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What the Bible says about Balak
(From Forerunner Commentary)

Numbers 22:2

Balak was keeping up with news of the day. He knew what was going on in the region.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Balaam and the End-Time Church (Part 1)

Related Topics: Balak


 

Numbers 22:3-4

This whole passage is quite ironic.

The name Balak means "devastator," a very evil name. However, his father's name, Zippor means "sparrow," which are among the flightiest of birds. A person cannot creep close to a sparrow, as they fly at the slightest movement. So, here is mighty Balak, the Devastator, the son of Zippor, the Sparrow, and "Moab was exceedingly afraid"! The Devastator was afraid, acting like a sparrow!

The Moabites were so afraid that they were "sick with dread." Hebrew is a rather colorful language. This means that they were so terrified that they were throwing up. Their fear was visceral; it made their guts wrench. What makes this so ironic is that they had nothing to fear: God had told Israel not to harm the Moabites but pass them by (Deuteronomy 2:8-9). If Moab had left well enough alone, if they had not let their fear get the best of them, then nothing like the following story would have happened. Many people died because of Moab's fear and the resultant actions. In reacting to their fear, they really made a mess of things.

Another irony is what is said in verse 4 concerning a possible economic problem. Moab says that Israel would come through and "lick up" all of their goods, that is, eat all their wealth. At the time, their wealth was mostly on the hoof or in their grain storehouses. They thought Israel would come in, take all their livestock and grain, and leave Moab destitute. Again they had nothing to fear because God was still giving them manna six days a week and double on Friday. Israel was not going to invade, devastate their land, kill their people, and take all their wealth. Thus, the second element they feared was also bogus. They had made it all up in their own heads; their fears were figments of their imagination.

They were functioning by human nature, and it was only natural for them to think that, if two or three million people came in, they would eat up everything and take over the territory, but that is the irony of all this. Nothing like that would have happened, especially if they did not move to make Israel their enemy.

All of this could have been avoided with a little bit of communication between Balak (the Devastator) and Moses. If he had come to Moses instead of Balaam, everything would have worked out differently. Instead, Balak makes some sort of alliance with the Midianites, who, as the book of Judges details, became a thorn in Israel's side. Thus, here is the beginning of an alliance against Israel that lasted for many years.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Balaam and the End-Time Church (Part 1)

Numbers 22:5-6

The Moabites did not have much of an army to field against Israel, which is why they did not try to block its way by force of arms. Until recently, they had themselves been subject to the Amorites and had suddenly been freed by Israel's conquering of Sihon and Og of Bashan. However, they were not at all grateful and decided that they would have to stop Israel themselves.

However, Israel was under a command from God to leave Moab alone. The Moabites ended up acting upon what was essentially a figment of their imaginations. They really cannot be blamed; they were merely acting according to human nature. Nevertheless, the whole story of Balak and Balaam was all very unnecessary.

Balaam means "devourer," and some linguists add "of the people." The longer definition is probably correct. It is also interesting that it is a very negative, destructive name (like Balak's, "devastator"). Devastator and Devourer were joining forces to block Israel's passage into Canaan. Balaam's father's name, Beor, which means "burning," also fits into this. This story contains several names that are negative and destructive.

Balaam lived at Pethor. "Pethor" has made some historians wonder, but they think they know where it is. It is located 400 miles north of Moab on the banks of the Euphrates River, twelve miles south of Carchemish. Carchemish was the location of the early seventh-century BC battle Pharaoh Necho was hastening toward to aid the Assyrians against the Babylonians, when he was confronted by King Josiah of Judah. Josiah was, at the time, allied to Babylon. He took his army and met Necho at Megiddo—the famous place of battles, Armageddon. Judah was defeated there, as Necho had a much stronger army. A stray arrow happened to hit Josiah, and he was taken from the battlefield, mortally wounded.

