Commentary on Numbers 22:1-21

Notes (NET Translation)

1 The Israelites traveled on and camped in the plains of Moab on the side of the Jordan River across from Jericho.

The plains of Moab “are the flat and fertile strip of country (about 5-6 mi. wide) north and east of the Dead Sea.”1

2 Balak son of Zippor saw all that the Israelites had done to the Amorites.

The Amorites in question include at least Sihon (21:21-32) and perhaps Og of Bashan (21:33-35; Deut 3:8; 31:4; Josh 2:10; 9:10; 24:12).

3 And the Moabites were greatly afraid of the people, because they were so numerous. The Moabites were sick with fear because of the Israelites.

Moab’s fear of the size of Israel is like that of Egypt when it oppressed the Israelites (Ex 1:9, 12).

4 So the Moabites said to the elders of Midian, “Now this mass of people will lick up everything around us, as the bull devours the grass of the field.” Now Balak son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at this time.

The Midianites lived both in the Sinai (Ex 2:15-16; 3:1; Num 10:29-30) and on Moab’s border (Gen 36:35). They were vassals of Sihon (Josh 13:21) just like the Moabites were (Num 21:26). The communication between the two is thus natural at this point in time.

5 And he sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor at Pethor, which is by the Euphrates River in the land of Amaw, to summon him, saying, “Look, a nation has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are settling next to me.

Pethor is almost universally identified with the Pitru of Assyrian inscriptions (modern Tell el-Ahmar), some 12 miles south of Carchemish. Amaw/Amau is mentioned in a 15th century BC inscription from Alalakh and was located somewhere between Aleppo and Carchemish. Deut 23:4 names Balaam’s homeland as Aram Naharaim, a region of the upper Euphrates. Baruch Levine seems less convinced by these geographical identifications than the other commentators I’ve read, so some caution is advisable. The distance between Moab and Pethor/Pitru is somewhere between 370 and 420 miles and so would take 20-25 days to traverse in each direction. The four journeys of this narrative would have taken between 80 and 100 days to complete. The phrase “cover the face of the earth” was used to describe the locust plague on Egypt (Ex 10:5, 15).

6 So now, please come and curse this nation for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will prevail so that we may conquer them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”

Ancient Near Easterners believed that priests and prophets could cajole various deities into bringing about blessings and curses.

7 So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fee for divination in their hand. They came to Balaam and reported to him the words of Balak.

The Hebrew word qesamim can mean either (a) the divination practice or elements or (b) the fees charged for divination. On the first understanding the elders were somehow versed in or associated with divination. Perhaps they brought instruments of divination to assist Balaam. But why would they bring such instruments to Balaam’s homeland since Balaam would not use them until he arrived in Moab? On the second understanding the elders brought a fee to Balaam, which was common for seers (1 Sam 9:7-8; 1 Kgs 14:3; 2 Kgs 8:8-9). Num 22:37 and 24:11 might suggest that Balaam would not be paid until after cursing Israel but a fee beforehand may be seen as a down payment.

8 He replied to them, “Stay here tonight, and I will bring back to you whatever word the LORD may speak to me.” So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam.

If Balaam was going to curse the Israelites he would have to encounter Israel’s deity, Yahweh.

9 And God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?”

God came to Balaam, not vice versa.

10 Balaam said to God, “Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent a message to me, saying, 11 ‘Look, a nation has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Come now and put a curse on them for me; perhaps I will be able to defeat them and drive them out.'”

12 But God said to Balaam, “You must not go with them; you must not curse the people, for they are blessed.”

13 So Balaam got up in the morning, and said to the princes of Balak, “Go to your land, for the LORD has refused to permit me to go with you.”

14 So the princes of Moab departed and went back to Balak and said, “Balaam refused to come with us.”

Balaam said the Lord refused to allow him to go with the princes (v 13) but the princes say Balaam refused to come with them (v 14).

15 Balak again sent princes, more numerous and more distinguished than the first.

16 And they came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak son of Zippor: ‘Please do not let anything hinder you from coming to me. 17 For I will honor you greatly, and whatever you tell me I will do. So come, put a curse on this nation for me.'”

18 Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, “Even if Balak would give me his palace full of silver and gold, I could not transgress the commandment of the LORD my God to do less or more. 19 Now therefore, please stay the night here also, that I may know what more the LORD might say to me.”

Balaam appears to profess allegiance to and intimacy with Israel’s God (“the Lord my God”). Perhaps Balak and company thought this intimacy would give Balaam a better chance of convincing the Lord to curse Israel. It was common in the ancient Near East for a diviner to perform the same ritual procedures until a favorable omen was received.

20 God came to Balaam that night, and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, get up and go with them; but the word that I will say to you, that you must do.”

21 So Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab.

The Hebrew identifies the donkey as female. Normally male donkeys were used as riding animals (Ex 4:20; Josh 15:18; 1 Sam 25:20; 2 Sam 16:2; 17:23; 19:27; 1 Kgs 2:40; 13:13; Zech 9:9. Judg 5:10 and 2 Kgs 4:22 being the only other exceptions in the Hebrew Bible.).

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 21-36. The Anchor Yale Bible. New York: Yale University Press, 2000.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Ashley 1993, 431 
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