Chapters twenty-two through twenty-four contain another well-known story from Numbers: the account of Balak and Balaam. 1 In Numbers 21:26 we read that Sihon had defeated Moab. Now that Israel had defeated Sihon, the Moabites were naturally afraid that they could be next, so when Israel journeyed up the eastern border of Moab, Balak, their king, had to do something (Numbers 22:1-14). 2 Allying himself with the Midianites, Balak summoned Balaam, a well-known conjuror from near the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia (Abraham’s homeland). Balak had only one request: curse Israel so Moab could defeat them. Given God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:3), Balak’s knowledge of Balaam’s reputation is ironic: “I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6). Balaam was tempted, but he wisely sought divine counsel. Somehow Jehovah spoke to him and informed him that cursing Israel would be a waste, so he refused and sent the messengers of Balak away empty-handed.
Not one to give up, Balak tried again, promising anything Balaam could wish for (Numbers 22:15-21). This piqued Balaam’s greed, so he asked Jehovah again what he should do. God gave him permission to go, although it was still against his counsel. Additionally, Balaam would be required to say only what God allowed him. In an attempt to teach Balaam the difference between God’s permission and God’s plan, the messenger of Jehovah (the preincarnate Christ) stood in the path with a sword. Although Balaam’s route was blocked, only his donkey could see him; Balaam could not. This cause the donkey to veer off course a couple of times, injuring Balaam, who beat the donkey. Finally, God gave the donkey a voice to speak to Balaam, which finally opened his eyes to the danger he was in. 3 This time Jehovah gave clear permission for Balaam to continue, noting again that he would say nothing that did not come from God. Upon Balaam’s arrival, Balak welcomed him, making sacrifices in Balaam’s honor, probably hoping to appease their gods before the dirty work began.
- Outside of the Pentateuch, Balaam appears in these passages: Joshua 13:22; 24:9-10; Nehemiah 13:2; Micah 6:5; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11; Revelation 2:14. ↩
- Interestingly, the Moabites and Ammonites were relatives to Israel just like the Edomites were. Moab and Ammon (Genesis 19:36-38) were the grandsons of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. This made them third cousins to Jacob’s sons, the patriarchs of Israel. ↩
- Constable cites Wiersbe as wondering if spirits had used animals to speak with Balaam before as the reason this did not seem to affect him (Constable, Notes on Numbers, 2016 edition, 88). ↩