However, the engagement at Megiddo stalled Necho long enough for the Babylonians to defeat the Assyrians, probably near Haran where Abraham had lived for a while—where Terah, Abraham's father, died. The defeat forced the Assyrians to retreat. A couple of years later, Nebuchadnezzar faced the Assyrians and Egyptians again at Carchemish. This colossal battle changed the direction of the Middle East at that time, because, by defeating Assyria again, Nebuchadnezzar gained control of the entire region.

Balaam lived just a stone's throw away from this place of future fame. This is important to know because of the connection between Abraham and Balaam. They were from the same general area near Haran, which was less than fifty miles away. It was generally known that where Balaam lived, Pethor, was famous for its baru, "priest-diviners" (which some have tried to connect them with the Magi, but the evidence is scanty). They were sorcerers, magicians, diviners, soothsayers, and such.

It is believed that Balaam was from a long line of celebrated diviners, and that he and his family had made their living for several generations cursing or blessing people. It was their family trade. They passed it down, giving their sons names that went along with it, names like "Burning" and "Devourer." Their family reputation had traveled throughout the entire region. If anyone wanted someone cursed, they would send for a baru from Balaam's family, since they were the best in the world at cursing people. These baru—regardless of the requester's religion or political stripe—would, for a price, perform their auguries, say their incantations, make their sacrifices to some particular god, and then curse the other party in the name of that god.

This is what King Balak of Moab was doing, sending for the most renowned curser in the known world—Balaam—to come and curse Israel. Balak had heard about all the things that God had done for Israel, so he needed the very best to go up against the God who could part the Red Sea and rain manna from heaven every day for 38 years. This God could bring ten plagues upon the people of Egypt and could find water in the desert for 2.5 or 3 million people. King Balak, needing the very best, was willing to give up just about all his wealth to Balaam, who he felt could do the job of cursing Israel.

What have we learned about Balaam?

  • He was internationally renowned and may have been considered the best soothsayer in the known world. This sets him up on a pedestal. He was accustomed to doing things like this. He was also likely a pricey individual to contract with.

  • He was probably from a family of soothsayers who specialized in blessings and cursings. He was very well read and knowledgeable in all the methods of cursing and blessing, as well as all the world's gods and goddesses. He probably kept an ear to the ground for any unusual things happening and had reports of such sent to him. He probably knew all about what was going on with Israel: it was one of those "international news stories" that made the rounds.

  • He was probably a baru, a priest-diviner of Mesopotamia who worked enchantments, auguries, sorceries, and any kind of divining necessary. The baru did not consider themselves devotees of any one god but of every god. They would work for or against any god for a price.

  • He probably knew of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or at least had heard things about them from local stories or legend, as they were important people in their own right. Abraham, a direct descendant of Shem, had given up a great deal to follow God's calling, and had come through the area where Balaam and his family lived. Abraham was not a person who could pass through a place without leaving an impression, for he was an important and wealthy person, a man of conviction. Also, once Abraham arrived in Canaan, he and his descendants had sent back to the area of Haran for wives: Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah were all from the environs of Haran. Thus, the Israelites had ties with the area, even genetic ties.

It would not be out of the realm of possibility, therefore, that Balaam had a fair amount of information about Israel's beginnings, and perhaps even known of some of their beliefs. He may have had an interest in them from a local history standpoint. He certainly knew about Israel, about Israel's God, and what He had done miraculously for Israel for forty years.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Balaam and the End-Time Church (Part 1)

Numbers 22:7-14

The princes come to Balaam and tell him what Balak has asked. Then, when Balaam goes to God, he leaves out some of what the princes said. After God gives His answer, Balaam reports back to the princes, this time leaving out some of what God said. Finally, when the men return to Balak, all they say is, "He is not coming."

So, we can see a great deal of deception going on, in which each party tries to slant the conversations to its advantage. The princes certainly do not want Balak angry at them because they failed in their mission, and Balaam did not want to tell the princes all that God had said to him because he wants them to come back with more money.

