Commentary on Numbers 22:22-35

Notes (NET Translation)

22 Then God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him. Now he was riding on his donkey and his two servants were with him.

In verse 20 God tells Balaam to go with Balak’s messengers and in verse 21 Balaam obeys the order. But here, in verse 22, God is angry with Balaam for going. This discrepancy has caused many scholars to think verses 22-35 were once an independent narrative that has been placed here. But even if this is the case we still have to try and understand this passage in its present literary context.

Some scholars understand the Hebrew particle ki as temporal, meaning God became angry “while he was going”. But the cause of the anger still needs to be determined. The phraseology recalls expressions of God’s anger with people in a rebellious state (11:1; 12:9; 25:3). Jewish tradition (Targ. Onk., Rashi, Rashbam, Tosafot.) holds that “Balaam’s acquiescence indicates his eagerness to curse Israel, thereby arousing the anger of God.”1

That God would become angry and engage one of his servants on a journey directed by him follows the enigmatic pattern echoed in the Pentateuch in the lives of Moses on his way back to Egypt (Exod 4:24-26) and Jacob at Peniel (Gen 32:22-32). These incidents seem to serve the purpose of reminding these men that a holy God is in control of the situation and the lives of his people and that they as his servants should be faithful to the tasks assigned to them to carry out God’s plans. Lest Balaam think he might ply his prophetic trade of his own accord and reap a considerable reward from the king of Moab, God confronted him in his rebellious state of mind–that state of mind that prevented him from seeing God’s emissary in the road three separate times.2

Much has also been made of the fact that the parenthetical remark about Balaam’s two servants precludes the fact that he was with the Moabite princes, thus marking out a contradiction between the source of vv. 2–21 and that of the present narrative. But this is surely hyper-criticism. Traveling with servants was a common practice in the ancient world, and one could make much of the Moabite princes not having servants with them. The narrator does mention the Moabite princes in v. 35, but the point is that they, their servants (if they had any), and the servants of Balaam (who are mentioned only here) are irrelevant to the main line of the story. The story has only four principal characters: Yahweh, his angel, Balaam, and the donkey. That the narrator did not tell the reader why Balaam was traveling with his servants rather than with the princes is asking the story to tell what the narrator has not disclosed.3

23 And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn in his hand, so the donkey turned aside from the road and went into the field. But Balaam beat the donkey, to make her turn back to the road.

24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a path among the vineyards, where there was a wall on either side.

That vineyards are mentioned means that the setting is not the desert, but either at the very beginning or more probably toward the end of Balaam’s journey to Moab.4

25 And when the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pressed herself into the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So he beat her again.

26 Then the angel of the LORD went farther, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left.

27 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she crouched down under Balaam. Then Balaam was angry, and he beat his donkey with a staff.

28 Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”

The Lord gives the donkey the power of speech. The author does not believe donkeys have a natural capacity for speech.

29 And Balaam said to the donkey, “You have made me look stupid; I wish there were a sword in my hand, for I would kill you right now.”

The text does not tell us about Balaam’s emotions at this moment. Is he amazed that his donkey speaks or does he answer matter-of-factly? The sword Balaam seeks is close at hand with the angel.

30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Am not I your donkey that you have ridden ever since I was yours until this day? Have I ever attempted to treat you this way?” And he said, “No.”

31 Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way with his sword drawn in his hand; so he bowed his head and threw himself down with his face to the ground.

We are probably to understand that the angel of the Lord was not normally visible to human eyes. This explains why the Lord needs to open Balaam’s eyes.

Rembrandt - Balaam and the Ass

32 The angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? Look, I came out to oppose you because what you are doing is perverse before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned from me these three times. If she had not turned from me, I would have killed you but saved her alive.”

The donkey is proverbial for its dullness and obstinacy. This passage is intended to humiliate Balaam.

Balaam, who desires to subdue Israel with words, cannot even subdue his ass with a stick (Tanḥ. Balak 9). Balaam, who claims prophetic sight (24:4, 17), cannot see what his ass sees three times. Balaam, who claims prophetic speech since the Lord puts words into his mouth (22:38; 23:5, 12, 16), is now matched by his ass (v. 28). Balaam, who boasts that “his knowledge is from the Most High” (24:16), has to admit, “I did not know” (v. 34; Tanḥ. Balak 10). Balaam, who is the wisest of the wise, is bested in a verbal exchange with the most stupid of beasts (v. 30; Gen. R. 93:10; Num. R. 20:14). Balaam, who wishes to slay a whole people with his words, can only kill his ass with a sword (Num. K 20:14). Balaam, who would slay his ass if only he could find a sword (v. 29), does not see the sword extended by the angel (v. 23). Thus “the ass in this episode plays the role of Balaam–beholding divine visions with eyes unveiled–to Balaam’s Balak.” In truth, Balaam is depicted on a level lower than his ass: more unseeing in his inability to detect the angel, more stupid in being defeated verbally by his ass, and more beastly in subduing it with his stick whereas it responds with tempered speech.

The lampooning of Balaam, then, serves the purpose of downgrading his reputation. It aims to demonstrate that this heathen seer, who was intent on cursing Israel without God’s consent, is in reality a fool, a caricature of a seer, one outwitted even by his dumb beast. This image of Balaam–as wicked–is the one reflected in the later biblical and postbiblical literature. He is depicted as one whose Pharaonic malice toward Israel will be frustrated by Israel’s God as He transforms Balaam’s curses into blessings.5

34 Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood against me in the road. So now, if it is evil in your sight, I will go back home.”

35 But the angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but you may only speak the word that I will speak to you.” So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.

[The] conduct of the ass prefigures that of Balaam. Just as Balaam drives on his ass until brought up short by the angel of the LORD, so Balak will push Balaam to curse Israel until he is stopped by his encounter with God. As God opens the ass’s mouth, so he will put his words in Balaam’s to declare his will. This parallelism between Balaam and his ass suggests that the ability to declare God’s word is not necessarily a sign of Balaam’s holiness, only that God can use anyone to be his spokesman.

Throughout the Bible, prophecy and other ecstatic spiritual gifts are regarded as signs of inspiration, but not necessarily of holiness or of a right standing with God. False prophets may accurately foretell the future (Deut. 13:1-5). Though condemned to lose his throne, Saul still prophesied (1 Sam. 19:23-24). Caiaphas prophesied the death of Christ (John 11:51-52). Jewish exorcists cast out demons in Jesus’ name without believing in him (Mark 9:38-39; Acts 9:13-16). The Corinthian church was long on ecstatic spiritual experience but short on love, holiness and sound doctrine (1 Cor. 1-15). Our Lord warned that on the last day neither prophecy, exorcism nor miracles would guarantee entry to the kingdom of heaven, only ‘he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 7:21-23).6

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. Milgrom 1990, 190 
  2. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 11080-11085 
  3. Ashley 1993, 455–456 
  4. Ashley 1993, 456 
  5. Milgrom 1990, 469 
  6. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 2927-2937 
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