Commentary on Numbers 23:27-24:13

Notes (NET Translation)

23:27 Balak said to Balaam, “Come, please; I will take you to another place. Perhaps it will please God to let you curse them for me from there.”

23:28 So Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, that looks toward the wilderness.

The “top of Peor” is later known as the place where Balaam enticed the Israelites into idolatrous activities (Num 25:18; 31:16; Josh 22:17).

23:29 Then Balaam said to Balak, “Build seven altars here for me, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams.”

23:30 So Balak did as Balaam had said, and offered a bull and a ram on each altar.

24:1 When Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not go as at the other times to seek for omens, but he set his face toward the wilderness.

We learn that previously, when Balak had attended to the sacrifices, Balaam had gone off by himself to search for omens. In 23:23 Balaam realizes he does not need omens, which were not permitted in Israel (Deut 18:10; 1 Sam 15:23; 2 Kgs 17:17). Israel is encamped in the direction of the wilderness (24:2).

24:2 When Balaam lifted up his eyes, he saw Israel camped tribe by tribe; and the Spirit of God came upon him.

The phrase “the Spirit of God came upon him” may mean Balaam entered an ecstatic state (cf. 1 Sam 10:6-13; 1 Kgs 22:10-23).

24:3 Then he uttered this oracle: “The oracle of Balaam son of Beor; the oracle of the man whose eyes are open; 24:4 the oracle of the one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, although falling flat on the ground with eyes open:

24:5 ‘How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel!

24:6 They are like valleys stretched forth, like gardens by the river’s side, like aloes that the LORD has planted, and like cedar trees beside the waters.

Israel will be like valleys stretched forth by posessing their own land. They shall thrive like gardens by the river’s side. They will be sturdy like cedar trees.

T. K. Cheyne noted that, since cedars do not grow by rivers but in the mountains, and since Ps. 104:16 speaks of Yahweh’s planting (nāṭaʿ) them, the tree names in these two poetic lines should be reversed. But rearrangement and modification of a poetic text are not justified on the supposed grounds that the poetry is not scientifically accurate. Israel is here compared to fragrant, exotic, and strong trees. Why should the image not be kept? That cedars do not grow by rivers misses the poetic metaphor as well. In the second line of each couplet in the verse water is mentioned as an image of a life source. If for no other reason than this, the cedar is placed by the water in v. 6b. The river/waters here enhance the image of luxuriance. If a cedar is a grand and mighty tree without an abundant life source (water), how much stronger will it be with that life source added?1

24:7 He will pour the water out of his buckets, and their descendants will be like abundant water; their king will be greater than Agag, and their kingdom will be exalted.

The descendants of Israel will spread out like water being poured out of a bucket. The MT of v 7b says Israel will have a king who will be greater than Agag, perhaps referring to the king of Amalek (1 Sam 15:7-9, 32-33). The fulfillment of this prophecy occurred during the reign of David (1 Sam 30:18; 2 Sam 1:1; 8:12; 1 Chron 18:11). The Chronicler even says David’s kingdom was elevated (1 Chron 14:2; cf. 2 Sam 5:12).

However, a variant reading substitutes “Gog” for “Agag.” This reading has wide support, being found in the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion. According to this reading, Balaam foresees a king from Jacob who would be exalted over Gog, the end-time enemy of Israel (Ezek 38:3). Thus, the passage links this prophecy with Messiah’s day, when He will have victory over the eschatological foes of Israel.

The “Gog” reading is supported by the context, in which Balaam says he is speaking of “the end of days” (Num 24:14). Further, the context identifies the king as the messianic royal figure of Genesis 49 when it says of Him “He crouches, he lies down as a lion” (Num 24:9) in a deliberate innertextual allusion to Gen 49:11. The prophecy also promises that this future king’s “kingdom will be exalted” (Num 24:7), using more glorious terminology than what would be used of David or one of his nonmessianic descendants. Additionally, in Ezek 38:17, there is a recognition that Gog is known from earlier Scripture. There the LORD addresses Gog and asks, “Are you the one I spoke about in former times?” This is an obvious reference to the variant reading in Num 24:7.

Curiously, after recognizing the antiquity of the Septuagintal messianic reading and noting that the Masoretic Text on this verse is “difficult and obscure (and possibly corrupt),” Timothy Ashley still prefers the Masoretic Text reading. He dismisses the messianic rendering of the Septuagint as a mere reflection of the intense messianic speculations of the second century BC and not as an authentic reading that would yield a messianic prophecy.

Ashley’s approach, although common, seems ill advised. In light of broad witness to the “Gog” reading, the internal evidence, and the weaknesses of the Masoretic Text, it is better in this instance, as Albright suggested, to take the Septuagint as the original reading. Thus, in an obscure verse in the Torah, it appears that the variant readings point to a future, glorious, Messiah with an exalted kingdom, not merely to King David.2

Some ancient Jewish sources also give a messianic interpretation (Targ. Yer., Targ. Neof.).

24:8 God brought them out of Egypt. They have, as it were, the strength of a young bull; they will devour hostile people and will break their bones and will pierce them through with arrows.

24:9 They crouch and lie down like a lion, and as a lioness, who can stir him? Blessed is the one who blesses you, and cursed is the one who curses you!'”

The first sentence recalls Jacob’s deathbed blessing of Judah in Gen 49:9. The second sentence recalls the words to Abraham in Gen 12:3 and the words of Isaac to Jacob in Gen 27:29. The one (a single person) who blesses or curses Israel (the “you” is plural) will be blessed or cursed in return. That a foreign prophet makes statements like those made to Israel’s ancestors conveys to Israel the authenticity of Balaam’s prophecy. Even though the words are spoken by a foreigner they are still the words of God.

24:10 Then Balak became very angry at Balaam, and he struck his hands together. Balak said to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, and look, you have done nothing but bless them these three times!

Striking the hands together is a sign of derision or disgust (Job 27:23; Lam 2:15).

24:11 So now, go back where you came from! I said that I would greatly honor you; but now the LORD has stood in the way of your honor.”

Balak blames the Lord for sending Balaam home empty-handed.

24:12 Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not also tell your messengers whom you sent to me, 24:13 ‘If Balak would give me his palace full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the LORD to do either good or evil of my own will, but whatever the LORD tells me I must speak’?

Balaam originally issued this statement in Num 22:18.

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, 490 
  2. Rydelnik 2010, 38-39 
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