We cannot take this story at face value. This is what Balaam did for a living; this is how he made his money. He was a sorcerer for hire—for pay—and he is negotiating here. We have just read a sorcerer's negotiation for his hire.

The first thing Balaam did wrong (from our perspective) he did immediately: The princes waltz into his courtyard, saying, "Balak wants you to come and curse Israel for him." Balaam replies, "Oh. Let me think about that. In the meantime, why don't you stay the night? Here, I'll put you up and feed you." He probably entertained them—perhaps he performed parlor tricks for them. But, in such a situation, what should a Christian have done? What should just a good person have done? He should have said, "Go back to your master!" and not even listened to them.

The apostle John tells us what to do should anyone come to our house and wants us to do evil, to go against the Lord God:

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds. (II John 10-11)

Immediately, then, Balaam becomes complicit in the sins of Balak. He should have said, "No. I'm taking my shingle down. I will not curse Israel." But instead he says, "Why don't you stay the night? I'll see if God gives me guidance in this matter."

It is probable that he did not expect God to say a word to him. His words were merely a ploy to get the princes interested and drag the negotiation out. He was putting on his diviner's hat and doing a little acting here. "Oh, I can't make this decision on my own! I must consult the gods. Stay here overnight, and in the morning I will tell you if God has come to me in a dream or a vision to tell me what I can do!"

He was playing the charlatan with them because most of the time, a demon did not come to him and say, "Okay, go ahead and do this," or "Don't do that." Balaam probably manufactured most of his "visitations." However, if a demon did communicate with him and was behind his sorcery, it makes Balaam even more evil. At the very least, he was giving the princes his pitch.

God surprises him by actually answering him! He starts off by asking him, "Who are these men with you?" making the man explain himself, which Balaam does. Then, incredibly, Balaam makes his pitch to God! "God, let me curse them!" God responds emphatically, "No! No! No! You shall not go with them. You shall not curse them. I have blessed them."

In the morning, Balaam tells Balak's princes, "Go back to your land. The Lord refused to give me permission."

We can give Balaam credit for this: He actually does what God told him and sent them away with their diviner's fee in their hands. He made no money. However, we can read into this that he did it, not because of the fear of God, but because of the thought that, "Hey, maybe this will help the negotiations if I send them away, because they might come back, and bring a bigger bag of gold with them to try and convince me. If I play hard to get, and they really want me, I could make a killing."

We need to remember that all the authors who mention Balaam after this write about him being greedy for profit at Israel's expense. We must include this fact in our understanding of what was happening here. God obviously inspired it to be written several times in His Word that this was how Balaam worked. He was avariciously negotiating a higher fee.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Balaam and the End-Time Church (Part 1)

Numbers 22:15

Balak upped the offered price, as well as the honor he would bestow. Perhaps he sent his son, possibly his firstborn—the heir to the throne. It would have been quite honorable for Balaam to have entertained the next king of Moab in his home.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Balaam and the End-Time Church (Part 1)

Numbers 22:17

In essence, Balak is saying, "I can't fight Israel with the sword, so I have to fight them with evil spirits. I have to whittle them down somehow so that my puny army can defeat them."

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Balaam and the End-Time Church (Part 1)

Related Topics: Balak | Evil Spirits


 

Numbers 23:1-10

Balak puts Balaam to work almost immediately upon arriving. The diviner has Balak build seven altars, on each of which he offers a bull and a ram (Numbers 23:1). The bull and ram are the prime animals to offer because of their value, and the number seven has a long history of being especially propitious. By these offerings, Balaam is trying to ensure his ability to bribe a curse out of God.

God, of course, will not be bribed (Deuteronomy 10:17), so He puts a blessing on Israel in Balaam's mouth (Numbers 23:9-10).

Balaam was indeed standing in a high place of Baal at the time (Numbers 22:41), and evidently, from this height he could see the whole camp. What he saw was an immense mass of people that he could not begin to count, a fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 13:16: "And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered" (see also Genesis 15:5). Balaam's oracle suggests that this growth would continue, something Balak did not want to hear (Numbers 23:11).

