel, noting as he fell, the large, drawn sword in the being's hand. The angel pointed out that God's displeasure had been expressed through an improbable communication with a pack animal, a miracle that the Lord can bring about anytime He wants. Are there events in your life that block your way? Is it possible that these events are speaking to you, urging you to stop what you are doing and change direction?
Balaam was a man who was clever and seemingly religious, but his faith was in himself, not in the Lord. With that said, it is certainly interesting that, in Verse 31, the Lord enabled him to see what is blocked from the vision of just about everyone. The suggestion is that the ability to see into the supernatural is not always a sign of favor with God. But Balaam did show signs of repentance in Verse 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.'" The angel responded in Verse 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 was now frightened. He didn't want to displease Balak, an earthly king who might kill him, and he certainly did not want to displease this angel, or the Lord of glory who sent him. And now off he went, riding with reluctance on the donkey who now willingly carried him, to meet Balak because of the command of this angel of the Lord.
Verses 36-38: "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.' King Balak went with his soldiers and servants to a Moabite town at the northern border of the land, which was the Arnon River at that time. He met with Balaam. They talked and a concerned Balaam did try in Verse 38 to subtly blame God if his "word" was not what Balak wanted it to be. Balaam knew he was in trouble. He was like the many in history and today who have a reputation of forecasting events which may turn out that way—some of the time. And he noted with fear that King Balak of Moab was annoyed with him for not coming to him sooner. Balaam was still stunned that Almighty God had spoken to him (Verse 9), and also God's holy angel (Verses 31-33), putting limits on what he could say to this king who could have him killed at any moment.
Verses 39-41: "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." There were many of these "high places of Baal" within the tribal lands that were promised by God to Israel, and this was one of them. The worship of the idol "Baal" ("husband" or "lord," among other meanings), was one of the key reasons why the Lord intended to have these various peoples dispossessed from the place. Human sacrifice often occurred at these "high places of Baal" which blessedly didn't happen at this moment. Balaam did not conduct the religious ceremony, suggesting that his fear caused by recent events had frozen him into inactivity. And Balak was likely a controlling person who wanted center stage whenever possible. The two looked out and down from the high place where they stood and were able to glimpse a portion of Israel's people who were encamped within a wide valley not far away.
Father, I confess that I have confused religious activity with faith in the Lord. I also confess to a love of money and a desire to control circumstances. Lord, YOU are in control. Please forgive and heal me. I trust in You. I am Yours. In Jesus Name. Amen.