Monday, December 3, 2018

The oracles of Balaam (Num 22-24)

Dr. Paul Manuel—2018

People often treat prayer like reciting a grocery list, and with good reason. After all, Paul says, "In everything, by prayer and petition... present your requests to God" (Phil 4:6).
A pajama-clad tot called out to his family: "I'm going upstairs to say my prayers now. Does anybody want anything?"
People often treat prayer like reciting a grocery list, but prayer should never simply be an enumeration of requests. In fact, God may direct you to focus your interaction with Him in a direction different from what you initially intend, as He does when instructing the prophet Balaam about "God's Protection Plan for Israel."

After Israel leaves its exile in Egypt, God's people travel through areas where other people groups have settled. These other people groups are not necessarily welcoming to large numbers of strangers traipsing through their territory, especially as the motive of these transients may not be clear. Are they just on their way to somewhere else, or are they looking for new places to conquer? Because of this uncertainty, the Israelites do not always receive a warm reception as they make their way to the Promised Land.
  • When the Israelites came to the city-state of Arad, forces from that region attacked, but Israel "completely destroyed them and their towns" (Num 21:3).
  • When the Israelites came to Sihon, the Amorite king rejected their offer to pass through his country without taxing its resources: Moses assured the king, "We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well" (Num 21:22b). Instead, the king "mustered his entire army and marched...against Israel.... Israel, however, put him to the sword and took over his land." (Num 21:23-24)
  • When the Israelites came to Bashan, that king "and his whole army marched out to meet them in battle.... [But] they struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army, leaving them no survivors. And they took possession of his land. (Num 21:33, 35)
Another people the Israelites encounter is the Moabites, descendants of Lot, Abraham's nephew. The Moabites have settled east of the Jordan River and have a king named Balak, who is not thrilled when the Israelites reach his border.

I. Balak's plan is to seek Israel's destruction.

While others have resisted by force Israel's trek to Canaan and have invariably suffered as a result, this monarch attempts to avoid a confrontation and deals differently with this foreign invader, although his ultimate goal of eliminating the threat is the same as that of Israel's previous enemy encounters.

A. The king employs a prophet to curse the people (Num 22:1-20).
Num 22:1 The Israelites traveled to the plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho. 2 Now Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, 3 and Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites. 4 The Moabites said to the elders of Midian, "This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field." So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, 5 sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Pethor, near the River, in his native land. Balak said: "A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. 6 Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country. For I know that those you bless are blessed, and those you curse are cursed." 7 The elders of Moab and Midian left, taking with them the fee for divination. When they came to Balaam, they told him what Balak had said. 8 "Spend the night here," Balaam said to them, "and I will bring you back the answer the LORD gives me." So the Moabite princes stayed with him.
Balaam is not an Israelite, but he claims to be a believer in the Lord ("my God" v. 18) like "Melchizedek" (Gen 14:18), and he has a reputation of speaking for the Lord. Balak also hopes that Balaam can speak for himself and has some influence with the Lord: "Those you bless are blessed, and those you curse are cursed" (v. 6). Balak is "terrified" (v. 3) of an Israelite invasion, but he is also a pragmatist (as well as being somewhat ecumenical) and realizes another approach is necessary to deal with the problem. Although Chemosh is Moab's national deity, the king recognizes that the God of Israel may be able to restrain the people of Israel. So, he summons a prophet of the Lord—choosing the right tool for the right task. Moreover, he knows that Balaam's services are not free and promises to pay "the fee for divination" (v. 7).