In saying that Israel was "a people dwelling alone," Balaam notes its separation by covenant from the rest of the world and to God. This recalls God's covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, in which He prophesies Abraham's offspring returning to Canaan as a people (verses 13-16), and certainly, it alludes to the covenant of circumcision in Genesis 17. This separation by covenant is ratified anew at Mount Sinai: "Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6; see Deuteronomy 7:6-11).

The soothsayer's final words are a wish that he, a Gentile having no part in the covenant, could be included under it. The "righteous" are those who keep the terms of the covenant, which is obedience to God. His words of blessing may allude to Genesis 12:3, where God promises Abraham, "I will bless those who bless you." If he cannot join them, Balaam at least desires the blessings that come from blessing them!

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Prophecies of Balaam (Part One)

Numbers 23:13-24

Balak tries again, taking Balaam to a field atop Mount Pisgah, where he could see only the outermost part of the camp (Numbers 23:13). His rationale for this is that Balaam could not curse Israel while faced with the mystical power of the whole people. If he could see just a part of Israel, the odds would be more even and a curse more likely. So, the diviner again offers a bull and a ram on seven different altars (verse 14).

In both of the first two prophecies is an interesting phrase: "God [or, the LORD]met Balaam" (verses 4, 16). This is a very personal and close form of communication. How God met him is unknown, but it is obvious that he knew God was present and giving him the words to speak to Balak (verses 5, 16). In the next chapter, the narrative says explicitly that "the Spirit of God came upon him" to inspire his next prophecy (Numbers 24:2).

We have a hard time understanding why God would work this closely with such an evil, unconverted man yet never appear to us or even seem to inspire us with fitting words, a skillful reply, or an instruction on what to do in a difficult circumstance. However, we must understand that God was in this man making a great witness of His power and glory. As hard as he tried, not even the most famous diviner of his day could curse God's people, and the word of Israel's blessings and their prophesied conquests gave notice that God's plan would go forward despite the efforts of the surrounding nations. Thus, for its impact, God deigns to speak through an unworthy vessel.

In the first paragraph (verses 19-20), the soothsayer admits his powerlessness before God. Since at least the days of Abraham, God had been foretelling what He would do for His people, and there was no way He would renege on it now that it was about to unfold! On such a pivotal part of His plan, God would not be forced or cajoled to change His mind.

The first half of verse 21 has had many wondering how it could be true, since the entire account of Israel in the wilderness is a sad commentary on how sinful Israel was! The idea here is not that God does not see their sin—the Pentateuch is full of God's observations about their iniquities—but that their wickedness has not reached the point that He would be persuaded to curse them.

Certainly, He would not be bribed into cursing His own people by their—and thus His—enemies! For, as the verse goes on to say, He is with Israel as their King! Why would He curse His own kingdom and people? And why, after going to the trouble of leading them out of Egypt with such a strong hand (verse 22), would He allow them to be defeated just before reaching their destination? This interpretation becomes clear in verse 23: There would be no sorcery or divination against Israel because of what God had done for them.

The final verse highlights Israel as a lion, a symbol of regal power and predatory mastery. This is an allusion to Jacob's prophecy concerning the tribes of Israel in Genesis 49:9: "Judah is a lion's whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He bows down, he lies down as a lion; and as a lion, who shall rouse him?" In this case, Judah stands for the whole nation (as it later came to rule all Israel in David). A nation often resembles its leadership—and vice versa—so it can be said that under God's inspiration Balaam saw Israel through the lens of the royal tribe of Judah. This is especially interesting in light of the description of God as Israel's King in Numbers 23:21 and the upcoming prophecy of a great King to come.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Prophecies of Balaam (Part One)

Related Topics: Balaam | Balak | Cursing Priest Diviners | Diviner


 

Numbers 24:5-9

As in the previous oracles, the third begins with the certainty of Israel's future prosperity and power. "Cedars beside the waters" is a strange illustration because normally, cedar trees do not grow beside rivers. However, it makes the point that God will override even the natural order of things, if need be, to bless Israel. Conversely, aloes grow best in arid places, suggesting that Israel will have the best of both worlds. Geographers have long noted that, for its size, the land of Israel is one of the most geographically and climatically diverse areas on earth.

