Commentary on Numbers 23:13-26

Notes (NET Translation)

13 Balak said to him, “Please come with me to another place from which you can observe them. You will see only a part of them, but you will not see all of them. Curse them for me from there.”

Balak thinks a change of place will result in a change of luck. The sense is that he is showing Balaam a smaller portion of Israel than before. Perhaps he thinks Balaam will not be overwhelmed with the Israelites from this vantage point.

14 So Balak brought Balaam to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, where he built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each altar.

Hebrew Sedeh-zophim (“field of Zophim”) literally means “field of watchmen”, referring to a lookout post.

15 And Balaam said to Balak, “Station yourself here by your burnt offering, while I meet the LORD there.

16 Then the LORD met Balaam and put a message in his mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and speak what I tell you.”

17 When Balaam came to him, he was still standing by his burnt offering, along with the princes of Moab. And Balak said to him, “What has the LORD spoken?”

This is the first time Balak recognizes that the Lord determines what Balaam will say. But he still holds out hope that the Lord will curse Israel.

18 Balaam uttered his oracle, and said, “Rise up, Balak, and hear; Listen to me, son of Zippor:

19 God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a human being, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not make it happen?

Balak thought a change of location would change God’s mind, but that is not the case. Not even spells and divination (v 23) will change God’s mind. The immutability of God’s will is also affirmed in 1 Sam 15:29.

It is well known that in some passages God repents or changes his mind (e.g., Gen. 6:6), but one must remember that all such language about God is anthropopathic and thus only an analogy. Many of these so-called changes of mind are in response to a change in human behavior (e.g., Jer. 18:8; 26:3), or in response to intercession (e.g., Exod. 32:14; Amos 7:3, 6). Although in many places Scripture asserts God’s changelessness (e.g., 1 Sam. 15:29 [paraphrasing the present verse]; Mal. 3:6; Rom. 11:29; Jas. 1:17), one must be careful to read in these an invariability in purpose rather than a modern, pseudoscientific kind of unapproachable immutability, which in the end denies God any real relationship with his creation. It is important for a biblical doctrine of God’s constancy that both these kinds of affirmations be held simultaneously. Although God’s larger purposes do not change, as a Being in relationship his ways of dealing with others in that relationship will vary in specific cases. People are unreliable and fickle; Yahweh is neither.1

20 Indeed, I have received a command to bless; he has blessed, and I cannot reverse it.

21 He has not looked on iniquity in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The LORD their God is with them; his acclamation as king is among them.

The first sentence means Israel is not cursed, it does not mean that they are without moral fault or sinless. Not only is Israel not cursed, but God is with them.

22 God brought them out of Egypt. They have, as it were, the strength of a wild bull.

Israel is set apart by its God, not its population or power. According to Levine, the verse should be translated, “God, who liberated him from Egypt, has horns like a wild ox.” In other words, God, not Israel, is depicted as the wild ox (Ashley, Cole, and Wenham concur with this interpretation).

23 For there is no spell against Jacob, nor is there any divination against Israel. At this time it must be said of Jacob and of Israel, ‘Look at what God has done!’

Hebrew nahash (“spell”) refers to observing/reading omens while kesem (“divination”) usually refers to casting lots.

24 Indeed, the people will rise up like a lioness, and like a lion raises himself up; they will not lie down until they eat their prey, and drink the blood of the slain.”

The same metaphor is found in Gen 49:9; Deut 33:20 and Mic 5:7.

25 Balak said to Balaam, “Neither curse them at all nor bless them at all!”

Balak would prefer that Balaam say nothing rather than to bless Israel so comprehensively.

26 But Balaam replied to Balak, “Did I not tell you, ‘All that the LORD speaks, I must do’?”


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, 477-478 

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