Whereas biblical prophecy employs supernatural means, like receiving a direct word from God, pagan prophecy (e.g., divination) employs natural means, often with old body parts, like deciphering entrails, reading a liver, or casting bones. Balaam, as a representative of the Lord, relies on the former, a direct word from God, which he receives.
Num 22:9 God came to Balaam and asked, "Who are these men with you?" 10 Balaam said to God, "Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, sent me this message: 11 'A people that has come out of Egypt covers the face of the land. Now come and put a curse on them for me. Perhaps then I will be able to fight them and drive them away." 12 But God said to Balaam, "Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed."
This is another instance of God's asking a question to which He already knows the answer. Balak knows some of Israel's recent history, but the king does not seem to know the extent of God's part in it, or he would also know that his request to Balaam is vain. These are God's people, and they enjoy God's direction as well as His defense.
Num 22:13 The next morning Balaam got up and said to Balak's princes, "Go back to your own country, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you." 14 So the Moabite princes returned to Balak and said, "Balaam refused to come with us." 15 Then Balak sent other princes, more numerous and more distinguished than the first. 16 They came to Balaam and said: "This is what Balak son of Zippor says: Do not let anything keep you from coming to me, 17 because I will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say. Come and put a curse on these people for me." 18 But Balaam answered them, "Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the LORD my God. 19 Now stay here tonight as the others did, and I will find out what else the LORD will tell me." 20 That night God came to Balaam and said, "Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you."
Balak does not take "no" for an answer. Neither does Balaam. He thinks God may change His mind. At least he hopes God will change His mind. After all, a "palace filled with silver and gold" (v. 18) is not something one should dismiss easily. As the prophet learns, however: "God is not a man...that he should change his mind" (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29). In an apparent concession, God allows Balaam to go but with a restriction in place. There is a limit to what God will authorize: "Do only what I tell you" (v. 20).
B. The prophet rides a donkey to reach God's people (22:21-35).
Num 22:21 Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. 22 But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, she turned off the road into a field. [Avoidance #1] Balaam beat her to get her back on the road. 24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between two vineyards, with walls on both sides. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam's foot against it. [Avoidance #2] So he beat her again. 26 Then the angel of the LORD moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam [Avoidance #3], and he was angry and beat her with his staff. 28 Then the LORD opened the donkey's mouth, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?" 29 Balaam answered the donkey, "You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now." 30 The donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?" "No," he said.
Neither Balaam nor his traveling companions see the angel, but the donkey does, and it reacts to the obvious danger this armed supernatural being represents. As the travel passage narrows, the donkey evades further, keeping Balaam from suffering death for his misconstruing the mission: It is not to curse Israel. "Three times" (v. 33) the donkey turns away from God's avenging angel, and only after the third time does Balaam realize the animal's actions are for his benefit. Balaam should get the hint. Alas, he does not, and it finally takes a conversation with the donkey to get God's point across. "Balaam had to learn from a donkey before he could learn from God".

Balaam responds to the donkey as if holding a conversation with the animal is natural. People may talk to their animals but not usually with the expectation that their animals will reply in such an intelligible way. Yet it takes this unusual situation to prepare Balaam for what he must do: Resist the temptation of whatever payment Balak will offer him and speak only the message God will give him.
 Num 22:31 Then the LORD opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown. 32 The angel of the LORD asked him, "Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her." 34 Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, "I have sinned.16 I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back." 35 The angel of the LORD said to Balaam, "Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you." So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
Notice that God's revelation at two junctures in the narrative reinforces the importance of Balaam's mission: He "opened" the donkey's mouth (v. 28), and He "opened" the prophet's eyes (v. 31). The donkey does not explain the reason for its behavior. Eventually ("Then" v. 31), Balaam understands. Moreover, Balaam's response to seeing the angel is typical of those who have such an encounter with a divine spokesman: "He bowed low and fell facedown" (v. 31). Balaam's readiness to return home shows that he does not yet understand the reason for the angel's appearance. It is not to foil him but to focus him. God's instruction is again very explicit: "Speak only what I tell you" (v. 35). 'Do not elaborate, improvise, or go off message. Any consideration of a reward for your service is secondary.'
C. The pair discusses a strategy to address God's people (Num 22:36-41).
Num 22:36 When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet the edge of his territory. 37 Balak said to Balaam, "Did I not send you an urgent summons? Why didn't you come to me? Am I really not able to reward you?" 38 "Well, I have come to you now," Balaam replied. "But can I say just anything? I must speak only what God puts in my mouth." ...40 Balak sacrificed cattle and sheep, and gave some to Balaam and the princes who were with him. 41 The next morning Balak took Balaam up to Bamoth Baal, and from there he saw part of the people.
Balak hopes that by seeing the hoards of Israel, the prophet will realize that the king is not being an alarmist. This great mass of foreigners, if left unchecked, will strip the land of its resources. Balak is aware of how much this people's migration has cost his neighbors, and he is not anxious to suffer the same fate. Paying Balaam to curse Israel and stop its advance is a more economical solution to the problem, safer too.

Application: How do Balak's repeated (though ineffective) pleas through the prophet square with Paul's admonition to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess 5:17 NAS)? Is not the expectation behind persistence in prayer, the hope that God will change His mind, that an initial "no" will become an eventual "yes"? How can you tell the difference between a request about which He is fixed and one about which He is flexible?