In verses 6-7, there are four references to water. Water, of course, is a prime necessity for life, and an abundance of water set the stage for prosperity. A well-watered land ensures abundant crops with enough left over for water's myriad other uses. These verses intensify the assertion of Israel's future abundance—in stark contrast to the semi-arid, high plateau upon which Balak and his people lived.

The water imagery shifts in the second clause of verse 7 from the land's abundance to the people's fertility. The thought is that Israel's population would grow so great that its people would expand into other areas, whether by migration, colonization, or conquest. Balak's dream of defeating a weakened Israel, God says through Balaam, is pure fantasy.

Besides that, Israel's king—whether he is God Himself (as in Numbers 23:21) or a human monarch—will be far more powerful than Agag. Some have thought that this is a prophecy of the Amalekite king Saul defeated and Samuel slew (I Samuel 15). However, others believe "Agag" to be a royal name or title among the Amalekites, much like "Pharaoh," "Hadad," and "Abimelech" were to the Egyptians, Syrians, and early Philistines. In effect, Balaam is saying that, by comparison, Israel's kings will come to dominate the rulers of even the strongest nations of the time.

Verses 8-9 reiterate Israel's future military power, but the emphasis is that its power flows from God Himself. God began matters by bringing Israel up from Egypt, and He will continue to provide Israel's strength. Thus, the rhetorical question arises, "Who will rouse him?" If God is backing Israel to the hilt, who can challenge them?

Finally, the oracle ends with a paraphrase of Genesis 12:3: "I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you." This is a reminder that God made promises to Abraham, and He will fulfill them. As God says in Isaiah 55:11, "So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it."

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Prophecies of Balaam (Part Two)

Numbers 24:13-14

Balak, of course, is furious with Balaam for thrice predicting such a rosy future for Israel. The soothsayer reminds him that he warned him from the start that he "could not go beyond the word of the LORD, to do either good or bad of [his] own will; but what the LORD says, that [he] must speak" (Numbers 24:13). It is difficult to decide which of these two characters is more ludicrous: Balaam, for thinking that God would give in and let him curse Israel—or at least put in a good word for Moab; or Balak, for listening to and putting up with Balaam!

As if trying to mollify his employer, Balaam adds, "Come, I will advise you what this people will do to your people in the latter days" (verse 14), but his words are hardly comforting to the Moabite king.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Prophecies of Balaam (Part Two)

Numbers 25:1-5

Israel fell into idolatry through fornication. The physical fornication produced spiritual fornication, which is idolatry.

In Revelation 2:14, within the comments to the seven churches, we find this problem still haunting the church. It actually surfaces in Revelation 2:6, where it speaks of the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which God hates, but it is more clearly stated in verse 14 to the church in Pergamos.

But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.

It is a problem in two of the first three churches, and it surfaces again in verse 20, this time in Thyatira.

Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.

Today, we are bombarded on every side with sex. It is something that, even if one is blind, cannot be escaped because we hear about it. It is presented to us as an inducement to do something.

In Numbers 25, the inducement is to idolatry. Today, the inducement is to get us to buy, to get us in debt, to get us to be slaves of the lender. So sex is thrown at us in things in which it should not even appear—selling pipe wrenches or automobiles. It is used as an inducement, and we have to be very careful because it is so incessantly shoved in our faces.

John W. Ritenbaugh
Passover and I Corinthians 10


Find more Bible verses about Balak:
Balak {Nave's}
 




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