Commentary on Numbers 24:14-19

Notes (NET Translation)

14 And now, I am about to go back to my own people. Come now, and I will advise you as to what this people will do to your people in the future.”

The Hebrew phrase translated “in the future” (beaharit hayyamim) is in itself ambiguous in that it can refer simply to the future or to eschatological/messianic times. Verse 17 says the royal figure is “not close at hand.”

15 Then he uttered this oracle: “The oracle of Balaam son of Beor; the oracle of the man whose eyes are open; 16 the oracle of the one who hears the words of God, and who knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees a vision from the Almighty, although falling flat on the ground with eyes open:

17 ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not close at hand. A star will march forth out of Jacob, and a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the skulls of Moab, and the heads of all the sons of Sheth.

The “star” (Gen 1:16; Ps 136:9; Isa 14:12-13) and “scepter” describe a royal figure (Gen 49:10; Ps 45:6; Amos 1:5, 8; Isa 14:5) from Israel. This king represents the nation of Israel as a whole (v 14: “I will advise you as to what this people will do to your people in the future”; v 18: “Israel will act valiantly”). In this context the “scepter” probably refers to a war club and not a ceremonial scepter. King David defeated Moab (2 Sam 8:2) although Moab later won its freedom. Jacob Milgrom and Gordon Wenham connect the sons of Sheth with a nomadic Canaanite tribe called the Shutu (mentioned in Egyptian execration texts from about 1900 BC).

If this is correct, however, Jer. 48:45, which cites this line in the 7th cent. B.C., had already forgotten this meaning. That text reads “the sons of tumult” (benê šā’ôn). This parallel passage has led many scholars to see šēṯ as a contraction of še’ēṯ, a rare word taken to mean “uproar” in Lam. 3:47. Gray questions this meaning and derives šēṯ from śe’ēṯ, “pride,” citing the pride of the Moabites in Isa. 16:6; 25:11; Zeph. 2:10. Of these options, the tribal-name conjecture [Shutu] of Sayce and Albright may well be the best, but no certainty is possible.1

The Qumran sectarians interpreted this passage as having Messianic import, as did other Jewish sources of the period between the mid-second century B.C. and the first century A.D. Around 100 B.C., the Hasmonean king Alexander Janneus had the star imprinted upon some of the royal coins, thereby implicating him as the conquering star of Num 24:17. Rabbi Akiba understood the Messianic significance of this passage when he proclaimed Simon bar Kosiba to be “Bar Kochba” (“Son of the Star”), thereby consecrating him as the messiah.2

18 Edom will be a possession, Seir, his enemies, will also be a possession; but Israel will act valiantly.

“Edom” refers to the people and “Seir” refers to the land itself. Edom’s actions in 20:14-21 are enough to mark them as enemies. King David defeated Edom (2 Sam 8:13-14; 1 Kgs 11:15-16) although Edom later won its freedom. Prophets writing after David’s victories saw the subjugation of these nations as still future (Isa 11:14; 15:1-16:14; 34:5-17; 43:1-6; Jer 48-49; Ezek 25:8-14; Amos 2:1-3; 9:11-12; Zeph 2:8-11; Obad 1-21). The ancient Targumim, the Midrash Rabbah (Devarim 1:20), and early church fathers, like Justin Martyr and Athanasius, thought the star and the scepter refered to the Messiah.3

The key passage that sheds light on Num 24:14–19 is Amos 9:11–12. Amos’s prophetic ministry took place in the middle of the eighth century BC. If Moses wrote the Torah about 1400 BC, then Amos wrote about six and a half centuries later. His perspective was decidedly post-Davidic and his message was essentially judgment. At the close of the book, however, despite its overall message of judgment, a prophecy of hope is added (9:11–12). This offer of consolation looks ahead to the eschatological period (bayyom hahu, “in that day”) when the Davidic dynasty would no longer be functioning.

Amos promises that God will raise up the fallen booth of David. This is not just a promise of a restored dynasty but of the coming of the son of David, the messianic king. Kaiser correctly argues that the interpretation of this passage rests on the suffixes of three words in Amos 9:11, although they are not usually translated literally. The interpretation turns on the phrases “their broken places” (pirsehen) with its feminine plural suffix, “his ruins” (waharisotayw) with its masculine singular suffix, and “build it” (ubenuiha) with its feminine singular suffix.

The feminine plural suffix (“their broken places”) refers to the two kingdoms that had been divided since the days of Rehoboam. God will unite the nation once again under their messianic king. The masculine singular suffix (“his ruins”) refers to David (not his booth, which is feminine). Since David is dead, Kaiser points out that this “must refer to that ‘second David,’ mentioned in Hosea 3:5. God will raise up from the ashes of ‘destruction’ the new David, even Christ, the Messiah.” The feminine suffix (“build it“) refers to the fallen booth, the Davidic dynasty that will be restored under the Messiah. The messianic expectation of Amos 9:11 is clear.

Amos also declares God’s purpose in raising up David’s dilapidated booth, “so that they may possess the remnant of Edom, even all the nations that bear my name” (9:12). Sailhamer notes that the mention of possessing the remnant of Edom is a transparent intertextual reference to Num 24:18. Kaiser concurs when he writes, “The verb ‘to possess’ is deliberately chosen, for it preserves the prophecy made by Balaam in Numbers 24:17–18.” Keil also notes the intertextual reference when he writes, “yiresu, to take possession of, is chosen with reference to the prophecy of Balaam (Num. xxiv. 18), that Edom should be the possession of Israel.”

The point of this intertextual reference is plain. As Sailhamer states, “The eschatology of Amos is the same as that of the Pentateuch. The future Davidic king will rule victoriously over Israel’s enemies and establish his eternal kingdom.” The reference by this later prophet to the very words found in the Mosaic Torah confirms that Amos read the fourth Balaam oracle as a messianic prophecy.4

19 A ruler will be established from Jacob; he will destroy the remains of the city.'”

“Jacob” is another name for Israel. The Hebrew Ir may be the name of a Moabite town (22:36) or simply mean “city”.

Bibliography

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

Bateman IV, Herbert W., Darrell L. Bock, and Gordon H. Johnston. Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2012. Pages 52-57.

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.

Rydelnik, Michael. The Messianic Hope: Is the Old Testament Really Messianic?. B&H Academic, 2010. Pages 38-39, 52-55.

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


  1. Ashley 1993, 501 
  2. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 12106-12111 
  3. Rydelnik 2010, 53 
  4. Rydelnik 2010, 54-55 
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