The Bible advocates, through both example and exhortation, developing a "Competence in Communicating with God," which involves at least three protocols for proper prayer (Manuel 2008):
  • Prayer must be in the right direction (i.e., to God alone).
  • Presumably, Balaam, as a representative of God, would only make an appeal to God, and this is the reason Balak chooses him, but his adherence to correct protocol ends here.
  • Prayer must be in the right condition (i.e., in a state of regular obedience).
  • Balaam's failure to obey God in response to Balak's request evinces his disobedience.
  • Prayer must be with the right motivation (i.e., to please your God and not simply to please yourself).
  • Balaam is probably anticipating some payment, even if not quite a "palace filled with silver and gold" (v. 18), remuneration he would welcome for himself.
Paul writes to believers in Thessalonica that they should "pray continually" (1 Thess 5:17), which corresponds to what Jesus taught his disciples, that "they should always pray and not give up" (Luke 18:1), but that persistence presumes people pray properly. By all means pray continually, but also be sure to pray in the right direction, in the right condition, and with the right motivation. Are you praying properly?

II. Balaam's plan surveys Israel's presence.

From different elevated positions Balaam looks over the Israelite hoard and issues a series of oracles, prophetic utterances that address this invasion of Moab, yet not as the king expects or wants (see Appendix).
A. The prophet goes to a first vantage point (Num 23:1-8).
Num 23:1 Balaam said, "Build me seven altars here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me." 2 Balak did as Balaam said, and the two of them offered a bull and a ram on each altar. 3 Then Balaam said to Balak, "Stay here beside your offering while I go aside. Perhaps the LORD will come to meet with me. Whatever he reveals to me I will tell you." Then he went off to a barren height. [Opportunity for prophetic revision #1] ...8 [When Balaam returned to the king, he said,] How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced?
Balaam's survey of the invaders "the next morning" (Num 22:41) does not elicit the response Balak expects. In fact, Balaam's oracle does the opposite of what the king wants: Rather than denouncing the invaders he blesses them.
B. The prophet goes to a second vantage point (Num 23:13-20).
Num 23:13 Then Balak said to him, "Come with me to another place where you can see them; you will see only a part but not all of them. And from there, curse them for me." 14 So he took him to the field of Zophim on the top of Pisgah, and there he built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each altar. 15 Balaam said to Balak, "Stay here beside your offering while I meet with him over there." [Opportunity for prophetic revision #2] ... 19 [When Balaam returned to the king, he said,] God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? 20 I have received a command to bless; he has blessed, and I cannot change it.
Hoping for a different outcome, Balak tries a different location. Again, the prophet disappoints him. This time Balaam explains God's reason for His continued support of Israel. His decision is not simply force of habit but reflects an enduring commitment to this people, one that relies on the faithfulness of His character and does not change like the fickleness of man's behavior.
C. The prophet goes to a third vantage point (Num 23:27-24:2).
Num 23:27 Then Balak said to Balaam, "Come, let me take you to another place. Perhaps it will please God to let you curse them for me from there." 28 And Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, overlooking the wasteland. [Opportunity for prophetic revision #3] 24:1 Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not resort to sorcery as at other times, but turned his face toward the desert. 2 When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came upon him 3 and he uttered his oracle....
The king takes the prophet to yet another location, hoping again for a different result, only to be disappointed again: The Lord will not change His mind about the priority of Israel in His plan.

Application: Two great aspects of God's nature are His omniscience and His omnipotence.
  • About God's omniscience...
  • The Psalmist declares: "His understanding has no limit" (147:5).
  • God says through the prophet Isaiah: "I make known the end from the beginning" (46:10).
  • About God's omnipotence...
  • Again, the Psalmist declares: "The LORD does whatever pleases him" (135:6).
  • And again as God asks through the prophet Isaiah: "When I act, who can reverse it" (43:13)?
Because God knows and controls the end from the beginning, nothing can escape His purview and care. Consequently, nothing can escape His purview and care for you, which is very good news, especially if the circumstances of your life at any point seem out of control, or at least out of your control. At such times it is good to remember Paul's assurance:
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39).
Paul means this assurance to cover everything. So, no matter where you are or when you are, God 'has your back,' which means that He is willing and able to lend His support if ever you need help.

III. God's plan settles Israel's blessing.

By this time in Balaam's survey of Israel's position, the prophet is convinced of God's settled disposition toward this people, as is the Moabite monarch.
A. The king repeats his displeasure (Num 24:10-11).
Num 24:10 Then Balak's anger burned against Balaam. He struck his hands together and said to him, "I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them these three times. 11 Now leave at once and go home! I said I would reward you handsomely, but the LORD has kept you from being rewarded."
Does Balak not have a right to be angry? After all, the prophet's mere presence in Moab implies support for the king's plan. Yet Balaam thwarts him "these three times" (v. 10), because God's intention is to prevent any hindrance to His plan for Israel.
B. The prophet repeats his disclaimer (Num 24:12-13).
Num 24:12 Balaam answered Balak, "Did I not tell the messengers you sent me, 13 'Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything of my own accord, good or bad, to go beyond the command of the LORD—and I must say only what the LORD says"
Balaam probably starts his journey with the expectation of getting some reward, a reward he does not receive. He expresses no disappointment, however, but seems content with his having obeyed God, with saying "only what the LORD says" (v. 13).

Application: Balaam may have been disappointed with the financial outcome of his trip. Likewise, God may not always appear to act in your best interests, but He does. As Paul writes, "In all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose" (Rom 8:28). You "have been called," therefore, whatever you experience, pleasant or unpleasant, He will work circumstances to your ultimate advantage (if not in this life, then in the next). Bear in mind that even an unpleasant experience can have a positive effect if it keeps you from sin: Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning." (Exod 20:20) Moses uses the word "fear" twice in this passage, the first time negatively, as something to eschew—"Do not be afraid"—the second time as something to embrace—"the fear of God will...keep you from sinning." Remember that even pressing times are productive times for God's people. This passage also illustrates how God is able to reverse for you the effect of what another individual intends maliciously.

Balak has a plan for the prophet, who initially accedes to the king's request but only to inform him about "God's Protection Plan for Israel," which is quite different from what the Moabite monarch envisions. This episode reinforces the settled nature of God's good intention for His people, a purpose that is unalterable even when others attempt to revise it. So it is for His people today. He has their best interests in mind. As He said to the nation through the prophet Jeremiah: "I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jer 29:11). He has similarly good intentions for all His people, no matter where they are or when they are. As Paul says, "God's gifts and his call are irrevocable (Rom 11:29). Good news!

Appendix: Balaam's Oracles
Num 23:7 Then Balaam uttered his oracle: "Balak brought me from Aram, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains. 'Come,' he said, 'curse Jacob for me; come, denounce Israel.' 8 How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced? 9 From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them. I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations. 10 Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like theirs!"
Num 23:18 Then he uttered his oracle: "Arise, Balak, and listen; hear me, son of Zippor. 19 God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? 20 I have received a command to bless; he has blessed, and I cannot change it. 21 "No misfortune is seen in Jacob, no misery observed in Israel. The LORD their God is with them; the shout of the King is among them. 22 God brought them out of Egypt; they have the strength of a wild ox. 23 There is no sorcery against Jacob, no divination against Israel. It will now be said of Jacob and of Israel, 'See what God has done!' 24 The people rise like a lioness; they rouse themselves like a lion that does not rest till he devours his prey and drinks the blood of his victims."
Num 24:2 When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came upon him 3 and he uttered his oracle: "The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of one whose eye sees clearly, 4 the oracle of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened: 5 "How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! 6 "Like valleys they spread out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the LORD, like cedars beside the waters. 7 Water will flow from their buckets; their seed will have abundant water. "Their king will be greater than Agag; their kingdom will be exalted. 8 "God brought them out of Egypt; they have the strength of a wild ox. They devour hostile nations and break their bones in pieces; with their arrows they pierce them. 9 Like a lion they crouch and lie down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse them? "May those who bless you be blessed and those who curse you be cursed!"
Num 24:15 Then he uttered his oracle: "The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of one whose eye sees clearly, 16 the oracle of one who hears the words of God, who has knowledge from the Most High, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened: 17 "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth. 18 Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong. 19 A ruler will come out of Jacob and destroy the survivors of the city." 20 Then Balaam saw Amalek and uttered his oracle: "Amalek was first among the nations, but he will come to ruin at last." 21 Then he saw the Kenites and uttered his oracle: "Your dwelling place is secure, your nest is set in a rock; 22 yet you Kenites will be destroyed when Asshur takes you captive." 23 Then he uttered his oracle: "Ah, who can live when God does this? 24 Ships will come from the shores of Kittim; they will subdue Asshur and Eber, but they too will come to ruin."

For the Footnotes and Bibliography see the pdf here.

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